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Inter/Meta/Trans panel discussion

California Institute of the Arts, 2003

I was invited to participate in a student panel on interdisciplinarity during a small conference on the subject at CalArts. Each member of the panel was asked to prepare opening remarks to get the discussion going. What follows are my prepared remarks.

To start off, I’d like to reiterate something that I mentioned during the earlier panel, building off what Janet [Sarbanes] had said, which is that interdisciplinarity should not simply be a matter of transcending, or worse ignoring, disciplinary bounds. Disciplines are not straightjackets out of which we must escape. They are social formations with histories and conventions and it is against these histories and conventions that new works are understood. Thus, the highest goal I can see for interdisciplinary work is not getting away from the so-called constraints but rather investigating those histories and conventions, exploring which are indeed unduly constraining -- but also which might be real strengths. It should not only be a matter of painting plus dance (or whatever) equals good, but asking what can painting do? What can dance? What can they do together? What should they do? What shouldn’t they? In some ways, this is all to reiterate something else I said earlier, which is that newness and/or innovation are not necessarily virtues in and of themselves.

I think this spin on the matter allows us to avoid what I see as the two dangers of interdisciplinarity: first, similar to “multi-culturalism” in the worst sense, it can often devolve into mere tolerance alone, or celebration of otherness, or exoticism (“Look, mom, a video projection behind an actor!”). Depth of critique can often get lost in the pyrotechnics of “more is more.” Similarly, and as I also brought up earlier, interdisciplinary work can also serve to actually reinforce the very boundaries which it seeks to transcend. Whereas a project that involves writers and dancers and set designers and musicians might be great, those people often all remain in their defined disciplinary ghettos: the “writer,” the “dancer,” etc. Each contributes his or her part: equal but still separate.

And so we need to ask if we are talking about interdisciplinarity or interdisciplinary collaboration. These are two related things, but not the same. We seem to mostly think and talk about the latter when we should be focusing on the other one. Collaboration is fine, but also not a virtue in itself. Hollywood film is replete with collaboration and yet I think we can all agree that the quality of the resultant work is on the whole quite low. And when we talk about collaboration it usually focuses around issues of access and hierarchy. The first is simply going to remain a problem, I think. And hierarchical organization, it gets a bad rap. Having a clear structure, with leaders and subordinates, is not only usually the most efficient way to work but also often the only way to get anything accomplished. What is problematic is when those hierarchies become immutable, fixed, when one person or discipline always leads, the others always following.

But if we instead focus simply on interdisciplinarity -- whether it is a collaboration or an individual -- then we can avoid the special problems of group work and zero in on the issue of siting. This is something that never came up earlier but I believe it to be perhaps the most important question of interdisciplinary work -- or, indeed, all work. It goes back to the questions I asked earlier: What can painting do? What can dance? But expands them out into the real questions: What can I communicate within a gallery? Within a theatre? What are the limits of those sites of reception. Because, while during the earlier session there was a plea to stop talking about product but instead about the process, what was meant was only the process of creation. But why do we care so much about that process? And have we ever really been ignoring it? To me, that seems to be what we mostly talk about. What seems decidedly lacking is investigation into the process of reception, not what goes into a work nor how it gets made, but how the audience -- be it a theatre-goer or gallery visitor or passerby on the street -- how they make sense of a work. Again: what can a work do? What should it do? And, furthermore, how do we get it to do that?

To conclude, I’d like to make somewhat of an aside. Also during the earlier panel -- because all of this has more or less been in response to what was said then -- the fact that the business world now regularly adopts interdisciplinary models was raised and yet quickly dismissed as scary. But I believe there is quite a bit we have to learn from the cut-throat, bottom-line rigor of business. There is a reason why more and more artists’ groups are adopting corporate models. I’ll end with a quote from the mission statement of one of such groups, one with which I’ve had the pleasure to work:

"Bernadette Corporation was founded on the insight that with a corporate name comes the promise of an open space... It provides a social face behind which is a black hole for all sorts of undisclosed activities... An inscribed place within society treated with a laissez-faire attitude. A corporate name is at once the name of a legitimate, respectable, law-abiding organization and the name of a free-wheeling gang.... Such a name allows for expansion and contractions, sudden rises and difficult falls, favorable ventures and ill-fated ones, all with the possibility of bouncing back with no harm done.... Corporations are today’s ideal artists (or artists’ formations). They are hubs of group activity, round the clock productivity, and have significant influence over our daily lives."