SPACES & PLACES
Arts-Based Research: Bridging Communication Gaps Between Scientists and Citizens at the ADRI
By Tara Caimi, guest contributor
Nestled in a valley surrounded by central Pennsylvania’s rolling hills is a space where research transcends tradition to probe uncharted knowledge. It’s called the Arts and Design Research Incubator (ADRI), and it’s housed within the College of Arts and Architecture at The Pennsylvania State University.
Here, artists become researchers who collaborate with experts in other domains to formulate fresh questions and reshape investigative approaches. These cross-disciplinary researchers work hand-in-hand to explore possibilities, with the goal of unearthing new meaning.
“What’s unique about the ADRI is that it’s a vibrant research space for artists and designers,” says Andrew Belser, director of the ADRI and professor of movement, voice, and acting. “There are a lot of people around the world working on interdisciplinary projects. What we lack in the arts and design are centers where momentum can happen; centers where foundations can see there’s a lot of work happening; centers that can sort of support artists and designers [through] mentoring, where seniors can teach people just coming into to this interdisciplinary space how to think about their projects in ways that will attract funders and attract researchers.”
Belser helped to launch the ADRI in 2014 with his own arts-based research project, FaceAge, an immersive three-screen video installation that weaves together interconnected chapters in which young adults (18-22) and aging individuals (65+) reflect on life while studying and describing one another’s faces. This series of intimate interactions is designed to challenge perceptions, foster introspection, and build acceptance, awareness, and cross-generational connections.
Andrew Belser, professor of movement, voice, and acting; ADRI director; and FaceAge producer and director, hosted the installation of his project, FaceAge, in the Arts & Design Research Incubator (ADRI) August 30-September 5, 2017 to launch his tour across Pennsylvania as the 2017-18 Penn State Laureate. Photo credit Stephanie Swindle Thomas.
With support from the College of Health and Human Development and other schools and departments across Penn State, the project blossomed. "The opportunity to partner… on FaceAge is a once in a lifetime opportunity. FaceAge has the potential to have a larger impact on how people view the aging process than any other project I've been involved in during my 25+ years of working in the field of aging,” says Martin Sliwinski, director of Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging and professor of human development and family studies.
Each installation broadened community engagement until, in 2017, Belser was asked to tour FaceAge as the newly appointed Penn State Laureate. Since then, the project has garnered international attention. FaceAge was featured at the 21st International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics (IAGG) World Congress, as well as at the 2018 LeadingAge PEAK Leadership Summit.
Plans are under consideration for additional versions of the project, including FaceAge Philadelphia and FaceAge China, to explore cross-generational interactions within different communities and cultures. This, according to Belser is the ADRI model.
As the name implies, the ADRI is a space for arts-based research to incubate. Researchers receive seed funding and a range of support - from work space within the office, to opportunities to present research in the form of workshops, dialogues, and performances. “We’ve kept it a very flexible space,” says Belser. "There are 12 researchers in there having interdisciplinary meetings. Conversations sprout up quickly. We have lunches and dinners - all kinds of events.” The goal is for researchers to build the foundations needed to grow their interdisciplinary work, increase project visibility, and further funding potential for future iterations - for projects to incubate, then take flight beyond the ADRI.
“[We wanted] to bring artists and designers together to work with other researchers and attract outside funding - external funding through large grants,” says Belser.
It’s a model that is working for Mark Ballora, professor of music technology and ADRI affiliate faculty. Ballora’s research is in sonification - the use of non-speech audio to convey information. “It’s mapping data points to values that can be represented through sound,” says Ballora. He came to the field largely by accident. “I was a graduate student in the computer music program at McGill in 1996. I needed money, so I had looked at the job posting board.” The position Ballora applied for involved web work, but the person who’d posted the notice had other ideas. “He didn’t call me for it because he was looking for an undergraduate, but he held onto it and thought, ‘computer music - that could be interesting,’” says Ballora.
That person was Leon Glass, Isadore Rosenfeld Chair in Cardiology and professor of physiology. Several months later, he would call Ballora to inquire about his interest in translating heart rate variability data into sound. “So, that became my thesis,” says Ballora. “As a composer and a sound person, I’m interested in how and why human beings respond to sound and music the way that we do. It’s kind of a peculiar feature of our species, that music is something that we respond to and that we’re passionate about.”
Ballora references the book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind when explaining that, while each of the human senses interacts with the others to affect perceptions of the world, the ear processes information much more quickly than the eye. This fact, he feels, has broad implications for education, especially with regard to future generations of students. “If kids grow up considering science as something that is listened to as well as looked at, my sense is that they’ll perhaps have a more intuitive and more holistic understanding of these science fields than they would if they were just looking at graphs - than if they were just getting it through the eyes.”
Ballora joined the faculty at Penn State in 2000 to develop a music technology program. Over the years, he “dabbled in it [sonification] and gave a few talks,” but it was much later, when he volunteered with Penn State’s Center for Network Centric Cognition and Information Fusion (NC2IF) in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, that he found others at Penn State with an interest in the field. “They were the first people I didn’t have to explain what sonification was,” he says. While working with NC2IF, Ballora learned about a movie called Rhythms of the Universe that was under development by percussionist and musicologist Mickey Hart and professor at the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics, astrophysicist, cosmologist, and Nobel laureate George Smoot. The project would feature sonifications, and, after several inquiries and sample data sonification exchanges, Ballora made the cut to provide sonifications for the movie. “That was the first turning point,” says Ballora. “Up until then, I’d kind of thought, there’s real potential here. How could there not be? And what we need is this ‘ah-ha moment’ that is going to make everyone go, ‘Wow, how did we ever get by without this?’”
