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Q&A with the Gray Area Foundation

In this post, we chat with Nadav Hochman, Associate Director of the Gray Area Foundation, to learn more about their interdisciplinary convergences between Art and STEM practices and research, and his involvement with the International STEAM Conference 21.
Profile photo of Nadav Hochman, Associate Director for the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts



Q&A with the Gray Area Foundation

In this post, we chat with Nadav Hochman, Associate Director of the Gray Area Foundation, to learn more about their interdisciplinary convergences between Art and STEM practices and research, and his involvement with the International STEAM Conference 21.
Profile photo of Nadav Hochman, Associate Director for the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts

Could you explain why the convergence of Art with STEM practices and research is important to you?

I think what draws me to pursue these interdisciplinary convergences, which are often more difficult than traditional established practices, is the question of innovation. 

It is important to remember that when we talk about innovation today we often mean commercialised innovation, primarily technological. To most people, innovation is an industrial and economic mechanism to achieve more economic efficiency. And in this state of affairs, invention, ingenuity or imagination per se are not enough. There has to be an active use of the invention in order for it to become innovative – in order for benefits to accrue. And when there is no innovation without applicable market value, the creative abilities of an individual or a group is always in the service of organisations, industrial development, and economic growth.

But this understanding is recent. If we look back prior to 20th-century capitalist history, innovation included other understandings, values, and practices. Until early in the twentieth century, invention, ingenuity, and imagination were discussed as symbols of culture or civilization and as attributes of geniuses, and their contribution to the progress of the race. 

I think that the main role of the interdisciplinary integration of art, humanities, social sciences, accurate sciences, and technology is to broaden and democratise the understanding of our innovation as more than just technological. As such, they force us to consider and recognise the different possible sources of innovations  – such as artists, designers, users – and the wide range of necessary values of innovation in providing solutions to social needs and problems  – including inclusivity, diversity, and ethics. 

In my view, innovation achieves its full potential and role when it successfully bridges the applicable with the imaginative, the economical with the socially, culturally and ecologically responsible. And this is the most crucial role we can play – extending the discourses on, and practices of innovation to more spheres of society.

What values and attitudes do you think are crucial for meaningful collaborations between STEAM practitioners?

Generally, the values and structures needed for meaningful collaborations have been explored extensively in academic and professional contexts in recent years, with insights pointing towards elements such as trust and open-mindedness. But let’s look more closely at one particular form of interdisciplinary collaboration: artists working with technologists, in which both groups often hold an inherently different set of values, training, and ways of thinking which makes things a bit more complicated. 

When it comes to artists’ value proposition to technologists, for example, I would mention emotionality, criticality, and comfort with ambiguity. I believe the artistic process can help push companies towards developing technology products and services that encourage more authentic emotional connections. Whether this is by leveraging new hardware to help us see the world in a more empathetic way or helping design software that emphasises our shared societal bonds, artists have a specific ability to see and then respond to the human condition in a way that can help tech companies create new businesses that people feel good about supporting.  

The rate at which tech has come to dictate so much of our daily lives has surprised even those creating that tech. Digital technology’s sudden reshaping of our communities and societies has resulted in a litany of unintended consequences that tech companies are now struggling to address. Solutions to these problems require not only deft business acumen to redirect entire product verticals but also philosophical clarity into what direction they should be redirected into and why. This is a role particularly well-suited to artists and their training in holistic, synthetic thinking and knack for investigating the bigger picture implications of technologies. And as these implications become ever-more urgent, the critical need for artistic thinkers in these companies becomes ever-more evident. 

Lastly, the ability to sit with the unknown, to collaborate, to build structure as you’re creating – these are assets that one learns as an artist, and are very directly translatable to the issues of the world right now even in scenarios that have nothing to do with art. Working with artists allows engineers to consider problems outside of their usual perspective, which is an invaluable tool when striving to innovate.

On the other hand, artists themselves also stand to benefit from these collaborations. As an often teleologically-focused discipline, artists’ roles in society have historically been both under constant threat and open to constant reinvention. The growing integration of artistic practices with emerging technological developments represents a radical new role for the arts in our contemporary digital economy, one that both cherishes the inherent value of the discipline and challenges it to constructively evolve. On a more individual level, these sorts of collaborations allow artists to not just comment on the changing world around us but directly shape its continued reconstruction, deepening their role in public and private life. And through learning to collaborate with scientists and technologists, artists gain critical business skills that both benefit their personal artistic practices and augment their potential for continued work with tech companies. 

Can you tell us more about the Gray Area Foundation? What is it you are trying to achieve there? 

Gray Area is a 21st-century countercultural hub catalysing creative action for social transformation. We attract technically literate, experimental, and risk-taking creative practitioners whose work doesn’t find easy support within traditional arts organisations. We support these diverse practitioners—including BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and immigrants—by holding space for their unique practices, backgrounds, visions, and experiences so that they may deeply collaborate and create new forms and meanings through the arts. Because this diversity of thought and perspective is a core requirement for the type of collaboration we foster, we continually try to increase engagement with varied audiences through community partnerships, subsidise participation in our events and education programs, and ensure representation within all of our programming. 

Over the last decade, we have refined our cultural ecosystem model to engage our community at multiple entry points into our public performances and events, education, and incubation. This creative, economic, and community engine represents a complete creative development path that accepts people at any level and provides the necessary support to learn, present, and teach to new incoming audiences as they grow. As a countercultural space, Gray Area seeks to increase diversity and representation with the gentrified dialogs of technology through featuring marginalised artists and highlighting social justice, ethics, ecology, and decolonialism throughout our programming. By doing so we hope to make anyone who enters our space feel welcome, comfortable, and accepted as an audience or collaborators.

You will be speaking at #STEAMconf21 under the theme of ‘Collaboration through Community’, can you give us any hints about what is in store?

In my talk I will try to highlight my journey of exploration at the intersection of art, technology and science working with different communities of practice. I will present collaborative projects from the last decade in academia and cultural institutions and try to articulate my understandings on what really makes a successful and impactful collaboration. As I hinted earlier, what has become clear to me over the years is that the value of integrated art forms within science, technology and industry, it’s not so much about how the arts can contribute to new products or services, but rather that it empowers new forms of knowledge exchange and developments that are more sustainable, inclusive, democratic and responsible. And this is what cultural innovation is all about. 

We would like to thank Nadav for taking the time to talk with us, and I don’t think we’re the only ones anticipating, what is set to be, an extremely insightful and inspiring talk during next month’s event.

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