We all know we are living in an ever-more connected and complex world. There are over 6 billion mobile phones, a constantly growing global network of fiber optics cables, 6 billion people and their brains wired together. Our goal now should be getting exponentially smarter as a group given all these connected brains, right?
It’s not that easy. We have to tackle harder and harder problems. Complex questions require know-how from different fields, cultures, and perspectives. We need to collaborate and experiment in-between and beyond disciplines until new ideas emerge.
Putting designers, artists, technologists, and researchers with different backgrounds together in a free space is a great start, and one that we practice a lot at swissnex San Francisco.
But we need to take it a step further. As a connected society, we need to embrace people who don’t fit in any box, strange animals, people who can move seamlessly between disciplines, people who translate and push the boundaries. We need people who think and live “antidisciplinary” who will change the way we look at things.
Antidisciplinary is a term developed and celebrated at the MIT Media Lab. It’s worth reading Joi Ito’s blog post. Director of the MIT Media lab, Ito is a misfit himself: an entrepreneur, technologist, VC, and an academic without a degree.
Ito also writes on the relationship between design and science on PubPub, referencing the cybernetic movement—a transdisciplinary approach to systems—and sparking a lively discussion involving Paula Antonelli, Senior Design Curator MOMA; Steward Brand, editor Whole Earth Catalogue and founder of the LongNow Foundation; Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO; and others.
At swissnex San Francisco, our goal is to create better networks between Switzerland and the US. We constantly connecting people and institutions from different disciplines around relevant and new topics, so I’m constantly meeting smart people.
In the five years I’ve been at swissnex, I’ve been the most inspired by the people you can’t quite place. The ones you are never quite sure how to introduce because they do many different things at the same time.
Often, these people are the best at explaining their work, though, no matter how complex it is because they understand and speak different languages (art, tech, science, etc.)—because they are antidisciplinarians.
I was grateful when our friends from the Lift conference gave me the chance to invite four of my favorite antidisciplinarians onto the big stage at their event in Geneva, where I curated a session dedicated to this topic.
And now, I want to introduce them to you, too. Maybe their lessons will rub off on the rest of us, so we can all enter the antidisciplinary space!
The A-team (A for Antidisciplinary)
Subodh Patil is a theoretical physicist at the University of Geneva, previously at CERN. He is a cosmologist focusing on the very early universe—the Big Bang and the beginning of everything we know.
Patil and I met three years ago when he was the scientific partner to San Francisco sound artist Bill Fontana during his artist in residency at CERN.
“There are absolutely no rules in discovery. You are on your own. But you can piggy back off of what people have learned for you, on your behalf,” said Patil at Lift. “The thing that I’ve noticed about the scientists that I respect and admire the most is that they are willing to introduce noise into their process to allow them to make associations that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and that they have a very strong mischievous streak. They like to go on adventures.”
Sarah Brin is curator and public programs manager at Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop, the world’s best equipped maker space and fab lab bringing several hundred artists, designers, makers, and engineers together every year.
At Lift, she described three things that she thinks make an antidisciplinarian: 1.) Struggle, or feeling out of place. Discomfort. 2.) An interest in experience, not just form. 3.) projects at the intersection of art, technology, and industry. Like Coby Unger’s collaboration with nine-year-old Aidan Robinson designing a Superhero Arm, a multifunction and adaptable prosthetic. Or Morehshin Allahyari’s Material Speculation: ISIS, which is a 3D modeling and printing project focused on the reconstruction of statues from the Roman period city of Hatra and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
“These artists are working with multiple fields while using new technologies to create creative solutions, and these new ideas are inviting, they are public facing and they ask for a response,” Brin said in Geneva. “It’s not always easy to look for new types of solutions for new types of problems. But I thank you and challenge you to look for that discomfort in yourself and apply it to your practice.
James Patten is an interaction designer, inventor, and visual artist who creates ground breaking experiences. He’s an alumnus of the Tangible Media Group at MIT Media Lab, where they wonder with an open mind how digital information can be translated in the physical space.
Today James uses his research and lessons learned for collaborations with artists, other designers, and technology companies.
At Lift, he shared a number of his projects combining interaction design, electronics, wearables, and robotics. He also spoke about the importance of the environment you need to create these works, like his studio at the MEX in New York (which I wrote about previously for nextrends).
“If you’re working in a space that doesn’t fit within a traditional discipline, you really have to blaze your own trail and you have to decide what you think the right path is for your work and sometimes it can be a bit of a stretch to shoehorn what you are doing into a traditional discipline,” Patten said.
“The magic of working in an antidisciplinary space is that you have a much greater opportunity to impact the world in your own unique, powerful way. And if you look back over the last 100 years or so at the disruptive innovations that have impacted our lives as a whole, a lot of them have come from work that has existed (at least initially) in this antidisciplinary space.”
Caecilia Charbonnier is a former professional tennis player with a PhD in motion capture. Today, she’s co-founder and research director of Artanim, where she combines her know-how in medical research and sports with virtual reality, immersive universes, art, and entertainment. Artanim’s Real Virtuality exhibit has been shown at swissnex San Francisco, at the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier showcase in Salt Lake City, and is taking the gaming and storytelling worlds by storm.
Guess what: she has even figured out how to play tennis in VR!
I hope we will be able to meet and host many more such ‘strange animals’ at swissnex San Francisco’s new space at Pier 17 in San Francisco: An open door to the Silicon Valley and a physical antidisciplinary space for all kinds of people to meet, exchange ideas, collaborate and create together.