Composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven co-created the IIASA session: Courage – A dance science performance debate about sustainable futures by Gloria Benedikt who leads the Art and Science Project at IIASA, at the EuroScience Open Forum in Toulouse. He tells us more about how this merging of worlds can create new bridges between art, science, and societal issues.
An urgent need for better questions
There I was, an artist invited to the largest conference on science and innovation in Europe – the EuroScience Open Forum, commonly referred to as ESOF. Amidst showcases and lectures about robotics, space exploration, and gene technology, I could share my ideas about the connection between art and science.
This topic can easily become filled with abstractions or generalities. It is true that science and art are both about creativity and research, but is there a concrete way for them to find each other? Is there urgency to bridge these two worlds? The answer to both these questions is a resounding yes.
Art and science are like children that always loved to play together. The worlds of both are filled with curiosity, take steps into the unknown, and embrace uncertainty and adventure. Both are not satisfied with the answers that are provided, and keep asking questions – obsessed with what is below the surface, beyond the horizon, and beneath the solid ground of our convictions.
These two children have much in common, yet they have different eyes, they see things differently. While observing the same world, they pose different questions.
One would ask, ‘What is this?’, ‘How did it become this way?’ and ‘Why is this the way it is?’ While the other asks, ‘What might this also be?’, ‘How can we see this differently?’ and ‘What will this be if…?’
Art and science have always learned and grown together, but over the last few centuries, they have started to grow more and more apart. We might say they have grown up. They each developed their curiosity and creativity into diligent practices and professional attitudes, and started to work within strict disciplinary boundaries. The playfulness and free experimenting sadly transformed into competition and a fixation on what they call “excellence”.
Who is asking the questions?
Today, while global warming, inequality, digitalization, and migration bring instability and change to our societies and global mindsets, there is an urgent need for answers, reliability, and guidance.
Leaders of all kinds, including artists that might influence the way we feel and scientists that might direct the way we reason, are pressed to give such answers. We all add our answers to platforms and channels of news, opinion, soundbites, and statements. It is a cacophony. A flood without structure.
Nevertheless, do we actually know who is asking the questions? Is it the entertainers, talk show hosts, and commercial news media? Will we let the most dominant voices define the big questions of our time? Or can we bring better questions built on the observations, insights, and intuition of artists and scientists to the surface?
Show, don’t talk
We know what the big challenges in society are, and the urgent steps needed to prevent catastrophic global warming, societal polarization, and mass migration are well defined. But how do we, as curious, experienced, and highly trained artists, scientists, researchers, and explorers join forces to make the urgent and engaging questions become not just loud and clear, but part of everybody’s daily reality? Can we not just write or talk about warnings and concerns, but rather create and build questions that ask for a vision that is attractive and beautiful – a way forward that we can experience directly and that makes all of us want to make the world great again?
A first step is to find beauty in the world around us. Instead of asking, ‘Why are these people poor?’ we can ask, ‘What makes you proud?’ Instead of asking, ‘How do we stop people from buying cars?’ we can ask, ‘How can I relieve you from the burden of owning (cleaning, insuring, repairing) a car?’ Instead of asking, ‘Why are people unhealthy?’ we can ask, ‘When do you feel free of stress?’
A second step is to design ways to express this beauty and to imagine new possibilities. How can we show others the pride you feel? What is the value you get when you do not own a car? What does a stress-free moment sound like?
A third step is to connect people to a changing and evolving reality in playful and challenging ways. What makes your pride contagious to others? How do we practice freedom from possessions? How do we build moments of stress-free time into a rhythm?
These are only a few examples of how art can expose beauty in urgent research topics, create forms of expression to give new ideas presence, and build living and changing structures where a new scientific/artistic mindset may flourish.
What will be the laboratories in which we develop and explore new questions? When will these grownups – art and science – decide to approach each other again, remember their playful childhood, and fall in love all over again? It might be a fruitful affair and give birth to a new mindset that can help us face today’s challenges.
In July, Miranda Lakerveld, a music drama artist and founder of the World Opera Lab, visited IIASA to run two storytelling workshops with young actors in civil society and youth policy, as well as with YSSP students and IIASA staff. Miranda first came to IIASA in September 2016 as part of the Citizen Artist Incubator.
After the workshops in July, Miranda and I sat down for a chat.
Gerid: Miranda, in the workshop you shared how you approach storytelling in your artistic practice. You said: “I’m looking for moments that feel true, I pick them up and weave them together into new stories.” Then, a participant exclaimed: “Stories are not true!” It seems a contradiction, but possibly this is the very nature of stories. They might not be true, giving accurate accounts of past events, but they carry truths in them, which we so often can’t capture otherwise. You’ve been working with myths for a long time: What value do you see in them today, as we’re trying to navigate between “alternative facts” and often incomprehensible scientific writing?
