I formulated the following definition of “Transdisciplinary Art”:

Transdisciplinary Art is art which uses transdisciplinary research and methods to explore a problem of humanitarian concern.

Granted, this definition includes the defining terms, which is not a sign of good definitions, but defining art is beyond the scope of my interests. Likewise, there is no “hard” definition for transdisciplinary, but there is research to suggest what it means.

The essential components of transdisciplinary art are twofold:  first, it draws upon any and all disciplines needed to research and create.  This could include engineering, painting, sculpture, materials science, finance, media studies, knitting, etc.  No method or discipline is off-limits.

Second, these diverse methods are applied to a humanitarian concern that is situated beyond them.  This is really the heart of “trans” in transdisciplinary.  Biochemistry, for example, is interdisciplinary, because it uses methods from biology to address reserach in chemistry.  The “artistic problem” of biochemistry is located within the disciplines of biology and chemistry.

What makes transdisciplinary art trans is that it is addressing an artistic problem which exists outside the scope of the disciplines and methods used to explore it.

The FEMA Trailer Project, beind done here at MIT, draws together diverse practioners to address the humanitarian crisis surrounding these trailers.  In this regard, the FEMA Trailer Project is an exemplarly model of transdisciplinary art.

It appears that your Islands of LA is also operating in a similar mode.

The desire for this artistic framing (from my humanistic perspective) was that I was frustrated with art-for-art’s-sake.  That seems very tired and outmoded.

Any thoughts?



On April 28, 2008, a small mobile home was observed traveling along Massachusetts Avenue, eventually setting down in a lot on Putnam Avenue. No ordinary mobile home, this was a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailer, a surplus mobile home from the Hurricane Katrina debacle. This trailer, one of thousands abandoned by the federal government after the project ended, was brought to MIT by Jae Rhim Lee, an artist and guest lecturer at the MIT Visual Arts Program.

Rhim brought the trailer to MIT to serve as raw material for thinking about the Katrina crisis and getting others to think about it as well. The FEMA Trailer Project  serves to illustrate a larger phenomenon emerging in contemporary art: the phenomenon of art as a catalyst for driving collaboration, innovation and social change.


I will argue here that the FEMA Trailer Project represents an example of transdisciplinary art, an emerging art practice which uses transdisciplinary research and methods to produce art that explores a problem of humanitarian concern.  Furthermore, the FEMA Trailer project  illustrates the power of  to influence and mobilize a community. I will further argue, in my conclusion, that transdisciplinary art, as exemplified by the FEMA Trailer Project, offers very real and significant benefits for MIT and, for this reason, it is clearly in the best interests of the institution to recognize and embrace transdisciplinary art (in this case, represented by the FEMA Trailer Project), an entirely legitimate form of art in its own right.

FEMA Trailer Project Background

“Katrina was a call to action of sorts for me and an eye opener about the scope of disasters, the historical context for a disaster [and] the idea that disasters can be turned around to create a more equitable, thoughtful and imaginative rebuilding of a city,” Rhim has written. This, she points out, is the exact opposite of “disaster capitalism,” although this line of thinking must be exercised with caution. It can easily be perverted into a kind of opportunistic argument for the leveling of “difficult” cities. For Rhim, the Katrina disaster helped expose key underlying problems: social inequities, flawed governmental systems, institutionalized injustice and environmental issues, among others.

Similarly, the FEMA trailer came to represent for Rhim a condition exposing a wide range of issues, creating an opportunity to rethink and re-engineer not only disaster shelter but also housing and design.

The research-as-artistic-practice component of the class was envisioned as a way of examining and developing tools to help arrive at an understanding of the problem. In the case of FEMA Trailer Project this includes a range of activities: examining the manufacturing process and tracing its roots, doing a life cycle analysis, assembling together a timeline, talking to residents living in the trailers and so on.

Contemporary art practice offers the advantage of not being tied to any one methodology. Practitioners have the freedom to collaboratively link diverse disciplines and modes of thinking in non-traditional ways, for the purpose of better understanding the problem. This in turn leads to proposing alternatives to existing situations that call for change.

Research has informed us that the FEMA trailers in question are travel trailers, not designed or intended for full-time living. The basic problem with the formaldehyde is the plywood paneling used to finish the walls and sometimes the ceiling, in combination with the small living space.

