Arts conference recap

The art and tech sides of creativity

Students present at a2ru conference on creative thinking

If you’ve never Googled “arts at MIT,” I guarantee you’ll be shocked at the vast array of arts activities, exhibits and events going on every week on campus, from alumni-produced films and student performances to professional shows by one of our many visiting artists. Yet I’ve lost track how many times I’ve been asked “MIT has arts?” Art, science, and engineering just don’t typically connect in people’s minds. Partners of the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru), including MIT, think that’s a problem.

A2ru is a group of universities that — to put it frankly — aren’t viewed-as “artsy.” It includes MIT, Stanford, Virginia Tech, University of Michigan, and twenty-five others. Founded in 2011, the Alliance addresses the concern that universities are suffering from “a kind of mass amnesia for the heuristic power of art-making, and for the many functional similarities between art-making and scientific modes of inquiry,” according to a2ru’s founding proposal. A2ru was created to “fuel an investigation of the unique qualities of art-making as a mode of discovery and learning in post-secondary education,” i.e., to facilitate discussion among universities on the arts and creative thinking.

This January, the Alliance ran its first student conference, entitled “Emerging Creatives,” at Stanford University. The conference aimed to connect students from across disciplines and stress the values of creative thinking and collaboration. Leila Kinney and Sam Magee from the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) gave the closing address at the conference, while students Sheng-Ying Pao G, Bruno Tambasco ’15, and I shared projects.

Kinney and Magee’s address, titled “Infinite Connections: Art, Science, and Technology,” discussed how MIT integrates arts on campus, from artist-researcher collaborations to student hacks, to the recent $10K Creative Arts Competition added to the $100K Launch Contest.

“The a2ru Emerging Creatives Conference gave us a unique opportunity to share our ideas and projects originating from MIT with researchers, artists, students, and conference organizers beyond the MIT community,” said Pao, who spoke about her research in the Media Lab. “It was also a fantastic experience to connect and collaborate with creative heads from different fields under the California sunshine.”

“Going to an arts conference and interacting with people so different from MIT students has helped me see the world through a new perspective. It was a great, unforgettable experience,” said Tambasco. He spoke about “Hacking Arts,” an arts-themed hackathon he helped organize last fall, at the closing address.

I presented on a project using a Kinect to monitor ballet dancer’s movements to improve training efficiency and reduce injury. Over the past few years I’ve become familiar with science and technology conferences. Attending the a2ru Emerging Creatives Student Conference was an entirely different and refreshing experience.

There was much discussion on the neuroscience of creativity, different design processes, and the implications of collaboration. During a panel discussion, Srinija Srinivasan, Co-Founder of The Loove and former executive at Yahoo!, advised us to “align yourself with people who don’t need credit” in order for successful collaboration. Another panel speaker, Ivica Ico from Virginia Tech, continued, “You have to relinquish your ego and allow yourself to be part of the process.”

Various guest speakers and attendees stressed the importance of collaboration and creativity in any type of work, whether it’s pure art, science, or cross-disciplinary. I realized scientists and engineers in particular face serious stigmas against collaboration. The problem is that people often envision engineers as Iron Man-like figures, i.e., geniuses working in isolation. The reality is, however, that the best results require teamwork, and — as a2ru stressed — it is researchers’ responsibility to go out of their way, even out of their comfort zone, to collaborate. Many a2ru speakers emphasized this point. For example, they systematically dismantled several “myths” about collaboration, such as those suggesting it takes longer, is only useful for large products, and is only suited for extroverts.

Overall, the most valuable part of this conference was not only the new ideas, but also the new people we met. We met dozens of other art-science-engineering students from other a2ru partner universities, all of whom were eager to take up the challenge of collaboration.