“There is something about infinite games, or infinite problems, that make them particularly challenging for people who want endpoints. ‘We did this! We solved this! We won! We finished!’ But complexity means that never happens. I don’t think that contemporary industrial human cultures are very good at accepting that.”—Zack Denfeld
Zack Denfeld: Co-Founder, Center for Genomic Gastronomy + CoClimate / Portland OR
“there is something about infinite games, or infinite problems, that make them particularly challenging for people who want endpoints. ‘we did this! We solved this! we won! we finished!’ but complexity means that never happens. i don’t think that contemporary industrial human cultures are very good at accepting that.”—zack denfeld
Can you talk about your background leading into your current collaborative projects?
I studied public policy as an undergraduate at Syracuse University. I think that’s important, because I was going back and forth between art school and liberal arts, and I don’t think I happily resolved that. So I studied public policy, but I ended up hanging out with video artists a lot. I took a lot of classes on video and cybernetics in the art school. Towards the end of school, I saw connections between those topics of policymaking, art, cultural production, and histories of technology. I also studied abroad in Hong Kong, because I got interested in going to places and looking at cultures outside of the US and Europe. Then I went to the University of Michigan, and took part in a very experimental 3-year MFA. There was a really interesting dean there, Bryan Rogers, who actually just recently passed away. He was also the dean at Carnegie Mellon for a while. It was a very post-disciplinary program. There were no expectations in terms of studio practice or medium, and you were required to take graduate-level coursework in departments outside of the College of Fine Arts. You also had to have advisors outside of the College of Fine Arts. That was transformative, because I was already thinking like a creative practitioner who didn’t have a home. I didn’t go to art school, so I was learning a lot of skills and having to navigate between these two really different worlds of the social sciences and humanities and the arts. That was really helpful for me. While I was in grad school, we had an international trip as a cohort to South America. This was a really important international experience for me, because I started thinking about how different cultures do things like urban planning, especially in the capital of Suriname, Paramaribo. I also sort of mapped globalization and global capital. It was a really amazing thing to be in a city that had a totally different pace and built forms than in most of the cities that I had visited.
courtesy of zack denfeld
Then during my last year there, I took an international internship in Bangalore, India, for a company called CKS (Center for Knowledge Societies). That’s where I got exposed to a lot of the ideas that we will probably be talking about. They’re basically a design and innovation company. They do a lot of design research and design ethnography for a lot of Western companies who want to make products or services in India. They transitioned in two ways: they started moving away from only international companies and taking on national work, but they also were starting to act as translators and design ethnographers in many other cultures. I was sent down as a design ethnographer to Brazil for two weeks. It was an Indian company doing fieldwork in Brazil with an American researcher. It was kind of an interesting path. What I saw there was an amazing, small group that had started out doing interaction design and design research, and had expanded its practice into many different fields, to the point where now they are working with private corporate clients. They are doing self-directed research and work. They started around 2000, and I was there from 2006 to 2010. That was the time where I got real insight into how collaborative design worked in the field. They hired journalists and social scientists, but they didn’t hire very many designers because there were not a lot of formally-trained designers in India at the time, although that’s starting to change.
I also worked as a professor at Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore. A colleague of mine and I started a graduate program in Experimental Media Art, and that began in 2007. Both of those jobs took me through the next three years, with a couple of stops in Portland, OR. Then on my last trip to India, I also worked for a think tank as a designer; I was a translator between the social scientists, engineers, and the public communication side of things. The think tank was called CSTEP (The Center for Science, Technology, and Energy Policy). I was their designer, and I was doing some graphic design, although that’s not really my specialty, but I was actually there as a translator across disciplines. There were a lot of in-house boundaries. Then I went to PNCA in Portland, and I have worked there from 2009 until the present. The main transition in my own practice, is going from working professionally as a professor, which is what I had done since grad school, toward being a full-time practitioner.
courtesy of zack denfeld
In 2010, I launched the Center for Genomic Gastronomy with my partner, Cat Kramer, which we describe as an “artist-led think tank.” It straddles the worlds of art and design. Artists don’t necessarily think of what we are doing as art, and I don’t think designers think of what we are doing as design. It is very much a research-based practice. It is in-between a lot of fields. Food is the primary domain of the research that we are doing, and we are using the lenses of life sciences, gastronomy, and ecology to look at food in all of its different aspects. Cat and I have different part-time people, including scientists and chefs that we collaborate with.
