Notes on transdisciplinary sounding art

Study day presentation (opening lecture) for Oortreders – festival for transdisciplinary art with sound

Oortreders is an Afrikaans word meaning trespassers. A trespasser is someone who goes beyond what is considered permissible, acceptable: someone who shows criminal behaviour. Oortreders brings together presentations, installations and performances that are maybe not criminal acts in the literal sense, but they don’t behave ‘properly’ in terms of the norms and values or expectations of established disciplines like classical or contemporary music, theatre, choreography or visual art.

They misbehave in different ways, but primarily in their use of media and cultural codes. They obstruct or reverse the way that media and instruments are typically used, often with the result that our senses are challenged, and our minds and imaginations are invited to try out a new perspective. Some explicitly aim to evoke synaesthetic perception, very directly combining taste and sound, or sound and visuals. Others create immersive environments and explore alternative relationships between the listener, sound and environment. They are all ‘unusual’, different, explorative, but they have one thing in common, and that is sound or listening as the main element.

Being different or combining media in creative ways is not enough, however, to lay claim to a term such as transdisciplinarity. ‘Transdisciplinary art’ sounds rather complex. For many people, the term will sound less familiar than multidisciplinarity or interdisciplinarity, words that have a long history or track-record, especially in the arts. In fact, the term transdisciplinarity is a recent one. It was coined for the first time by Jean Piaget and others in 1970 at a congress called: “Interdisciplinarity – teaching and research problems at universities.” At that congress, Piaget and his colleagues expressed the need for a knowledge that transcends the limitations of interdisciplinary collaboration. They dreamt about a meta-level of understanding, a unity of knowledge and, consequently, a vocabulary for speaking and thinking with each other across disciplines in a meaningful and purposeful way.

After that first appearance, the term transdisciplinarity more or less disappeared from the agenda, only to come back at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties (with a centre and a charter on transdisciplinarity, among other things). Since then it has been increasingly used to frame cross-disciplinary research and approaches to complex problems where solutions cannot rely on disciplinary thinking alone. A hypothetical example of such a complex problem could be climate change. Understanding climate change is complex and needs an enormous amount of data from different disciplines. But predicting future developments is yet another challenge, let alone finding solutions for the dangers of future climate change. As well as input from exact sciences, therefore, you need knowledge of human behaviour, politics, economical situations, communication and education etc. Transdisciplinarity is often used in contexts such as these where there is a need for purposeful and socially engaged knowledge.

In the past decade, we have also seen the term transdisciplinarity appearing in the arts, first in the border zones where scientific and artistic research meet. Recently the term has started to become widespread in the performing arts as well.


That very short and incomplete history of transdisciplinarity leaves unanswered the question what legitimates the term transdisciplinarity, instead of multi- or interdisciplinarity in art collaborations. Is transdisciplinarity new packaging for existing content, or does it indicate genuinely novel developments?

To answer that question, we need a definition of transdisciplinarity. If we look at the literature at hand, definitions diverge depending on the perspective and the context. Transdisciplinarity is by nature hard to define prescriptively. In etymological terms, the prefix ‘trans’ combined with ‘discipline’ expresses something that falls between, across or beyond disciplines. Transdisciplinary approaches resist categorisation, and thus also definition. In that sense, it only seems possible to define transdisciplinary art in terms of what it is not.

A transdisciplinary artwork is a work that cannot be labelled with the name of a well-established discipline like music, theatre or visual art. Simple. But the transdisciplinary artwork should also be something different to or more than just a combination or a collaboration of these disciplines. Here we have to make the distinction between multi, inter and transdisciplinarity.

multi – inter – trans

Multidisciplinary art is something we all know very well. Think of a classical opera: the librettist, composer, musicians, singers, actors, stage designer, conductor and technicians all work together to produce the opera, but each of them stays within his or her discipline, doing what they are supposed to do. Typical of such multidisciplinary creations is a flow of creative energy flowing one direction (libretto-composition-conductor-musician etc.), from the top down.

