Creating ArtScience Collaborations

Dr. Claudia Schnugg is a curator and producer of art and science collaboration and a researcher in the intersections of art and aesthetics with science, technology, and business. She produces artscience collaborations, artist-in-residence programs, media art projects as well as various projects intertwining art, science, technology, and innovation in business, industry, scientific organizations and cultural organizations. She also holds workshops, runs research projects, and gives talks about developments on the intersection of art, science, technology, and business.

Claudia Schnugg

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Claudia Schnugg:  Sure. How I started out into the world of art and science might seem to be not a typical path. Right after school I started studying Social and Economic Sciences at the University of Linz. During my studies I was very interested in social, individual, and group dynamics, where theories of interaction, behaviour, psychology, philosophical approaches, sociology, and anthropology played a central role. As I always was torn between disciplines, I really wanted to integrate art and culture in my PhD, and I managed to include Media Art and Art Theories at the University of Art and Design Linz. My thesis focused on impact and potential of arts-based initiatives in non-artistic environments, mainly corporate settings. Additionally, I formed a major interest in work processes and an evolving theory on work and organization based on ideas from aesthetics: Organizational Aesthetics. A few years into my Assistant Professorship, I got the chance to take another step by working more in practice and finally I could include natural sciences and technologies into my work: in 2014 I started as head of the newly founded Ars Electronica Residency Network. This was really the moment when suddenly all the pieces of the puzzle of my ideas started to fall into place. Since then, I had the opportunity to work with a diverse range of institutions, artists, and scientists, and I could develop my ideas and work on understanding the field in much more depth.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your ideas and working practice?

CS: There were a few. First of all, starting from this untypical background of Social and Economic Sciences enabled me to look at the process between the field and between the people that meet in art-science collaboration or exchange in a different way: this theoretical background and the research methodologies provide me with a lot of tools to see and understand changes and impact. Thus, for example, I try to be really specific based on ideas from Creativity Theory when I want to understand the potential of art-science processes. Even approaches from Economic Sciences and Business Administration can be valuable, especially when it comes to understanding different logics of thinking in the fields and the need to translate between artists, scientists and their managers, or when it comes to understand the necessity to understand organizational structures when you want to make something happen that is completely new to the organization in which it happens.

Another aspect that influences my ideas and working practice is the theory of Organizational Aesthetics and the quest to understand implicit knowledge, embodied processes and interactions through sensory experience. This was something that spoke to me not only through art, but also through how I started to learn different processes, such as working with wood when I worked part-time as a cabinet maker at my parent’s carpentry during my first years of study, or the training process in martial arts. My thinking about this in art-science processes and the potential that this lens bears is still developing.

The third point, I guess, is that I really enjoy going back and forth between practical work in the field and more academic investigation and theoretical thinking about the field.

But maybe it is more interesting to talk about a few turning points: first, when I started my PhD everybody told me to focus on Design Thinking instead of art, this art approach is doomed those people said. I was stubborn and during my PhD I was lucky enough to meet one of the fathers of the theory of Organizational Aesthetics, Antonio Strati, who was very supportive towards my ideas and brought me in touch with a group of researchers around Pierre Guillet de Monthoux who were interested in arts-based initiatives. This gave me the confidence to go on in this direction. Finally, in 2011, by chance I attended a keynote by Victoria Vesna and bluntly approached her after her talk. Finding out more about her work and her positive feedback to my work also encouraged me to find ways to include science and technology into my work as a next step.

RB: Why do you think collaboration between artists, scientists, technologists and business is significant?

CS: First of all, I think we need to bring the perspectives together to create something relevant. But this goes way beyond the idea of putting together all perspectives to a bigger pictures, it includes understanding contexts, critical reflection and joint critical discussions, overcoming habitual blindness, and supporting sense-making in a world where everybody is hunting innovation. Especially including art in the collaboration does not only allow to get access to artistic thinking, critical cultural exploration and artistic processes, but also to get in touch with aesthetics, sensory experience, and investigate or work with implicit knowledge differently. In a world with a lot of abstract concepts and ever-evolving technology, we should not forget that we are creatures that experience through the body, and do not only compute rational arguments.

I am aware that bringing business into the mix can be seen critically. I do so, too, but there is also a lot of potential that should not be underestimated. There are open questions concerning instrumentalization of art for business goals or whitewashing through the integration of the artistic projects into corporations’ communication. This is a tough one and I do not want to pretend to have a solution. I like to work on providing opportunities for artists, enable critical reflection for the business part to understand better what they are doing and the possible impact of their actions. Also coupling this with educational aspects and potential empowerment of the public through a better understanding of what the technology entails instead of buying products blindly is a valuable approach and can be important for corporations. For example, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, mentioned in an interview with the New York Times in August 2020 that if he could go back in time to when they founded Twitter, what he would have done differently was to include a game theorist, a behavioural economist and a social scientist. These were missing disciplines that Dorsey said “ultimately would have been important helping us think about, not just building a product, but building something that people use socially and the ramifications of that. Meaning if that.” But, from what I’ve seen from the potential of artscience projects, art has a lot to contribute there, too. This goes along with the current ideas of imagining and re-imagining the future, tackling global challenges, and discussions around humanizing technology.