The plywood (typically a southeast Asia wood, a lauan) is manufactured with a urea-formaldehyde resin. Ureas and formaldehyde are mixed together, reacting with each other to form a strong bond. Usually, there is an excess of formaldehyde in the mix, which with time will offgas. Also, some of the urea-formaldehyde molecules will break down, releasing the formaldehyde — a toxic substance — into the air.

The FEMA Trailer Project has given me a context for connecting with a group of people who are interested in social change. This class has worked to address some of the traumas inflicted by the FEMA trailer crisis on the victims of the hurricane. My participation in the class has made me more aware of myself and also of social inequalities, particularly in the realm of race and class. Many Katrina survivors were placed in toxic trailers, confined to ghettos to solve their own problems without the requisite resources.

As Roberto Bui (aka Wu Ming 1) has said, “Art sometimes functions to sound the alarm for us.” The FEMA trailer project has for me sounded the alarm to me of the ongoing tragedy of inequality surrounding the trailers. By bringing together artists, designers, humanists, engineers and practitioners from many other disciplines, a community was created with the goal of understanding the Katrina tragedy, alerting the broader MIT community to the ongoing problems.

My Own Experience

For most at MIT, art is foreign territory, even more foreign than the “soft sciences”  in Building 14. I’ve always been confused about art myself, particularly contemporary art. Classical art is about aesthetics and beauty.  Even, to a lesser extent, Picasso or Jackson Pollack. But at a certain point, contemporary art just seems to have become a self-referencing inside joke.

Work such as Duchamp’s “Fountain” or Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (depicting a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine) are, for me, little more than shock-for-shock’s-sake. More recently, there’s a sense of irony or humor to things, as with Daniel Edwards’s “Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” a life-size statue of a naked Britney Spears kneeling on a bearskin rug as she gives birth to her first child.

Tensions of class and culture are very present here at MIT in our tense relationship with Harvard. Perhaps I’m just projecting my own class anxiety but I do think MIT students live with a slight sense of ambivalent pride that we are a “meritocracy” rather than an “aristocracy.” Furthermore, MIT has from the beginning been an institute, focused on engineering and commerce, rather than arts and letters.

There has always been a time-worn argument about the relationship between art and class. Fancy rich people had art. Working class people didn’t. Art was for leisure. MIT was about productivity. While I may be reaching a bit on this one, I think there are some themes here worth exploring. The following dichotomies seemed to me worth thinking about…. old and new are terrible terms, but at this point I wasn’t sure what else to call them.

Old art: for the rich, who collect.
New art: not about collection and, therefore, not about money.

Old art: for an elite.
New Art: for the people

Old art: for its own sake.
New art: for stimulating ideas, innovation and social change.

Old art: dependent upon institutions, such as galleries and museums.
New art: liberated from these institutions, existing locally.

Old art: depended upon a series of cultural competencies, a history, to read and understand what art was commenting on within itself.
New art: not depending on a historical reading of other artists in order to understand or appreciate the work

Old art: highly connected to the production of artifacts.
New art: producing concepts or experiences.

Old art: focusing on traditional art disciplines of the visual arts (painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and video/film).
New art: dropping the emphasis on the visual, to go beyond the retinal.

The point of these dichotomies is to show how FEMA Trailer Project is illustrative of what one may term new art, in general. I will now discuss a specific type of new art, transdisciplinary art, that I will argue FEMA Trailer Project exemplifies.

Transdisciplinary Art Summary

Since the mid-20th century, both in the arts and in the sciences, pluridisciplinarity emerged as a testament to the need for bridges between disciplines. This was the beginning of disciplinary convergence, which has continued unabated since that time.

In multi-disciplinary work, a single topic is explored through various disciplines at the same time. A work of art, for example, could be discussed through historical, economic, aesthetic or similar disciplines. These disciplines maintain their unique disciplinary techniques, while contributing to a dialogue.

In interdisciplinary work, methodological transfers occur, generating new forms of disciplines or transforming existing ones. New Journalism, for example, emerged when techniques for fictional narrative were applied to journalism. When the techniques of comparative literature were applied to the “texts” of life, cultural studies and criticism emerged.

