Art and academia: a non-scientific equation to work together

by Alessandra Cianetti

The following text is an unfaithful reproduction of my provocation as part of the interdisciplinary conversation 'The Creative Researcher? Tactics for the Early Career Researcher Today/Tomorrow’ curated by artist Dr. Kai Syng Tan at the Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, King's College London on the 3rd October 2018.

  I met Kai Syng Tan in 2014 at the Cross-Cultural Live Art Project I curated as co-director of the arts organisation Something Human. The project was a programme of performances and talks aimed at showcasing live art practices by Southeast Asian artists along with UK and European ones. Kai and I collaborated again in 2016 for an interview for the curatorial research platform performingborders, and since July 2017 I have been working with her as arts production manager for We sat on a mat and had a chat and made maps! #MagicCarpet, a 1.5 year art and science collaboration between Kai and Professor Philip Asherson based at the King’s College London, Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre.

This last year spent with Kai and the SGDP team has been an incredible journey into notions and practices of mind wandering and I have had the opportunity to learn so much about ADHD, neurodiversity and their relation to creativity while being inspired by Kai’s incredibly productive and inclusive mind.

Kai has asked me to talk about my experience of the collaborative work between art and academia and I am really glad I had the opportunity to gather the reflections collected throughout this year of working together. This evening is dedicated to early career researchers in the psychiatric sector and we have been talking about the meaning and growing relevance of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) for those researchers who want to develop the ‘impact’ of their work. As an art curator and producer I wanted to let you know that the increasing emphasis universities put on the impact of academic research has impacted art professionals as well!

Artists and curators have been more and more involved in collaborations with university departments to deliver interdisciplinary projects and reach diverse audiences while developing new shared methodologies. It is a really interesting moment for us all both in the arts and academia. Having taken part in conversations around these type of collaborations and their outcomes, mainly in the arts sector, I have been asking myself what makes an interdisciplinary collaboration successful and mutually enriching instead of creating shared feelings of frustration as I was made aware is often the case. Through comparing a number of academia and art projects and the feedback from both artists and academics and also looking at what I think is a successful experimental collaboration that adds value to both arts and scientific research, Kai and Philip’s one, I came to think that for an interdisciplinary collaboration to be productive there are three fundamental elements that need to be part of the equation.

Being the readers of PsychART well versed in science, I will attempt a pseudo-mathematic presentation of my thinking:

X = T + R + O

(X= Perfect Collaboration, T= Time, R= resources, O= Openness)


For artists and researchers with busy schedules and different research methodologies and sectoral requirements, planning long-term collaborations is essential to creating something that is truly collaborative. Time is the factor that helps the understanding of each other’s practice, the exchange of knowledge produced by different disciplines, and the development of new experimental approaches to creation - both artistic and academic - that has value for all the participants (it is important to remember that the arts sector and the academic one define what success is and the routes to it in different ways so what is required in a field can be not relevant to the other). This will avoid one of the main complaints, at least from the artistic side, of the artists being involved only to create an aesthetic version of existing scientific papers without having their voice heard.



Providing artists and early career researchers, usually the ones with more precarious statuses within an academic context, with both in-kind and financial resources allows for them to be able to allocate time and energies to a collaborative project. Directing these financial and in-kind resources towards interdisciplinary collaborations is also a clear sign that interdisciplinary projects have the right to gain a more relevant status within the academia in terms of recognition and validation of the arts contribution to the academic sector.



Abandoning ideas of hierarchies of disciplines and being open to enter uncomfortable spaces is definitely important (I’m thinking here as examples of Kai presenting her work in exclusively scientific contexts with her performative-lectures and artworks, and Philip participating in events held in art contexts where anti-psychiatry feelings are quite widespread). Being open enough to step out of our own discipline to explore methodologies and theoretical frameworks of others is an enriching process that can surprisingly change and innovate your own practice. But for this to happen, it needs for people to be brave and take risks, which is often more difficult for early career researchers that are building their first steps into the academia. So it needs to be supported from academics in more secure positions in terms of access to funding and recognition of the value of the published articles that derive from these riskier interdisciplinary encounters. An interesting story that illustrates the value of openness was told to Kai and myself when visiting the newly opened Science Gallery London in September. The gallery facilitated the encounter between an artist and a team of international scientists renowned for their work on crystals. The artist was adamant to create crystals from her own saliva while the scientific team assured her that because of the chemical structure of human saliva, that would not be possible. The artist insisted in trying (as artists always do!) so the team had a go at trying to create crystals from her saliva and found out that actually, contrary to their previsions, it was possible!



(Most of the time!)