Miranda: Yes, this was a short reflection on the methodology I have developed and applied in many different contexts over the last eight years. It uses comparative mythology as a starting point. The aim of the method is to create a meaningful creative exchange that can involve people from all walks of life. Myths are examined from the perspectives of different cultures, and through this intercultural lens, we find symbols and archetypes that resonate as ‘true’ across cultures.
The ‘post-truth’ era made us extra aware of the divides between communities and I believe such an embodied practice of mythology can be an inspiring place for people to meet. I think the renunciation of facts and scientific insight is a symptom of people feeling left out and angry. Using myths and stories can be one way to bring people together and find common truths.
This workshop was part of the Systems Thinking for Transformation project and we wanted to search for “systems stories” in ancient narratives. We arrived at a very personal story of endurance and adaptation, pondered the power of great nature and cyclical behavior on a very large scale, and discussed economic justice and its relation to sustainable development. How does one story from Greek mythology – the Hymn to Demeter – lead to such diverse considerations?
The development of myths and folk stories has very specific characteristics, which I like to compare to ecosystems. Symbols and characters create organisms in constant interaction with their environments. Through time, myths change, in fertile circumstances the stories flourish, and layers of meaning are added.
Participants relate the Greek myth to myths from their own cultural backgrounds, and then to their personal histories. Interestingly, in the encounter between the myth and a group, some deeply felt preoccupations spring up from under the surface. I am still not sure how this happens. It probably has to do with a combination of embodiment of the characters, the richness of the archetypes, and the mise en scène, which represents the people inside the larger system.
Majnun & Leyla- World Opera Lab 2016- photo by Fouad Lakbir
One integral part of systems thinking is to be able to consider and explore multiple perspectives on a problem or situation. How does the embodiment exercise come in to this?
Slipping into different characters from the story is an essential part of the process. It unlocks the creative imagination and is related to action in society. The Greek root-word for drama is “dran”, which means “to act”. Through embodiment we can take the position of another character or force in the system. The performing arts make this possible: we can take on different roles, understand new parts, and at the same time experience the whole system from a new perspective.
There are other examples of how art and science meet through storytelling. A researcher at Berkeley University teamed up with story artists from PIXAR to help researchers create better stories about their research. What interests you in working with scientists and what is the role of storytelling?
I think the collaboration between art and science could go far beyond creating stories about research. We see very different approaches of creating and transmitting knowledge. So we have to deal with this tension but an inclusive society also means we should value these differences. The academic world has created an intricate system of validating knowledge leading to very specialized fields of research. Artists work on larger ideas, but the output cannot necessarily be validated. We are trying to grasp truths about the same river, but we work from opposite river banks. I think we can build bridges and increase our ability for insight and action by telling stories together.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
Imagine you bring a group of people together, ask them to sit down, give them a drink and then pose the following question: how can we enact transformative social change towards enhanced sustainability and equity?
What would be the looks on their faces? Who would speak up? Last week, I happened to be present in such a group. We sat down, had a glass of water and started. None of us hesitated. We all brought our statements, relevant experience, passionate insights. Those with the task to structure the exchange begged us to find constraint, and called for more digestible sizes of our contributions.
It’s one of the most exciting places on Earth at the end of August: The Alpbach-Laxenberg Group brings scientists, politicians, business leaders, and other experts together for three days of deep conversations about today’s most urgent challenges. It was a tremendous privilege to travel to this beautiful mountain village, join these wonderful people and discuss the future of our planet.
We could hardly breathe. Our conversations tumbled over each other, from the future of computer technology to publication frenzy in academia, from ecological farming in Egypt to outreach of art in Brussels. I could see the pieces of world’s jigsaw coming together. It became apparent that we have the knowledge, the insights, and the technology that’s needed for a sustainable world. We might even find investments, governmental support, or access to the most influential circles at the WTO or the UN. We felt how currents of knowledge start to flow when all these wires connect.
But on way back to the lowlands, the mountains slowly disappearing in my train window, I felt ambivalent.
Did we discuss the right questions? I saw so much strength. Strong voices, strong ideas. Hard data, clear evidence. But we almost drowned in ideas, visions, and possibilities.
The question that we did not pose was: what is our weakness? We are comfortable with wicked problems, global strategies, and impactful solutions. But can we perceive our own frailty? Do we have a sense of the limitations of our knowledge?
A mountain village is the best place to take a breath. To inhale fresh air. I’m afraid we exhaled too much. It was no doubt valuable emanation. We couldn’t stop giving answers. But we missed the opportunity to find better questions. I had the feeling we gathered as experts to play Jeopardy! against computer Watson. We battled to answer any question.
