Nuggets from a Conversation Between Art, Architecture, and Engineering
Dr. Steward Pickett reflects on City as Living Laboratory’s recent program with architect Marlon Blackwell, engineer Marty Matlock, and artist Mary Miss. You can watch the video of the program, or listen to a podcast version of the program here.
City as Living Laboratory (CALL) has an ambitious goal: to make the complex environmental challenges our cities face tangible and actionable through projects led by artists in partnership with scientists, architects, planners, and community activists. Accomplishing this difficult task takes collaboration across disciplines, practices, and worldviews that may, at first, seem to have little in common. Often this primary challenge — sustainably preparing our communities for the future- is met by an equally complex challenge — how do we actually collaborate? That is why last year’s early December conversation Collaboration: A force for change? between architect Marlon Blackwell, engineer Marty Matlock, and artist Mary Miss was so important.
As a scientist, I was anxious to hear what these three leaders in disciplines so different from my own would say on the subject; collaboration is crucially important to the success of my research and a key ingredient in the search for solutions to the pressing problems of the day. I was thrilled by the depth and breadth of the conversation, and perhaps a little surprised to find that so many themes arising from the experiences of an architect, engineer, and artist resonated with my work in the natural sciences. A few nuggets of wisdom stood out to me in particular.
INFORMING A PROCESS
All participants in a collaborative project — whether involving art, engineering, architecture, or some mixture of the three — will inform the process. One example shared by Marlon and Mary was their experience working on a proposal for the Indianapolis Museum of Art with landscape architect Ed Blake. Blake “read” the land for the other two, and that reading became the first stage of the process, laying foundations of what Marlon and Mary each uniquely contributed to the project.
EVERYONE HAS SOMETHING TO CONTRIBUTE
All participants will bring their particular expertise to the process, but they also bring their different interpretations and explanations. Sometimes what a group expects from a collaborator based on their disciplinary label is only a small part of what they can actually offer. Marlon, whose role in the collaborative project mentioned just above was as the architect, was surprised by the rethinking of his building design that resulted from comments by Mary, the project artist, and Ed Blake, the landscape architect on the project. Each of these two was, in a sense, acting outside their disciplinary expectations. So it is important not to assume that just because a person wears a certain disciplinary hat, they will only bring a particular kind of insight to the project. Understanding your collaborators as whole persons and approaching them with open mindedness makes the project more successful. The other side of this coin is for all participants to be willing to risk their ideas to exposure and revision. A comment by Marlon illustrates that aspect of collaboration: “You have to put something on the table, you have to risk something. And get feedback on that.”
CONTRIBUTE FROM A POSITION OF HONESTY AND TRANSPARENCY
Honesty and transparency must characterize the shared process. Trust is important, but it is not a manufactured agreement. Rather it is a relationship to be consciously developed. Here is another place where professional labels are less important than worldviews, experiences, and ability to contribute something specific. Trust also requires carrying through on your commitments, a point Marlon Blackwell strongly made: “If you do what you say you’re going to do, you know, out of this process, then you build trust, right?” Marty Matlock extended the concern with trust by noting, “There’s one variable that cuts across all of it: time. Time it takes to build those relationships. Time it takes to build understanding. Time It takes to build trust.
ARE THERE RULES?
Some of the insights outlined so far suggest some rules for collaboration. Rules can be helpful yet also a little risky. Starting with a framework is useful, but simply memorizing set rules could create a false belief that a person is automatically ready to succeed at collaboration. If there are ground rules, these might do for a start: 1) Be an expert in something; 2) Bring something to the table; and 3) be open to the contributions of others. Such rules are not the whole story, however, and subtleties like those below expand on these simple statements. As Marty pointed out, it is essential to be a master of the skill you are bringing to the table and know where you need the expertise of others. He said, “Be the best that you can be, be competent in that beyond words, be competitively competent there. And that’s what makes you a valuable collaborator.”
Although all projects require leadership, leadership can and will likely shift as a project develops. Different members of the partnership may sometimes lead and sometimes follow. Marty imagined this as a kind of dance, where collaborators alternately yield and assume leadership. No one is an expert ballroom dancer their first time around, it takes practice and discipline to develop the skill; likewise effective collaboration can be learned and improved through doing.
COLLABORATION AS A CYCLE OF ITERATION
Shifting leadership follows the logic that collaborative projects are iterative. Ideas and approaches are “put on the table” and examined openly and respectfully together. Through this sharing, a direction takes shape for the next iteration or step in the process. Speaking again of the project with Mary and Ed Blake, Marlon said that their ideas caused him to rethink: “And so it was back to the drawing board…the design process, an iterative process was really reinforced by that. And so we started creating a great dialogue.”
LISTENING TO LOCAL COMMUNITIES
The communities involved or clients to be served are essential players in the collaborative process. Even with strong local connections, a team of ‘experts’ tasked with a community-oriented project can be seen as an outside elite by community members. This can lead to outside project leaders only being told (or perhaps only hearing) what they want to hear. Rather than just asking people what they want out of a project, it can be more fruitful to ask them to tell their stories. It is an important step in building the relationships of trust mentioned earlier; asking to hear people’s stories can reveal underlying complexities that a simple list of wants might miss. This is especially good advice for scientists working in people’s communities.
