Cross-collaboration

So tonight, as many nights, I ventured out of my home to attend a lecture. It was the second in the Big Mouth  series – the goal of this speaker series is to, “explore and invigorate the relationship between community and the arts”. Tonight’s theme was “Art & Real Estate”. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Vancouver’s art scene at all, but this topic is a particularly touchy one. Essentially, Vancouver has an enormous ‘creative class’ (aside – I actually hate that term. a lot), and an extremely expensive real estate scene, coupled with an extremely restrictive set of codes and by-laws that make it really very difficult to have any sort of meaningful arts/music etc space that is actually viable and legal to run.

AN-Y-WAYS. One of the speakers was Michael Green (also, here) who kicked off the evening by talking a bit about the history of art and real estate, or more specifically, art and architecture. He said that historically, art was simply seen as an integral part of the building, and artists, architects and builders would collaborate to make a more meaningful space, and so that the art was flawlessly integrated as a vital part the structure. He talked about how over the years, we have moved away from this model to one today where we either have architects as artists themselves (with varying success), or more commonly, art being tacked on to architectural projects as an afterthought. Like, “Oh, I guess that we actually retained a small portion of our arts budget for this project; let’s buy one big painting! Or something.”

He talked about how this lack of collaboration was a problem. For everyone involved. In this system, you have architects making soul-less buildings that lack cultural context, and you have artists that are not valued (or paid) for the work that they do that actually provides meaning and beauty to our lives.

SO. Why do I care? For most of my life, I have felt this tension; this conflict between the side of me that is interested in scientific endeavours, and the side that is interested in the arts. It has always felt like a struggle, and it has always felt like a binary choice. It is one, or the other. Arts or Science. In highschool, and later at university, science often won, but I always tried to incorporate some artistic pursuits as I could. That being said, there was still this complete separation in both of these worlds. And the people that I spoke to in one world, didn’t really seem to have much use for the ideas that I wanted to express from the other. Scientists were ‘smart’ and ‘boring’ and ‘nerdy’, and artist were ‘creative’ and ‘cool’ and ‘flakey’.

Leaving school, I began working with a lot of scientists, writing research grants. I would try to help them get money. What I discovered was that scientists are often terrible communicators, and while their research may be extremely elegant, their methods for relaying their research to others is decidedly not. Most of their work will only ever reach other scientists, and often even then it is only other scientists in their own area of research.

I’m on a bit of a tangent here, but bear with me. The point that I am trying to make is that I have often thought that if only scientists were more willing and able to collaborate with artists, more people would feel genuinely passionate about science. The way that science is brought to us is just often FACTS FACTS FACTS presented in a BORING AND JARGONY way. Or maybe as pretty pictures of animals sometimes. Or as something very alarmist like OMG EARTH IS IMPLODING. This is not helpful. It does not do anything to demystify the wizard of oz persona that science has built around itself, and it certainly doesn’t do anything to lend emotions or feelings to scientific endeavours. Why should anyone care? It’s just science. Leave that to the smart and boring scientists who work in labs talking about facts all day. I’m bored and befuddled just thinking about all of those science facts.

So today during this talk, it occurred to me that this Science vs Arts problem that I have is one that actually occurs in EVERY DISCIPLINE EVERYWHERE. We simply lack collaboration. Sure, we have collaboration within fields, but what about between them? It’s kind of become a foreign concept at this point.

Why is this? I won’t get too in depth into the why at this second, but I’m just going to hint at the fact that I think that it starts very early on when we’re forced to pick and choose discrete topics to study in about 10th grade. We’re taught that everything is separate. And this caries on into university. Into jobs. Into funding models. Into government. Try getting a really major grant that would fund a project where a scientist, architect, artist and engineer are all working together. OH WAIT YOU CAN’T. It’s hard enough even to get funding for ONE scientist who is working on research that is cross-disciplinary. It’s simply too confusing to the funding model if they don’t fit into a discrete box of one specific kind of science.

I’m going to end this post here, to explore this topic in a more in-depth way in the future, but I just wanted to get this all down because I just felt riled up hearing that this hugely successful architect was struggling with the very same problem that I’d been having my whole life. The saying goes that we have strength in numbers; and that’s just as true with disciplines as it is with people.

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