Interdisciplinarity is a more horizontal collaboration between disciplines, where you have real dialogue and exchange of knowledge, experience and method. In the performing arts, we often see that interdisciplinarity relies on all kinds of translations, where the propositions coming from one discipline have to be translated and adapted before they can be used and get a response in another. Interdisciplinarity is therefore inherently labour-intensive and slow unless the translation is an automated process, something we see happening in many interdisciplinary artworks where mapping strategies are used, mostly at a digital level.

Transdisciplinarity, then, is what happens when we move from an application within a discipline (for instance the use of data from space mapped and applied to music) to an exploration beyond disciplinary borders (where the musician does something that cannot be called music anymore). Another possible viewpoint is to make a subtle distinction between the design of mapping (defining the relationship between coordinates in connected fields), which in essence is a transdisciplinary act, and the actual application and interaction with these translations within the music itself, which I would call in essence interdisciplinary.


Transdisciplinarity presupposes an attitude of openness and curiosity, combined with a willingness to accept the possibility of other dimensions or levels of reality entering practice.

To put it even more strongly, transdisciplinary artists often express a necessity: they experience the framework of a discipline as limiting what they want to express. That brings them to a point where they are no longer even interested in confirming their work as being part of an existing discipline, and in the most extreme cases, as part of the field we call ‘art’.

In contrast to multi or interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity is not necessarily dependent on collaboration between disciplines. Transdisciplinarity may involve practitioners from different backgrounds, but a transdisciplinary move may equally well come from an individual artist. Sound artists are an excellent example of artists who have usually made a transdisciplinary move at a certain point in their career. Sound art is still a hybrid and transdisciplinary art field, lacking the educational structures of music, dance or the visual arts. Looking at the biographies of sound artists (such as those who have an installation in Klankenbos), we notice the wide variety of backgrounds they come from: music, visual arts, architecture, poetry, anthropology, design and so on. At a particular moment in their career, they started integrating sound or/and space into their creative practice, thereby stepping beyond the borders of their former discipline.

Transdisciplinary moves can also be found in the work of many young composers and music makers today. Consider, for example, a cellist becoming aware of the visual qualities of her movements while playing the cello. Although we know that the visual presence of the musician has an impact on the audience, physical movement is normally seen as a by-product of the musical performance. Once the musician starts adapting her playing to the choreographic possibilities of movements on her instrument, she is becoming ‘a kind of’ dancing musician or music-making dancer, while the music is transformed into a choreographed music or a sounding choreography.

This is clearly not a multidisciplinary situation in which a dancer dances to a musician’s music. Neither is it an interdisciplinary collaboration where the musician learns something from the dancer and applies it to her practice. What happens here is an integration of the possibilities of sound and movement into a new approach to what a cello performance could be. This example also reveals a condition that gets little attention in the thinking on transdisciplinary collaboration: the move from music to dance is more than ‘tourism’ on the part of an adventurous musician. It is a move that only that musician can make. It is beyond their discipline but starts from the awareness, sensibilities and instrumental technique that have been mastered within the context of a former discipline (playing a musical instrument). There is always a starting point.

a double move

From an artistic perspective, it makes sense to understand transdisciplinarity as a movement from the inside to the outside. First, there is an attitude of curiosity and the wish to open doors and windows, followed by a ‘going out’ and listening, experimenting, feeling what happens. But transdisciplinary art also needs to bring these experiences back to a synthesis or integration into a singular artwork or individual expression, and at this point exploration becomes discovery.

I consider this double movement of, firstly, the willingness not to exclude any kind of influence or movement and, secondly, the aim to arrive at a new, more holistic understanding and experience, as a sign of the times. It is a response to the world we are living in, a world of increasing complexity, with ever-expanding knowledge in the form of accessible data, demanding ever-increasing specialisation if we wish to contribute as individuals. The consequence of growing complexity and specialisation is the loss of a broad vision. There is a need for perspectives that enable us to deal with the complexity around us in a meaningful way. We have two options here: one is the denial of complexity in the search for simplistic answers or superficial flexibility, the other one is trying to enhance awareness of multiple dimensions of reality and integrate differing perspectives in our lives.

