The Emerging Creatives Student Summit, hosted in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru), invited more than 100 graduate and undergraduate students from universities across the United States to assess, problematize, and react to the theme of Spectacle and the Collective Experience. As students and faculty with an interest in the arts and sciences, we collaborated in field trips, projects, and performances to harness and apply our collective interdisciplinary knowledge towards the spectacles that we face in our communities on a local and global scale.
“Spectacle,” in its most obvious sense of the word, and when in the context of Louisiana’s celebrated Mardi Gras, can be seen as synonymous with tradition, parades, costumes, dance, and food. However, if one peels off the outermost layer of spectacle in Louisiana, one can find the spectacle that the state’s rich history has left its towns and cities to uphold, and in some cases, to bear. Lively Cajun music and seafood smells emanate from establishments in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and public art installations decorate the boardwalk along the Mississippi River, while withering and boarded-up homes, still recovering from the same river’s unleashment during Katrina, are scattered throughout modern college neighborhoods, making clear the presence of neighborhood segregation and gentrification that pervades the state in both its urban cities and rural towns.
Spectacle can be found in any society, from a place’s history and politics, to its communities, education, and arts culture. This year’s Emerging Creatives Student Summit begged the question “How does spectacle define us as a community and as a society, and how can we use it to address the critical issues we face?”
Together or Separate? Science + Art
Students first addressed the spectacle of the sciences at “Arcadia,” a panel led by William DeMastes, Professor of Drama at Louisiana State University, Vince LiCata, Professor of Biology at LSU, George Judy, Professor of Acting at LSU, and Mike Vanden Hevel, Professor of Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. DeMastes initiated the discussion by asking “How do we get artists and scientists to speak the same language?”
As individual experiences and opinions were shared, echoed, or challenged, the notion that students and faculty believe in a dividing line between the humanities and the sciences at their universities was made clear. Many students reflected on this divide- one student from the University of Alabama at Birmingham shared his university’s struggle of balancing scientists who “want to crunch numbers,” and artists who “feel intimidated by engineering jargon or tools.” Judy attributed this divide to lack of acknowledgement from one field of study to another, and urged us as students to entangle the work spaces at our respective institutions by bringing artists into wet labs and scientists into acting roles.
Throughout the duration of the panel, I struggled with the reliance on “art” and “science” as singular nouns and on “artists” and “scientists” as one-dimensional characters. As a UC Berkeley graduate student in Engineering, with an undergraduate background in Chemistry and in Practice of Art, I am reluctant to accept that a student defines, or limits themself to the chain of their own discipline. I think about how UC Berkeley positions itself as a multi-discipline university. I think about Jacobs Hall and the CITRIS Invention Center, where students can, regardless of academic background, explore the tools that blend art and technology. I think about my West African Dance and Hip Hop class in the Bancroft Dance Studio, where Professor Tigner presents students with the opportunity to explore and grow a deep respect for a culture and history that many students are foreign to. In Jacobs and in the Dance Studio, like many other spaces on the Berkeley campus, no student is an “artist,” or a “scientist,” but rather we are critical thinkers, with a base that allows us to grasp the complexities of materials foreign to us.
Photo taken by Edgar Cardenas at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory
A breakthrough in the discussion arrived when Professor Vanden Hevel encouraged us to reframe this, perhaps false, dichotomy by posing the question “How can we identify the similarity in processes that the arts and sciences share?” The fields of art and science share an element of discovery and of exploration. These fields live in the space of uncertainty, and rely on questions and surprising answers to reach innovation. I pushed back on Arcadia’s assumption of a dividing line, as I begin to understand that the reliance on the unknown is, in a sense, the language that students within the sciences, arts, or any research discipline can use as a tool to communicate and cross boundaries. Perhaps from here, by embracing processes as a language, we can face the world’s most pressing challenges, from community integration to violence in schools to cultural awareness and acceptance. Students in the conference embodied this language- Yoshiko Iwai, a University of Michigan graduate student in both Dance and Neuroscience finds harmony in her research-based study of Parkinson’s disease and her delivery-based physical understanding of movement, not as studies that oppose one another, but as ideas that through research and exploration, complement and inform each other.
On the first day of the summit, Associate Professor of Dance at the University of Michigan, Amy Chavasse, laid out two rolls of brown wrapping paper on the floor. “This is the time to express yourself. First thought best thought. No second guessing. Be whoever you want to be. Ready go!” she said. We tore the paper to shreds and dressed ourselves up with paper headpieces, dresses, masks, and even shoes. For the rest of the afternoon, we collaborated with our new peers to improvise performances, all while still in paper costume.
Photo taken by Luna Izpisua Rodriguez in the Collaborative Techniques Workshop by Amy Chavasse
As we worked together to produce impromptu spectacles, participants came to an unspoken understanding of openness, supportiveness, and curiosity in one another. As Tonika phrased the unique dynamics we had formed, through a set of directed instructions, we created a network of undirected movement where students gravitated into natural micro communities. We harnessed our agency to create performance and spectacle in improvisational interactions with students we had met minutes before. Through spectacle and chaos, Amy had invited us to form our first collective experience, and to form friendships, with the people we would be spending the next three days with.