“Like pluridisciplinarity [multidisciplinarity], interdisciplinarity overflows the disciplines but its goal still remains within the framework of disciplinary research” (attribution). The new methods that emerge are still used to study something within those disciplines. Media Studies, for example, represents an interdisciplinary method for studying media. It doesn’t purport to do anything beyond that.” –(need citation)

To a greater or lesser degree, this is the status of disciplines at places of learning such as MIT. Comparative Media Studies was the first recognized interdisciplinary department at MIT. From the very beginning, it was understood that the department would draw together a diverse group of disciplinary practices to create a methodology for studying popular media and culture.

But what’s emerging today is a need for something more. Transdisiciplinarity is the result of the convergence of the disciplines with one another and, in a larger way, also with the world outside. Transdisciplinarity concerns research and practice both in and across the disciplines, as well as beyond the disciplines.

In the case of formal education, which is mainly modeled on processes developed during the beginning of the industrial revolution, there is a sense of frustration that education is “cut off” from reality. This is especially apparent among young people today, who complain that school doesn’t actually teach them anything in preparation for their real lives after graduation. At the college and graduate levels, education is slightly more customized for the individual. It begins to incorporate the individual more, which itself begins to add a transdisciplinary element.

Transdisciplinary work is, without meaning to sound trite or naive, a holistic approach to research and practice, including the existence of people, events, society and institutions … in short, reality. It doesn’t operate in a bubble of disciplinarity or ivory tower exclusiveness. It is engaged with the participants and society and the institutions of society, including as its goal these elements. The disciplinary work then no longer exists for itself but rather as a bridge to culture or the individual.

We have defined transdisciplinary art as the process of using transdisciplinary research and methods to produce art that explores a problem of humanitarian concern. One characteristic of transdisciplinary art is that it frequently does not fit into our traditional comfortable and complacent definitions of art.

Transvergence is a useful concept, in understanding transdisciplinary art. Transvergence draws a distinction between art that is interdisciplinary and art that is transdisciplinary. In pursuits that are interdisciplinary, the disciplines collaborate. Scientists and artists, traditionally regarded as ideologically opposed to each other, can mingle and consider their commonalities.

These interacting disciplines nonetheless ultimately retain their individual identities, in isolation from one another. Transdisciplinary projects also have an agenda involving the exploration of common practices among disciplines, though with a more holistic approach. By transcending conventional notions as to the nature of what constitutes appropriate activities within a particular discipline, participants utilize innovative methods in the quest to bridge disciplines in innovative ways. This result in the discovery of new commonalities among disciplines, which in turn has implications for future innovative transvergent events.

In transdisciplinary projects, the traditionally assumed binary nature of art and science is exposed, rather than taken for granted. Transvergence philosophy holds that the conventional distinctions between art and science are artificial constructs, which must be transcended, in order to allow for artistic innovation.

The creation of permeable boundaries between art and science represents a constructive leap, taking us outside of a traditional, restrictive mindset proclaiming these fields as dichotomous. It is been demonstrated that art and science in fact share many common elements both in terms of conception and practice (Ami Davis, “Transvergence in Art History”).

In this way, we see the connection between interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, transdisciplinary art and FEMA Trailer Project, which is illustrative of the latter. With this overview as our foundation, I will now delve more deeply into the substance of transdisciplinary art, by examining two theorists and two theories: Arthur Danto, participatory culture and Ernest Becker & Terror Management Theory. These have been selected on the basis of their contribution toward an understanding of the subject matter.

[Reference] Davis, Ami. “Transvergence in Art History.” URL: http://www.ekac.org/transvergence.html (Accessed 9 May 2008).

Arthur Danto

Arthur Coleman Danto, considered one of the most significant art theorists and philosophers in the English-speaking world, is an American art critic and professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University. Danto is known for having evolved a theory of what art is and how we can know it when we see it. Danto’s theory came about in the sixties when he saw some facsimile Brillo cartons, displayed as art by Andy Warhol. Thus the name of his classic work, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective.

In the show that formed the inspiration for his work, Danto saw facsimiles of several different types of cartons, including Kellog’s cornflakes, Pine’s ketchup and Campbell’s tomato soup. It was the Brillo box that clearly stood out as the star of the show, however, the one that everyone most remembers.

