The “Inter” Space

Connecting with the World through Interdisciplinary Arts Education

by | Nov 30, 2001

“Seven-Up: A mixed media collaboration” with students from the Stepping-Stones Foundation.

From Columbus to Postmodernism: Contesting Terrain

In America, that massive spread of land from Cabo de Hornos to Ellesmere Island and from the Near Islands to Recife, “interdisciplinary” was always the rule. That is, of course, until Columbus brought the Renaissance stored in the Pinta, the Catholic Church stored in the Santa Marí­a, and Queen Isabel II in the Niñ. The natives of the American continent did not (and still don’t) conceive of the world as a compartmentalized structure. Agriculture, religion and war, for example, were not three separate spheres of understanding, but were grounded in an epistemology of unity that saw these aspects of culture deeply connected and embedded. Cultural work was the stuff of everyday life; craftsmanship, spiritual devotion, collective sustenance and kinship were part of an aesthetic –to use one of those concepts stashed in the hold of the Pinta–of everyday life and a deep connection to the Mother Earth.

The Renaissance germ that arrived with the Europeans had the habit of decontextualizing culture, slowly brewing into the modern disciplines and the concepts of art and artists. Travelling on another ship (with the same captain), the European empire’s economic ventures brought the virus of slavery and colonization, and with it, conceptions of “otherness” that made distinctions between those for whom the empire existed and those who existed for the empire. That is not to say that there weren’t complex hierarchies and dynamics of power among American natives. But at the risk of exoticizing and romanticizing our ancestors, I would argue that these were, as the rest of their cultural life, embedded in a deep sense of human connection and spiritual wholeness that the “big ship” of the conquest the Catholic Church had already lost by 1492. By dichotomizing good and evil, Christianity began a process of separation and linearity that contrasted with the circular connections of native religions. This was aggravated by the institutionalization of the Church, which served as vaccine for European conquerors, and which they intended on injecting, albeit in limited doses, to American natives.

Of course, neither the germ of the Renaissance nor the virus of slavery, withstanding the Catholic vaccine, managed to break down the inherent connections in making and understanding that continue to shape and inform the cultural life of our America. Certainly, these historical, political and social processes have altered the face, the language and the context as well as the content of that cultural life making it more layered, contested and, indeed, more interesting. That is an irreversible process, and, for better or worse, we owe it a great part of who we are today. Having drawn new disputed boundaries, realigned the turning circles of nature and spirituality, and given multiple new shapes to our knowledge and conceptions of the world, we find ourselves in a new millenium. A millenium filled with a dissonance and disorder that reveal and reestablish the interconnectedness between what we know and what we make; how we learn and how we create. Thanks to that dissonance and disorder, we can now move from the postmodern world to the “inter” world.

 

Hyphenating identity: From postmodernism to the “inter” world.

If you asked Guillermo Gómez-Peñ, boundaries are there to be crossed. He has crossed so many that I have difficulty placing a label before his name. Writer, actor, or visual artist does not begin to describe the work of this Mexican-Chicano-American citizen of the borderlands. His living dioramas challenge every notion of personal identity and artistic concept inherited from the modernist aesthetic born in the Renaissance. Gomez-Peñ gives life to the conception of culture as a malleable occurrence located in a specific context shaped by time, space and a slew of identity categories from race to shoe size. The nature of identity in our postmodern world is so transient and chaotic that we have the necessity to invent hyphenated titles for every person; Afro-Nuyorican, Black-Irish, Brazilo-Islandic, Mexican-American-with-a-little-bit-of-Palestinian.

These hyphenated identities reflect the inherent limits of the monolithic and essentialist categories constructed to identify and name that “other” that is to be conquered. We have inherited these identities, and as we become more and more conscious of their stasis, we begin to negotiate the space between them. It is in that inter-stasis that cultural theorist Homi Bhabha locates the negotiations that “convey a temporality that makes it possible to conceive of the articulation of antagonistic or contradictory elements.” This “interstitial” negotiation is not limited to ethnicity, gender, class, or other categories of social analysis. In fact, it is a negotiation within the whole of culture. While social theorists are hyphenating categories and developing gradient notions of identity, all the academic disciplines are experiencing similar negotiations within and across traditional boundaries. We now think of social-historians, cultural-psychologists, linguistic-anthropologists, and we approach fields of study like medicine, education, and law with a battery of interdisciplinary tools and techniques that allow for better understanding and further development.

