Friday, November 17, 2006

Fleshing out, Pt. 2, in which science and industry speak

Just now, while responding to an email from a Dutch businessman who heard me speak in Rotterdam, it suddenly struck me that in yesterday's post I described artistic cultural practice in far more nuanced terms than I did business practice. I think the primary reason for this is that textile industry interests were, in my opinion, not well integrated into the overall programme and that made it easy for me to treat them as outsiders. But this is a reason, not an excuse, and now I'll try to better balance things.

Ger Brinks, global R&D director at Colbond, said something in his presentation that continues to stick with me, and deserves some attention. In describing the company's nonwoven textiles, 3D polymeric structures and composites, he genuinely lamented the fact that most of them are found underneath other things, or buried underground: "What a waste of these beautiful structures!" In that one deceptively simple utterance, textile science and art became allies along shared concerns of aesthetics and ethics.

It's easy to think that art and science and industry have irreconcilable differences, but this is only possible if the goal is to settle and resolve differences, or to make them compatible and consistent. Now just imagine how much more we could accomplish if our objective was not to change other people, but rather allow them to be themselves! I think most people understand this when it comes to personal relationships - just think of how a love affair can be doomed by this very same desire - but we seem to struggle applying it at larger scales.

This is actually something that I discussed a bit with both Ger and Michiel Scheffer, but it wasn't picked up by the other presenters or the audience. And although I do not share Ger's faith in Popper's science as falsification, neither do I share faith in some of the artists' perceptions of science. Unsupported cultural assumptions were rampant, and most people seemed to want to make more statements than ask questions. This tends to reinforce the notion of irreconcilable differences, and in my opinion, does little to foster productive collaboration.

But back to this email I received. To preserve the sender's privacy I won't attribute the following comments, but I think they're worth sharing:

"You got my attention, more of my attention, because of your statement not to produce anything. 'What can she tell me then?' I thought. I was gasping at you. (I hope you don't understand me wrong, expressing myself in English is not daily business.) You mentioned a field of thought that I never heard of or knew it existed. I tried to write things down and wrote in English not to lose any time in switching between languages. Still, you said so much in so little time. Of some points you made, I knew I understood what you said but I am not capable to say it again or to write it down...We talked about your presentation and all other things until it was the next day. Great!...Thank you again for opening my eyes / mind a bit further."

Let me say first of all that I think he flatters me too much, but I was so very impressed by the honesty of his statement that I think it's important to acknowledge. What I mean is that this excerpt offers an unusually candid view of what it can be like to navigate uncommon ground.

Notice the first moment of doubt: What can a thinker offer a maker? (This is a position I'm very familiar with - although I do maintain that I also produce things, they're just different things.) Still, he didn't get defensive and he didn't give up! But he also mentions something intriguing about my discipline: In part our job is to state the obvious. People often have a deep implicit understanding of what we're talking about but have never been tasked with, or rewarded for, making it explicit and then working with this explicit knowledge. Perhaps one of the greatest contributions social and cultural research can make to collaborative practice is a vocabulary or framework for understanding - and acting on - cultural difference and similarity.

In any case, I wish there had been more opportunity to engage each other's differences. There were no business people in our workshop, although the designers were familiar with having to answer to business needs. Still, I would have loved to have had the chance to speak with more scientists and members of industry. It would have made their appearance at the end of the event more culturally intelligible and, I think, encouraged a more lively sense of future collaborative action.

See also: Fleshing out reflections on art + science collaborations

(update 07.12.06 - links added)


Blogger k said...

Seriously, no one in that audience had ever heard an anthropologist [or a philosopher for that matter] speak. They were unprepared and totally blown away. I hope you are ready for the Dutch keynote circuit. J

Blogger k said...

my :) turned into a j - how odd...

Anonymous anne said...

thanks k ;)


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