As Danto has acknowledged, the idea of facsimiles of commonplace objects displayed as works of art was not entirely new. At the turn of the previous century, Marcel Duchamps had used actual commonplace objects as works of art. The most famous example is perhaps the urinal that he purchased from a plumbing supply shop in New York City and labeled, “fountain”.

Although Duchamps and Warhol came from very different backgrounds and movements (Duchamps was part of a Dada movement whose purpose in part was to make fun of the pretensions of fine art), they were parallel in the sense of demoting the pretensions of high art. They were also both interested in the celebration of vernacular culture: advertising logos, comic strip panels, things that everyone would be very familiar with.

The specific question that prompted Danto to develop his theory was presented by the juxtaposition of an ordinary Brillo box with a Brillo box on display as a work of art. One is a utilitarian container, while the other is a piece of avant-garde art. In this way, the classic question of “What is art?” becomes something different: If you have two objects that look exactly alike (“indiscernibles,” to use Danto’s term), one a work of art and the other not, what is the difference?

To Danto, the answer is that the difference is invisible. You can’t tell the difference just by looking. To understand the problem, Danto refers us to Descartes’ Meditations, where in the beginning, he asks, “Well, what better evidence can I have for what the senses provide me with?’ To which he answers, “Well, that would be true if only I knew I was sensing, because as a matter of fact, I dreamt that I was having certain experiences and the dreams were very vivid, [so] I would have had no idea that there was nothing in front of me, nothing being perceived until I woke up, and realized that I’d been dreaming” (interview with Alan Saunders, 2006).

Though the difference between dream experience and waking experience is momentous, there’s no way of telling one from the other until something happens and you wake up. Even then, it’s a problem, Danto says. He argues that all classical philosophical questions are like this. There is a difference that is un-empirical and one really can’t tell the difference. Yet the difference is in a certain way momentous. All genuine philosophical distinctions are invisible in that kind of way, according to Danto.

Searching for a definition, Danto developed the idea that one way of thinking about a work of art is that it has some kind of content. The Brillo box is about Brillo, while Warhol’s work is not about Brillo but about the Brillo box. Struggling with such questions led Danto to search for a set of requirements for something to be considered a work of art, an exploration culminating in another of his classic works, a much later book, entitled The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.

In an effort to show how two indiscernible pieces of art (in this case, writing) can be, Danto turns to an example from Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire, where he talks about a well-known poem by Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, ending with these lines:

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep

The last line appears to be a simple repetition of the one that precedes it. Nabokov asserts, however, that the first is a simple autobiographical statement (“Miles to go before I sleep”), while the second is a metaphysical utterance: “I have a lot to do before I die.” This becomes a perfect example of how two lines that read the same, simply because of their different positions in the text, are actually making two very different statements.

The Brillo story is actually much more complex than most people realize. The actual Brillo box was designed by a second-generation abstract expressionist painter named James Harvey. Had not Harvey died very young, Danto tells us, he would have become known as a great American painter. So Warhol was not simply reproducing a utilitarian object. He was replicating something designed in the first place by an extremely talented painter. As Danto informs us:

“[I]t’s a brilliant design: it’s red, white and blue, which of course in America are the colours of patriotism. And then there’s a kind of river of white that goes all the way around it, which gives you the sense of the world being cleaned and so forth. So you’re connecting cleanliness with patriotism and almost making buying Brillo a patriotic duty and so forth. I mean it’s an astonishing piece of work. But Warhol doesn’t get any credit for that at all, it was done by Harvey. He just copied it, but in copying it he was maybe doing something philosophical paying tribute to this world of commonplace objects. After all, these products were designed to be consumed; you have to choose some kind of a soap pad or some kind of tomato juice, some kind of soup, and you might as well pick the one that’s most appealingly designed, which is what design’s all about, that’s what commercial art is. And then all these sudden visual virtues, you look at them as if they were art, as if they were art. Maybe Andy’s box inherits some of that beauty, I don’t know, but most of the boxes he designed aren’t particularly beautiful at all” (interview with Alan Saunders, 2006).

This leads ultimately to one of Danto’s most valuable revelations: We never know when we are in the presence of art.

“I love the idea that you might be in the presence of art at any moment, and not know it and then say, ‘Suppose I were in the presence of art, how different would it be?’ Well in terms of appearance, not different at all, but in terms of meaning it would be pretty different, and would be, as I say, momentously different” (interview with Alan Saunders, 2006).

