The new era of ‘non-disciplinarity’?

Slush 2011: Shut up and grow – Mark Zuckerberg

A quick summary: this rather long blog posting deals with structural changes that are currently going on in cultural funding organisations and other institutions, how they are trying to get rid of different specific disciplines in the name of ‘innovation’.

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The decision to name the new Aalto University School as ‘Aalto University School of Arts and Creativity’ came as a shock for many people. This new university is a combination of University of Art and Design and the architecture department of University of Technology. According to press release, the new name was needed since “the concept ’art and design’ in the current name has strong associations with the past”.

The petition to reconsider the name bring up some of the grave problems that arise from choosing such a vague name for a university. This blog posting tries to deal with this one: “A degree/research with an ‘arts & creativity’ school does not point out to any specific skill or knowledge in any specific discipline”.

One could say that ‘it’s just a name’ – that having a new name for the university should not cause any significant problems for the art, design and architecture community associated with Aalto University. But there is more at stake here than just the name – as stated in the Aalto press, the name symbolises the “amalgamation and the multi-disciplinary nature of Aalto University”.

The transformation that is going on in Aalto University resembles the process that already took place in Nordic art/culture scene and the on-going process to change the structure of Art Council of Finland. These ambitious endeavors try to deal with genuine problems and respond to changing times, but it seems that the captains of this process are not sure about how this new ship should be navigated. In fact, a key aspect seems to be that the captains should let go of their control – that academic and cultural institutions should eagerly respond to the whims of darwinistic forces such as trends in international business. If this is the case, then my prediction is that instead of becoming more innovative and competitive, the institutions will just focus on short-term goals and try to imitate what others are doing.

The Nordic ‘utveckling’

In the Nordic region, there used to be four organisations dedicated for specific forms of art – Nifca (contemporary art), NordScen (performing arts), Nomus (music) and Nordbok (literature). In the end of 2006 these organisations were closed down and replaced by Nordic Culture Point, an organisation which administers several funding programmes. The ones who were lobbying for shutting down the old organisations had the opinion that in today’s world the barriers between disciplines have become so blurry that they should no longer be enforced by administration.

The biggest one of the funding programmes is the Culture and Art Programme which in 2011 will give out 2 032 930 EUR of funding. The keyword of this funding programme is ‘utveckling’ – ‘innovation’ or ‘development’. Projects which are new (have not been started yet) and have some innovative quality (the applicants can themselves explain how they are innovative) can receive funding. I know this programme pretty well since I was a member of the Art and Culture Programme Expert Committee between 2007-2009.

This new system has two clear benefits. Since many organisations were closed down, the money that used to go to salaries of people can now be used to support individual projects. Also, a larger variety of organisations can receive financial support, as long as they create a project that does some ‘utveckling’.

But there are also downsides. Previously, there used to be organisations which were lead by experts of a specific discipline. These people were active contributors to their own fields. If you had an idea you could go and have a chat with these people and similarly if there was a problem, it was clear who was in charge.

In the new system all this is different. Nordic Culture Point is made up of administrators who just have to focus on administration – they have specifically been denied any comments or contributions to the funding decisions. Also the members of the Expert Committees cannot take any active role – they are not supposed to be in touch with the applicants and it’s not possible to appeal against individual decisions. So, in terms of an agenda related to a specific discipline, there is no one who you could talk to. This is understandable since the new system is not supposed to have any such agendas. It’s all about ‘utveckling’ and a few other concepts such as ‘communication’ and ‘Världen i Norden – Norden i Världen’ (‘The Nordic Region in the World – the World in the Nordic Region’).

The other problem is that there is no longer any support for longer term processes. If you manage to get support to realise a project and it turns out the be a success, it is not possible to get support for the continuation – it’s no longer new and thus no longer about ‘utveckling’. There is another Nordic culture foundation – the Nordic Culture Fund – but they also only support individual, one-off projects.

One could say that a third problem is that the expert committee does not have expertise to handle applications coming from many diverse disciplines of art and culture. The current expert committee seems to have strong biases – out of 8 people there are two theatre directors and two people focused on music. But in the logic of the new system this is not a problem – since knowledge of a specific discipline is no longer necessary for making decisions.

From a ‘Council’ to a ‘Promotion Centre’

The Arts Council of Finland is supposed to close at the end of 2012, to be replaced by the brand new ‘Promotion Centre for Art’ (‘Taiteen Edistämiskeskus’ in Finnish – I’m not sure what the official translation is supposed to be).

The transformation has some clear similarities to the Nordic one. The plan is to close down many of the current committees and boards which are focused on specific disciplines such as visual arts, design, architecture, photography, performing arts, dance, circus, etc. These committees would be replaced by new ‘super-committees’ in which there would be approximately only one person per discipline.

There is something positive that can be said about this proposal. It would be positive that people from all these disciplines would have to talk together in order to make decisions. Probably quite many applications that currently fall in the cracks between the disciplines would get support. Also, this change would simply be a ‘shake’ to the old system, some usual suspects might fall out of the loop and some new ones might get in.

