'The Lab'

With a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and a faculty position in Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, David Edwards might not immediately strike you as the artsy type. In a way, that's the point.

March 28, 2011

With a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and a faculty position in Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, David Edwards might not immediately strike you as the artsy type. In a way, that's the point.

Edwards, who is Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering, is also the founding director of two "artscience labs": Le Laboratoire, in Paris, and the Idea Translation Lab at Harvard. Both are predicated on the notion that "the core of creativity" is the "fused process of artscience" -- that is, the natural progression through which we translate new ideas into reality, drawing on both aesthetic and analytical thinking. So Edwards writes in his new book, The Lab: Creativity and Culture (Harvard University Press). Roughly speaking, Le Laboratoire is a sort of public scientific laboratory with a focus on art and design, while the Idea Translation Lab adds a higher education emphasis in bringing this model to Harvard students and faculty.

Inside Higher Ed interviewed Edwards via e-mail to learn more about artscience and idea translation, and why they're important in higher education today.

Q: What is artscience? What does it look like, and how does it work?

A: Art, like science, can be meaningfully understood as process or as outcome, the distinction between the experience of discovery and discovery itself. We think of art, in the sense of process, as a kind of aesthetic method, guided by intuition, enveloped by ambiguity, and thriving in uncertainty, while we think of science, as process, as a kind of scientific method, guided by deduction, enveloped in reductive clarity, and thriving in certainty. In reality creators, artists, scientists, however you wish to assign the label, do not really create, or as I speak of it, translate their ideas from conception to realization through one pure method or another, but through a synthetic process of idea development that fuses intuition and deduction, analysis and dream, and this universal creative process is what I mean by artscience. It is in my mind worth a special name in a world where the avalanche of information leads us to divide up knowledge, and finally creative process, into smaller camps, disciplines, institutions, where we alternatively encourage dream or analysis, induction or deduction, and this is fatal to the creative process. It is essential to realize the universality of the creative process, not to kill it in our effort to catalog its myriad results.

Q: How did Le Laboratoire and its offshoots come about? What was the original idea -- and how did it become a reality?

A: Very briefly, Le Laboratoire arose out of my efforts at Harvard University to create an environment where idea development might take place, with educational, cultural, humanitarian, and commercial benefits, and the public might enter into the creative process in a kind of ongoing cultural dialog. It emanated from a book I began to write around 2005 when I left the university to live in Paris. In Paris I made an attempt to build this organization, which in its experimental nature needed in my mind to be independent of any particular institution, and in 2007 opened Le Laboratoire. The network of organizations, or artscience labs, which eventually came into existence from 2005 through 2010, mostly in France and the USA, came to serve, in aggregate, as a kind of idea funnel through which ideas that we developed, often starting with seed ideas tossed around by high school or university students, sometimes emerged as very novel commercial designs, or art exhibitions, or occasionally humanitarian interventions. The original idea is expressed in the last chapter of my book Artscience, as a dream of a creative home where I and others could create together and in ways that allowed our ideas to at least have the chance to beneficially change a world that is in many ways changing with breathtakingly little dialog around its design.

Q: Can you give an example or two of exhibitions or products from Le Laboratoire and/or the Idea Translation Lab and explain how they exemplify artscience?

A: A Laboratoire exhibition in 2008 by the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta started with an experiment around the hypothesis, if I can put it that way, that Shilpa might express the connection between political terror and the unconscious mind through her art. This led to a collaboration with the Indian neuroscientist and psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, who teaches at Harvard, and finally to a stunning work of art, 4000 microphones suspended in the form of a cloud, and from which voices sing, streams rustle, train whistles blow, as a kind of unconscious mind of society, more literally an object that speaks in a way for the voiceless majority that is typically the victim of terror, and as Shilpa experienced it herself in the weeks before the exhibition when Bombay (Mumbai) was the scene of a serious terror incident. Here is a work of art, since having traveled to museums around the world and now part of the permanent collection of the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, which, when Mahzarin saw it for the first time in Paris, made her exclaim: I never thought I would live to see the unconscious mind!

Where in all this is artscience? It is in the creative process itself, of course, but made perhaps more obvious, and even fruitful, by bringing together two great creators, one an artist, the other a scientist, and, led by a shared dream, helping them find a common process, the artscience process.

The idea of breathing chocolate, which came out of a lunch I had with the French chef Thierry Marx, as an experiment of culinary art at the frontier of aerosol science, led to an exhibition, where the first experiences of breathing chocolate took place, and eventually, through a series of unlikely "exhibitions" from the Cannes Film Festival to store sales around the world of an increasingly commercial product, Le Whif, and, later, Le Whaf, which are now part of a startup company, led by a former Harvard student, and the basis of a new approach to healthy eating, none of this being obvious from the start. The idea began as a kind of artistic experiment, was for years an educational and cultural experiment that enjoined students and artists, and finally became commercial. We are now working on humanitarian applications ranging from iodine to iron for the developing world. So in this case the artscience showed up at each critical juncture in a long creative development process, moving from exhibition to exhibition, with multidisciplinary teams from around the world.

