Interdisciplinarity, interstellar travel, and being an amateur

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being on a panel discussion as a part of NUS Museum’s Summer Talk series – speaking with Prof Jose Ignacio Latorre (Director of CQT) and Rie Ong (NUS Museum) about interdisciplinarity. I prepared a little video segment that rambled on about my own thoughts on interdisciplinary practices – once the video recording of the entire session is out I’ll embed the video here, but in the meantime, here’s a link to my own segment.

Prof Jose spoke about how their work at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) can be considered nature in its ultimate form, and he talked about Wonder and Abstraction, showing us the most recent images from the James Webb space telescope.

I really loved this – space has been on my mind lately. I just visited the NUS STAR Centre recently and coincidentally also had some other conversations about space and debris recently. I even almost bought NASA’s No-Rinse Shampoo out of curiosity, after seeing several videos of astronauts washing their hair in the ISS and discovering that this very same shampoo is sold at a shop near my house in Singapore…

And so we dream of space, and in the movies there are so many scifi films and narratives that entertain the thought of human interstellar travel – Gravity, Interstellar, Arrival, The Martian (ok, that one is just to Mars), etc. I was also reminded of the film Prometheus the other day; the gist of it seemed to be about a journey crossing the galaxy to a distant planet to speak to other humanoid ancestors. It seemed so bizarre to squander so much in order to cross the universe – just to see more humanoid forms – surely an act of our egocentricism as a species; homo sapiens are not necessarily the most hardy of biological forms. But humans are drawn to seeing themselves in space and dream of interstellar travel anyway.

The “Engineer” in Prometheus. No, not set on Earth.

With so many images of interstellar space travel embedded within the popular imagination, one of the facts that I have been really surprised to hear is that about the fact that humans have not traveled beyond low Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 lunar mission in December 1972. Yes, this means that humans have yet to leave Earth’s atmosphere, since we consider the moon (furthest point reached by astronauts) to be within the geocorona. (Currently, the United States, Russia, and China are the only countries with public or commercial human spaceflight-capable programs). The Voyager 1 is the furthest human-made object from Earth and it has been journeying since 1977; if it is undamaged and manages to continue further, it will reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud in 300 years.

To be realistic, the odds of any of us living humans traveling out of Earth’s Atmosphere are really low. Taking the view from the outside, all our very finite lives will be spent somewhere on Earth, with so much of life’s drudgery self-imposed by human society. Just to put things in perspective…

On Being an “Amateur“:

Zooming back into the daily travails of the tiny work we do on Earth, we were talking about gathering skills from different areas and I talked about my acquisition of skills over the years and not being afraid to be an “keen amateur”. Prof Jose pointed out that in science, technical skill and technical excellence is the requirement. And that being excellent at the technical was not negotiable to be a scientist.

There wasn’t enough time to speak more on this but I suppose I should qualify what I mean by “amateur” or my love for “amateur approaches”. We often assume that the amateur is someone untrained and who cannot surpass a trained professional. But also, for me, the amateur is defined by having not gone through the formal routes of education. Of course, there is no doubt that in a extremely technical subject like Quantum Physics, the formal structure of education provides the necesssary scaffolding to develop the skills to perform cutting edge science research. But I think that in non-technical fields and perhaps also certain types of technical fields (eg. design), one can go over and beyond in acquisition of knowledge and skills – but yet not be legimitised through formal education. I know of some super brilliant programmers, ux designers, and vfx people who never went to Uni (or dropped out of uni) and still do swimmingly in their professional careers. Sometimes formal education results in rigidity of thinking; if you were told from the start that these were the rules then it is hard to break out of that mode of thinking sometimes. And on the flip side, sometimes the lack of formal education makes people second guess their abilities or refrain from trying to “restart from the beginning”, or produce or publish work in another area.

As an interaction designer… I’ll put it out there that I’m not a particularly good or talented programmer. However you can say that I simply make it up for it by being a hard worker, spending many hours on a reflective design process and the meticulous documentation of my process and self-learning (blogs!!!), and I suppose I am good at putting two and two together. I sadly do not possess any kind of formal mathematics foundation, which is one thing I’ve always wished I could make up for some day.

Even though I make art which could be in any form really, I do want to make something that is technically competent. I spend a lot of time acquiring the skills to make projects entirely by myself, including learning 3D modelling and game development although it has taken me years to do so. One reason why I chose to teach Interaction Design instead of Fine Art for the last 5 years is because value is placed on technical excellence and the acquisition of skills in this area. I really liked that I got to geek out a lot with different software and hardware and guide my students through real world projects as an educator. I mean, you can’t just pitch the idea, you’ve got to build a prototype. And the prototype has to be working! The technology is not just something we use or hire a contractor to do for us – but something to be mastered.

And on a practical level, I felt it was important that I teach my students (from very diverse socio-economic backgrounds) a skill that I knew would definitely get them some kind of in-demand marketable job as a UI/UX designer/developer. It would be a disservice to give young students the impression that it is feasible for most graduates to become professional full-time artists since I myself have always relied financially on a day-job in either design or education alongside making art. Teaching Interaction Design feels like a happy medium, where I know my students would be skilled in design – but should a few of them ever want to apply their skills to producing art – then they’d have the skill to take that route too. No starving required.

In my mind, my approach is that I must fully “learn” the skill and then I will “unlearn” it in order to make art. The image doesn’t look real if it is too sharp. Focus the lens, and then let it go slightly out of focus until you find what you are looking for…

One thought on “Interdisciplinarity, interstellar travel, and being an amateur

  1. Hello Debbie! Just dropping by to say hi and that I had a great evening being a be part of the audience tuning in to your panel discussion! Hope the full video of that is released, as there were some great conversation points that came up. Oh, and all the best for your PhD! 😀

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