Lynn Hughess new
book is Creative Con/fusions.
Photo by Christian Fleury
by James Martin
Lynn Hughes is, by her own tongue-in-cheek admission, a weird person
at least, she has an unusual academic profile.
Shes a visual artist with an MA in the history of mathematics. Shes
a painter currently working in video. Shes a teacher who spends
countless hours writing grant applications. In short, shes the perfect
person to edit a book about interdisciplinarity in contemporary art.
My whole life is about mixture, says the Concordia painting
instructor, who just celebrated the publication of Creative Con/fusions:
Interdisciplinary Practices in Contemporary Art. Hughes is co-editor
of Creative Con/fusions with Marie-Josée Lafortune, artistic director
of the artist-run Optica, a centre for contemporary art in Montreal. She
says its the first book to specifically address interdisciplinarity
in terms of visual art.
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of interdisciplinarity, but
not in terms of art. Still, we use the word interdisciplinarity
all the time as if we all understand what its about. A lot of artists
are sick of the word because they think it sounds too academic
it has a sense of a stodgy definition, without actually being very well-defined.
Its such a powerful word, an attractive word, but its ambiguous
and semi-empty half the time.
Inspired by discussions at a 1996 conference, Hughes and Lafortune set
to work on Creative Con/fusions with a two-pronged purpose: to
simultaneously rescue the nebulous buzzword from stodginess, and to give
it more definition. They prepared by reading classic texts on interdisciplinarity
to learn how the word is used in other disciplines, then to ask
how it is used in art.
Interdisciplinarity in pretty much all other disciplines consists
of making a progressive use of other disciplines, where you make sure
that youre using the latest stuff. If, for example, a biologist
crosses over into economics and uses some outdated theory, most of the
time that wouldnt work. Interdisciplinarity is progressive in the
sense of trying to get somewhere thats the next step along the way,
to get a more sophisticated view.
But in art, you can raid other disciplines without necessarily
being up-to-date. Because youre not trying to progress in the scientific
sense, you can use those things in a much freer way; you use them for
their metaphoric or aesthetic qualities.
Hughes says that more and more artists are moving away from the single-minded
idea of the artist as cloistered loner. Artists are reading voraciously
on non-artistic subjects (Hughes, as an example, has drawn on her MA studies
to create a series of paintings incorporating photos and mathematical
equations). Canadas network of artist-run galleries encourages artists
to gain skills (such as Web design) that are not necessarily skills
that artists bothered with 50 years ago. Since the 70s, weve
become used to running things, to having these multiple skills.
As an initial foray into the topic, Hughes calls Creative Con/fusions
a dip into the bucket, although its a fairly structured dip.
She and Lafortune began the project by spending six months wrestling with
ideas of approach and representation (Should we have one person
from each province? Half men and half women?), before settling on
a cross-section of visual artists, teachers, curators, and art historians
they hoped would attack interdisciplinarity from different angles.
The resulting book is a mixture of essays and long definitions, each presented
in the authors original language (half are English and half French
a happy accident in keeping with the books spirit) with a
short bilingual summary. The four definitions range from the traditional
(Concordia professor Tim Clarks academic history of the word) to
the oblique (UQAM professor Nicole Jolicoeurs very dense,
poetic text that doesnt mention the word anywhere).
The nine essays are an equally diverse mix, tackling issues of pedagogy,
artistic practice, curatorial challenges, and art history. In their preface,
Hughes and Lafortune conclude that the selections reveal interdisciplinarity
to be a lumpy, awkward beast a phrase that captures
both the vastness of the bucket being explored, as well as
the sense of intelligent playfulness (not stodginess) that
Hughes believes is crucial to art.
Creative Con/fusions was four years in the making, and Hughes is
understandably thrilled to finally see it on bookstore shelves. Still,
she admits she cant resist moving right along and
as befits a Renaissance woman has many projects on the go. In addition
to teaching, shes working with graduate students on a multi-year
interactive video project.
Hughes also sits on the board of directors for Hexagram, the Concordia/UQAM
media arts and technologies institute which just received, in December,
a whopping $21.9 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. On
top of all that, Hughes already has an idea for a new book. Shes
not entirely happy about this latter development.
I feel that technology is really doing things to contemporary art
that accelerates interdisciplinarity, she says, so it would
be really interesting to focus a book on that but Im hoping
not to be tempted to do it. I just have so many other things going on
that I want to concentrate on!