Problematising Interdisciplinary Studies
A discipline is an area of training in which a particular systematic method is taught within a set of rules with the intention of specialisation in subjects that are specific to that discipline. For instance, the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena such as quantum physics to the scientist or the investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods, in philosophy. In the contemporary world, it is not unusual to encounter the cross over of disciplines and liberating as this is to the Lyotardian idea of plurality, it is not without its problems in relation to art. It is these problems that are investigated here.
There is a tendency to assume that interdisciplinary means multidisciplinary and to confuse the use of more than one discipline within a metadiscipline. To unravel this mystifying term of interdisciplinary, it is useful to consider that a discipline is a body of knowledge or branch of learning characterized by intersubjectively accepted content and methods. In this way, painting is a discipline within the metadiscipline of art because it adheres to a specific set of technical learned rules specific to painting rather than sculpture or photography. On the other hand, multidisciplinary practice in art solves problems between mingling disciplines dealing with the same subject - such as sculpture, painting and photography dealing through their chosen medium with the same subject such as landscape, the figure, sexuality, death and the sublime in art. Interdisciplinary practice, however, creates new spaces such as we experience through installation, video and performance art. It has the potential to succeed when two disciplines are able to cooperate with each other without one dominating over the other and where they do not fuse to simply create a new discipline. It is certainly not the abandoning of disciplines but rather the synthesis into an arena that is neither specific nor restricted or dominated by one or the other. In this way, the space between disciplines establishes a new set of rules where no hierarchy exists under the pretext that all disciplines have equal value. The state of uncertainty created as a result is considered as a positive attribute. At least, this is the intention of interdisciplinary studies.
But here we encounter the first of many problems. New hybrids inevitably emerge through these interactions and they too are prone to establishing specific rules by which they can survive. Many interdisciplinary projects fail because they are unable to sustain their original intentions and regress into multidisciplinary practice or get lost in a wealth of empirical detail. To be successful, the notion of interdisciplinary practice should result in a problem finding/problem solving strategy that draws on specific rules and inter-links them. It has the capacity to open up fresh ideas and fresh problems through questioning.
As the author to the preface and the translator of Derrida's Of Grammatology, Gayatri Spivak, points out "It is the questions that we ask that produce the field of inquiry and not some body of materials which determines what questions need to be posed to it"2. We have an ethical duty, Derrida reminds us, to consider différance through deconstruction "In order to recast, if not rigorously re-found a discourse on the 'Subject'"2 Both Lyotard and Foucault have used a collage of ideas to move between ideas and theories through language - language that has been both liberating and also, at times, bewildering. It is what Lyotard calls a differend - the tension between the disciplines, ideas and theories that are unresolvable - where the restrictions of specialised language for each discipline make it problematic to resolve reconciliation between the two. The differend for Lyotard, is a celebration. The criticism around the confusion and friction that often results between different intellectual 'cultures', is welcomed in a Lyotardian postmodern condition. It should fuel progress and innovation by opening up the discourse through questioning the limitations of disciplines. Yet increasingly it results in a feeling of loss. This sense of loss results from the difficulty in deciphering the new and complex language of interdisciplinary practice.
When there is such interplay of at least two disciplines that are handling the same subject the tension is created where it is difficult to place oneself in either discipline. The discomfort is caused by socially ingrained acceptance of what has been taught. Continuing to accept disciplines is generally the result of this unease where, for many, breaking with social conditioning is too complex. We already experience this sort of tension in our everyday lives where there is racial, religious, sexual and cultural conflict created from lack of knowledge and through socially installed conditioning.
But confusion is not necessarily negative if it makes one question and investigate the alternatives. For instance, when one encounters an art exhibition in a science museum and where the art claims to be neither art nor science the viewer's response to the work is neither scientific nor artistic. It raises a number of questions about what is art and what is science and yet resolves none of them. In this way, it becomes both a philosophical problem and cultural problem. For instance, how can the discoveries of scientific research combine with the metaphors in art to impact the audience that is receiving it? There is currently a huge amount of collaboration between scientists and artists to address this, particularly at the Wellcome Trust centre in London and it is not unusual to find shows such as The Turbulent Landscape at the Natural History Museum (May-Sept 2002) where the exhibits claim to be art yet work as educational and 'hands on' learning tool for science also. Interaction in art is historically rare though now increasingly common in contemporary art as a result of interdisciplinary practice. The exhibits in The Turbulent Landscapes exhibition work in a purely aesthetic manner also, and the viewer would not need the accompanying commentary to enjoy them on those terms without the additional bonus of interaction with the exhibits. But as a collaborative effort, the works speak to the audience both informatively and aesthetically and create a new space of experience that is both outside of science and art. But it is not until we participate in dialectic between what is and ought to be, between science and art, that the project becomes interdisciplinary. In other word, we need mediation to position us and that mediation comes through discourse. Many artists are reluctant to enter into dialogue about their work in this way.
One of the most successful examples of interdisciplinary studies in a contemporary context is that of 'visual culture'. Visual culture studies often suggest a shift from a focus on structured viewing settings, such as the art gallery or the cinema, to an investigation into the role of visual experience in everyday life. This has opened up countless opportunities for art to expand into the new spaces that are created from the interaction of different disciplines. Why has visual culture succeeded then to use the space between disciplines without establishing new rules? Primarily because it is used as a means of problematising the practices that are in play rather than attempting any solutions. In other word, there is a means available, but no end.
Interdisciplinary research in art is hardly a new idea, and yet it seems to have taken on a dominant position within the post-modern debate. Multidiscipline approaches in art are particularly interesting in the crossing over into media technology, and also in the growth and success of both performance and installation art that has become symbolic of postmodernist art. However, it is not the tools of art that we are investigating here, but the reason for those tools. In order to appreciate the use of interdisciplinary practice, it is useful to look at artists who have discovered a new space between two disciplines as a result of specialised knowledge in the field of both. Throughout history, artists have drawn on the colour theories of Goethe; the writings of Leonardo da Vinci, Pythgorean geometry, Myan and ancient calendars, the I Ching, Greek religious rituals, and Michael Faradayis theories of electromagnetic forces to name but a few. Artists have always crossed disciplines, drawing inspiration and subject matters from a variety of areas that are unfamiliar territory to the arts. Unfortunately, the antiquated notion of disciplinary separation is not entirely obsolete in the British art education, as graduates of many art schools, including myself, will confirm. However, an Internet search for interdisciplinary arts brings up 481,000 sites that refer to it, and which a large proportion of the sites are educational institutes offering interdisciplinary degree and diplomas in two interacting subjects. Yet also we find a new approach to education here which encourages and invites students to expand their horizons and thought processes beyond singular disciplines. It is particularly evident in cultural studies where the interaction of students from a variety of cultural background meet and exchange information and ideas that presents new ideas and problems to solve. What changes have to be made to accommodate the peculiarities of the art medium in these circumstances? For instance, painting and literature often tackle the same subjects such as social injustice, war, and human relationships. The problem is that both are reliant on specific and complex communication tools used in each other's disciplines.