Yes, there might be problems along the way, there are many open and hidden interests that drive people from diverse background and in diverse affiliations, and not all problematic questions have been solved, but I also see a lot of potential if we want to design a future together. So I have chosen my projects with major business partners and corporations carefully and try to create better frameworks to realize such collaborations in a way that is beneficial for everybody.

RB: Your book, Creating ArtScience Collaboration, focusses on the tangible ways in which artist-scientist collaboration can be of value to science and technology organizations. Can you say more about this? What questions do you want to address in these collaborations that could not be addressed before?

CS: While working in the field I witnessed a discrepancy in the understanding of what art-science collaboration can do and why it is interesting to invest in it and what actually happened in the collaborative processes. Starting from academic investigation into the idea of arts-based initiatives, I really did not understand why there was such a focus on innovation as outcome and creativity as a major selling point without recognizing what is necessary to enable creativity. I totally understood that there were many open questions, why art could help corporations to be creative and innovative, but on the other hand I also wanted to show that there is no shortcut to creativity and relevant innovation, there is a need to invest in a joint process and sustainable exchange: collaboration instead of buying a new competence. Thereby, from my experience in the field of Organizational Studies, it is important to look at the individual, group, and organizational level to understand possible impact. And, we should not forget, most of these collaborations are embedded in the organizational structures of scientific organizations or the Research & Development departments of corporations, thus the organization needs to understand the importance of this process and the potential that there is if they invest in the project by, e.g., supporting art-science collaboration through personnel/work hours. It is nice if artists get the chance to work with scientists and engineers in their free-time, but often this is not enough for substantial collaboration and often reduces the capacity of the collaboration to be impactful.

The second aspect that was important to me is to elaborate on arguments based in science to have more substantial arguments to help scientists, engineers and managers understand what the engagement with art and artists can help them in improving their work, skills and ultimately new projects. Moreover: why should the artist help? What is in there for them? I really wanted to contribute to an understanding of a valuable mutual exchange and joint process instead of a unidirectional way of giving knowledge and getting a nice artwork for communication.

As I think both is needed to realize interesting art-science projects, an understanding of the potential and where the potential is rooted in the process as well as an understanding of practical issues and challenges a curator or facilitator of an art-science project can be confronted with, I also added a chapter to the book with recommendations and some practical information. However, I think the practical guidelines and how-to-dos are helpful, understanding cases helps to strategically plan and integrate a project into organizational structures.

RB: Can you give some examples of art/science collaborations you have worked on what your experience has been in witnessing these interactions? Are there any particular problems that have arisen?

CS: Although I started out to contribute to arguments based in research and theory that make the impact of art-science collaboration more tangible, I often see that experience is the best teacher and most impactful in convincing individuals of the potential of art-science collaboration. Two examples I repeatedly like to give is the collaboration between Anouk Wipprecht and g.tec on the project Agent Unicorn, where g.tec originally set out to be technical partner providing technological knowledge and hardware (sensors), but then the collaboration developed into something more intensive and by now in 5 years of collaboration they’ve developed numerous projects together. The second example I always enjoy to refer to is antimatter physicist Michael Doser, who always was interested in what is happening at Arts@CERN and open to joining, but did not think it would much affect his practice. In hindsight, he thinks that much of his openness to collaborating with other disciplines now, originated in the interdisciplinary experience with artists.

Thinking about the importance of the experience and making sense of the experience as something influential and positive, it is important to really take the time to engage in the collaborative process, go through the process of maybe misinterpreting each other at the beginning, accepting hints at blind spots, or just explore the paths that open up in the joint process. This needs time, resources, space to realize the collaboration, but also a space for reflection, and some basic openness to engage. Such projects should not be dismissed as minimal effort in the leisure time, nor should an idea of “providing” information or access dominate over curiosity and active engagement. Otherwise it can lead to problematic developments in the project such as individuals neglecting the collaboration or experiencing it only as draining, superficial outcomes, or an impression it is just a waste of resources and energy.

A person who is supporting the collaboration, e.g. a curator, can help to find a common language and support to create challenging projects instead of superficial interaction. But this person can also be an important link to the organization, to create space, provide resources and keep the artist’s and scientist’s back free from reporting outcomes every week. It is also important to translate benefits of the projects to other parts of the organization. We should not forget that there are diverse lines of command, interests and goals that need to be met. And although I would love to focus solely on the exciting encounters between art and science, there are more people and interests involved than the artist and the scientist as private persons. I am not only speaking about corporations, scientists at Universities are also embedded in certain organizational structures and professional systems. Additionally there’s the audience, the context of the goal that should be reached or idea discussed, and the artist is embedded in the art world.