How do you put these pieces of art, design, and science together?
The challenge with a lot of the work that I was exposed to professionally, commercially, and in academia, was that there were these really complex, wicked problems that required lots of different domain knowledge and lots of different skill sets. A lot of companies and universities aren’t set up handle those kinds of problems or to create solutions or work in those problem spaces. So when I wanted to launch my own thing, there was a desire to pull in the artists and scientists as equally as possible, and in terms of food, draw on people from seed companies, agricultural producers and processors, food companies, and chefs. So it’s been different disciplines and different parts in the food chain.
It’s pretty unusual, when you call up a scientist in a biology lab and say, “Hey, we are these artists, we run a think tank, and we want to collaborate with you on a project.” Their first reaction is, “That sounds cool, but I have no idea why you are talking to me.” In some cases, it comes down to personality, getting to know some people, and establishing connections. I would say it is a little easier in Europe, and especially in the UK, because there seems to be room for public outreach as part of academic scientists’ contracts and expectations. In the US, lip service is given, but it’s not always the case that interactions with the public and with science experts are fully and financially supported.
How do you explain to a scientist what you do and what the link is to their work?
Lots of different people are working in this space. Partly, it’s the fact that there is a sincere interest in the work that they are doing, and that you present whatever you are doing in a totally different way. Sometimes it’s just a wow factor, like, “Whoa! You’re interested in sequencing and you do these really weird performances at restaurants or whatever? Okay, let’s talk about that.” I think our weirdness actually demonstrates the power of affect, where the experiences are not everyday commercial images that you see. This generally helps us to gain a foot in the door.
Spice Mix Super Computer by Center for Genomic Gastronomy
photo: paul greenwood
courtesy of zack denfeld
It’s also about doing the homework. Like, “We need to talk to a scientist.” Or, “We need to talk to a materials person.” And then we just go to them and not assume anything. You want to be prepared. I often recommend an essay about how to ask questions the smart way. It’s about doing your homework, learning as much as you can given your current knowledge and skill set, demonstrating to your potential collaborator or helper that you put in some labor, and they are therefore more likely to reciprocate, because you are not asking naïve questions that could easily be answered online. On the other hand, you are also keeping an open mind, going in to the situation like you don’t think you know anything, and are willing to admit that you might be a stupid question. It might also open a few doors. It’s a little bit of intellectual honesty about what you can do, but it’s also being willing to risk asking what might be silly questions.
How does space play a role in your collaborative experiences?
I think it is important to have a space, but I don’t have one for the Center for Genomic Gastronomy. Physical environment is really important, especially if you are working collaboratively; it helps to have non-program spaces where you pass by each other. It is really important to not be on a campus in the middle of nowhere, and to be able to have the serendipity of urban environments where unexpected interactions can happen. We have lots of those in our practice; we just don’t have our own space. Basically, we have been on the road with this project for four years now. We managed to do that because of using newer tools, things like Google Docs and Skype, to communicate in real time in a way that we couldn’t do five years ago, and it really opened up possibilities. We also have a full-time assistant who is in Portland, OR, who talks with us all of the time. She is there because there are still some physical needs, so we go back there and touch base. We collaborate remotely all of the time with our main assistant. That is a new potential for a lab through these technologies. It also means that in our research around food, we see ourselves as pollinators, and in some ways, we are going between these different researchers and other centers, like restaurants or science labs, and we carry these ideas between them. That is one of our roles. But in terms of physical space, we act as pollinators by going between spaces that we are not even allowed into because we need a badge or a pass. Last week, when we were in Scotland, we visited three different research labs in four days, and those aren’t just places that you walk into. You need a reason to be there.
What is your collaborative process?
The Center for Genomic Gastronomy is me and my partner, Cat, and because we live together, it is a full-time life project. A bit of it is just what we do over dinner, for example. Last year, we took up Basecamp as an organizing tool, and that has been really helpful. Working in so many different locations, and having both smaller and larger projects, everything was becoming a bit overwhelming. It’s one of the challenges when you have so many partners, stakeholders, and institutions that you’re engaging with. You need to do that right and make sure all of the needs for everyone are filled.