What Danto says he meant when he wrote his well-known essay, “The End of Art,” was not that art is over or even that the history of art has ended. Rather, what he meant to say was that it is no longer possible to determine in advance when one is in the presence of an actual work of art, for the reasons described above.

Danto’s ideas help us understand numerous aspects of transdisciplinary art in general and FEMA Trailer Project in particular. Is it a trailer or a work of art? Considering Nabokov’s analysis of Frost’s famous poem, a clear answer suggests itself. When the trailer was in the service of FEMA, it was simply a trailer. After it became infused with greater meaning at MIT, it became a work of art.

[Reference] “Is It Art?” Arthur C. Danto interview with Alan Saunders (“The Philosopher’s Zone,” ABC National Radio, Australia), 4 March 2006. URL: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2006/1580766.htm (accessed 9 May 2008).

Participatory Culture

Just as the work of Arthur Danto helps us understand FEMA Trailer Project, so does the concept of participatory culture. While Nabokov, through Danto, shows us how two lines of poetry from Robert Frost that read the same can have two very different meanings, Henry Jenkins, drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, “proposes an alternative conception of fans as readers who appropriate popular texts and reread them in a fashion that serves different interests, as spectators who transform the experience of watching television into a rich and complex participatory culture” (Textual Poachers, page 23). FEMA Trailer Project participants are analogous to fans who have appropriated the FEMA trailer, to “read” it in a different way, a way that advances their belief in and commitment to transdisciplinary art.

Participatory culture stands in opposition to consumer culture. The idea is one of a culture in which individuals (members of the general public) do not act solely as consumers but also as contributors or producers (“prosumers”).

The term participatory culture applies to the production or creation of some type of published media. Recent technological advances, primarily relating to personal computers and the Internet, have made it possible for individuals to create and publish on the Internet and in other ways, such as the production of CDs, DVDs and various video formats. This new culture, in the context of the Internet, is often now described as Web 2.0. Because of its ability to reach large populations of people so quickly, the Internet has come to play an important role in the expansion of participatory culture.

With technology continuing to expand the ways that communication may take place, it has also dramatically increased the opportunities for consumers to create their own content. Former barriers to entry, including time and money, are becoming less significant to large groups of consumers. Whereas the creation of movies once required a prodigious amount of very expensive equipment, movie clips can be made with equipment that is affordable to the masses. The requisite technology has become both extremely affordable as well as very user friendly. The learning curve is no longer so steep and competence in one realm frequently transfers easily into others. Extensive knowledge of computer programming is no longer a requirement for creating content on the web. Even those who know how to hand code html no longer do so, because html editing software has become so easy to use and saves so much time.

Along with hardware increasing the individual’s ability to submit content to the Internet making it reachable by a wide audience has come increased access, via numerous  internet sites. Flickr, Wikipedia and Facebook, to cite three well-known examples, all encourage submission of content. The ease with which a user can post content is increased, by making it possible with nothing more than a standard-issue Internet browser, which typically comes bundled with any computer, eliminating the need for additional software. The creation of online community, a key feature of what is known as Web 2.0, spurs motivation for the production of content.

Participatory culture has been identified as a way of reforming communication and enhancing the quality of media. According to Jenkins, for example, participatory culture is beneficial in that it increases the population of media producers, increasing competition. It is competition that forces producers to pay greater attention to the needs of consumers, who have an unlimited selection in their choices for information. With ease of participation, the diversity of voices that can be heard also increases, exponentially. It was not so long ago that a handful of media behemoths were in control of almost all information that made its way into homes electronically, via radio and television. With advances in technology, a single user operating from a free terminal in a public library or perhaps paying a few dollars for access somewhere else now has the ability to disseminate information worldwide. This diversification crushes the control and monopoly that previously existed, to influence information in the public domain.

As extensively documented by Turkish media theorist Ben Bagdikian and others, media concentration encourages corruption. Conversely, diversification both in terms of points of origin and points of access make it increasingly difficult for a small minority to manipulate information according to its own agenda. Participatory culture is also more democratic in the sense that it encourages active participation and discourages passivity. Though traditional hierarchies may not disappear, their power and predominance has certainly been greatly reduced.

