Disciplinary boundaries are a way of compartmentalising or categorising knowledge and activities to make them easier to manage. They are not based on natural forces, but provide the foundations upon which we build the systems that govern much of academia.
They may be helpful from a budgetary or administrative point of view, less so for students and outcomes. The more siloed practitioners are, the less problems get solved, the less creativity happens, the more dead-ends occur.
Throughout history the solutions to problems, and even solutions to problems we didn’t know we had, have been discovered by either venturing out of a discipline, or inviting those from other disciplines in. The MRI machine wouldn’t exist without a chemist seeing the potential use of physics research (exploring gas clouds between stars in space) in medicine (PowerfulJRE, 2018). The camera is likely the result of putting mirror makers and painters in to the same building – The Guild of St. Luke in 15th century Bruges (David Hockney: Secret Knowledge, 2002). Examples like these drive the ‘lab model’ of working in some institutions – that being connected to people with other fields of knowledge and interests leads to a multiplication of possibilities. This opening up of new tangents leads to something academics are calling ‘research creation’, which focuses on the process of creating research questions as much as answering them.
But this potential can all be for nothing unless free reign is given, a common language is established and an end product is expected. “When you put a bunch of people together and want them to be ‘interdisciplinary’, nothing happens at all unless you ask them to make something.” (Lehrer, 2018). So we could say that it is by the very act of making that interdisciplinarity happens. In this case, how might practitioners be ‘arranged’ in ways that produce genuinely valuable outputs?
The interdisciplinary nature of collaborations can be mutually beneficial in that it encourages individuals to build ideas using a wide range of knowledge domains and experiences, generating new ways of looking and seeing, which can result in a cross-pollination of audiences. The involvement of artists in particular can “tease out the more social and human, provide lateral thinking, facilitate the socialisation and humanisation of technology, challenge dominant structures and contribute to invention” (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, 2016).
Faraday’s peers needed to see his ideas expressed in the language of modern physics before he was taken seriously, luckily for him James Clerk Maxwell obliged when he wrote his work in to precise equations. We cannot pretend to have a perfect formula for interdisciplinarity – but we do know, thanks to people like Michael Faraday that there is much to learn in the discovery of how things connect, and much time and effort to be wasted in the acceptance that tunnelling deeper and deeper in to one discipline can offer the answers and progress we crave.
These stories of boundaries to cross, and of a distribution of roles to be blurred, in fact coincide with the reality of contemporary art, in which specific artistic skills tend to leave their particular domain and swap places and powers. Like researchers, artists construct the stages where the manifestation and effect of their skills are exhibitedRancière (2009)