Picturing the invisible: an exploration of how different disciplines view and tackle challenges

Posted on January 18, 2022 by Alison Fox

In this post, which originally appeared on Disruptive Voices by UCL Grand Challenges, Ruth Morgan explores how different disciplines view and tackle challenges, a key theme of the edited collection Picturing the Invisible (which published this week). 

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” ― Albert Einstein

We live in a time where technology and information sharing allow us to ‘see’ more and more, whether it is what can be observed through scanning technologies with increased resolution, or the possibility of a window into the events and discussions in the world sitting in the palm of our hand. Yet, the more we see, the more we become aware of complexity, uncertainty and the hidden tacit forms of knowledge, and the more apparent it becomes that there is so much we do not yet see.

Curiosity often comes from seeing the gaps that exist and the extent of the unknown. It is therefore no surprise that the quest to articulate ‘that which is not seen’ is one that transcends disciplines across the arts, humanities, sciences and engineering. The more we are aware of the invisible, the more opportunities we create for asking questions, exploring, and gaining insights into the world around us.

Picturing the invisible’ started as a collaborative AHRC project led by UAL and UCL, designed to explore different perspectives in the endeavour to picture the invisible. We sought to create space to reflect on our own practice and gain insights from other disciplines. We hoped to identify when difference could provide the opportunity to think creatively and disruptively, and ultimately to create common ground. So that is how I came to be sitting around a table with artists, a philosopher, an astrophysicist, a curator, a historian, medics, engineers, and a psychoanalyst all willing to share key challenges within their own field and explore other viewpoints, without necessarily knowing our ultimate destination.

What we discovered over time was that conversation is a powerful tool. Conversations are by nature ongoing, two-way and diverse. Creating space for informal, open-ended cooperative conversation is a powerful way to experience difference and develop new insights.

Our conversations were wide ranging; we traversed a rich landscape that took in the approaches used to physically image artwork before and after restoration, the implicit relationship experience in psychoanalysis, the invisibility of key people and voices in contemporary art, discovering the unknown in crime reconstructions, the unnamed and unseen territories of the human body and the universe, and the power of voids in sculpture to name just a few.

Four themes emerged that transcended our disciplines. These themes are not mutually exclusive, but they offer insights into where the challenge of picturing the invisible may lie in different disciplines, and how we might think differently and take different approaches going forward.

The term ‘interdisciplinary’ is widely used in many disparate ways, yet often interdisciplinary working remains a collaborative endeavour with a dominant primary discipline with contributions from other fields (often) at the periphery. To achieve the innovation and breakthroughs in complex ‘tricky’ problems, we need to create interdisciplinarity that overcomes the challenges of our existing infrastructures, and mindsets. More porosity between traditional disciplinary silos is often called for and is without doubt going to be important. But through discussion it became increasingly clear that we also need to commit to exploring new ways of seeing so that we can change course and bring different ways of synthesised thinking to existing challenges — because ultimately, we are not going to solve these challenges with the same thinking that created them.

Seeking to picture the invisible and articulate ‘that which is not seen’ is only possible when we acknowledge that knowledge is dynamic, and ways of seeing are constantly evolving. Therefore, communication and conversation are foundational tools. When it comes to achieving conversation that transcends disciplinary boundaries, the value of common language that is both verbal and non-verbal is clear. Deriving language for communicating observations and ideas, along with understanding the context of the audience we seek to engage with, is core to many disciplines. One exercise that we explored collectively was identifying common terms in our own discipline and exploring how seemingly commonplace terms like ‘model’ held widely different meanings across our disciplines. Prior experience and beliefs shape perspectives and can impact what it is possible to hear and see. Becoming more aware of what we take for granted in our own fields, and what may not make sense to us from other fields, creates opportunities for dialogue that can build bridges.

When there is invisibility there can be ambiguity of meaning. The importance of interpretation was identified as a foundational theme especially in its relationship to extracting meaning from what we can and cannot see. This was apparent in each discipline from neuroscience and diagnostic medicine to the History of Art. A key thread that became apparent was the importance of overcoming the traditional juxtaposition of art and science. In taking a more synthesised approach we found opportunities for considering questions and topics more holistically, which created ways to sit with uncertainty a little more easily and in a way that can unlock new insights and ways of seeing. Just one example was the interpretation of images — from the expert evaluation of a medical scan to an Art Historian seeking the lost story of an artist from her remaining works.

The amount of information that is embedded in absence became increasingly apparent through the conversations we had during this project. This was perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the predictions made in astrophysics and the value of voids in architecture, history and art. In many disciplines what we see is often the result of peeling away or filtering out certain parts of what we are observing. This filtering creates an ability to reveal what was previously hidden from view, such as in a medical scan. Yet, this raises questions about what is lost when we select, abstract and re-present what has been observed. Ultimately considering the absences and voids can change our focus and bring new attributes into view.

Published yesterday by UCL Press, our new book, ‘Picturing the invisible’, brings together a collection of reflections on picturing the invisible from Art & Design, Heritage Science, Curatorial Practice, Literature, Forensic Science, Medical Science and Imaging, Psychoanalysis & Psychotherapy, Philosophy, Astrophysics and Architecture. Our hope is that it offers an opportunity to be curious about how other disciplines view and tackle challenges, and that it might act as a springboard for exploring new ways of thinking, considering new perspectives on current challenges, and grow an appetite for exploring creative approaches that can lead to disrupting the status quo and taking the conversation on to its next exciting chapter. It is certainly a conversation we look forward to continuing.

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