In The Adoring Audience, an early work on participatory and fan culture edited by Lisa A. Lewis, Joli Jenson and John Fiske assert that the negative stereotyping of fans stems from their allegedly “inappropriate” relationship with the text, which is deemed inappropriate simply because it does not conform with standards legitimized by the dominant culture (“Defining Fandom”). One can observe in this strong parallels with the disapproval by traditionalist elements of the MIT community toward the FEMA trailer project. They read the trailer as a mere trailer, while FEMA Trailer Project participants unabashedly read it as a piece of transdisciplinary art, heavily infused with meaning in its context.

The applicability of participatory culture as a valid framework for understanding FEMA Trailer Project is demonstrated by the five criteria set forth by Jenkins in “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture”:

1. Relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2. Strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

3. Some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

4. Member belief that their contributions matter

5. Member sense of social connection with one another (at a minimum, caring what other people think about what they have created).

Certainly all five criteria are applicable to FEMA Trailer Project.

Ernest Becker & Terror Management Theory

Ernest Becker (1924-1974) was a cultural anthropologist whose work inspired terror management theory (TMT). In the forward to Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Denial of Death (1974), philosopher Sam Keen suggests that Becker’s greatest single achievement was the creation of the science of evil. Beyond that, Keen identifies four strands to Becker’s philosophy, as it presents itself in Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.

The first strand is the observation that the world is a terrifying place. “Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates” (Keen in Becker, p. xii).

The second strand posits that the basic motivation for human behavior is the biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. “Human beings are naturally anxious because we are ultimately helpless and abandoned in a world where we are fated to die” (Keen in Becker, p. xii).

The third strand holds that because the terror of death is so overwhelming, we naturally keep it unconscious. This has led to the development of a hero system enabling us to believe that, by participating in something of lasting worth, we create a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death. “Making a killing in business or on the battlefield frequently has less to do with economic need or political reality than with the need for assuring ourselves that we have achieved something of lasting worth” (Keen in Becker, p. xiii). Corporations, like nations, are typically driven by unconscious motives that bear little relationship with their stated goals.

The fourth strand asserts that heroic projects intended to eradicate evil have the ironic effect of actually bringing more evil into the world. “The root of humanly caused evil is … our need to cultivate self-esteem, deny our mortality and achieve a heroic self-image” (Keen in Becker, p. xiii). Our desire for the best, simply stated, is the cause of the worst.

As far as understanding evil is concerned, what Carl Jung termed the shadow side of humans (feelings of inferiority, self-hate, guilt, hostility and so on) are frequently projected onto an enemy. Warfare, either actual or symbolic, becomes a social ritual for purification of the world. Becker’s ironic conclusion is that it is altruistic motives that result in death and destruction.

To this difficult reality, Becker offers two solutions. The first is “develop[ment of] an ‘objective hatred’ in which the hate object is not a human scapegoat but something impersonal like poverty, disease, oppression or natural disasters. By making our inevitable hatred intelligent and informed, we may be able to turn our destructive energy to a creative use” (Keen in Becker, p. xiv).

The second solution involves cultivating an awareness of our death, leading in turn to disillusionment and a conscious choice to persist in the face of terror, which offers a natural segue into terror management theory (TMT).

Transdisciplinary art is of value in relation to TMT because it (a) serves to mitigate harmful acts done by others, (b) attempts to help people see the world more truthfully and (c) provides an activity whose performance is bound to assist in the creation of a healthy personality capable of honestly confronting death. In this way, transdisciplinary art functions as a valuable counterforce to evil and the blind eye that is often turned toward it.

This 20-page paper represents an attempt to demonstrate the relationship between FEMA Trailer Project and transdisciplinary art, as well as an argument for the value of such for the institution of MIT and its community. My thesis will treat these issues at greater length, in more detail.

I will utilize methodologies from historiography, journalism, comparative media studies, sociology and ethnography. The primary types of data utilized will be theory and history from literature, as well as interview material. These interviews will be conducted with artists, curators and community members. Information sources will include books, journals, online resources and museum catalogs.

Jason Rockwood
Graduate Student, MIT – Comparative Media Studies

+1 (212) 367-8016

  • Create language for talking about particular art practices which: a) use a participatory model b) draw on or emerge from a culture of convergence of society, art, science, and technology, c) utilize transdisciplinary research and methods and d) explore a problem of humanitarian importance.
  • Define this art practice in a useful way so that community members can have a language for speaking about it and appreciating it.
  • Articulate the potential benefits of this type of art in a community such as MIT.
  • Create a document that can be helpful in advancing the goals of the VAP.