As artists looking to survive, it is important that we find new work and new audiences. But because we are not primarily doing big jobs that pay well, that can’t be the upstream indicator to direct our attention. We need a different way to direct our attention. There are still the creative clichés of waiting until deadlines and looking for inspiration until you can find it, but there’s also just a lot of everyday going to work and getting stuff done.
Do you overtly teach collaboration and interdisciplinary work in the classroom?
It’s definitely required for most of the classes that I do. It’s also something that is structured into the courses, so there are different strategies that I try to employ to get folks to collaborate in new ways or to reflect on their collaborative process. It’s something that I ask them to assess. I also ask them for ways that they can imagine, or prefer, to collaborate. It’s difficult for students coming out of an art and design undergraduate education, where individuality is really emphasized, and there is still an idea of owning ideas and wanting to distinguish yourself and have your own voice. You need to get folks over that hump. There are strategies that I can bring to get folks there.
What are some of the strategies?
One thing is to give a lot of quick interactions. This purest ideal tends to live and die off, so it’s important to have everyone interact with each other on day one. I mix up different scales of interactions like groups of two, groups of four, the whole class, the whole class versus the professor, and two groups that are competing and one of them has the professor. I really play with the power dynamics throughout a course so that people never get too comfortable, myself included, with how interactions are taking place. I even try thinking about group dynamics in a lecture course, with something as simple as setting boundaries and changing up the discussion section each week. It helps to make sure that there are different entry points for folks who are a certain kind of learner, or for people that express themselves in certain ways.
How does a class of students go about solving the wicked problems?
In some ways, academia is slow to respond to things, but it is more willing to change because it has multiple motives and desires. So it is frustrating to see how much of academia still falls under categories of silo-ed knowledge. It is frustrating for me to go to humanities and social science conferences, and hear people talk about extremely focused and specific things that they know, with almost zero context for anything else.
We give credits for knowledge: here’s a credit, you did a good job. I think the desire for expertise for most fields is still there. I think it’s one of those things that design can circumvent really easily. Most designers are expert generalists, and there is a pretty strong tradition of that. That is not necessarily a new thing.
I think that is one reason why so many universities are embracing design curriculums, because they see it as a way to approach those wicked problems. It’s also because the social sciences are largely critique-based, so design is poised to propose something to the world: making change and knowing how to respond to failure, even if it’s a speculative change. For example, scientists only leave behind policy suggestions. They are not often asked, unlike engineers, to make a proposition to the world.
In terms of companies, there are similar things about disciplinary knowledge, but there are massive constraints beyond their control in terms of things that we value in our economies, and how we collectively ascribe value. Even the most well-meaning companies have a hard time dealing with a complex problem, or a wicked problem; if it involves environmental issues, those often aren’t priced in. Companies say they can’t do anything about it. There are also third spaces or third institutions, which are neither academic nor nonprofits nor corporations, but something else quite strange, like collectives, or groups of creatives, that survive and make things for the world, like public labs, with open technologies. These groups are interesting, newer models of production and dissemination.
What makes something a good project for addressing wicked problems within an academic institution?
Yeah, projects that help students learn about wicked problems are really important. In some ways, projects where there is a problem that they have to solve, doesn’t really help them later on when they have intractable problems that are not in any way solvable. They are only something that you can lessen or ameliorate. Especially for something that is a wicked or complex problem, assignments where students have to solve things are probably not helpful in the long run, although they might be helpful for building up confidence. The ideal projects are ones where you ameliorate one aspect of something, and where you bring together different kinds of knowledge and stakeholders to accomplish something. I think that we are still figuring this out because the language that we need, the ideas that we need to deal with, and these topics are not quite there yet. We talk about problem solving, the behavior of designers, and the problem seeking behavior of artists, but it may be that complex systems require a different kind of behavior. Because there is no stopping rule, there is no endpoint. There are just a series of compositions. The heart of a lot of my thinking involves finite versus infinite games, like what Stewart Brand talks about, and pulling from Buckminster Fuller—these ideas show up in the Long Now Foundation. There is something about infinite games, or infinite problems, that make them particularly challenging for people who want endpoints. “We did this! We solved this! We won! We finished!” But complexity means that never happens. I don’t think that contemporary industrial human cultures are very good at accepting that. It can be frustrating for educators and students to take on some of these things because sometimes you are left with a feeling that we took two steps forward and then what?
