"Building a better future away from individual heroism." (Uta Reichardt)
credit. Helen Maybanks
credit. Uta Reichardt
Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Iceland. Author: Uta Reichardt (2018) - “Report Science for Disaster Risk Management 2020: acting today, protecting tomorrow”, EUR 30183 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2020. Casajus Valles, A., Marin Ferrer, M., Poljanšek, K., Clark, I. (eds.), Lead author: Uta Reichardt, University of Iceland, re. Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010
credit. Helen Maybanks
Uta Reichardt, PhD, is a transdisciplinary researcher, facilitator and lecturer living in Reykjavik. She works between disciplines and explores synergies that emerge from the dialogue between Arts and Science. Her research interest in communication and risks ranges from Icelandic volcanic ash and European air traffic, to working characters and visual language used to communicate risk in Japan, to the meaning of disaster movies on our understanding of crisis. In her current work, she views sustainable development through the lens of disaster risk reduction, with a focus on the role of Art and Design regarding preparedness, relief and recovery from disastrous events. A few months prior to the pandemic, she created a interdisciplinary course on “Coping with Disasters” - linking disaster risk research with environmental science, social science and the arts. The format is receiving growing attention and has led her teach courses and workshops at Scandinavian Universities and Art schools as well as visiting lectures at Kyoto University/ of the Arts and Central Saint Martins, London. She co-founded Disaster Studios (www.disasterstudios.website), a platform that joins disaster risk management and Design practise and emphasizes the importance of creative approaches in disaster risk reduction, and Out of Sync (www.outof-sync.com), a collective for transdisciplinary art-science collaborations. The project thrives for applied output of scientific research and the reconsideration of the holistic education that sees science and arts on eye level.
Can art foster social change - and what role can artists and their work play in this? Is there room for them to take a leading role?
Leonardo da Vinci is said to have referred to art as “the queen of all sciences, communicating knowledge to all generations of the world”. Art was seen as an integrated skill not just to communicate but as a vehicle to interpret observations. While the sciences unearth the facts and strive for generalised objectivity, the arts offer possibilities for emotive connection through their exploration of the subjective. Though their divergence in methodologies led arts and science to split, it has been recognised, that in order to solve global problems, the fields need to be in exchange and collaborate on eye level. In joint conversation, they make the abstract personal and generate empathetic discourse on societal change.
We clearly see the need in fields such as sustainable development and Disaster Risk Reduction, where there is no shortage of scientific evidence and knowledge to suggest that action is required. Yet, there is a gap between knowledge and action which in the latter case led to “knowing better and losing even more”. In both fields, art and creative practices have shown to be successful in closing the knowledge gap, guide social action, provide learning that becomes transformative and buffer shocks when disasters hit.
I think there is space for a co-lead. In education, research and implementation, the collaborations need to go beyond the arts in the service of science to communicate scientific ideas and raise awareness. We need truly transdisciplinary art-science collaborative practises that share approaches, create wiser and more empathetic solutions that are considerate of aim and impact to society at the same time.
In the face of the radical upheavals and crises of our time, can we still hope for a better future? And what impact might "narrative" have on this future's construction process?
Oh, radical upheaval and crisis are particularly well suited for hope. Disaster risks are socially constructed in a way that underlying social, political and economic disparities leave some populations more vulnerable to the impact of certain hazards than others. In times of crisis, the cracks of systems lay bare and allow us to take a good look at what is not working. While the global challenges might make us sometimes wish for it, it’s not an option to switch off the lights and exit the building so we better use the opportunities that crises provide and actively make changes for the better. While change doesn’t come easy, and is often painful, it is also normal, and concepts such as post traumatic growth allude to the potentials that lie in crisis as a way to progress, enrich life experiences and increase resilience. What counts on an individual level can also be expanded to a societal experience.
Narratives are important as they shape our aspirations and can guide us in this process. We need hopeful, yet frank and detailed narratives of crisis, narratives that normalise calamity, that help us understand the underlying complex systems and discuss feelings around hardship, failure, devastation. Building a better future is not based on isolated and individual efforts and it is important for the stories that surround us to reflect this: away from individual heroism to joint strength, emphasising the importance of community and collaboration.
What might be the premises of a transdisciplinary dialogue (between art, culture and other disciplines) capable of triggering social transformation? In your own work, what expertise or practices could go in the direction of such a transdisciplinarity?
In lack of active listening, many dialogues are two monologues in disguise. I like the poignant remark by playwright George B. Shaw on the matter: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” When we are talking about dialogue in general, but very specifically across disciplines that are informed by different methods and have their own use of language, we need to make sure to approach the interaction with time and space for open ears and curiosity to inquire the other party’s point of view. For this to happen, we need institutions that are willing to provide the financial resources for those groups to meet and exchange.
Creating space for interdisciplinary dialogue is the focus of my work as researcher, facilitator and lecturer. I am teaching at universities and art schools, always trans-departmental and recently also between academic institutions. In my courses, I mix methods from both schools of thought to introduce students from different backgrounds to artistic and scientific methods and guide them in exploring both. Inviting practitioners as guest lectures into the class room has been a great way to encourage applied conversations and create an exchange between academic institutions and non/for profit organisations.
In Disaster Studios we create a knowledge platform that bridges the fields of disaster risk research, emergency practise and the arts and honours their respective backgrounds. Through existing projects, we discuss intersections and ways in which cross-disciplinary collaborations are active agents in preparing for and managing disaster risk and dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events. The conversations with practitioners, scholars and creatives is what makes the platform unique and invites people from each field – as well as the general reader - to look at familiar topics from a new perspective.
Out of Sync creates events and discussions on art/science collaborations. The platform started out as a quest to apply research that we did on the impact of Covid19 on the space-related arts sector in Iceland. We were looking for a way to dive back into the subject’s medium to talk about our findings. In the resulting “Islands in the stream” event between Reykjavik and Taipei, we worked with artists, creative directors, venue hosts and augmented reality programmers to give life to one of our recommendations to inquire new ways for artists to perform abroad without travelling. The event was possible because research funds such as NORDRESS have started to acknowledge the importance of different forms of public outreach to create a conversations beyond a circle of scholars.
Assuming it is possible to build a better world on the ruins of the old one - what do you think it might look like? What would you wish for a better world?
I hope for more connection, away from silo thinking, towards a universal education that embraces the polymath in people and its need for problem solving. In the same way, I hope for stronger emphasis on the notion that we are in this together and need to participate in the process to really change underlying systems. While progress is being made and I hope for even more actions that acknowledge that we need regulatory changes, changes in the collective mindset and not blame the individual, whether it is about consumption or national identity but that it is clear what structures lie beneath it. Empathy, a more equal access to economic and political power to strive for the sustainable development we need.
It's often said that artists (and creative people) have this unique ability to endlessly search for the new, to start from scratch over and over again. When you start a new project, what strategies or rituals do you personally use?
I don’t think I ever start from scratch – in most cases, one thing leads to another and new projects are inspired from previous ones and continue to grow to live a life of their own. Maybe it’s my geography training that shows, but at the beginning of a project I usually sketch a mind map and see to which areas my mind is taking me. When I work from home, I usually light a candle at my desk, the flame makes me calm and helps me focus.
The interview was conducted in December 2021.