The arts have not escaped this “inter” revolution. Many contemporary artists, like Gomez-Peñ and Amalia Mesa-Bainz do not fit into traditional categories like painter or poet. Concepts like mixed media, performance art, installation, and movement-theater have become the new territory of exploration. The Internet (no pun intended) is now the largest stage-canvas for developing and installing art works. Before the Internet, public artists like the “Taller de Arte Fronterizo” and the Guerilla Girls set out to the streets to display their work. Most of these boundary-breaking cultural workers have a political agenda that is central to the work and fundamental to their approach. In this brief space, I cannot focus on the content of their work. But crossing boundaries disciplinary, social, or cultural is an inherently political act.

Postmodernism sought to burst open and melt away every notion of stability in which the world balanced itself. That balance had brought about a stagnation of the concepts and values in which it was sustained. Postmodernism, as the end of modernism, created a condition that is deeply unbalanced and chaotic, where order is exposed in its contradictions, and concepts are split open by their own assumptions. As we move beyond this postmodern condition we are left with the “inter” spaces. It is in those “inter” spaces that we are now called upon to make culture. Artists of color, young people, and others marginalized by modern society are already occupying those spaces and creating some of the most exciting and innovative work since the cavemen began to paint graffiti on their walls. As educators we have the responsibility to join students in their “inter” space and allow antiquated notions of disciplinary separation and domain independence to be redefined, renamed and re(f)used. Otherwise, we are doomed to eternal stasis, or worst, to the postmodern condition of having no meaning at all.

 

Interdisciplinary Arts Education: Some ideas for engaging in the “inter” world

In his article “Interdisciplinary Art Education Reconsidered,” University of Texas professor J. Ulbricht raises the question: why should we change the way we teach the arts if it is already yielding interdisciplinary work? Many of my colleagues will make the tired argument that it is important to have a strong foundation in the traditional approaches to a specific art form before students can explore new ideas. We need to pause for a “post” moment, and shake the perfect logic of this argument to reveal its suspicious stasis.

First, the old adage that one must learn the rules in order to break them keeps us in the chaos of the postmodern condition without any redeeming option. Only new rules, developed in an interdisciplinary fashion, can bring about innovative ways of making culture. Second, and perhaps most important, arts educators must realize that interdisciplinary cultural work is happening right under our noses. Popular culture does not simply emerge from traditional styles, but tradition becomes one of the materials of popular culture. Listen carefully to just one track of Puerto Rican rap artist Big Pun, and browse slowly through the “Art Crimes” graffiti website (http://www.graffiti.org/index.html), and you will see what I mean (also see related article on p. 43). Innovative, boundary-breaking, interdisciplinary cultural work does not happen because of the way we teach, but in spite of it.

In his essay The New Cultural Politics of Difference, Harvard professor Cornel West describes three challenges that cultural workers confront as they become engaged in the world. The intellectual challenge constitutes a coming to terms with the anxieties, ambiguities and tensions of a pluralist world, and turning thought into action. This move into action then faces an existential or pragmatic challenge, which entails dealing with institutional, economic, and cultural realities. To face this task, West suggests that building coalitions across boundaries constitutes the political challenge for cultural workers. As I argued earlier, the “inter” world is an explicitly political world. It is through crossing boundaries, not to conquer, not to convert, nor to enslave, but to explore, connect and redefine that we can occupy the “inter” world.

The interdisciplinary approach fades the hierarchies within domains and techniques, turning them into materials and tools. Interdisciplinary artists approach their work with problem finding/solving strategies. Each idea poses a different set of challenges that might be approached through different methods and with different tools. Taking advantage of what each discipline uniquely offers, connections are made so that elements enhance each other. Ulbricht also offers some guidelines for how an interdisciplinary approach might change the way we teach the arts. He stresses the importance of collaborating with others and connecting with the world and argues that this should be made explicit in the way we teach.

All art is inherently collaborative, because no artist can work in isolation. Drawing themes from lived experiences, addressing social and political issues and utilizing a range of resources to contextualize the work we engage with our students to find relevance and meaning in the work. We must join our students in the exploration of the “inter” world, but they must be the ones on the tiller, trimming the sails, and filling the hold with new ideas.

Winter/Spring 2001

Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández is a father-husband-artist-student. His daughter is a Cantab-Rican-Irish-Afro-Caribbean-Spanish-French-Canadian who is often mistaken for a boy.

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