Working on Rhythms of the Universe gave Ballora a fresh perspective. Rather than waiting for the “ah ha moment,” he began to think of his sonification work in terms of education and outreach. “If you make it part of science education … then there will just be this gradual cultural shift over twenty or thirty years,” he says. This perspective, along with the products of his earlier efforts, led Ballora to another turning point on his sonification project path—an inaugural space as affiliate faculty at the ADRI to grow his work in this area. “The School of Music didn’t bring me here to do this,” says Ballora. “The science part is puzzling to a lot of people in music, so I’ve always been a little bit of an outlier. With the ADRI, it’s a place where the outlier-ness is welcomed and embraced and encouraged.”
Cynthia White, media artist, filmmaker, and ADRI research associate, is also exploring ways to communicate science through art. With her project, Microbial Migrations, White seeks to research and illustrate the transference of microbes between humans and animals through the lens of documentary film. The idea germinated from personal experience. Her new daughter had experienced health problems which led to a fairly regular regimen of antibiotics. At the same time, White witnessed a strengthening bond between this daughter and their new dog.
“I just started thinking a lot about her gut and what we do to our bodies when we take antibiotics. And then we got a dog, and I started thinking... about the microbial communities that they share. I just started thinking, as a filmmaker, how can you tell this story of shared microbes in a way that’s not necessarily human centric? It’s an exchange, and what does this balance, this relationship, this dance look like?”
To explore the potential of her project, White attended meetings held at Penn State’s Microbiome Center. The challenge to understand the science required to approach her inquiry seemed insurmountable. “I just realized how totally out of my league I was in terms of terminology and information, in general.” White mustered the courage to approach Carolee Bull, director of the Microbiome Center and professor of plant pathology and systematic bacteriology. Bull encouraged White to present her ideas to the group of scientists at one of the weekly meetings.
“Being at the ADRI gives me some sort of credibility,” White says. She was also inspired by others in the ADRI space. “To see them engaging with all these researchers in all these different areas has been incredibly motivational.”
White presented her project ideas to the Microbiome Center scientists, and received more encouragement and assistance than expected, with Bull leading the charge as a champion of the work. “This is a project that, I think, would capture the imagination of the students, and is a way for the faculty anywhere to collaborate and add data to the project because there are questions about this migration that can be studied in a lot of different locations,” she says. “It really has the possibility of being more, almost citizen science. And we’re looking for that kind of project.”
Centre County Grange Fair, Centre Hall, PA. Skin DNA samples from people who have regular contact with domesticated animals in rural and urban settings is collected and sequenced for analysis in Cynthia White’s documentary film-based research project, Microbial Migrations. Image courtesy of Cynthia White.
Bull admits to having some initial trepidation with inviting presenters from differing fields to speak at the Microbiome Center. While she could not be certain other scientists would see the value, events from Bull’s background made her confident there was value to be gained. “In graduate school I took dance classes from someone who was a Jungian psychologist,” she says. “She was a graphic artist and a dancer and a Jungian psychologist, and her analysis of what was going on, or how she explored questions based on those things, was so very different than the way that I was taught to explore questions.” As a plant pathologist working with farmers and growers, Bull has learned that “questioning your own assumptions” can be a useful starting point for conversations involving experts from different domains.
White says, “I think single track thinking doesn’t get us anywhere. Approaching problems from multiple angles is essential to coming up with constructive ways of problem solving.” At the ADRI, such exchanges are the norm. “We have brought researchers from outside arts and design, as well as inside,” says Belser. “The ones from outside arts and design - neuroscientists, people working in arts and healthcare, particularly, or healthcare practitioners working in the healthcare space - they have come to the ADRI and said this is a valuable, really important national resource.”
The ADRI differs, according to Belser, from other groups that foster arts-research. “Some other arts and science spaces really invite a lot of technology,” he says. “A lot of our work tends to be looking at artistic practice and the human side of it. We aren’t really focused on technology as the first point of focus on our research. I tend to want to see art of the highest aesthetic levels. That’s the signature of the ADRI.”
In 2017, Ballora was named co-recipient of two awards by The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) and the Gulf Research Program. One project is in progress - a collaboration with Karen Wishner, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, through which Ballora will sonify the diel vertical migrations of copepods. “It’s of interest,” says Ballora, “because these are an important part of the food chain, and the food chain is changing with climate change and warming and deoxygenation of the oceans.”
The mission to communicate critical scientific data to the larger public drives many of the artists to this work. “Researchers have told me,” says Ballora, “that a lot of times they are so comfortable with their data and findings that it’s easy to forget that other people don’t know as much, and so the message doesn’t always get through. The general public has to know about it. It’s got to be important to the non-specialists because non-specialists need to elect politicians who will make conscientious policy regarding the oceans and our environment and everything else.” The NAKFI awards are the first grants Ballora has received for his sonification work, marking yet another milestone which he credits, in part, to support from the ADRI. “It’s made a huge difference in my morale. When you have an institutional home for something like this, then it just starts to make sense to people.”
In addition to fostering arts-based interdisciplinary research that may not find a home elsewhere, a goal of the ADRI has been to boost the visibility and viability of arts and design research beyond Penn State. Most ADRI researchers have surpassed this expectation, including Ballora, who will share his work at Moogfest in May and at The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in July, both by unsolicited invitation. “It’s fun to watch artists and designers begin to understand the viability of their work in the larger research space,” says Belser. “When you can really help a researcher to understand why their project actually fits the agendas of other people, and how it might link for much larger funding, that’s really satisfying.”