Saturday, May 2, 2009

Crosspollination / Braiding

“Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity…they present situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.” Although Jane Jacobs’ quote addresses the idea of the city on a general and macro level, this same concept is applicable to institutions like RISD; institutions that are suffering from lack of unity and community.

Throughout this semester I interviewed students affiliated with RISD and individuals unaffiliated with the school. The same theme (or problem) that continuously reached the surface was the fact that RISD’s campus and academic structure prevent crosspollination. Community members of Providence unaffiliated with the school rarely have the opportunity to interact with RISD and furthermore, RISD students rarely have the opportunity to interact with their peers outside of their chosen discipline.

The lack of crosspollination is a fundamental problem with the academic structure of the school. The structure as it exists now supports interaction between students exclusively within individual departments. Students spend the majority of their time working in studio with the same individuals from their department. Unity and interaction between students across disciplines ceases to exist with this type of structure.

Jacobs’ ideas of simultaneous, interconnected variables, interrelated into an organic whole, influence a proposal for changes to the academic structure of the school; within each chosen major, students should be required to choose a concentration or theme that would travel with them throughout their education at RISD.

Firstly, it is important to discuss how and why I have arrived at this proposal.

Like mentioned previously, I had the opportunity to interview four RISD students who were all in different departments; furniture, jewelry, architecture, and landscape architecture. The group included both undergraduate and graduate students. Each student was asked which communities on campus they felt they belonged to and whether they felt RISD suffered from a lack of community. Themes began to develop regarding overlap in their answers. All four students considered their studios as the main community in which they belonged to.

Additionally, they found that locations like the Wild Colonial or Cable Car to be communal places where interaction could exist between students outside of their department. It was evident from the interview that the students considered these types of non-departmental interactions as something favorable and something that they wanted more of.

It was important to interview individuals unaffiliated with RISD as well. Furthermore it was important to interview people who use art as a tool for creating communities. As art students, learning how other artists create community is incredibly influential and especially pertinent to this proposal. I interviewed Tyler Denmead, co-founder of New Urban Arts in Providence. Tyler discussed powerful ideas of nest building; the idea that relationships are situated and need a place. Additionally, he discussed notions of New Urban Arts’ open shell concept. This meant that there were no classrooms, no studios, and no offices. There was a desire to blur boundaries of all the disciplines within the space. This created an ambiguity and uncertainty of people’s practices – all different practices were visible inside the space simultaneously. Tyler described certain aspects of a successful space that have to exist: an organic, changing space within a specific site, and shared values of the people. With these initial aspects, the practice within the space could manifest itself in many different ways.

Specific ideas of community emerged from the interviews. Firstly, it was evident that RISD lacked a define community. But more importantly, it was clear that RISD students were thirsty for unity and for more interaction between students across all disciplines and departments. Ideas from Tyler’s interview provided a starting point to addressing these issues on campus. Something needed to be created that blurred the boundaries of individual disciplines within RISD as well as outside of RISD.

One possible answer that emerged from this idea was a student center. A student center would provide a place on campus where students in all departments could travel to and exchange ideas. A student center is problematic for several reasons as well. Firstly, I do not believe the answer to the lack of community on campus can be solved by one particular building on campus that has the specific program of creating unity. There are locations on campus like the Wild Colonial and Cable Car that would seemingly solve issues of unity, yet we still have problems. I think it would be similar with a student center. Secondly, a student center would only be inviting to students and faculty associated with the school. It is vital that the RISD community is inclusive of members outside of the institution.

Another possible answer that ultimately took the form of the proposal of this paper involved changes to the academic structure of the school. Wintersession was an extremely valuable experience that allowed interaction between students in all disciplines. However, Wintersession is temporary and only focuses on one particular chosen class. More opportunities like Wintersession should exist throughout a student’s time at RISD. We have the most talented and creative artists in the world sharing a campus. We should be taking advantage of the infinite possibilities of exchanging knowledge and ideas. RISD is such an attractive option for emerging art students because of the incredible talent of the students. Yet, once students arrive here, they are only exposed to ideas within their department. We have the potential to be an incredibly powerful, unified, creative force exchanging ideas. However, we currently exist as separate, unassociated departments who just happen to exist under the same institution.

I will now discuss the specifics of the proposal. The main idea behind the proposal can be defined by the word crosspollination. The dictionary defines crosspollination as:

1. The transfer of pollen from the flower of one plant to the flower of a plant having a different genetic constitution.
2. A sharing or interchange of knowledge, ideas, etc., as for mutual enrichment.

The proposal involves the implementation of a new academic structure that weaves students from multiple disciplines together. Not only will every student declare a major by their sophomore year, but they will also choose a BRAID (Brown/RISD Academically Integrated Discipline). The idea is that a student not only chooses a department within RISD but also has the opportunity to choose a multi-disciplinary integrated theme. For example, a student entering their sophomore year chooses architecture as the department they will enter next fall. They would also choose from a list containing several BRAIDS. This list would include themes that weave multiple disciplines together. The list could include: sustainability, education, alternative practices, economics, professional practice, business, social studies, internationalism, digitalism, music, and performing arts. The thought is that someone in architecture who is interested in Green Design could take classes outside of the architecture school with students in all the other departments who are also interested in Green Design. Brown may offer a class on social journalism which a photo major in the social studies BRAID could take.

Additionally, BRAID’s would not be exclusive to classes offered at Brown or RISD. For example, a student could fulfill one class of their BRAID by having an internship at a sustainable design firm over Wintersession or summer. Communities outside of RISD could be formed outside of campus by fulfilling requirements in a professional practice setting.

This idea of simultaneous occurrences and blurring boundaries of individual disciplines is vital. Without this crosspollination, departments will increasingly become more polarized and RISD will become more unattractive to perspective students. The incorporation of BRAID’s into the academic structure would be a unique and attractive perk to perspective art students who are thirsty for many types of creative exposure and interaction across all disciplines.

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