IT CAN BE SOLVED BY WALKING
The CALL Walks program, bringing together artists, scientists, and planners to explore places with those who live there or otherwise care about them, is a great example of ferreting out stories and placing outsiders and residents in a more equal and informal relationship. “It is solved by walking,” points to the power of such sharing. It works because of the nature of walking. It is relaxing, is paced appropriately for conversation, shifts participants’ orientations, invites a “reading to respond,” and elicits local knowledge that may otherwise be unavailable to visiting professionals. Everyone involved, from the art, design, and science professionals to interested neighbors benefits from the careful observation of place that the speed of walking can satisfy. The creative, meditative, and restorative values of walking have been long recognized. This is indicated by a wonderful Latin phrase from which the English “it can be solved by walking” derives: solvitur ambulndo. This ancient phrase indicates that CALL has tapped into a deep well of inspiration about walking to facilitate collaboration among artists, scientists, humanists, and community members. The collaboration to improve the human-nature connection in today’s urban places where social and climate adaptation is urgently needed.
PROBLEMS TO ADDRESS
We can’t organize cross-disciplinary collaborations without acknowledging key challenges. We must avoid the cultural dominance of technocratic thinking in our culture that tends to elevate the power of science over that of art. It is good practice to treat all perspectives in a collaboration as equal partners and very consciously not elevate the contribution of one discipline or type of knowledge over another. There is also the challenge of how an art project might scale to an entire city. This may require multiple projects or overlapping networks of people, and careful consideration must be taken about how partnerships between different agencies and interests might be best forged.
ART CENTERS THE HUMAN
Mary told a wonderful story about being brought into a Native American community to help them explore large-scale art projects. Repeated visits failed to engage the community. She told what happened next: “And finally we brought some watercolors that were reflecting some of the things we had been talking about, and these artists could relate to us as artists then. ‘Oh, so this is what you’re making.’” That is a great example of centering the human.
Marty also had an example of art as a centering device across disciplines. Art provides that human connection needed to facilitate the common language that supports collaboration. He said, “The art really is the translator of our passions across many of our disciplines.” Passion is of course, one of the most human of feelings.
Art also has the advantage of making “the invisible, visible,” to quote the moderator, Charles McKinney. Mary gave an excellent example of this in her project in Boulder, Colorado, Connect The Dots. That work marked the depths of a potential catastrophic flood in central Boulder by blue markers at appropriate heights above the ground. Speaking of the markers that made up the art installation, Mary said, “Once these dots were up, you realize that sometimes they were ankle high, and sometimes they were 18 feet in the air. So all of a sudden that predicted flood level became something that was real. … It was something that in terms of your body, you could make sense of.” That is art centering people.
From my perspective as a scientist, engaging with art reminds scientists that, although many of our analytical approaches ignore human presence, values, and agency, the reality of life is that these human dimensions are never absent. Art also emphasizes the qualitative — the quality — of life and place. This can help scientists and engineers know what to measure or quantify in the service of quality.
ART SEES THINGS ANEW
Art also helps residents see new things. It frees them from the ‘prison’ of their past experiences. Art can help people see the risks, extremes, and changes in their world that are too easily missed in day-to-day life. As a scientist who has studied natural disturbances, like floods and fires, I have often heard a common response to reporters when interviewing those who have been struck by some disaster to say, “I’ve lived here all my life, but this has never happened before.” That is speaking from the prison of experience and memory. I very much like the idea that art can break the ‘lock’. Science, engineering, and art all live in the worlds of potential. Some of that potential is good, and some bad. But if we as individuals and society cannot see new kinds of possible, we will never be ready for change, or know what changes we have to make. If “human prosperity should,” as the conversation said, “be the goal,” then adapting to expected changes and the changes whose details will only emerge with time, is the way forward.
FLOATING ABOVE THE PARTICULARS
Another important insight for me was a provocative term I had not heard before: “meta-disciplinarity.” The idea connotes projects and dialogs that move above disciplines and take a bird’s-eye view capable of seeing the connections needed to advance a project. “Meta,” of course, means above or beyond. If one is anchored in a discipline, or even in a body of local or “traditional” ecological knowledge, then the best success is ensured by linking with understandings from beyond one’s own perspective. Linking local knowledge with other perspectives does not mean replacing that place based knowledge. Seeking the points of commonality might be a better way to think about the relationship between the two. Projects similarly link with other projects, constraints, and processes. The most successful collaborative projects should aim for this bird’s eye, meta perspective.
COMING BACK TO PROCESS
The mention of process resonates strongly with my experience as a scientist. The three panelists agreed that they were not creating things, but rather, processes. In the same way that science is a process of discovery and refinement of knowledge about the material world, so too are arts, design, building, and engineering about constructing interpretations and the ongoing transformations toward sustainability.
This conversation, involving an artist, an architect, and an ecological engineer struck me in many positive and novel ways. There is much creativity needed to promote these kinds of collaborations in the future. These specialists should constantly be seeking to create opportunities for collaboration, either within projects or simply to facilitate the practice that collaboration requires. Collaborations have an important role to play in matching the passions of professionals with those of communities. This is best done by emphasizing process, not claiming authorship of some “pure” design or artistic product. Finally, as I reflect on this conversation, it occurs to me that you know you’re collaborating when the process changes what you think, how you know, and how you contribute to community-centered outcomes.
The conversation was much richer than I can describe, even in a relatively hefty blog post, so I’d invite you to watch the video or listen to the audio recording below to explore the many insights that I have not been able to include here.
LISTEN TO THE PROGRAM
You can listen to the program below or search for our feed wherever you find your podcasts.
Dr. Steward T.A. Pickett is a senior plant ecologist at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem studies. His research focuses on the ecological structure of urban areas and vegetation dynamics, with national and global applications. Pickett is also a member of the board of City as Living Laboratory.