But is this our most effective role? Who has more influence: the person giving an answer or he or she who can formulate the question? In posing questions lies our ability to connect knowledge to curiosity. Any good story will have a captivating query at its base. Only when we can make a strong case for sustainability, can we mobilize our society to become involved.
When a child is missing, the whole village wakes up to search. When will our global village wake up and unite to fight for a sustainability revolution? What might be the most activating murder case that can bind us and make us embark on a heroic quest?
Last days in Alpbach, it was like musicians joining together. We unpacked our instruments and tuned our strings. It was a wonderful sound indeed. We resonated. But this was not yet the performance. The audience is waiting – distracted by their smartphones – until the moment we start truly playing together and deliver a story that’s tremendous, enchanting and mesmerizing.
Post-truth: the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year 2016 is a paradox for artists and scientists in particular. Post-truth proposes that there has been such a thing as truth in the past. Responsible scientists and artists are – and always have been – on a lifelong journey, driven by curiosity to discover what is not apparent. One group specialized in reason, the other in emotion, they are searching for insights to help society make better informed decisions, knowing that they are only a small part of a truth-searching journey that will continue infinitely. And while scientists try to be as exact as possible, knowing that 100% certainty does not exist, artists strive for perfection all their lives, knowing that perfection does not exist. For both the journey must be the goal. Until recently, this understanding was a fundament on which society could progress. What post-truth really seems to get at is that definite black and white, simple solutions based on instinct are increasingly challenging the nature of science, which is based on ranges and probabilities that are built on knowledge and reason.
Public discourse over the causes for this development has increased significantly over the past months, identifying information overload and the loss of gatekeepers due to the digital revolution which seems to be leading people to create their own realities or cognitive ease. I’m confident that many of the problems on the surface, such as the fake news phenomenon will be addressed and solved in the near future. But how can and should science respond and contribute to the underlying issue?
If we are to accept that the new dividing lines appear between ‘rational progressives’ and ‘emotional regressives;’ between those who focus inward and backward, attempting to reject forces of globalization and those who focus outward and forward, embracing the forces of globalization; between those who are overwhelmed by interconnectedness, seeking simple short term solutions, and those willing to work on sustainable long term solutions; between those employing fear and hatred versus those advocating complicated but hopeful solutions,
I believe we need to extend our mission from knowledge production to developing compelling narratives, conveying positive, hopeful solutions that enable people to envision a sustainable future with heart and mind and overcome fear along the way.
This is where artists and scientists can come together, combining their strengths right now: united by the quest to understand how the world works, scientists finding data, artists embedding them in meaning. The short film on post-truth, shown at the Science Ball, is a small step on that journey. It developed out of an artistic urge to respond to the current discourse, which only seemed to touch on the surface of a more fundamental development. To shed light into these depths and find a different response, scientists contributed their views on the issue. Then, there are findings you cannot express with words, and that’s where non-verbal communication comes in. Here the medium is dance.
“Dance is one of the most beautiful forms of cooperation. Verbal language is an inefficient, incomplete form of communication that is prone to misunderstandings. Completing it by the physical, sensual, emotional, intuitive and spiritual spheres will provide a more holistic form of communication,” the economist and dancer Christian Felber observed a while back. He thus was a perfect match in realizing this project. May it now inspire you the audience to contemplate (post) truth from a different angle and the potential of science marrying art along the way.
Gloria Benedikt is Associate for Science and Art at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). She is a graduate of the Vienna State Opera Ballet School 01’ and Harvard University 13’.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
This could have been the title of my application to the first Citizen Artist Incubator (CAI) hosted at IIASA September 4-30, 2016. I am a Canadian playwright and research artist based outside of New York City, whose work deeply engages with climate change. For me, IIASA was the ultimate dating pool.
Playrwright Chantal Bilodeau is working on a series of plays about the impact of climate change on the eight countries of the Arctic. Photo courtesy Chantal Bilodeau
My belief in art/science romance was further reinforced when IIASA Director General and CEO Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat told us – thirteen artists from Europe, the Middle-East, Africa and America – during one of our sessions, “You have a big responsibility, my friends.” He was referring to the need for artists to engage with pressing global issues, and help change negative narratives into positive narratives of opportunity and social innovation. Big responsibility, indeed. And all the more reason for artists and scientists to become bedfellows.
I came to IIASA to do research for a play about human and animal migration, set in Alaska. The play is part of a long-term project titled The Arctic Cycle. A series of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic, The Arctic Cycle seeks to 1) bring attention to the changes happening in the Arctic and the impact those changes are having on local communities; 2) encourage international and multidisciplinary collaboration across Arctic countries, and; 3) translate scientific data into personal stories.
