Why Cross-Disciplinary Research Matters: An Interview with Amy Youngs

February 20, 2020

Why Cross-Disciplinary Research Matters: An Interview with Amy Youngs

Photograph of Amy Youngs alongside an illustrated graphic with text: Becoming Biodiversity

The following interview of Amy Youngs was conducted by Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme Program Manager Puja Batra-Wells. Youngs is an associate professor in The Ohio State University Department of Art. Youngs creates biological art, interactive sculptures and digital media works that explore relationships between technology and our changing concept of nature and self. Research interests include interactions with plants and animals, technological nature follies, constructed ecosystems and seeing through the eyes of machines. 

Puja Batra-Wells: Tell us about your current work/project: To what degree are cross-disciplinary perspectives or methods important to your practice?

Amy Young: I’ve been exploring how art and technology can be deployed to redirect human attention towards the non-human world. Can our seductive, interactive tech devices coax us into engaging with the actual, mattering, living world? One of my recent artworks takes the form of an augmented-reality cell phone app that guides participants on a walk in a public park. In Becoming Biodiversity, you inhabit the perspective of non-humans who live there: birds, plants, fungi, ants, and muskrats. There is an eco-narrative that includes the human in the network of symbiotic relationships on the site. Science, particularly ecology, is important in my work, even though I have no formal training in it. I began the research for this project at Mountain Lake Biological Research Station in Virginia, where I had access to scientists who were studying the ants, plants, birds and fungi living naturally on that site. I interviewed them about their research but also asked them questions about the world views of their subjects, which sometimes made them uncomfortable because the discipline of science does not allow them to anthropomorphize. 

The specific site for my project emerged from a research residency I did at the New York Urban Field Station. I spent time with park rangers, birders, ecologists, neighborhood kids, and joined park stewardship activities so I could get to know Flushing Meadows Corona Park through multiple perspectives. Citizen science methods became particularly useful, both for developing my own observations, and for getting a view of other people’s observations of the site throughout multiple seasons. I used an app called iNaturalist, which helps users identify species of plants and animals based on uploaded, geotagged images. At the same time, I was learning how to create my own app, which required specific technical knowledge outside of my comfort zone. I was fortunate to be able to work with a 3D animation artist, a sound artist, and a programmer, and each brought important skills to the project as well as sensibilities that helped shape it. 


PBW: What do you see as the major challenges of doing cross-disciplinary artwork? What do you find most rewarding?

AY: It can be a challenge to evaluate this type of work in academia. It does not easily fit into the models within which we are promoted, so the quality of the work is sometimes not trusted. Is it valued in the world of science or art? Both, or neither? 

Developing working relationships across disciplines takes extra time since we don’t have a clear understanding of each other’s practices. Once trust is developed and overlapping motivations can be leveraged, the work is incredibly engaging. I have learned so much from an ongoing collaboration with professor Iris Meier in the Department of Molecular Genetics. We have been teaching an art and science class together that has allowed us to take interesting risks with our teaching and research. When things are going really well, we have been able to include all of the students in the class as co-designers and co-creators of art installations that engage her scientific research. Last semester, we created an installation that invited people to walk through an inflatable stomata (plant pore), where they would sit inside a soft sculptural leaf interior, don virtual reality goggles, and continue on as a carbon particle floating through the 3D modelled interiors of plant structures and cells. Together, we named this hybrid project Un-becoming Carbon: Traveling in Intercellular Space. It is something I never would have come up with on my own, and it certainly could not have been accomplished without this particular team. 


PBW: What ethical considerations drive your interest in the interdependencies between the human and the non-human?

AY: An ethic of belonging motivates me. How does the human species fit into ecosystems? What do we offer, and what do we take? How can we become better citizens of the earth? These giant questions are unapproachable in the abstract. My personal experiences with raising animals as a kid in 4-H and with keeping plants and composting worms, grounded my understanding of myself as belonging to a larger community. The categories we use to describe our species’ relationships with other species are inadequate: pets, food, labor, entertainment. Interacting with a colony of composting worms over 20 years has taught me about a wider range of sustained relationships we have with non-humans. For instance, they transform my household waste into rich fertilizer that I feed to my garden plants, which helps them grow into edibles or tomatoes that eventually travel through my own body. Plant clippings and veggie scraps go back into the worm bin, where they cycle back through the system. I care for the worms as if they are a part of my extended body, because they are. When I purchase items from the store, I consider the worms, “will they like this Styrofoam box?” No. I’ll get the product in the cardboard packaging that they can eat. 

Interdependence is highlighted in much of my artwork because the fact that we are interconnected with a larger community of living things is intimate and beautiful, yet also uncomfortable. It reminds us of our vulnerability. I hope to focus attention on developing good relationships with the living and non-living things that make our lives possible.  


PBW: In one sentence, what is the value of cross-disciplinary research to your field?

AY: Art can do things that other disciplines cannot do, and vice-versa, but when we are working together new possibilities emerge that expand the questions, the methods, the knowledge, and problem-solving potentials.