Agnes Bakk & Dániel Barcza

Agnes Bakk and Professor Dániel Barcza – Daniel Barcza is the Vice-Rector of Strategy and Research, the Deputy-Director of MOME Innovation Centre, and Associate Professor at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, Budapest, Hungary. Agnes Bakk is a PhD candidate at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, where she researches Virtual Reality, the science of magic, the sense of embodiment, and false memories. They spoke to Sinead McDonald about the establishment of experimental transdisciplinary laboratory spaces in MOME, and the successes and learning curves they’ve encountered there.

On MOME, play, and the academy

SMcD: I wonder if you’d begin by giving us a little background into your work at MOME?

DB: At MOME we trace our transdisciplinarity back to the Bauhaus movement, and the process of different disciplines working together to create something beyond their individual competencies has always been important to us. In 2010 the university introduced a format based around the model of horizontal labs, which allowed students to collaborate in overarching ways across different disciplines. These labs were arranged around ‘great challenges’ such as sustainability, technological transformation, etc., and they merged education and research together. In 2020 we created the Innovation Center. One of the main focuses of the center is applied research in the field of design and artistic research. 

AB: Transdisciplinarity is a rich and also a very big notion, and what I would like people to take home from this pile of associations is playfulness. In our institution playfulness is an indicative term; we use it on many levels. Our teachers have a playful attitude. Playfulness is very useful for experimenting with new design methods, and our students are encouraged to see themselves as collaborative partners in that. So for us, this transdisciplinary is also overarching not only across disciplines, but also across generations. It helps break down the teacher/student hierarchy, so that everyone is on an equal level when we are at the course, and we are thinking together.

SMCD: one of the themes that has come up in many of these research conversations is how to marry that sense of playfulness that’s so vital to the experimental nature of transdisciplinary pedagogy with the more traditional institutional regimens.

DB: One of the ways we have tackled this it to introduce a new course focusing on research, development and innovation methodologies. The course is compulsory to take up to at least 15 credits, and is almost exclusively interdisciplinary. All students from the university take it. So this is one format. We also have the research groups at the innovation center, where students, research fellows, and doctoral students can work together; different levels of education, different fields, working together on research topics. They work on commissioned works as well as their own research topics such as these playground projects that Agnes is delivering.

AB: We also run a course week each term, for all the departments at the university. It’s not totally compulsory for the students, but it’s highly beneficial if they participate and almost always interdisciplinary. The different departments invite someone who’s a professional in a very niche area to talk to the students across all departments together.

On frameworks, methodologies and academic rigour

SMcD: There is sometimes a suggestion of a loss of both academic rigor and disciplinary authority when you move into a transdisciplinary space. Can you talk us through how you have navigated that, both from an administrative perspective and a pedagogical one? 
DB: Since 2000 the University has gone through through several reform processes. In 2006, the former Rector began a programme of institutional reform that changed utterly the traditional frameworks of academic education. There was change to the structure of the university and academic leadership, and the heads of education units became young, dynamic people who understood that this kinds of interdisciplinary focus puts us at a strong advantage. In 2014, the institution began to change the curriculum. It’s a small university with only around 1000 students. However, we have almost 20 different programs and 12 different disciplines. We realized that connection and collaboration among and between disciplines is what gives us strength. So we started to create these new formats and the new curriculum. In the beginning, this did cause some small conflict at an interdepartmental level, but that has now become very smooth. We have found that the main issue is not institutional but methodological – how to teach in an interdisciplinary manner and maintain the quality of the process and the outcome. We all know the traditional quality assurance methods and pedagogical methodologies. However, for interdisciplinary pedagogy, there were no explicit models to work from. So we created the methodology center where we develop internal training for teaching staff. However, these methodologies cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution.

On comfort and crisis

DB: The other challenge we have encountered is that although interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary work is always very inspiring, it requires that everyone is out of their comfort zone – both students and professors. However, there needs to be care that this isn’t taken too far. For example, we ran an interdisciplinary program on social design in remote villages in Hungary, working together with communities living in extreme poverty. For both students and professors, there were elements that proved to be too far from their experiences. And that had the potential to create crises. It was a challenge for us to define and recognise when people had reached that sweet spot. That’s something that needs to be managed carefully for everyone.
SMcD: This is a theme that has been emerging from the interviews also – the balance between comfort and crisis, and where exactly the sweet spot is. Some peoples’ model is very much based around care and support and nurturing, while others believe that building up closer to a pedagogical crisis is perhaps a more generative way of creating transdisciplinary outputs. 