Sila was the first of the eight plays in the Arctic Cycle. it focuses on Canada. Credit: A.R. Sinclair Photography
I wanted to talk to scientists to get information for my play, but also to explore what might be possible. How can we join forces? How can my talent and skills and sphere of influence be combined with yours to create greater impact? I reached out to people in the Arctic Futures Initiative, the World Population program, and the Evolution and Ecology program. In addition to pointed questions about migration I asked questions like: “If there was one thing you would like people to understand about your field that I could communicate through my work, what would it be?” “Are there situations where having an artist’s perspective in addition to a scientist’s perspective would be useful?”
Everyone was extremely generous with their time and graciously answered my questions. I was pleased to find out there is genuine interest in investigating where art and science might intersect. The most obvious intersection, of course, is in “translating” scientific information into works of art that are then presented in traditional venues. But what about other intersections? Could artists facilitate conversations between scientists and stakeholders? Could a play (as I experienced once before) set the tone for an entire conference? What would be the value of having an artist embedded into a scientific program? Or a field trip?
Thanks to Gloria Benedikt, Merlijn Twaalfhoven, and their partners who invited me to participate in CAI, I came away from IIASA with concrete and up-to-date information for my play, and ideas for activities and programs that could bring art and science closer together around issues of climate change. I also left with a few email addresses and phone numbers. I am hoping this may be the beginning of a courtship that will lead to long and meaningful relationships.
Gloria Benedikt was born to dance. She started at the age of three and since the age of 12 she has been training every day—applying the laws of physics to the body. But with a degree in government and an interest in current affairs, Benedikt now builds bridges between these fields to make a difference, as IIASA’s first science and art associate.
Conducted and edited by Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.
When and how did you start to connect dance to broader societal questions? The tipping point was when I was working in the library as an undergraduate student at Harvard University. I had to go to the theater for a performance, and thought to myself: I wish I could stay here, because there is more creativity involved in writing a paper than in going on stage executing the choreography of an abstract ballet. I realized that I had to get out of ballet company life and try to create work that establishes the missing link between ballet and the real world.
To follow my academic interest, I could write papers, but I had another language that I could use—dance—and I knew that there is a lot of power in this language. So I started choreographing papers that I wrote and rather than publishing them in journals, I performed them. The first work was called Growth, a duet illustrating how our actions on one side of the world impact the other side. As dancers we need to concentrate and listen to each other, take intelligent risks and not let go. If one of us lets go, we would both fall on our faces.
What motivated you make this career change?
We as contemporary artists have to redefine our roles. In recent decades we became very specialized, which is great, but we lost our connection to society. Now it’s time to bring art back into society, where it can create an impact. I am not a scientist. I don’t know exactly how the data is produced, but I can see the results, make sense of it and connect it to the things that I am specialized in.
How did you get involved with IIASA? I first started interdisciplinary thinking with the economist Tomáš Sedláček who I met at the European Culture Forum 2013. A year later I had a public debate with Tomáš and the composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven in Vienna. Pavel Kabat, IIASA Director General and CEO, attended this and invited me to come to IIASA.
What have you done at IIASA so far? For the first year at IIASA I created a variety of works to reach out to scientists and policymakers and with every work I went a step further. This year, for the first time I tried to integrate the two groups by actively involving scientists in the creation process. The result, COURAGE, an interdisciplinary performance debate will premiere at the European Forum Alpbach 2016. In September, I will co-direct a new project called Citizen Artist Incubator at IIASA, for performing artists who aim to apply artistic innovation to real-world problems.
How do scientists react to your work? The response to my performances at the European Forum Alpbach 2015 and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (EU-JRC) was extremely positive. It was amazing to see how people reacted—some even in tears. Afterwards they said that they didn’t understand what I was trying to say for the past two days, but the moment that they saw the piece, they got it. Of course people are skeptical at first—if they were not, I will not be able to make a difference.
Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis rehearsing at Festspielhaus St. Pölten for COURAGE which will premiere at the European Forum Alpbach 2016.
What are you trying to achieve? I’m trying to figure out how to connect the knowledge of art and science so that we can tackle the problems we face more efficiently. There are multiple dimensions to it. One is trying to figure out how we can communicate science better. Can we appeal to reason and emotion at the same time to win over hearts and minds?
As dancers we can physically illustrate scientific findings. For instance, in order to perform certain complicated movements, timing is extremely critical. The same goes for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Are you planning on doing research of your own? At the moment I am trying something, evaluating the results, and seeing what can be improved, so in a way that is a type of research. For instance, some preliminary results came from the creation of COURAGE. We found that if we as scientists and artists want to work together, both parties will have to compromise, operate beyond our comfort zones, trust each other, and above all keep our audience at heart. That is exactly what we expect humanity to do when tackling global challenges. We have to be team players. It’s like putting a performance on stage. Everyone has to work together.