Q: You write that the "assumption that Le Laboratoire's founders' intentions would generally be understood ... quickly proved wrong, as many of our early assumptions did." In what ways have Le Laboratoire and the Idea Translation Lab tended to be misunderstood? Has this continued to be a problem?

A: The educational, cultural, commercial and humanitarian partners needed to make an artscience lab of this kind sustainable and fruitful over a long period of time will not enter into the experimental process until they see value produced. The model is new, but even more importantly, this really is an experiment, and any lab model needs to have some track record of success before we will invest significantly in what is fundamentally an uncertain process. So this was, and perhaps still is to some degree, the biggest misunderstanding. What were we actually trying to do? Leave aside the complex idea of art and science merging, leave aside the odd experiments we did before the public, we didn't have early on the many students, many traveling exhibitions, many products, we would eventually need to assure partnerships. These partners are now coming, and our products are selling, each year we have more students involved in many countries, and so I am hopeful. I do wish to say also however that the day in which an organization like Le Laboratoire loses its ambiguity, becomes completely transparent and institutionalized in a certain way, it will lose its value.

Q: "Learning in an artscience lab," you write, "... happens best when it is beside the point." What are the pedagogical benefits of the educational artscience lab, and how does "beside the point" learning fit into the university environment?

A: Many of us learn early on by experimenting with our lives and our environments, and innovators continue this experimentation all their lives. But the classical educational process tends to contrast this form of learning with formal teaching by which we learn to memorize, absorb specialized knowledge, perform intellectually in ways that can be quantified and ultimately related to our potential to contribute to society once we finish school in some productive way. This latter kind of learning is probably inevitable, and often valuable, but cannot stand alone in a world where the needs, opportunities, and information cloud that surrounds us are all evolving so incredibly rapidly. We do need to help students recover that "learning through experimenting" philosophy that seems so innate to many children, and particularly to channel it into a "learning by creating" and "creating to matter" environment where in the process of learning is tightly connected to the process of affecting change. That's the purpose of the educational artscience lab. Creators are constantly learning, and indeed throwing themselves into settings where they are very innocent, and therefore must learn, but they hardly say to themselves "let's learn" -- rather, "let's dream to create in ways that matter." The learning is the careful nourishment that helps them realize dreams.

Q: You write that one of the advantages of the artscience lab is that it encourages people to move beyond the "constraints" of academic or vocational specialization. Do you see the emphasis on specialization in American education as problematic, over all, or as necessary?

A: I cannot deny, nor really do I care to deny, that my specialization in applied math, which I pursued for many years, helped me understand what it means to think deeply, to respect the value of concentration and single-mindedness. There were many years of hitting my head against a wall, so to speak, leading in my case to two textbooks that I wrote with older faculty in my late 20s and early 30s. I remember late one Christmas Eve at MIT walking out into the hallway and literally throwing my manuscript down the hall at my much-older mentor, nearly hitting him on the back, out of anger and frustration at his decision that I should, having written a 600-page manuscript, change all the symbolism, to be just a little clearer. I admit there was value in all that. But I also came to see how lost you can be in your specialization in a world where there is such complexity and diversity and change. So I do not think it is right to dismiss the importance of specialized learning, but I do think it is toxic to students today to be exposed to only this kind of learning. I do think it is urgent, and obviously it is also taking place in many places today, to create, as I call them, "sandboxes" where students can run out of their specialized studies, and play, create, yet with a structure that ties this playing to big dreams of change in culture, society, and beyond. I think it's essential to give students the experience of pursuing a dream on which someone places a bet. And there is way too little of this. Moreover the inertia of the educational system -- and I know best the American and the French -- is enormous and change is slow. Too slow. That's another reason why "labs" are important, catalysts for change, which will never happen at the right rate if we wait for it to trickle through the system.

Q: What are the goals of the book? Would you like to see any sort of broader artscience movement -- or just more attention to what Le Laboratoire and the Idea Translation Lab are already doing?

A: I wished to describe through concrete stories a model of learning through creating, of exhibiting what we create, and of producing what seems valuable of what we exhibit that exists today with all the imperfection that implies. The book is a kind of manifesto, though hardly a knife-edged one. We really are living in a lab, whether you build a coherent model of creative change within it or not. It seems to me hard to deny that every day in a contemporary life amounts to a sort of experiment. Politically, environmentally, technologically, socially -- all seems to be in flux, and it is not realistic to imagine civilization ending in a social and cultural stability like what we knew back even in the 19th century, when everything seemed, even then, to be changing too suddenly. I don't know how you can be a creator today and not wish to participate in this lab. Is this a movement? I use the example of The Beatles to illustrate how I believe sustainable models of innovation propagate. The Lab, while far from a rock band, seems to me a model more than a movement. If the artscience labs described in this book inspire other experimental environments under whatever name, and if by this creators can be less isolated in their creation, the public less detached from the creative process, the book will, I guess, have served its purpose.


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