By Nour Barakeh, Alpbach Learning Program Co-manager, European Forum Alpbach, Austria
“I don’t want this war to end. I grew up carrying my weapon and fighting. I have lost everything. I can’t remember the shape of my life, my dreams, before war.”
I still remember my shock when a 23-year-old man said these words to me while I was traveling from city to city in Syria to interview young people about their opinions on the present and their dreams for the future.
In the decades long absence of a collective and free political atmosphere in the country, being critical about social issues, seeking knowledge for deep understanding despite the lack of real and reliable recourses, and doing research was immensely difficult, and at times even dangerous. I however firmly believe that the power of sharing ideas cannot be overestimated.
This brings us to the value of education. When I was younger, I was lucky enough to have been able to complete my academic studies in Syria – I am a trained pharmacist. Unfortunately, most people in Syria today have a very different experience. One only needs to look at the number of children living in camps around the country – children who have had to stop their education due to military conflict. Not to mention the number of young people involved in military life, and all of the others forced to suspend their education for any number of reasons.
In light of this, in 2013, a group of young activists and I who were living in Damascus, decided to change our work approach from what can be described as an emotionally supportive level to an approach focused on opening up creative spaces for critical thinking. Creative spaces for analyzing and exchanging thoughts, fears, and visions about our current situation. We organized art workshops during which we could work around political issues without the danger of being directly involved in them.
After three years of conducting these workshops, I noticed recurring themes. I started doing social research in an effort to predict the post-war period and the possibilities of rebuilding our country with realistic data aimed at addressing the causes of the underlying problems rather than just the consequences. That was how I started traveling around Syria and meeting people through my research.
It was also during this time that I discovered just how isolated we really were, each of us in our individual communities. We didn’t know each other. In addition, in the absence of the aforementioned collective and free political atmosphere in Syria, we were deprived of understanding our shared problems, which forced us to become involved in imagined conflicts based on assumed divisions.
This realization led me to a series of questions. If we could imagine that the war in Syria hadn’t yet started, how could the war have been avoided? Furthermore, how could we build sustained peace in our country? The emphasis here is of course on the word “build”, because peace cannot be imposed on societies. Achieving sustained peace is the fulfillment of revolutions aimed at rooted changes.
In my own life, sometime after doing those interviews in Syria, I was lucky enough to immigrate to Austria. Here, I see peace represented as a culture. I have experienced it through close contact with people, with their way of life, and their psychological structure. I am convinced that the fact that peace has been achieved in this country is the most important factor contributing to progress, not only on a general economic, political, and social level, but also on the level of human consciousness.
Therefore, for me, achieving peace has taken its place next to the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals as a main factor to close the circle of our interrelated world. An expression of interconnected problems that can only be solved on a global level.
In trying to realize the mechanisms of our interrelated world however, my interaction with the culture in Austria has forced me to re-evaluate concepts such as identity and nationality. Forced me to revisit these and other concepts that has been used to create conflicts and to break down awareness of our shared interests and shared pains as human beings.
All of this has motivated me to become more open to a broader sense of belonging, to global citizenship where we can see the full picture and everyone can contribute to the common good. Not as an idealistic dream, but rather, as a necessary condition for our survival.
We need to have one eye on the microscope and the other on the telescope. We need to combine all sectors to achieve the desired impact.
In my work with my partners and colleagues, this has meant combining scientific studies and artistic work through projects like the art-science performance Migraspectives* at the IIASA/JRC Evidence and Policy Summer School, to support the establishment of sustainable educational projects focused on empowering people to transcend the effects of war. It is a method of involving audiences in tricky topics such as migration, and realizing that data alone cannot be the only tool to reach people in making a change, and trying to bridge the gap between researchers, policymakers, and society.
*Migraspectives is a research project that involves artists and scientists in exploring the current debate on Migration through the lense of diverse and often conflicting world-views. The project culminated in a participatory performance during the Summer School for Evidence and Policy, organised by IIASA and the European Commissions Joint Research Center under the auspices of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, where a new approach to solution finding with an audience of researchers and policymakers from 40 countries was tried out for the first time.
Note: 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.
By Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, Co-Artistic Director of Boston Dance Theater
I recently had the privilege of artistically collaborating on Dancing with the Future, a project spearheaded by Gloria Benedikt and Piotr Magnuszewski of IIASA with Martin Nowak of Harvard University. The process involved five dancers joining two scientists to create an evening-length performance-debate that toured to Harvard University’s Farkas Hall and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Columbia University this fall. The essence of this interdisciplinary project was a product of Nowak’s published research on altruism and evolution. Nowak proposes: “Evolution is not only a fight. Not mere competition. Also cooperation, cooperation is the master architect of evolution. Now that we have reached the limits of our planet, can you cooperate with the future?”
