By Associate Professor Kim Cunio and Professor Denise Ferris
On campus at the Australian National University the Schools of Art and Design (SOA&D) and Music (SoM) are neighbours, both physically and metaphorically. We see connections with science, medicine, economics, the social sciences and humanities, digital technologies and other disciplines as highly effective models of research and evidence that are increasingly important. We advocate for our disciplines, encouraging academic artists, designers and musicians to focus on their research and expand their horizons through interdisciplinary practices.
In 20 years, our schools will be intrinsic to the life of the university, and that will happen through undertaking much more interdisciplinary research and embedding it into our teaching and learning. There is another (historical) way that we have thrived. Far too often we have provided the experience of a Bach Cello Suite at a graduation, the heady joy of drinking wine while contemplating the wall works at an art opening. Those polite interactions barely scrape the surface of interdisciplinary understanding and we can do much better.
Due to COVID-19 and its myriads of economic shocks we have an opportunity to advocate for a new model within the university system. Any new model that emerges should look at fostering collaboration in Research Centres and Centres of Excellence, where arts are recognised as a part of the methodological big picture, as practices that constitute knowledge and communicate evidence.
A brief example can show this. Climate change is scientifically irrefutable and has been for a generation, yet despite an abundance of peer reviewed papers and reports significant sections of our population still question or fail to act despite surveys that demonstrate their concern over climate change. We have won the argument but lost the fight. If we are to change this and the many other things that must change, we must consider why? We argue that to make the radical and fundamental societal changes needed right now we need culture in our national debates. We need scientists for the “hard” data, social scientists and humanities scholars to document the human effects of climate change and artists, including all of our disciplines to evoke the imagination allowing the critical feelings to emerge that can enable this cultural change.
With goodwill much is possible. Our HDR students now have the opportunity to attend each-others research seminars and research festivals. Lots of our students take courses in the “school next door” and we know they can bring these shared practices into their careers. We supervise PhDs across different schools as a matter of course, and have just designed our first co-housed course, an Indigenous creative practice course, a response to the capacity of Indigenous artists to think across boundaries, or to be more honest to know that boundaries are too often a part of the colonialist system that we wear like the clothes of another generation.
In music, significant effort has gone into broadening our scope. Amazing and unlikely cohorts have developed such as the three PhD students who are all studying Persian music, creating a need for us to work with the Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies. We have a synergy between film composition and the Digital Humanities as more of our composers move into VR, and a growing cohort of music mathematicians due to the ANU’s Double Degree structure. Over the Summer the School of Music was part of a project with the Fenner School of Environment and Society, of listening and recorded the sounds of the Murray. Preparations are underway to launch a new music and health research strategy across the campus. We collaborate with neuroscientists, astrophysicists and population and policy researchers in the knowledge that we create vivid, memorable outcomes that engage powerfully with society and shape our culture.
The School of Art & Design research hubs mobilise the inclusion of multiple disciplines focused on specific research themes. The Computational Culture Lab derives from Design, Photography and Media but also colleagues from Computer Science and Maths, working at the intersection of theory, practice and policy to investigate the politics, aesthetics and applied potentials of post-digital culture. Computational Culture Lab works in partnership with contemporary art and cultural heritage institutions, industry, NGOs and an international network spanning art, media and cultural studies, humanities and design scholarship.
The research hub Art, Politics and Engagement is easily associated with research investigating democracies and equalities and would seem essential to researchers from the School of Politics and International Relations amongst others. Across campus diverse scholars connect with researchers in the Asia; Innovation and Transformation hub, which in addition promotes research activities in Asia and encourages support for emerging scholars.
Drawing together art historians, art practitioners and humanities researchers the Materiality, Agency and Data hub investigates the ways tangible and non-tangible knowledge intersect with materials and data. The Nature><Culture research hub addresses the interactions, relationships, and shared or contested territories between humans and other animals, life and non-life. The research group seeks engagement and impact beyond the University by fostering interdisciplinary research partnerships with disciplines across ANU and with government, industry and community groups.
One further example is the Vice-Chancellor’s Creative Research Fellows Scheme, an annual ANU scheme for post-doc practice-led researchers funded by the Vice-Chancellor to foster collaboration between art practitioners and researchers from other non-art/design disciplines across campus. The scheme is an investment toward future trans-disciplinary funded projects in which practice-led research and creative design logic would be embedded. The School of Art & Design (and potentially music) researcher/practitioner is supported with funding for materials and collaborates for up to one year with their research collaborator at the university.
These collaborations have been forged with researchers from Sociology, Computer Science, Economics, Archaeology, Law, Maths, History, Psychology and all the Science disciplines. (There is a paper to be written about art, design and music’s inevitable and enduring connections with the Sciences rather than the Humanities, a conundrum partly explained by dealing in the abstract perhaps – certainly raises an interesting question about assumptions.) Progressing understanding of art and practice-led research across the university, the program seeds inter-disciplinary thinking between collaborators, shapes research processes, generating new research networks and collegiality across the campus. As practical exemplars these opportunities together with less tangible shifts, register the discernible influence of schools of art, design, and music insistently taking their place and making space in contemporary universities.
 You can read more about these hubs and live projects at this link:
https://soad.cass.anu.edu.au/research/hubs This example of “build it and they will come” is one way of progressing interdisciplinary research. Another example puts individual researchers together to progress collaboration.
Associate Professor Kim Cunio, Head of the School of Music at the Australian National University (ANU), is an activist composer interested in old and new musics and the role of intercultural music in making sense of our larger world. A scholar, composer and performer, Kim embodies the skills of the exegetical artist, showing that writing and making art are part of the same paradigm of deep artistic exploration.
Professor Denise Ferris has a hybrid practice, in photography and writing. She is the Head of the School of Art & Design at the Australian National University and Chair of the Australian Council of Art & Design Schools. Her exhibitions of ski resort landscapes are focused on the necessity of emotional responses to drive political action on climate change. Her writing considers art’s visual representations, historic and contemporary, of the maternal subject.