The art of inquiry
Claire Trevor School of the Arts puts research center stage
While much of the attention on research at UCI is directed at the sciences – especially those relating to the health of people and the planet – for decades, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts has also generated research, although to much less notice. Jesse Colin Jackson is on a mission to change that.
An associate professor of electronic art & design, Jackson also serves as the CTSA associate dean of research & innovation and the Beall Center for Art + Technology’s executive director. He is all in when it comes to trumpeting CTSA research, especially that which involves multiple arts disciplines, and even other UCI schools and beyond.
“It’s increasingly important that the arts participate in more research conversations on campus,” Jackson says. “One characteristic of research is the pursuit of important new directions. What’s your contribution to the field? What are you doing that is innovative? These questions are equally applicable in the arts – and we’re already answering them in positive ways.”
However, he also makes it clear that the traditional view of university arts – whereby faculty and students are developing proficiency and pursuing mastery of a discipline – is not only “super important” but, by its very nature, a form of research.
“You can’t pioneer music or dance without achieving mastery of the technique, and you don’t do that in a vacuum,” Jackson explains. “It is evolving. You’re integrating new ideas” into an existing canon.
Being embedded in an R1 university both inspires and compels CTSA faculty and students to conduct research, which Jackson defines as pursuing the cutting edge of novelty and new forms of creative fields.
“Part of my role as associate dean is to champion the fact that the reason artists would become arts professors is because they want to advance the field just as any other professor would,” he says.
Explaining that outside the school can be challenging as the public – including many Anteaters – think of research in terms of a hypothesis, lab experiments and a scholarly paper or study subject to peer review.
“The School of the Arts has different kinds of research and different kinds of researchers,” Jackson says. “It’s important to note that we have a substantial contingent of what you might call conventional scholars who follow a humanistic model – people who study the fields particularly in the performing arts side of this school. So, in dance and drama-theater, you have musicologists and dramaturges. The dance department is small, but fully a third of it is occupied by folks who don’t dance themselves. There are people who study dance theory and dance science, which is an exciting kind of frontier, because dance has all sorts of physical and health implications. The problems of being a dancer and the risk of injury are worthy of study.”
“For example, we have people working at the frontiers of dance science, like Kelli Sharp, who is studying the motor learning patterns in dancers. This research not only helps dancers expand their creative potential but can help us understand various neurological disorders. Dancers operate at the edge of human abilities – understanding and exploring this edge is important both creatively and scientifically.”
Sharp, assistant professor of dance science and co-director of iMOVE laboratory in the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, focuses on injury prevention and wellness for dancers using motion capture systems and analysis of the relationship of motion in space to further reduce injuries. Sharp also researches the development of novel technologies to advance rehabilitation strategies for individuals with neurological disorders by incorporating motion capture systems and functional magnetic resonance with dance and movement therapy.
Many CTSA research projects culminate in an exhibition or performance. “We’ve always had people who are either wholly devoted to scholarship, or people who cross over and spend some of their time making artwork,” Jackson says. “And some are theorizing about the nature of artwork or working on collaborative projects with people who are doing that kind of theory, whether it’s science-based or humanities-based.”
Exposing the research side of CTSA got a boost from the recent coverage of Dean Stephen Barker’s retirement after 35 years of service to UCI and the newly established Stephen Barker Arts Research Endowment. Created by Dean’s Arts Board member Tom Nielsen and Richard and Cheryll Ruszat, the endowment aims to maintain and grow arts research and innovation throughout the school.
“Research is a key word at UCI and, in general, that means science – test tubes and telescopes,” Barker says in the spring edition of Connect, the CTSA magazine. “But in the arts, we research the nature of human experience – all its flaws and foibles, its dark side as well as its light side. The chief difference in the model of inquiry in the arts is that we are not actually looking for solutions to problems, we’re interrogating their complexities.”
“From the moment he arrived at UCI he has been championing forms of interdisciplinary work,” Jackson says of Barker. “That’s a very forward-looking position now, let alone 35 years ago. He was a dancer who became a literary theorist, and in joining the CTSA, he was faced with the opportunity to try to integrate these fields. He’s been moving between these two universes – and others – with his own exceptional mind for years, and ultimately concluded that the most exciting frontier for creativity was to work interdisciplinarily – or meta-disciplinarily, as he prefers to call it – because it suggests a whole new space of knowledge located beyond existing disciplines.”
Having an endowment that’s focused on arts research will allow for more staffing, equipment and cutting-edge projects, Jackson believes. “For example, in the arts we often share research infrastructure,” he says. “The Experimental Media Performance Lab is one of our hallmark facilities for experimental performance work. The name literally explains it: You’ve got experimental media because it’s full of projection tools, lighting tools, computerized equipment and a high-speed internet connection. And it’s performance oriented. It’s a theater-type space, but the kinds of performances that happen in there are not conventional theater. And we call it a lab because we’re doing things in there that are always experimental. The space is shared among the entire school, and the endowment clearly has a role in providing seed funding for exciting new projects by students and faculty.”
A transdisciplinary international group of artists and designers came together at UCI in 2019 for the world premiere of YOMO/Intermedia. “Your Ocean, My Ocean” is a series of intermedia performances and exhibitions that juxtapose responses to the natural beauty of oceans and coastlines with responses to detrimental human impacts on marine ecosystems. With support from the UCI Office of Research, the project was made possible by the five-year-old Institute for 21st Century Creativity, whose founding faculty director is John Crawford, professor of intermedia arts in the Department of Dance, whose mission is to cultivate experimental and arts-based research to innovate and challenge creativity for this century and beyond. CTSA Research and Innovation, established in 2020, now encompasses 21C.
The CTSA has also been pulled into research originating elsewhere on campus, including UCI Brain, which had Jackson working with neuroscientists to explore the impact of creativity. S. Ama Wray, professor of dance, has also been engaged with neuroscience, recently organizing a neuro-arts symposium with Michael Yassa, UCI Brain’s director and the James L. McGaugh Chair in the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory.
“I would say that the more common interdisciplinary research opportunity that we chase in the arts is when science comes to us with a question that pertains to creativity or a creative field,” Jackson says.
But original cross-school research does also originate in the arts, bringing scientists and humanists on board. The series of “Reading Frankenstein” projects by Antoinette LaFarge, professor of studio art, relies on Jim Fallon, professor emeritus of anatomy & neurobiology, as a scientific consultant.
The Stephen Barker Arts Research Endowment will allow CTSA to initiate more interdisciplinary research. “To us, a much more kind of obvious way to approach research questions from the arts is to start in the arts and then find the right collaborators in other fields,” Jackson says.
Based on his own experience, he has no doubt UCI scientists welcome participating in CTSA-led research projects. “When we work with scientists, they’re incredibly excited and they’re both encouraged and encouraging and amenable to collaborating,” he says.
Jackson recalled a recent event he hosted that included as speakers two scientists and two art curators. Though the four collaborators “speak different languages and have completely different timescales, different venues and different mechanisms for support,” he says they each appeared to gain valuable knowledge from the divergent approaches and points of view.
“That’s how you get something done,” he adds. “That’s how you collaborate. And that’s how a lab is structured in the arts versus how a lab is structured in science. It’s figuring out where the parallels are and figuring out where the challenges are, working together.”
If you want to learn more about supporting this or other activities at UCI, please visit the Brilliant Future website at https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu. Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The Claire Trevor School of Arts plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/claire-trevor-school-of-the-arts/.