Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.4

October 23, 2003


The arts make inroads in university research

by Barbara Black

Though working at a computer and singing in a concert hall might seem far apart, university-based artists do research. Fortunately, the major public granting agencies are showing awareness of that fact.

Associate Dean of Fine Arts Liselyn Adams said in an interview that Quebec, not for the first time, has led the way in this regard. The FQRSC (Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et culture) blazed a trail with their “recherche-création” program in 2001, and some intriguing projects are being developed at Concordia.

For example, a chamber music ensemble recently commissioned a work of poetry by Michel Garneau. They took the text as their inspiration for a score. Visual artists work with the ensemble and the sound recording team members to create “visual chamber music” that can be seen with the performance or as an independent work. Several student teams have produced similar projects.

“The Canada Council for the Arts and [its counterpart in] Quebec gave only to independent artists, not to universities,” Adams explained. “Last year, NSERC [the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council] joined with the Canada Council to give new grants for projects in multimedia.

Now SSHRC, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, is starting a grant program similar to that of the FQRSC. Adams thinks it will be ideal for individuals or teams that straddle disciplines or break new ground. There are many ways this can happen.

A researcher might explore a new medium of expression by using text as a major element of design, or wire a stage so that lights and sound react electronically to the movements of performers. A typical project could combine artwork, theory and reflection on the work of another artist. It might take a wealth of earlier work and come up with a new creation, or take a number of structures and examine them, looking for patterns.

Erin Manning, a newly hired professor who will start working in the film studies area in January, is doing a study of tango and political theory. The sensual dance was invented by Argentinian exiles; now it is danced by people all over the world. Manning has travelled to Japan and Finland to study the political implications of the tango.

Rhona Richman Kenneally, an architect teaching in the Department of Design Art, is going to do a project on the concept of home; specifically, foods introduced in the 1950s and how they influenced the design of kitchens.

Research in the arts may be different from that in the sciences and humanities, in the sense that it may take the form of a performance or a series of paintings, but the impetus behind it is the same. Mathematicians and physicists, who are supposed to be pragmatic, get starry-eyed talking about the beauty of their subjects; artists, whom we think of as impulsive, often have to exercise their craft with rigorous precision.

“The difference may be that while researchers in the other disciplines look for answers, artists tend to come up with searching questions,” Adams said.

The Canada Council for Arts gives about $1 million a year to artists linked to Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts. For the doubting Thomases who ask why taxpayers’ money should be spent in this way, Adams simply says, “Imagine taking the beauty away. Why bother with the logo on this can, for example?”

Art is all around us, and increasingly, Adams is seeing young scholars who are excited by the arts that are extensions of what they have already experienced in their daily life, such as digital media. As a specialist in classical chamber music, she’s philosophical.

“Art is an essential part of being human. It’s a form of survival through co-operation. Even listening to music together helps us to connect, and even disturbing art is important for what it tell us.”

In fact, Adams said, researchers tend to understand one another across disciplines; it’s the politicians, wary of public disapprobation, who need to be convinced that the arts are worthy of support.