By Dr Ruth De Souza and Professor Kit Wise
Dr Ruth De Souza recently joined the School of Art at RMIT University as a Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Dr De Souza is a nurse, academic and a community-engaged researcher in gender, race, health and digital technologies. Her Fellowship will engage health professionals in finding new ways to understand, co-design and implement sustainable cultural safety initiatives in a range of health contexts in response to health inequities. But why in a School of Art?
Drawing on a transcribed conversation between Dr De Souza and Professor Kit Wise, Dean of the School of Art and a visual artist, a number of aspirations and possibilities can be identified around the interdisciplinary agenda of “Creative Care”. Some are common to other disciplinary combinations, while others have particular resonance for COVID-19 and a definition of care beyond health. This initial discussion uses the example of Creative Care to open up wider considerations for interdisciplinary practice.
From the start, De Souza and Wise both acknowledged the disciplinary biases or assumed hierarchies they each brought to the project. De Souza commented that “in my own disciplinary background of nursing, we assume that we own care, because we supposedly do it all the time”. Wise responded that “art often thinks it owns creativity”. A further complexity in relation to “care” was that “nurses saw themselves as advocates for the patient against a biomedical hierarchy, a patriarchal system”.
Both saw specific skills and understandings that each discipline could share with the other. De Souza identified how the profession expected nurses “to know how to do things to people, not about how to be with people. As the curriculum gets more content, things like ethics and how to talk with people experiencing health transitions get marginalised.” Wise noted “empathy, ethics, respect … sometimes described as soft skills, but they’re probably skills that artists often don’t even realise they’re developing. An art education gives you a particular sensitivity to the other.”
Wicked problems were sited as a key driver for interdisciplinary approaches. Wise noted “our aging populations, awareness of the environment, certain types of mental health challenges, certain cultural challenges, misunderstandings or lack of respect in areas of our society. I can see particularly clear roles for art there.” In relation to COVID-19 specifically, De Souza acknowledged:
What’s become apparent in the pandemic, apart from the health aspects of contagion, are the need for the mental health aspects of a debilitating event to be addressed. There has also been a call for a vision of hope, of recovery, of the need for lightness, amusement, of spaces for new thinking.
In approaching these, De Souza cited the risk that “what can happen is that everything gets re-instrumentalised and procedure bound, and rule bound, and reductionist”; while Wise suggested what may be needed is a space for “the kind of licence that art is given … the ‘carnivalesque’, the breaking of rules and barriers, dropping conventions to try something else.”
In relation to care specifically, Wise suggested that “perhaps we can take care as the point where two disciplines might try to meet” as well as an approach or methodology that might inform any interdisciplinary relationship or work with an “other” discipline. De Souza notes:
COVID highlights the limitations of seeing care as a procedure rather than a relational process. Caring for the other is crucial as we see how precarity and communication have led to people in housing towers being sequestered … We can also see the limitations of the “universal” when what has been needed is some specificity, a tailored, personalised, thoughtful negotiation of relationship.
When asked “What do you think are the potential benefits of having someone with a nursing background in the School of Art, from even just a very few short months of very strange virtual engagement given the pandemic?”, Wise responded: “you’ve given us a new language. That is already an interdisciplinary experience, with learnings that we can apply to other collaborations.[…] it opens up new horizons for art to practice in, new opportunities for us to contribute to society.” Similarly, De Souza concluded by sharing that:
I’m hoping that art and design are ways in which I can do research from conception all the way to dissemination, that make it easier to take up, be of value to people in communities, be relevant, be accessible, be fun and enjoyable for people who take part in it. So that’s my top secret agenda about being in the School of Art, is to really expand my ways of thinking in ways that can make that knowledge translation, and ways of doing research much more engaging for people.
The conversation continues.
Dr Ruth De Souza is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at RMIT University, based in the School of Art and Design and Creative Practice Enabling Capability Platform. She is a nurse, academic and community engaged researcher in gender, race, health and digital technologies. Prior to coming to RMIT, she was the academic co-convenor of the The Data, Systems and Society Research Network (DSSRN), a collaborative research network across the University of Melbourne. Her Fellowship will engage health professionals in finding new ways to understand, co-design and implement sustainable cultural safety initiatives in a range of health contexts in response to health inequities. She is also an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Digital Transformation of Health at The University of Melbourne.
Professor Kit Wise has held senior academic leadership roles since 2008, including Associate Dean Education in the Faculty of Art Design & Architecture at Monash University, and Director, School of Creative Arts, University of Tasmania. He has engaged in an advisory capacity with creative arts schools on course design and interdisciplinarity, including LaSalle, Singapore, Massey, New Zealand and Banff, Canada. He is Deputy Chair of the Executive Council of ACUADS (Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools) and Secretary for the Deans and Directors of Creative Arts, Australia. He is currently Dean of the School of Art at RMIT University.