SEAD Exemplars: Defying Classification

by Alex Garcia-Topete

Nettrice R. Gaskins, “Afrofuturism Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDT) designs,” 2014. Courtesy of the artists and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

When Roger Malina invited me to join the SEAD Exemplars project back in August, I thought that the biggest challenge would be finding the elusive exemplars, not the task of giving names and bestowing categories to those exemplars. Never underestimate the power of language and the issues it can create.

Here is some background first: the project of collecting art-science exemplars came as a suggestion from Peter West and Al DeSena at the National Science Foundation (NSF), both of whom wanted to have an exhibit of such works in the NSF’s gallery in Washington D.C. They brought the idea to the SEAD (Science-Engineering-Art-Design) steering committee, to which Roger belongs, and the project was set up. Days later, Roger approached me to work on the project, knowing not only that I would be interested, but that my research interest in art-science collaboration and my background as film festival curator would be valuable for the whole process ahead.

The mission: to collect as many examples as possible of projects that combined science, engineering, art, design, and the humanities and select twenty of the most outstanding ones to be showcased at the NSF gallery. From the start, we knew there would be challenges. Some were obvious and assumed, such as how many exemplars we could actually find (at first there was a sense that we wouldn’t find even just twenty to showcase). The biggest challenge, however, was hidden—developing a taxonomy would be difficult because of terminology and language differences across disciplines, schools, and continents.

Once the call for nominations was sent out by the members of the SEAD committee, we discovered that our first assumption had been wrong: in a few weeks we had collected forty projects and in three months we had collected a hundred, ranging from works of individual artist-scientists to projects involving several institutions as collectives.

The breadth and number of collected exemplars, as well as the submission information and communications with the nominators, revealed the true challenge to overcome—language and taxonomies. Depending on the nominator’s area of expertise, the notion of “art-science” and the term used to refer to it was different, making it at times difficult even to reach an understanding. Just to name a few variations of the notion, some considered it as art at the service of science, others as artists who filed patents, and others as viewing art scientifically. Each notion, of course, had a bias behind it, the two most common being subjugating one domain to the other or being academically rigid about the disciplines involved. And the terms varied even more: Art-Science, ArtScience, STEM, STEMM, STEAM, STEAMM, STEAMMD, SEAD, ArtSci, SciArt, hybrid, T-Shaped, H-shaped… Yet, these all meant multidisciplinary projects.

That matter of language made developing a taxonomy for the projects difficult—and a major issue for the committee when selecting projects for the exhibit. There was much deliberation about what factors to consider: Disciplines? Number of collaborators? Scope of projects? Ultimately, we decided that we were thinking too much like researchers and not enough as curators—after all, the exhibit was meant as an engagement tool for the general public, and that required a different approach. Inspired by current Smithsonian exhibits, we realized that the way to classify the exemplars was to base it upon the purpose and impact of projects, without the jargon of the academic mindset.

In the end, our categories reflect the essence of the different projects: pioneering, exploring, bridging, educating, questioning, engaging, and innovating. Even though most of the projects fall within more than one category, each work has one aspect that stands out easily—its essence, so to speak. With the categories in place, the selection process became a clearer process since we could measure the proportions of each category. In other words, we could quantify the best way to split the twenty spots among the seven categories according to the sample size of nominated projects.

We have yet to finish the final selection and design the exhibit itself. That belongs to a future blog post. For now, here’s the lesson learned thus far: the first step towards any sort of collaboration begins with understanding each other’s language.

The SEAD Exemplars Exhibit is set to open at the National Academy of Sciences West Gallery in Washington, D.C. and at SEADexemplars.org early Summer 2017.

About the author

Alex Garcia Topete is a writer-filmmaker and film festival curator currently pursuing a graduate degree in Arts & Technology at The University of Texas at Dallas. You can find out more at GarciaTopete.com