AB: I think we need to find a path between these. I think with care and nurturing, because we are a small university, this can be done with greater ease. I was talking recently with people who had just come to MOME from much bigger universities. They were struck by the fact that here, the students can think much more freely, they are much more democratically inclined, and much more likely to speak up if they have concerns about course loads, for instance. A good student/professor relationship is vitally important to build trust. And the same interrelationality between the students and between teaching staff. You have to build trust. Trust in the students in themselves, and also trust that you know what you are doing, and that they can rely on you. And that can be difficult.

DB: I would say this sweet spot where the inspiration comes is dynamic and is different from person to person, from context to context, and from case to case. It’s hard to define. The key, though, is control. This whole process needs to be controlled and managed. It’s almost like constant crisis management. This connects to trust, in that students understand that even if they might reach a point of crisis that it’s ok because there is a guide to help them manage that crisis; that they are in a safe environment which enables them to take risks. They know they can find support because you have built that trust with them. A traditional disciplinary academic skill set might not be useful in this in this kind of crisis management. Resilience is a key word here.


On labs as playgrounds

SMcD: Could you tell us about the work you do in the labs?

DB: What we’ve done in the labs is we have collected fields of competence. We have ecologists, data scientists, IoT experts, biotechnology engineers, sociologists, education experts (higher and secondary education). We have service designers, mathematicians. A very diverse group, teamed up with traditional design fields such as architects and textile designers, fashion and product designers.

DB: We want to make both physical and metaphorical playgrounds. We built a new building for the Innovation Center, and the infrastructure was designed around this core idea. So we have lots of And this building has a new infrastructure, we it has lots of co-working spaces, project rooms, offices, and lab spaces for different collaborative methods. The whole university is a playground. It’s a question of how we can best support playful collaboration. 

AB: The most important element is time. Time spent together is what creates the trust I spoke of. Time to build trust in the community you’re working with, so that all members are understood and can be open and honest. We have a lab we go to on Fridays to frame our questions and our work, and to play. We organize workshops, etc. It’s impossible to build the social structures for this work without doing the hard work of building up the community. You need to spend time together, you have to find common goals that everyone also finds useful for his or her own personal development, but also for the group development. Your participants have to believe in a shared goal. Time is how you build that.

DB: We also don’t impose a burden of publishing on the students or the professors. Luckily, we have an excellent administrative team in the university, and they are highly supportive of the goals and methods in the center. For instance, each lab has a coordinator to help us with running the center. We see publishing as important of course, but it’s not the main priority.

On failure and definitions

SMcD: Lastly, can you talk a little about areas that you might consider failures? And what does that word mean to you?

DB: We created a horizontal lab in 2010, focusing on social sustainability. We were collaborating with Roma groups in small villages living in extreme poverty. We began by creating shiny design projects, as one would for the magazines. It was a total failure. And each year we failed. That was painful. Until we realised that we weren’t there to create – we were there to learn. And and during the last 10 years we’ve learned so much. Our failures became smaller and smaller. We realised how important our failures were, and in 2016 we wrote a book about them. We achieved some success, and that’s good. But what was more important for the students and for the professors, for the university itself, is what we learned from our failures.

AB: A key element to failure though is perseverence. You fail, but then you stand up and you begin again.

DB: And this brings us back to academic rigor. Academic rigor is not failing. It’s a system of eliminating failures, of minimalizing them. Most of us at MOME dislike that model intensely. It also speaks for the need that is often expressed for a definition of transdisciplinarity. I think it’s not important at all to define it. For us at MOME if it’s interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, transversal, that’s it. We can get so caught up in this academic and philosophical debate. However, it’s much more important to put it into practice. When diverse systems collaborate, it becomes so much more than its sum. What we call it, wha we frame it as is surplus – it’s not important. The outcomes are what’s important, and they come from inspiration and collaboration, and many other things that we don’t need to define.