But – the problems are pretty similar as in the Nordic case. Currently the various Art Council committees and boards are not just making funding decisions – they can actively take part in the policy making and try to influence the development of their own discipline. In the new system this would no longer be possible. Also, the amount of expertise involved in the decision making would be dramatically reduced. I was personally a member of the Media Art Board of the Art Council, where I was involved in making the decisions with 7 other people. I would not feel comfortable as a member of the new ‘super-committee’ as the only person with knowledge about media art. This would put me in a position of ‘dictatorship’ over the whole scene for a duration of 3 years (if the committee periods stay the same).

The case WDC

Similar traits can also be found in the setup of Helsinki World Design Capital 2012. Since I’ve written quite a bit about WDC already earlier, I will just summarise the similarities with Nordic / Arts Council of Finland case.

Instead of hiring designers to work on the WDC programme, or nominating committees that would have focused on specific disciplines of design, the WDC organisation is made up of producers, administrators and marketing personnel. The authority for making decisions is given to one general committee and that committee has not defined any specific agendas related to any specific disciplines. The keyword is again ‘development’ – most of the funding is given to this purpose.

What is ‘innovation’ anyway?

Returning back to the case of Aalto University –

The working title of Aalto University was ‘Innovation University’ and the main argument for establishing this new institution seemed to be to increase ‘innovation’ and ‘competitivity’ of the three universities that were merged to form Aalto. It is interesting that eventually the term chosen for the title was ‘creativity’, not ‘innovation’. ‘Creativity’ was the buzzword a few years ago (creative industries, creative economy, etc) until it was replaced by ‘innovation’. But I guess since using the word innovation is just so passé at the moment that it feels better to use the safe and generic ‘creativity’.

Compared to the case of Nordic cultural funding, Art Council of Finland and WDC, Aalto University is a vastly more complex and solid institution. The main tasks of this institution are (or at least should be) to do research in various academic disciplines (which have simple and boring names such as art, design or architecture) and to teach students the history, theory and methods of these disciplines. This core activity involves thousands of people (if one counts students as active participants as well) and it’s simply impossible to just stop this activity and replace it with some multi-disciplinary innovation activity, even though some people might wish that something like this would happen. So, Aalto University is better guarded towards the current trend of adjusting organisations for ‘innovation’ or ‘creativity’, but it still would be important for the Aalto University community to gain a better understanding of what this trend is all about, so that there could be an appropriate response.

One key element of being ‘innovative’ seems to be that one should aim for some clear profit-generating goal: that the outcome should be a new product, a new service or a new patent. I think it’s important to encourage and support this kind of activity, but one should not forget that there is already a vast array of institutions supporting this: business incubators, start-up funding schemes, etc. Just TEKES gave out 633 million euros of funding for innovative product, service and business development last year. And this is public, tax-payer money given to this purpose. Since the whole point is to make money, there are also plenty of private investors who have an interest to support this activity.

Multi-disciplinarity seems to be another important factor. I would be the last person to say that multi-disciplinarity is not important – I’ve dedicated past 15 years of my life to supporting multi-disciplinary practice. But – I don’t think we can improve multi-disciplinarity by reducing disciplinary expertise. In my own experience (related to Pixelache festival etc), great multi-disciplinary projects are often created when strong expertise in one specific discipline is twisted around and applied to an unusual context, with the aid of people from other disciplines. For many people who graduate from Aalto University, the working life will be about being involved in multi-disciplinary, competitive teams. The time of studies should be the time when one can dedicate time and effort to become an expert in at least one discipline.

Right now all this ‘innovation’ activity is just too predictable. If you want to do something innovative today, you should aim to create a service. You should not treat people just as customers, you should engage them as active participants in the process. It’s a clear bonus if you use social media and new technologies – you create a mobile phone app, etc. If in addition you have a multi-disciplinary team and you aim for some good cause like solving energy-consumption problems or improving the well-being of elderly people then BANG, you’ve just hit the bullseye of current innovation trend, you are really riding the high wave of the current zeitgeist. The fantastic thing is that it’s quite easy to get involved in this – you just need a few busy fingers with digital media skills to create a mock-up of a product with a potential for global success. If this does not sound familiar to you then please have a look at the line-up of the recent Slush start-up event.

So, this is the current innovation trend. But the word ‘innovation’ also has another meaning (or at least used to have). To really be innovative right now, one should be tinkering with topics that no one else bothers to care about. One should have the courage to head towards the unknown, to start exploring areas that might become important in 10, 20 or 50 years time. We don’t know what the future will be like – so it would be important to have a really diverse range of creative exploration going on. This is what academic research used to be about, and still is for some people, even though it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this kind of course in an academic setting. It’s very important that we don’t allow all organisational structures to bend over backwards so that everyone just serves the needs of short-term commercial success.

And just to be clear – I’m not saying that nothing should change, that the good old days were better. The world IS changing and the borders between academic disciplines ARE becoming more blurry. The academic departments and cultural institutions have been focusing too much on protecting the jobs of individual people and interests of certain organisations, instead of bringing in new perspectives and developing the theory and practice of the discipline further. So, it’s important that some changes do happen but right now are heading to a wrong direction.

I hope that eventually our communities will be able to bring together MORE expertise as well as MORE DIVERSE expertise, not less!


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