Doorways to Discovery

Creative collaboration allows art to inspire research innovation

By Matt GolosinskiSeptember 19, 2018

Kader Attia is deep in the archives of Northwestern’s Herskovits Library of African Studies, swallowed up by paper, images, ephemera, volumes stacked on carts. The acclaimed French-Algerian artist has a voracious appetite for research, one that even the Library’s skilled curators find challenging to meet — yet they do, digging far into their renowned holdings to provide the visiting artist with material to inform his 2017 exhibition Kader Attia: Reflecting Memory at Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art.

The exhibition included collage, sculpture, and a film essay on the impact of historic trauma, such as slavery and colonialism. Proposed by Antawan Byrd, a student in Northwestern’s graduate art history program and the Block Museum’s 2014–15 graduate fellow, the exhibition was curated by Byrd with Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the Block’s associate director of curatorial affairs, and Janet Dees, the Lisa and Stephen Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

In addition to immersing himself in the Library over two extended visits, Attia engaged with faculty from around the University, including psychologists, art historians, robotics experts, and anthropologists. “Kader Attia was an ideal artist to be embedded at Northwestern, because his practice is profoundly interdisciplinary,” says Berzock. “His work isn’t just about research, it is research. Seeing research practices through the eyes and work of an artist was one of the most meaningful features of his residency across campus.”

“We were honored that Attia accepted our invitation for newly commissioned work based on a residency here at Northwestern,” says Lisa Corrin, the Block’s Ellen Philips Katz Director. “He drew extensively on the University’s ‘brain trust.’ His research uncovered unexpected connections, enabling us to consider past traumas that remain urgently relevant.” Since joining the museum in 2012, Corrin has forged relationships with academic leaders across the University — including those in the McCormick School
of Engineering, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Feinberg School of Medicine, and University Libraries — to create many such fruitful connections.

While the arts encompass diverse forms of expression, they are often deeply invested in research. Corrin says bringing artists into a research university exposes them to ideas and people they might not otherwise encounter, while introducing academics and students to the creative process and artists’ methods of reframing questions. “The arts are a serious and significant research enterprise no different from what goes on in the STEM disciplines,” says Corrin.

For Herskovits curator Esmeralda Kale, having an artist in her library was “an eye-opener.” Initially, she and her staff felt that Attia would be interested primarily in visual materials, such as the collection’s 7,000 or so photographs. Indeed he was, but soon his themes expanded to include considerations of water, medicine, psychiatry, colonial architecture, and more.

“At that point, I thought, ‘Wow, we are in uncharted territory,’” recalls Kale, who says she and her team even had to identify holdings that had not yet been catalogued or were not highly visible.

Attia’s visit “allowed us to see ourselves in a completely different way, as having a completely different audience,” says Kale. The experience also furthered the collaboration between University Libraries and the Block and helped strengthen collaborations between the arts and research resources, including the archives.

“Librarians are curators,” says Corrin. “They are expert scholars who develop and research collections, produce books, and teach, just like museum curators. Our partnership has resulted in important new scholarship as well as opportunities for artists.”

Dean of Libraries Sarah Pritchard also cites the “dynamic, collaborative approach” to collections, public programs, and campus engagement that the Block and the Libraries share. In addition to working with Block curators on museum exhibits incorporating the Libraries’ distinctive holdings, she says that “we have shaped experiential events with artists in the Library and have screened films at the Block to illuminate our archival holdings in the media arts. Each organization has acquired new objects explicitly to advance areas of shared interest — for example, contemporary African photography and
the avant-garde of the 1960s.”

'The Question Moves'

Attia’s Northwestern residency is one of several examples of bridge building between the arts and other disciplines at the University, activity shaped by the Block’s approach to engagement. In addition to Attia, the Block’s visiting artists have included Dario Robleto and Jen Bervin (see sidebars), whose artist-at-large residencies similarly connected artists to faculty, staff, and students.

Corrin and her colleagues — including Susy Bielak, associate director of engagement and curator of public practice — have been on a mission to reimagine the role of a university art museum within a research institution. They see the Block as a hub for cross-disciplinary and civic dialogue that uses art to explore ideas and issues. But they know they can’t do it alone. In one sense, the Block’s limitations are a catalyst for its vigorous collaborative efforts. With a lean staff and modest physical footprint — 5,600 square feet of gallery space — the Block has worked with Northwestern colleagues to integrate the arts throughout campus, even as it has invited people into the museum for impressive interdisciplinary exhibitions.

The response to its work has been overwhelmingly positive, with the museum receiving international media attention. In addition, students involved with its projects have received awards for their contributions.

Over the past five years, Bielak has helped “embed” artists into academic life at Northwestern as cocreators, facilitators, or educators. An artist herself, Bielak says that just as there may be a fixed idea of what art is — a painting, a sculpture, a video, a performance — there can be fixed (and limiting) notions of how the arts and sciences relate to each other, which shortchanges both. “At the Block, we think about art as both a lived experience and a process. The process is just as important as the product, and often the process is the product.”

In good research, “the question moves,” insists Bielak. Investigators risk “losing the thread” if they are too locked into a thesis. “But if you remain open-minded and rigorous, you go deep. My job is to create a framework for that discovery.”