What can I do to contribute to a global effort to create sustainable practices that yield cooperation with the future? Why do I dance and what kind of impact does my dancing have on my environment and myself? As a co-artistic director, entrepreneur, choreographer, and performing artist of the young and fast-growing contemporary dance company Boston Dance Theater (BDT), I am turning to projects that are on the innovative cross-section between the arts, technology, and other disciplines because they have the most potential to have meaningful impact on the level of the creative team, the audience, and beyond. I too, am searching for practices and partnerships for BDT that yield pathways for collective problem solving, or ‘super-cooperation’. As Nowak notes, “[evolutionarily speaking] humans are super-cooperators.”
Overall, Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that scientists, dancers, and policymakers can successfully sit at the same table (or in the same theater or conference hall), tackle the same issues, and productively collaborate toward unearthing sustainable solutions.
We all had to be open to compromises — this is not an easy task in a room full of expert-leaders. I set a mantra for myself to remember that we were creating something completely new. Each time my choreographer-dancer brain sent up a red flag, I chose selectively when to share my opinion with the group. I elected to practice the Buddhist teachings of Shunryu Suzuki, captured poetically in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This choice opened others and myself up to creative and peaceful solutions that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen.
Conversely, I was able to offer constructive solutions at moments when working with the scientific material seemed to overwhelm the studio process, for example, dividing the existing text and music into segments and giving each of those segments a specific choreographic task that related to the content of the scientific text. This was a very simple concept that had to do with pacing and sculpting time. Once we counted out the music, it was easy for us to construct the movement score and see the overall arc of the piece.
I learned not to be afraid of using my voice and also listening deeply. It was, at first, very intimidating to be seated across from experts in fields outside of my own. I learned that scientists and policymakers can understand, respect, and respond to the decisions I make through a process of peaceful negotiation, even when we speak different languages, were born on different continents, and may have varying political opinions. My fear was ultimately unnecessary because the very nature of this project appeals to the humanity in us all.
This form of cross-disciplinary collaboration allows participants to see our own work in a new light and to discover new languages that are exciting because we have co-authored them. For the work to be successful, the dance, science, and debate components must all have equal weight and value. Otherwise, the movement and its choreographic structure becomes the visual representation of the science rather than an equal partner. When that happens, the magic of innovative collaboration falls flat into familiar territory.
During the process, we often referred to this Chinese proverb: “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I’ll remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” Dancers understand this concept in a very concrete and visceral way. For scientists, policymakers, or the general audience to understand too, they must be involved as much as possible in the process of what we are doing. If we cannot for reasons of practicality, have them with us in the studio, then we must bring them into the process in another way. It is only by involving them as collaborators that we can generate large scale, super-cooperation.
Sometimes it feels like my dancer colleagues and I exist in a vacuum: we rehearse in the confines of the studio and historically perform on stages that make us appear as ‘other’ from the people we are performing for. Western concert dance has received criticism for being an inaccessible art form and according to the 2016 report from The Boston Foundation, is the most under-funded of Boston’s performing arts. Dancers aren’t typically trained to speak about their work, and often have a hard time receiving criticism. Contemporary dance in particular, can be challenging to general audience members because the language of the art and its conceptual frameworks are sometimes not evident in the work itself — many choreographers feel creatively stifled when asked to explain their work in language and wonder why the art work can’t speak for itself.
I have come to learn that these problems are not unique to dance. After our premiere of Dancing with the Future at Harvard University, scientists thanked me for helping them to understand new meaning within the scientific research presented through my performance. Their experience of live performance elicited a keen sense of empathy that drew them into deeper understanding of the scientific findings. This collaboration yielded a tri-fold, reciprocal impact for the artists, for the scientists, and for the public.
Our work helped to bridge the traditional gap between creative team and general audience member. It can be that when a member of the public enjoys a performance, they leave the venue with a good feeling and a nice memory as a souvenir. I believe that our art form has the power to do more — to make a greater impact and to be appreciated as an inherent and necessary aspect of our society and culture.
It is our civic responsibility to continue workshopping solutions toward global cooperation and cooperation with future generations. Dancing with the Future has encouraged me, on a micro scale, that this is a reasonable and plausible endeavor. With continued care, attention toward our common goals, compassion, listening, and risk-taking, we can understand one another through the process of creation regardless of what language we speak or where we were born. The next steps may be small, but nonetheless crucial. Next season, Boston Dance Theater will commission new works by three international choreographers with the stipulation that the pieces must speak to pressing global issues, and cross-disciplinary collaboration will be a cornerstone of that production.
Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that partnerships with super-cooperators such the teams at IIASA and Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics can bring meaningful potential to catalyze change in me as an individual and in Boston Dance Theater as an organization, while enabling us to reach our extended communities. I can’t wait for the next project!
Note: 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.
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.