In summary, the goal is: define what this phenomenon is, place it in historical context, provide examples, detail the benefits, and suggest policies around it.

From Ute Meta Bauer:

  • What is transdisciplinary art?
  • What, if any, are its potential benefits?
  • Is it something new, or are we just giving something old a new name

From William Uricchio:

  • Is MIT a leader or a follower in this area? Was CAVS a generator, or a response?
  • How does MIT compare to other spaces, such as RISD or Stanford
  • What makes MIT special for this practice? Is it?
  • How does discourse create value for this type of art? Is it transgressive, or just pretentious?
  • What elements of transdiscipinary art are new, and what elements are historical?

From Jason Rockwood:

  • Is my working definition accurate? Useful? Accepted?
  • What are the benefits of this form of art?
  • What is the history of this art practice?
  • Is it art?



This thesis will depend on several interdisciplinary (transdisciplinary?) methods: historiography, journalism, comparative media studies, sociology, and ethnography.  The primary types of data used will be theory and history from literature, and quotations taken from interviews.  It is my hope to assemble a wide variety of interview material from artists, curators, and community members.

• From what sources will the information be obtained?   Books, journals, online resources, interviews, museum catalogs.

• Why have you selected this approach?   Because of the current nature of writing about an emerging contemporary practice, I will depend heavily on interviews, which are so close to the source.  Also, because there is a historical narrative to this as well, I will be relying on material which details earlier transdiscipinary artists and their reception.

• What ethical issues have you identified and how  do you propose to proceed?   I am interested in advancing the agenda of transdisciplinary art at MIT.  I will rely on reviewers to critique my thinking to insure I stay honest about my writing.

Stumbled upon this website, which is dealing with related material. In no way do I feel like what they are talking is somehow not invalid towards what I am talking about. They are complimentary, I think.

Current Biblio

note that interviews have not yet taken place.
Bauer, Ute Meta. Personal interview.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: The Free P, 1973.
Becker, H S. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California P, 1982.
Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks. New Haven: Yale P, 2006.
Blais, K, and J Ippolito. At the Edge of Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2006.
Chriss, James J. Social Control: an Introduction. Malden: Polity, 2007.
Edwards, David. Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation. Cambridge: MIT P, 2008.
Emmer, Michele, ed. The Visual Mind. Cambridge: MIT P, 1993.
Emmer, Michele, ed. The Visual Mind II. Cambridge: MIT P, 2005.
Farrelly, Elizabeth. Blubberland: the Dangers of Happiness. Cambridge: MIT P, 2008.
Freeland, C. But is It Art? Oxford: University P, 2002.
Frid-Jimenez, Amber. Personal interview.
Galloway, Alexander. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge: MIT P, 2004.
Gitelman, Lisa. Always Already New. Cambridge: MIT P, 2003.
Grau, Oliver, ed. MediaArtHistories. Cambridge: MIT P, 2006.
Groys, Boris. Art Power. Cambridge: MIT P, 2008.
Hansen, Mark. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge: MIT P, 2004.
Harris, Craig, ed. Art and Innovation: the Xerox PARC Artist-in-Residence Program. Cambridge: MIT P, 1999.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York: New York UP, 2006.
Kac, Eduardo, ed. Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond. Cambridge: MIT P, 2007.
Lee, Jae Rhim. Personal interview.
Malloy, Judy, ed. Women, Art, and Technology. Cambridge: MIT P, 2003.
McClellan, Andrew. Art and Its Publics Museum Studies At the Millennium. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003.
Nowotny, Helga. Insatiable Curiousity. Cambridge: MIT P, 2008.
Nowotny, Helga. Re-Thinking Science. Polity, 2001.
Rank, Otto. Art and Artist. New York: Agathon P, 1932.
Seaman, Bill. Personal interview.
Tepper, Steven J., and Bill Ivey, eds. Engaging Art: the Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Thompson, Nato, and Gregory Sholette, eds. The Interventionists: User’s Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life. North Adams: MASS MoCA Publications, 2004.
Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. Cambridge: MIT P, 2002
Please leave suggestions for works I should read.