Recent Block exhibitions posing research questions have included William Blake and the Age of Aquarius, exploring parallels between the British visionary poet and post–World War II American artists, and the acclaimed Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, which shed light on the influential yet understudied cellist, performance artist, and impresario. With Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, art and science came together in a pioneering collaboration with the McCormick School of Engineering. The research-based exhibition used cutting-edge imaging techniques to produce new insights about rare funerary portraits and a mummy of a young girl, known as the Hibbard Mummy. The effort involved faculty and students from classics, art history, sound design, materials science, medicine, archeology, art history, and molecular biology and prompted the creation of groundbreaking augmented-reality visualization software.

In January the Block will mount Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa, the first major North American exhibition to assess the material culture of early trans-Saharan trade and to address the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Curated by Berzock — an expert on African art history — the exhibition will boast more than 200 artworks and archeological fragments, melding history, art history, archeology, and comparative literature. Northwestern faculty across disciplines are among the project’s international advisers. The exhibition will travel from the Block to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. “Caravans of Gold is going to change the way we think about global history in the medieval period,” says Corrin.

The exhibition will bring scholars and archeologists from three African partner nations to interact with Northwestern faculty and students. “Caravans exemplifies our research commitment and celebrates Northwestern’s unique strengths in championing innovative research, fostering interdisciplinary connections, and cultivating global perspective,” says Berzock, noting the exhibit’s institution-wide collaborations — including support from the Program of African Studies and the Buffett Institute for Global Studies.

Artistic Process as Research

As the Block helps to extend art partnerships throughout Northwestern, faculty and students in the Department of Art, Theory and Practice are pushing the boundaries of creative expression, often integrating interdisciplinary research into their work.

Among ATP’s distinguished faculty are painter Judy Ledgerwood and Iraqi-American conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz. Ledgerwood’s works include enormous, immersive compositions reflecting her desire to “make paintings that act like architecture.” Her art has also taken inspiration from symbolic shapes associated with Paleolithic and Neolithic goddess cultures across Europe. Rakowitz’s deeply researched projects have involved nongallery displays, such as The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, a 14-foot Assyrian winged bull with a human head, built from 9,000 steel cans. The sculpture was unveiled in London in March to highlight the human toll of Middle East conflict. Among his many other projects is the long-running paraSITE, in which he custom builds inflatable shelters for homeless people that attach to the exterior outtake vents of a building’s HVAC system.

ATP chair Lane Relyea has applied a socioeconomic critical lens to the art world itself. His 2013 book Your Everyday Art World examined the effects of globalization and communications networks on artistic practice, exploring shifts in art’s material structures, conceptual categories, and construction of meaning. He says artists absolutely see what they do as research.

“Any artistic practice involves multiple lines of research at once — research into materials and their properties and relationships, of course, as well as into art historical precedents and examples,” says Relyea. “Beyond that, artists might make work about a certain subject or area of knowledge or particular history that they will need to extensively research. Or perhaps their work is more abstract, in which case they might investigate things like chroma, refraction, opacity, simultaneity, and so on.”

For Kandis Friesen, a 2018 Northwestern MFA graduate, research has involved architectural and material considerations of exile. She was one of four ATP students whose work was part of I Think We’re Alone Now, a thesis exhibition mounted at the Block in May that included drawings, mixed media sculpture, text, and a video installation. Friesen’s art integrates academic and historical sources as well as studio and material research. “They fold into one another and often blur,” she says.
“This is one way my work continually draws on collage, transposition, and assemblage: new structures through new kinds of conceptual and material grafting.” When working materially, she explores the materials’ functions and properties and then makes artistic decisions based on these experimentations.

In Blue Light Special — Stop & Frisk, a five-minute video installation created for the exhibition by 2018 MFA graduate James Earl Britt, he examines constructions of black masculinity, drawing on scholarship from James Baldwin, Judith Butler, and Frantz Fanon and from other readings in art historian Huey Copeland’s critical theory course. The video is composed of blue light cast on Britt’s nude body, producing an “ambiguous exchange between my flesh and shadow,” he says. The image is accompanied by a “zombie serenade” of the classic Police song “Every Breath You Take,” which gradually slows and transforms into an “indiscernible mishmash of primal groans.”

“I collected the memories and images of those directly impacted by the projections cast upon their bodies, who stand in for the endless carousel of otherworldly beings whose existence is constantly under question,” says Britt. “These persons, like me, are embedded in the wall.”

Ever-Widening Connections

The 15th-century polymath Leonardo da Vinci would have regarded modern distinctions between art and science as curious and beside the point. His creative inquiry spanned engineering, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, math, and more, and like other Renaissance thinkers he melded different tools and methods to suit the goals of his larger project of discovery. This desire to connect inspires much Northwestern innovation and discovery, and Corrin expects the Block to continue playing a significant role in supporting the University’s research excellence through partnerships. 

“We want to ensure that Northwestern has the great art museum it deserves as a world-class research university,” she says. “We take to heart the importance of interdisciplinary teaching and learning, of moving out of your silo as a scholar or student to make connections across fields. I see the Block as like the Roman Forum: a place where all kinds of people can gather for all kinds of exchanges that make extraordinary new ideas happen.”