What I also experienced repeatedly is that artists, scientists, and managers often underestimate the impact of the process and fail to trace “by-products” as well as additional outcomes for not directly involved stakeholders of the collaboration. Understandably, they are often focused on the outcome of the project and specific goals they themselves brought into the collaboration process. Qualitative methods from social science and an external perspective can help to trace the impact.

What I repeatedly encounter as open questions are issues around authorship, IP rights, etc. in collaborations beyond disciplinary boundaries, and agreements including these issues between organizations and artists. Many organizations are really open to approach the artist and it is easy to explain to organizations that IP rights on resulting artworks are important for the artist as this is core to how the artworld works. But there are many open questions when it comes e.g. to rights on resulting ideas and scientific insights that are based on collaborative processes, or discrepancies in communication about the process versus information that cannot be disclosed. Right now, there is no way to create a one-fits-all agreement and even when agreements are made with the best intentions by everyone, there situations can occur that lead to legal issues. There have been collaborations that started from personal friendships which also ended in discussions about copyrights and IP on ideas when the paths of the friends separate without an agreement.

RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?

CS: Yes, absolutely.

RB: Do you think artists and scientists share any common communication path?

CS: Not necessarily as a given pre-disposition in any random constellation. But the question is, what develops from the interaction.

RB: Where do you think the biggest opportunities are for getting more organizations behind artscience collaboration?

CS: Core is to go beyond anecdotal evidence that projects have been impactful, but elaborating on the potential in theoretical terms and with (social) scientific research backed up. Then, there are impacts that are interesting for artist and scientists, but not for managers in organizations. Finding a language and aspects in art-science collaboration that work within the logic of the thinking of responsible managers is important. For example, an organization might be talked into allowing a pilot project at minimal cost and would like to save costs for the curator. Saying that “it is a smoother process” with a curator might not convince every manager to spend money on a curator, but showing how it can lead to projects of higher quality and that it can safe transaction costs, managers with start to listen and will be easier convinced to also add budget for the curation and facilitation process.

Then, when it comes to needs and developments that the organization is working on that require more than rational planning or technological knowledge. Programmes such as the Experiments in Art and Technology at Nokia Bell Labs managed to find a central aspect of their organizational core mission that can benefit inherently by engaging with art. But also, when organizations understand that integration of art and science is necessary to sustainably create a better future that will also benefit their process. For example, it costs them less when they immediately figure out that their product potentially has more negative impact than they’d expected which might lead to more problems than income. Another example is, when the insights and developments from the join process help to explore new technologies that lead to innovation of production processes, for example as the Creative Residencies at Gingko Bioworks have shown. But I do not think that getting more organizations behind artscience collaboration needs big promises.

I think there are also other mechanisms that help to get organizations behind art-science collaboration. Talking about the impact of the process on the individuals and on the quality of the project, maybe even in combination with a broader perspective on potential “by-products” of art-science collaboration can help. This understanding needs to spread more to decision makers in organizations, people in R&D departments or the Human Resources. For this, more than a funding scheme in the Horizon Europe programme and an occasional Harvard Business Review or MIT Sloan Management Review paper for managers on the potential of art in organizations is necessary to reach them. I’m still in touch with the group in Organization Science and Management Education and there are still ongoing discussions around bringing back humanities into management education. I hope this will be taken further and think it is a good opportunity: not only to promote the potential impact of the projects, but also a new style in approaching management that beats new paths after the domination of rational decision making based on management ratios.

RB: What future projects are you working on?

CS: There are a few ongoing projects that I’m excited about. First, there is a cluster of projects that allows me to engage in topics such as ecology, biology, culture and biology, and the environment. With Annick Bureaud, Marta de Menezes, Tatiana Kourochkina and Robertina Šebjanič I’m developing and curating the project The Traveling Plant. In July we’ll have a Traveling Plant event in Barcelona and two events in Portugal. Hopefully there will be many more partners who will want to host the Traveling Plant. Moreover, I am guiding and curating the development of an artist-in-residence programme at the Institute for Epigenetics and Stem Cells at the Helmholtz Center Munich. Right now we are in the pilot phase of this programme where we are happy to have Anna Dumitriu as our first artist-in-residence. The project started in 2020 and soon Anna will be able to visit the lab for the first time. On June 29th we’ll have a panel discussion about the progress so far and the challenges of residencies that had to be started virtually due to the pandemic.

The second cluster of projects revolves around critical reflection and new approaches in digitalization and the use of AI. In one project I am working with a diverse team of data scientists, legal experts, and an artist to investigate blind spots in applications of algorithmic decision making. In another project, I am working with the start-up JECT.AI that has been founded by two computer scientists, and artist Antoni Rayzhekov on a visualization tool for journalists and editors to understand landscapes of published articles and e.g. potentially uncover over- and underreported topics. In parallel to this new visual approach to deal with this growing dataset of over 20m indexed news articles, we are working on an artwork as second outcome to the process. We can realize this project within the EU funded Media Futures programme.

Last, but not least, I am consulting the European Space Agency as they want to explore diverse opportunities by including art-science collaboration. More about this can be revealed soon.

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Claudia Schnugg website:-

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