The FAST Approach: Combining Art, Science, and Technology - Collaboration Week


MIT graduate students Peter Torpey and Elena Jessop put the final touches on their installation, titled “Biblioptera,” at the 2011 FAST festival. All photos by Andy Ryan.

Written By: Jennifer Smith

Combining such differing disciplines as art, science, and technology for the ends of innovation is nothing new. The West African talking drum, for example, came out of an experimental process to figure out the best way to mimic the tonal qualities of the native language. The musical instrument became a more efficient means of mass communication, capable of sending detailed messages from village to village faster than one could travel by foot.

Since the talking drum, first noticed by Europeans in the first half of the 18th century, technology has made giant leaps in increasingly shorter measures regarding its communicative and collaborative capabilities. As the global market exchanges ideas at an increasingly faster rate, the world’s leading research institutions are embracing a transdisciplinary approach to innovation now more than ever.

“I think it’s a much bigger trend in post-secondary education,” says Leila W. Kinney, Executive Director of Arts Initiatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on transdisciplinarity. “There’s an understanding about collaborative work, the model of the research lab plus the studio, and the idea that some problems are really bigger than any single [person] or discipline can solve.”

As part of its 150-year anniversary in 2011, MIT created FAST, the Festival of Art, Science, and Technology. Directed by Tod Machover, a professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab, the festival spent five weekends showcasing unique performances, installations, and multidisciplinary projects. Among the events included were demonstrations of the past and future of music technology as well as a culminating collaboration between 20-plus projects using light as a focal point to illuminate the MIT campus.

MIT is already renowned for its achievements in science and engineering, but the school also boasts an impressive history in the arts, says Kinney. In fact, all students are required to take a course in art.

“61 percent of incoming freshmen — we’ve been documenting it for the last four or five years – come in with advanced aptitude in music,” Kinney says. “79 percent overall have advanced experience in the arts.”

“Bibliodoptera” on display.

Theoretically, the arts and sciences share similar approaches in regards to exploring the unknown, experimenting with different methods, and thinking outside of the box. A more literal collaboration came to MIT when Tavares Strachan worked with the 3-D Optical Systems Groups at the school to create an artwork on a nano scale. The piece has since become known as “My Mother’s House from the Moon.”

“Many visiting artists come to MIT specifically to collaborate with researchers in the labs,” Kinney says. “So there are literal collaborations with using techniques and tools that are part of basic or applied research for new purposes, and in the process, pushing the researchers to tackle new problems.”

With “My Mother’s House from the Moon,” the researchers never used color on a nanotechnology wafer before, so the artist asked them to do that. The results contributed to a PhD thesis, Kinney says.

While easy to come by in research universities, this collaborative approach is now taking on increased importance outside of the academic realm. For example, MIT Media Lab Fellow and 7Robot CEO Sarah Szalavitz proclaimed at SXSW Interactive on March 16 that “collaboration is the new competition,” referring to how non-profits and start-ups can benefit each other.

“If you look at the more entrepreneurial world or start-up world, I think that a culture of collaboration continues there, but there is still competition between various companies in the commercial, capitalist context,” Kinney says. “Think about the way video games are developed or Apple products are developed. It takes a team of people to do it, but Apple is always competing with Microsoft and everybody else.”

Still, the adoption of a more collaborative approach by non-profits and the upstart generation could be the first step in a new way of thinking about the world’s most daunting problems. There are many different ways that the kind of collaborations seen at last year’s festival can contribute to the social good, Kinney says.

“It’s through creating new tools and means of artistic expression,” she continues. “It’s through raising issues that move science forward, and it’s about having artists who think outside the box be part of this consideration of various large-scale social and environmental problems.”