As a curator, conversations (and not complex equations, as you might have noticed) are my main tools of research and exchange with artists, art professionals, collaborators, and audiences and are my daily material for reflection and creation. So for this text I decided to include quotes from conversations I had with colleagues in the arts about their experience in working with academia:

We have our disciplinary, sectorial and cultural conventions and norms. Those in psychiatry are hard for an outsider/newcomer from the arts. There are concepts and approaches I cannot start to grasp – and a lot of science and mathematics. […] My colleagues from psychiatry have been open to my invitation to chat. For me, that’s a swipe right – a match, a promising start. None of them seem interested in trying to fix me. I have also learnt that the timing is good. There is growing interest to study the upsides and other under-researched areas of ADHD. Researchers are relating ADHD with giftedness and creativity. There are non-medical interventions such as exercise and mindfulness. 

Over the years I’ve worked with members from different species, but I have discovered that Philip is one great sport. Also having been working with creative people with ADHD like Rory Bremner, Philip has been open to the experimental nature of the project with a level of genuine interest and curiosity. Understanding that ADHD involves interactions between genetics, the environment, and social factors has opened up insights — and questions for me as an artist, researcher, woman and person.

Kai Syng Tan - artist (this is an excerpt from Kai Syng Tan’s ‘Unreasonable Adjustments’ published by Disability Arts Online)

 My experience in working with psychiatry researchers has been informing my practice since 2015 with ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’. This was a participatory performative piece created after a series of conversations with Professor Carmine Pariante (King’s College London - IoPPN) on postnatal depression that led to the creation of a new artwork, an art and science public talk, and an article on the Huffington Post. That initial short collaboration led to a new project curated by the Science Gallery London in 2017: ‘For of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, "it might have been”,’ a two-day one-to-one performance and installation. Working with academia has given my work the opportunity to be toured and experienced by different audiences of scientists, patients, and researchers, in contexts outside the arts while also putting me in contact with new research methodologies and materials that have been part of my practice since.

 I have been very lucky to work with Carmine, who is sensitive and open to the language of art so there was never the problem of ‘translating’ my practice to him, and it was a rich and fulfilling experience working together. However, as an artist, interdisciplinary collaborations can be a challenge. This is especially the case when the resulting artistic practice needs to be explained outside the close artist/scientist relationship to a wider group of science academics. In such contexts, it can be tricky translating the necessity of the artwork having an aesthetic value in itself, outside the academic framework of outreach and impact. There can be an imbalance in the way power relations within disciplines are perceived, with art sometimes being requested to be a visual interpretation of existing scientific research. This can make it difficult to negotiate a process of creation that is open, not necessarily outcome-driven, and sometimes even 'functionless'.

Lynn Lu - artist

‘HELP!’ was the note I put down for myself in my notebook to end my short provocation. “Help” is the support that psychiatry researchers could provide to the arts sector. To explain it, I would like to introduce a quote from artist and producer Catherine Hoffman with whom I had a conversation last October and that highlighted beautifully the challenges and opportunities of working with neurodiverse artists:

‘As an experienced artist and producer I like new challenges. Being invited to project manage the work of an extraordinary live artist, supporting their needs as an autistic person through research and development programme for their first full length show, was a welcomed opportunity. Being this my first time collaborating with a diagnosed neurodiverse person as a project manager the process has been both revelatory and demanding at a personal and professional level. During the collaboration, questions about the boundaries of my responsibility within this collaborative relationship and possible best practices to create a safe space for us to work together arose. At the same time I was made even more aware about the barriers that a fast-paced working environment such as the arts builds for people with different needs and I learnt to actually let go of some of the supposed ‘musts’ of our sector, especially regarding marketing and production outcomes, in order to allow for the exploration of new ways of achieving the same goals.’

Catherine Hoffman - artist/producer

Being involved in the #MagicCarpet project has put me in situations when I was asked what the best practices were to work with artists with ADHD. Over the years I have been often working with artists with invisible disabilities (although that was not always disclosed at the beginning of the relation because of the stigma still attached to art made by disabled artists) and I developed some personal best practices to work with people with severe dyslexia, chronic fatigue,… Although the relationships and projects went well, I don’t feel confident that my personal strategies are the best ones so not sure about sharing them and becoming an additional source of fake news in these times!

Having had the opportunity to talk and experience Professor Asherson’s contributions to the various #MagicCarpet events has informed me on the signs of ‘excessive mind wandering’ and the behaviours associated with ADHD in a way that made me more confident and able to create a comfortable space for me and Kai to work together and I would love to know more. I think that having Q&A sessions and the possibility to refer to scientific researchers about matter of neurodiversity and how to create welcoming and safe spaces of collaboration for neurodiverse artists would help creating and sharing informed best practices among us art professionals as well.

Thinking at the art sector where often people work with precarious income, with no office spaces, and constantly on the move (and with an increase in mental health issues among its population), how do art professionals create together with psychiatry researchers a space for collaboration that is supportive of diverse needs? Having access to that specific academic knowledge and conversations would be an invaluable contribution to the art sector that I would love to get from early career, mid-career, and established psychiatry researchers.


Alessandra Cianetti is a London-based curator, creative producer and writer.   


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