New research space to center the arts in interdisciplinary collaborations

As an artist doing her graduate work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Diane Willow reveled in the interplay among the arts, emerging technologies, and the sciences. When she later joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota, she set out to bring this same level of creativity, curiosity, and collaboration to research here.

“In the most personal of ways, ArTeS emerged from my desire to participate in a creative research community that did not yet exist at UMN—one that prioritizes equity and inclusion while centering the arts in research at the intersection of art, technology, and science.” she said.

Willow, associate professor of art in the College of Liberal Arts, has been catalyzing collaborations and leading the iterative development of the ArTeS initiative for over a decade, most recently with faculty members Lana Yarosh (computer science & engineering), Virajita Singh (design), Jennifer Newsom (architecture), Vicente Diaz (American Indian studies), Daniel Keefe (computer science & engineering), Sumanth Gopinath (music theory) and LATIS staff Colin McFadden. The initiative is named after the three areas it brings together: art, technology, and science.

The nexus of these areas, Willow said, has the potential to transform perceived disciplinary boundaries, changing how we ask research questions, imagining the processes for considering these questions, and creating models of creative interdependence.

This emerging research space will create a flexible new home for such interdisciplinary explorations. The ArTeS Collaborative Research Studio, set to open in the Regis Center for Art in spring 2022, will bring University researchers and collaborators from the broader community a flexible, technology-infused space to ask and address research questions through a creative lens.

The space is being repurposed for this use by the ArTeS Collaborative with the support of the Department of Art and funding from an Office of the Vice President for Research infrastructure grant. Catalytic funding from the College of Liberal Arts, as well as the Department of Art, School of Music, and the Theatre Department, was amplified with funds from the College of Science and Engineering and Department of Computer Science & Engineering, the College of Design and the Metropolitan Design Center, the College of Biological Sciences, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Office of Equity and Diversity.

Enthusiastic support from a wide range of disciplines, partners, and collaborators is exactly what Willow envisioned.

“As children, we didn’t define our fascination with the world and each other as art, science, architecture, etc.—we learned to parse our interests and passions into these disciplines later on,” she said. “This initiative recalls that sense of wholeness and anticipates what we can bring to research when these disciplinary perspectives and methodologies interact, spark new forms of collaboration, pose new research questions, and generate inclusive modes of creative interdependence.”

That concept is integral to ArTeS’s focus on equity and inclusion as well. If we preclude who is asking the questions and whose imagination and experience inspires those questions, Willow said, it inherently limits the questions that will be asked and the potential meaning of the research that emerges. Through collaboration, each academic field will have the opportunity to become more inclusive of groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in it.

A flexible and transformable space for research and performance

While it’s common for faculty in the sciences to have their own labs, there are fewer examples in the arts of spaces specifically dedicated to conducting research, particularly interdisciplinary, collaborative research. The ArTeS Collaborative Research Studio is a response to this need, offering a flexible array of technologies that span visual, audio, and sensory media. Collaborators, including faculty, graduate students, staff, and undergraduate research assistants, will reimagine and reconfigure technologies like projection mapping, virtual reality, spatialized sound, and motion capture to support their unique research endeavors.

An extended network of local collaborators will, over time, include the participation of community organizations, regional arts groups, and youth programs. The research studio, with its built-in capabilities to record, live stream, or even offer live performances of creative research will help build the public’s interest and engagement in this work.

One example of a project likely to use the space is the Native Canoe Program led by Vicente Diaz, associate professor of American Indian studies. This ongoing, cross-cultural exploration into traditional Indigenous watercraft and water-based ecological knowledge has been incorporating virtual and augmented reality techniques through collaboration with the University’s Interactive Visualization Lab led by Dan Keefe, Distinguished University Teaching Professor in computer science & engineering and Virajita Singh, research fellow and associate vice provost in the Office for Equity and Diversity.

Diaz has developed a deep collaboration with the Micronesian community residing in Milan, Minnesota, while working on the project. When the project utilizes the research studio space during the prototyping, pre-opening phase this fall, Willow said, she will be excited to see members of the Micronesian community coming to the Regis Center for Art to see the project and experience the interactive visualization of navigating by canoe.

Widening the vision

In recent years, Willow has been involved in many creative collaborations like those the new research studio aims to inspire. She taught a seminar on transgenic art alongside Neil Olszewski, professor of plant and microbial biology in the College of Biological Sciences. She formed the Interdisciplinary Graduate Group, Biologically Motivated with faculty in the School of Architecture and College of Biological Sciences, and Improvising Ecosystems with colleagues in the School of Music and the Department of Theatre and Dance. She also collaborated with Lana Yarosh, associate professor of computer science & engineering, to create opportunities for students in computer science, design, and art to interact with one another while experimenting and improvising with new technologies related to the Internet of Things.

Professor Yarosh is eager to see what comes of this endeavor after years of planning.

"Professor Willow and I first started working together about six years ago, as we co-organized an Internet of Things Collaborative," she shared. "We invited students, faculty, and staff to try out cool prototyping technologies like 3D printing, Arduinos, and Raspberry Pis."

"One thing that we noticed was that while the computer science folks came to these workshops with a lot of great technical skills, it was the art and humanities students who brought the really innovative and exciting ideas to the table," Yarosh continued. "Bringing together the computer science students and arts & humanities students really was magical!"

"We knew we were onto something and started looking at ways that we could make this compelling experience available to more people. After a long five-year labor, the ArTeS Collaborative finally took shape." she said.

As the ArteS Collaborative Research Studio opens, an advisory group is formed, and a process for requesting and reviewing collaborative research proposals is created, Willow anticipates that the ArTeS Collaborative Research Studio will be a catalyst for dynamic collaborations that center equity and inclusion in research at the nexus of Art+Technology+Science.

“Working within a single discipline, our peripheral vision can become constrained,” she said. “It’s expansive and essential to be around people who think differently from ourselves. You create space for new possibilities when you widen your peripheral vision by centering people, ideas, and processes that have been on the margins of your awareness.”

Edited from an article written by Kevin Coss for Office of the Vice President for Research.