How is collaboration with outside groups and individuals different from working in your own small-scale collaborative?
Collaboration is one of these infinite things where you can always gain wisdom, empathy, and develop new strategies. If your goal is to become an effective collaborator, the process of doing that never stops; the process of experimentation and figuring out how to be a collaborator, and how to have a successful collaboration leading to the results that you want, is probably an ongoing process. I think you do develop some heuristics over time. Many heuristics are useful for these complex systems because they never stop. They may change in different ways or have different levels. But if you develop a good set of heuristics that you can try and employ and remix and matchup against each other, that is probably a good set of tools.
Part of what describes an institution is that they have less permeable boundaries than a collective, or a bunch of people hanging out. When you are starting to engage collectives, it is a lot easier than engaging an entire institution. The level of institutionalization changes how you might approach collaboration. If you have a large institution, you might look for one individual from that institution who is an entry point, with the goal of having a larger effect on that institution. When it’s a collective, maybe it’s three people, and they consider things at a dining table, or a virtual table. I think the scale of it and the permeability of it is what changes the strategy quite a bit.
What makes a good project for you? What makes an ideal piece?
I’ll speak to the counter of it. One thing that we have learned from other collectives, like the Critical Art Ensemble and the Institute for Applied Autonomy, two really important art collectives with very specific strategies for dealing with differing opinions and conflict, is that there is a shared mission or belief that can overcome differences. One of the things that Cat and I have to do, is try to support each other when projects come up that one of us is really excited about, but that the other may not quite fully understand what it is. That can be a hard thing to do, but there are different ways of doing it. Sometimes it is like, “I will totally do this project with you 100%,” and we go for it. But other times, it’s like, “That sounds like a really cool project, and I can see that you’re really into it, so you should do that, and you should do it under our name or you should do it as an individual.” One of the ways that those differences get hashed out is by having a shared mission or shared belief in the other person and knowing when to stand behind them. On the other hand, it is good to do projects that you are both super excited about and on the same page about. That is often a good sign, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the project will be a success. Sometimes you are both like, “Oh, wow, this is great,” and you are both on the same page, but somehow it is not nearly as successful as one where there was more tension.
The other aspect of it is working with bigger collectives. I have been a part of a group with five or six members, and there is a sort of wiki politics to it. You set up a virtual document, and there’s some deadline three days down the road, and whoever contributes makes the decisions, so being present is actually a huge part. Who showed up? If you are willing to put in the extra four hours because it is really important to you, then your voice may rise to the top. There are problems with that power structure, but it can also be quite useful when you have a loose collaboration. There has to be room for contextualizations, so that minority voices aren’t totally crowded out.
Do you find it beneficial to maintain projects apart from the group, or do all threads lead back to the collaborative?
It has to be valuable for everyone in order to bring their interests back in. When there is tension, is it because of an unequal power dynamic? Is someone honestly saying, “This sounds cool, but I don’t get it, and I want to explore more?” If somebody in a company has a really good idea, but it doesn’t make any sense given the structure of the group, then that person has to let it go. It’s going to die if they try to bring it inside.
Can you walk us through a project that you’ve done from start to finish?
We curated a show for the Science Gallery in Dublin, IE called Edible: The Taste of Things to Come. It was a very unusual institution because it does art and science, and its main audience is 15 to 25-year-olds, so it is not for little kids and families. Cat and I were hired on as researchers, curators, and exhibition designers to put the works together. We were hired as the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, and at the time, it was only the two of us, although we had other occasional collaborators. During the process of the show, we decided we were going to write a cookbook for the catalog, so we brought in Scott Heimendinger (The Seattle Food Geek and a colleague from the Pacific Northwest) and Heather Julius as the chef. We had to bring in lots of different artists that were in the exhibition, but we were also creating artwork ourselves, for the exhibition that we were curating. That is a very unusual thing to do in the art world or the science world.
In order to make this very unusual exhibition in a very unusual institution, we had to draw on a large network of people that we had established connections with in the past, and pull them together in a way that was pretty strange. Science Gallery is also part of Trinity College Dublin. So we were sometimes having to refer to certain kinds of expertise that were only available to the University and bring in some of that knowledge. This kind of practice already exists, so I am not putting it on a pedestal. But I think this is a really good example of involving folks at all different stages.