If I said that transdisciplinarity may sound complex, then there is some truth in it. Complexity is at the heart of transdisciplinary art. Not in the sense of art that aims to be complicated or difficult to understand, but art that embraces reality as complexity, and is simultaneously confident of being able to create something meaningful from it.

hope & doubt

Some people will become sceptical at this point. There is a whiff of hope and optimism that lingers around the concept of transdisciplinarity. Is the unspoken trust that something meaningful can be found beyond the norms and conventions of discipline justified? Optimism can easily turn into false beliefs, and holistic approaches, in particular, are prone to the projections of intention onto reality that remind us of illusory new age beliefs. Do we have a sufficient perceptual basis to develop synaesthetic art projects where taste and sound are experienced at the same level? Is the possibility of mapping data coming from space to music, or data from human movement to sound, enough to call this act a true integration of other dimensions, or do they function as a kind of superficial justification of a practice?

If we take transdisciplinarity seriously, then we have to examine the invitations, questions and doubts it generates critically. Therefore I would like to conclude with a list of open questions and comments:

* When do we consider a transdisciplinary art project to be successful?

Is the successfulness analogous to the appreciation of the artwork in the external world? Or do we have to consider the actual integration of new dimensions and the discovery of a new artistic playing field in itself as a primary accomplishment?

* What or where is quality to be found in transdisciplinary artworks?

Quality norms are dependent on the possibility of comparing a work with similar artworks, with a reference frame or a standard, and that is exactly what a discipline has to offer. For some, the issue of quality may seem pointless and dated, but it is not for those who have to decide which artwork or artist deserves our support. Is quality in transdisciplinarity to be found in the process, or in the methodology with which the integration of new dimensions is realised?

*I have described the attitude of openness as a primary condition for transdisciplinarity. But artworks are not made of openness alone. Any artwork is made of choices and is the result of well-chosen limitations stimulating focus and creativity. For artworks in general, and for transdisciplinary artworks in particular, it is instructive to search for these moments of choice. When, where and why do they happen in a transdisciplinary process? What forces the artist to step beyond discipline at a particular moment and integrate new elements or perspectives?

*How far can we go with the integration of other perspectives? Do we accept the consequence of a transdisciplinary attitude at its most radical, do we accept that we may start with art, but end up somewhere else? Many artists today are getting involved with ecology, social questions, gender issues and even politics. Are these evolutions organic and logical outcomes of a transdisciplinary attitude, or do we resist at a certain point in order to protect the autonomy of the artistic playing field?

*Stepping out of discipline means, by definition, that you give up being a specialist. How do you remain credible, how do you gain a certain amount of authority beyond (art) disciplines as a transdisciplinary artist? I have already given one possible answer in my example of the musician becoming ‘a kind of’ dancer, with a transdisciplinary move from the inside out, which means that it is a move for which only that artist has the proper expertise, building upon the awareness and sensibilities developed within a former, disciplined context.

* Do we have to consider what I call ‘the transdisciplinary move’ as a temporary event or phase in the development and emergence of new disciplines? Even if the transdisciplinary artist cannot be considered a specialist, a transdisciplinary artwork embodies situational knowledge and creativity, which often become the nucleus that invites further exploration, development and specialisation. Is transdisciplinary art the expression of such a ‘being underway’? Is it a move from one place towards another, still undefined ‘base ground’ where the artist can settle and specialise again? Or is transdisciplinarity in itself to be regarded as a temporary concept, as the expression of a transition from a landscape with highly disciplined art forms towards a fundamentally different, more fluid and unstable cultural landscape?

The field of sound art will be an interesting case in the coming times. As an undefined, hybrid field from the outset, whose practitioners come from different backgrounds, sound art nowadays is demanding recognition and claiming a specific part in the artistic landscape with its own festivals, networks and (still underdeveloped) supporting structures. This reminds us of the fact that discussions of labels and definitions are not only of interest for theoreticians.

Paul Craenen, 20/10/16