Creative Collaboration and Complexity
The Ice Breaker Session
I was not there for the live event, but I walked into its afterglow. I could tell that something pretty powerful had happenned as I entered the large dining room. Based on the reports from others facilitator Amy Chavasse brought everyone into the clear dining room. There were no tables or chairs, just the open space so that bodies could move in the room. As no bios had been published and social interaction was limited to the Facebook group this was an experimental activity in organic and natural selection. People were invited to take a piece of paper and transform themselves. They were asked to use the paper to make a costume become someone other than who they normally would be. They were then lead around the space by Amy in random lines and circles. Participants gradually took on more agency and started to naturally be drawm to people such that by the end of the exercise the room was an organic collection of mini groups of people who had found each other.
What I saw when I entered the room were an amazing group of people, many of whom I would get to talk to in the coming days, who were clearly thrilled to have a chance to be together. That enthusiasm carried through in the ways people participated in tours and in their group project. People were pumped and it was great to start the conference with the motor revved up like that.
There was a little dissonance between the theme of the conference and the way in which the first panel landed for me. Five middle aged white men, facing a group of young, socially engaged students with a fairly accurate reflection of the population of a general university. They spoke about their work at LSU the Arcadia Project, were not shy about their religious persuasion (Baptist, Catholic) reminded me that I was no longer in California. It was somewhat shocking...
I couldn’t help but thinking about the ways working at the intersection of arts and science could address some of the racial prejudice, and missed opportunities in harnessing what is produced when we accept the indivisibility of arts from science as a basic fact. The separation between self and other is also at stake here. This separation is also a basic component of even the most liberal of bigotries. It shows up too in the language of development and charity or “community” engagement which is still framed around an us and them. There was also this question of gender and race neutrality in social activism that really bothered quite a few participants, who spoke out. I was glad they did.
The group work was framed around an iterative process of concept development. Participants were divided into 18 groups of 4-5 students each. The majority were undergrads studying either at the intersection of Arts and Science.
There were about 6 facilitators . Facilitator and speaker bios were included in the booklet. Student bios were not. The engagement with facilitators was somewhat not clear to me. The process of interationa and feedback was mostly self organized by students, who were really on it.
Empathy at the Intersection of Arts and Science
One of the major themes that emerged in the conference was the way in which participants projects were oriented towards the theme of empathy. Entering from different perspectives and responding to a definition of the challenge space with what seemed to me an acute attention to the crisis of the moment- civic disengagement, apathy, a failure to truly understand human emotion. There was a refreshing abundance of folks thinking and trying to conceptualize experiences and places. Phenomenologically and materially interested in improving the quality of human life... use of science to create new experiences and to produce new kinds of space, not just new ideas. Many participants expressed their curiosities at theintersection of science and and art in terms of wanting to make the world a better place, understanding human emotions and enhancing the healing dimension of the reunification of Arts and Science.
Thinking forward/back to Berkeley
Talking to Luna afterwards we were able to explore how our experience of this event might influence our abilities to contribute to Arts and Design Programming at Berkeley , or to the strengthening of Berkeley’s leadership within the network. What could do really well (and better) if we were ever to host such an event as the annual creative collaboration conference? What might another kind of performance as research introductory session look like?How would we attend to diversity and equity within the space of the conference. What might we choose from the bounty of material that we have at Berkeley to center, as a theme for a such a conference.
I somehow feel that Berkeley would instinctively facilitate a higher degree of pre event connectivity and transparency of intention. Nothing disastrous occurred at this event, thankfully, though there were some poignant moments of frisson between the speakers the the participants. The event structure and time management was masterfully held together through the coordination of the facilitating team lead by Amy Tackit and her support staff. I would have loved though to have more interaction with them. This might just be me thinking with my organizers cap on.
One question I had was the use of social media as a co facilitator. What happens when we outsource our human touch to social media? To me the role of human host, she/he/they who welcome people to the space, who move together with and amongst the groups, filling out some of the nuances of connectivity in analogue format is a crucial one. While I appreciated the absence of a heavy hand, I felt that some opportunities were missed to think and act or organize in a slightly more empathetic fashion. I noticed the absence of this only because I know that there is a different style at Berkeley that tends or at leasts seeks to me more attention to issues of representation and diversity. When that sensitivity is not there is when it becomes apparent.
Thinking Forward for the Network and the Projects
Many of the projects that were presented were really quite outstanding. Some of them I hope will go on to pursue the grant funding that was attached to participation. It might be useful for the organizers of the next conference to think about setting up a process to follow the trajectory of the projects of projects that do go forward to the funding stage. Similarly, it could be nice for people to have the opportunity to continue to develop their project and receive feedback even if no grant is involved.
I am also curious about the relationship between the overall funding of the A2RU network and the awarding of student grants and the hosting of the Annual Grad Creative Collaboration conference.