We commissioned 20 recipes for the restaurant that we built in the gallery, and to do that, we had to talk to the health and safety inspector and get clearance. We also commissioned recipes from an organic farmer in rural Ireland. We commissioned recipes from folks who were working in molecular gastronomy. The range of expertise and knowledge in this open structure was pretty unusual. The restaurant and the museum were run by culinary students from Dublin. We were working with a cheesemonger in Ireland. In some ways, we were simulating the complexity that it takes to run something like a restaurant, but because it was in this space, the kitchen was open, the sourcing was open, and all of those processes that are often invisible, were made visible, because we assembled them for public display in a very explicit way.
Do you have advice for people going into an interdisciplinary collaboration for the first time?
I think it is really helpful to model behavior. Seeing another person interacting across disciplines and observing that and paying attention to their strategies is very helpful. I was very lucky to have someone in my graduate program in Michigan who was doing a Masters in Art, but already had a Masters in Evolutionary Biology, so I was able to see him interact across those disciplines. It really changed how I understood the possibilities and some of the of affordances and constraints of doing that.
Scientists are often very cool and relaxed and whatever, but if you show up in a very corporate science meeting with your leather jacket and your ripped jeans and you are loud and crazy, it might not make the best first impression. That’s usually pretty self-evident, but it wasn’t really self-evident to my 22-year-old self, actually. It took a second to realize that even though what’s really often celebrated in art is the ego or eccentricity or putting yourself on display, that isn’t necessarily what’s happening in science labs.
Circuit Bending Workshop at Srishti
courtesy of zack denfeld
Observing other people is good, and so is coming at things with an honest, intellectual curiosity. Are you doing this just to get something done? Do you really need this person? Or are you really curious about the world? I think curiosity can be quite contagious. If you are curious about somebody else’s ideas, practice, or work, and you are really fascinated by it, then it will lead others to reciprocate, because that positive feedback loop happens. If you go in with an honest curiosity, that can lead to much better results than if you go in with an agenda. It also means that these engagements take a long time to develop, given that the one-off meetings can be a three-hour experience. But if you were only doing goal-directed interaction, it would be 20 minutes. Sometimes collaborating across disciplines is very time and resource intensive. In general, I think it is worth it.
What have you learned about collaboration along the way?
There are personal things that happen any time when you work with anyone that is not yourself. One of the challenges, especially working across professional or academic disciplines, can be an inability to translate. You may be with people who are honestly curious about each other, and who want to share ideas, but they just cannot find the words for it. Their disciplines have such different aims and goals that the conversation almost goes nowhere. Not all conversations and interactions need to be productive; there is value to sometimes just spinning your wheels and chatting at work, even though that can be difficult.
Recently, Cat and I were in Scotland for a project called Nil by Mouth, and we had a one-day session with artists, scientists, and policymakers from Scotland’s agricultural sector. Many times during the day, it felt like we were just talking across each other, and part of that might just be the honest curiosity thing. I wonder how honestly curious the policymakers are about the artists and particularly, vice versa. I know there is curiosity between artists and scientists, but I’m not as convinced that artists are honestly curious about policymakers. What I mean by that is, the artists might’ve already made up their mind: “Oh, these people are bureaucrats or in the pockets of big business!” That attitude does not lead to a deeply empathetic interaction. Artists minds should be more open.
Strange Weather at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin
courtesy of zack denfeld
Why do students enroll in the collaborative design program at PNCA?
I think at PNCA, students want to take advantage of Portland as an incubator or a lab. Portland is great for writing reasons, because it is this open, urban environment where people can take risks and try new things. The distance between someone who is a parks director and someone writing an urban planning blog is really small. That might be one of the reasons why people want to take advantage of the program. I would also say that there is a lot of desire from people to be entrepreneurial, but not because they want to make a bunch of money. They have an entrepreneurial bent or desire, and they are unhappy with starting a business in order to make lots of money. They are unhappy with social entrepreneurialism, but there’s something about cultural entrepreneurialism that they want to take on. They want to do cultural production. They don’t see themselves as working for an advertising firm. So, what do they do? I think that might be where some of the built-up demand for collaborative design stems from.