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The Three Touchstones of Performing Research

a performer surrounded by people dressed as ghosts
Performers are surrounded by the ghosts of their data use. Photos by Sharon McCaman.

“You all carry with you a gift that you don’t give out enough,” Liz told a roomful of arts students, “that gift is your passionate interest. If you show interest in someone else’s work, doors you never imagined will open.”

This spring semester at Arizona State University, I got the opportunity to be the teaching assistant for Liz Lerman in a class called Animating Research. The class brought together nineteen arts students and seven researchers for seven intense weeks of collaboration. The goal: to explore how artists can use their skills to animate research by meeting researchers, getting embedded into their world, and investigating their researchers’ findings through an artistic lens.

Liz Lerman is no stranger to the world of interdisciplinary collaboration. She’s built performance pieces around the impact of war on medicine, the connection between poverty and our bodies, and even a show inspired through visits to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Liz makes friends easily, quickly, and often. So when she visited ASU in the fall to ask what researchers would be interested in being involved in a class she’d be teaching, there was no shortage of interest. We found people working in social sciences, sustainability, astronomy, geophysics, neurology, all excited about people learning about their work. Liz had the “gift of interest” to give and everyone wanted it.

After two weeks of class work—during which Liz taught the class some tools she’s used for building her project—we invited the researchers in to give presentations on their research.

It felt like a beautiful, erratic symposium—people from all over the university presenting an array of topics to people with almost no prior knowledge or experience with the research. Even though these researchers came from different backgrounds and experience, there were two things they had in common: passion for their research and excitement to share it with the eyes and ears of eager artists.

There were seven areas of research altogether: the social science of paid and unpaid internships, the methods and efficacy of arts incubators, speech degradation due to neurological disorders, the formation and study of magma crystals, digital communication and data leak, housing first initiatives that combat homelessness, and how performance can affect nutrition and public health.

The more dangerous path, and usually more rewarding, is to walk into town and show someone the research. To own the fact that as an artist, you have something to say, and something to give to this work.

The class, as the title suggested, was based around practice, not theory. We weren’t “exploring” research, we weren’t “understanding” research, we were animating it. This kind of work takes guts—it’s much easier to camp out in the wilderness of theory: to learn about the research, write a paper about the research, and think about how you could do something with it. The more dangerous path, and usually more rewarding, is to walk into town and show someone the research. To own the fact that as an artist, you have something to say, and something to give to this work.

Of course, this collaboration approaches slippery questions: Are these projects meant to make the research more understandable? How do I show my artistry? Is the process more important than the product? Do the researchers have specific outcomes they want? Who owns the work at the end?

There were a lot of questions, and Liz, in her coy, wise manner, never gave any answers. Instead, she shared what I’ll call the touchstones of the work. Each project has different needs, expectations, stakes, subject matter, and people. But these touchstones are things the class held onto while the storm of confusion, doubt, and fear shook their boat.

People eating bananas
The audience eats bananas as they learn about healthy food practices. Photo by Sharon McCaman.

First, explicate the research.

Of course, the first step became one of the hardest. Many artists are comfortable with abstraction—connecting to the feel, the sound, the visual pleasure of the work—without giving any, and I’ll use scare quotes here, “new information” about a thing.

An example of new information might be: “Housing First is an approach that prioritizes providing housing to the chronically homeless quickly and without time limits.” If that’s a fact you want your audience to walk away knowing, how do you give them the fact? A dance, an image of a homeless man, a personal story—all of these have connections to the work, but may not literally provide a fact.

It may seem like a simple thing, just giving a fact, but as some projects developed, they tended to develop around facts instead of towards them. In our meetings, Liz often talked about the “safety of obscurity.” That as artists, taking a fact and dismantling it into abstraction is a way of protecting ourselves. When a piece of art is whittled down into what we may call “experiential” and someone doesn’t “get it,” we can simply shrug our shoulders and ask, “but what did you get out of it?”

This kind of experiential relativism can be extremely effective, but it can also serve as a comfortable cloak against real audience engagement. It’s much less frightening to imply something than it is to stand right up and say the damn thing. Plus, sly implication doesn’t get you very far when you’re given a solid fact you need to explicate.

So as the students approached the work, they had to learn some new facts, and think about how to explicate those facts to the audience.

Personal connection helps us push our work past making information beautiful or understandable. We must take one big, vulnerable step further—how does information affect me as an artist? What is my connection to this work?

Then, connect to the research.

This approaches the second touchstone—personal connection to the research. When asked to use your skill to explicate someone else’s work, it can be easy to lose touch with yourself and your artistry. To become just a conduit of learning. A translator. A liaison between sphere of the researcher and the sphere of the public.

a woman being covered by a hulu hoop
Performers explore the story of magma using hula hoops. Photo by Sharon McCaman.

Personal connection helps us push our work past making information beautiful or understandable. We must take one big, vulnerable step further—how does information affect me as an artist? What is my connection to this work?

These connections manifested in many ways—students wrestling with the emotional implications of choosing which homeless people get houses, family connections and memories related to loss of speech, and feelings of betrayal and exploitation in how businesses and schools utilize unpaid interns.

These personal connections allow the audience not only a chance to learn new information, but to see how that information can affect others. The artists in this class approached their personal connection to the work with vulnerability and bravery. Opening up the avenue between our personal lives and our work can be frightening, and sometimes debilitating. But some of the most beautiful discoveries of the class happened when students noticed, respected, and ultimately presented how their own lives were moved by the work.

Finally, invite the community in.

The third touchstone, community connection, is perhaps the most difficult to define and the most important. How might this work affect the larger community? What does it mean that humans are studying arts incubators, magma crystals, and strategies for combating homelessness? What can an artistic process do to help this research?

a woman playing with easter eggs
The playroom of arts incubators—each egg is an idea. Photo by Sharon McCaman.

By imagining our work not just within a community of academics, but as a public work in progress, we are allowed to step outside our usual bounds and begin to truly affect the world with our art. Of course, this takes vulnerability, bravery, and generosity—to approach work not with something to prove or someone to impress, but with the vulnerability to be affected by research, the bravery to say something about that research, and the generosity to give your work to the wider community.

Animating research, seen from this lens, is actually a practice in community-based work. The class was a conjectural framework for how to bring together artists and researchers in processes of learning, discovery, and artistic creation.

For the final class project, each group of students created a fifteen-minute piece that in some way approached the research. The class made pieces that were movement oriented, immersive, participatory, observational, and musical. Each approached the presentation in a unique way and each was a product of a rigorous collaboration taking place on new ground for both the researchers and the artists. Each found a unique way to teach, connect, and open the work in new ways.

It was only in seeing these final products that I fully appreciated the importance of finding all three touchstones in each piece. If we only explicate, we become science communicators. If we only connect personally, our artistry overtakes the research. If we only invite the community in...well, that’s called a conference.

Science communication, art inspired by research, and conferences are all valuable things—and frankly easier to wrap my head around. Liz’s ideas of how to animate research in a way that teaches new information, creates emotional connection, and inspires bigger conversations asks a lot from its practitioners. It asks for curiosity, honesty, and openness. It asks that we step out onto a limb of uncertainty, formlessness, and awkward unknowing.

As creators that work in the gray area between research and art, we must find the courage to step out of our insularity and find new communities that might receive the gift of our passionate interest. The researchers brought their passion, the students brought their talents, Liz brought everything together, and we all reaped the rewards.

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