Professor Michael Haldrup Pedersen is a professor in performance design at Roskilde University, Sweden. His primary area of interest is performance, design and ontologies relating to the role of materiality and practice-based, embodied knowledge. He was involved in establishing FabLab RUC as an open facility for design and technology experiments and explorations. He is currently interested in futuring, speculative ontologies and utopian theory in relation to experimental and explorative approaches to research, design, teaching and activism. A recent spin off of this is the establishment of the exocollective studio.
SMcD: Perhaps you can begin by telling me a little about your work at Roskilde University?
MHP: Roskilde University is a small university outside of Copenhagen. It was built on the idea of rethinking interdisciplinarity, with a strongly oppositional stance towards established disciplines. For instance, I myself am trained as a geographer and historian, and then worked for many years in sociological and cultural studies research. For the past several years I’ve been setting up a programme at Roskilde in humanities, technologies, and design, and as part of that we have established the largest publicly accessible makerspace in Denmark. We have six full-time technicians to help researchers and students. We also moved into what you could call a transdisciplinary field of performance design, which is a more design-oriented version of performance studies. We combine theories and concepts from cultural studies and performance studies and apply them with our students in both a design studio setting and in diverse projects out in the city.
We have tried to use these transdisciplinary projects as a way of opening up more symmetrical relations between the community around the universities and the universities themselves, but this has become problematic in a Danish setting in the last number of years. It’s perhaps a global phenomenon though, that the degrees of freedom for teaching and research have been narrowed. In Denmark, there has been a turn towards more classical disciplinary thinking, guided by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Research, etc.
There are a lot of community activities with our FabLab, which is not only a facility for students or researchers. It acts as an opening for the university toward the world. So there are a lot of people doing strange things there; people working in the garage, inventors, amateur radio enthusiasts, a local walkie-talkie club, a drone club, etc. We also see a lot of people connected to the art environment in Copenhagen. So we host external lecturers coming from artist collectives in Copenhagen that can facilitate a workshop, or they might have a part-time relationship with us. Then we have tenured staff from the university who carry out research and engage in different projects there.
On the politics of disciplinarity and employability
SMcD: From my own experience of transdisciplinary practice, a University can be a difficult space to work in if that institution is traditional in its sense of disciplinarity. I’m interested in the turn towards more classical disciplinary practices in Denmark as a whole, especially coming from the government and the oppositional stance that Roskilde University was founded on. Could you talk more about the tensions within the Institute, within the Academy, within the government, and how that impacts you?
MHP: Traditionally in Denmark when students came to university, they were not enrolled in a specific program. But this system changed in the 1970s when they became enrolled in a general program in humanities, social sciences, or physical sciences. There was a break-up of the Danish university sector, and a focus on visionary education at university level. This acted as a moment of opportunity, in which we were very inspired by MIT Media Lab, and especially Parsons School in New York. Our own programme was radical in that we had software engineering as a support discipline for the humanities for example, to model behavior in public places and to work with cultural geographers to find new ways to use the data and make visualizations. So that was the idea behind this. We were moving to a more transdisciplinary way of thinking even than what had informed the university in the early years when it was interdisciplinarity; two subject areas. But the currents of this new movement pushed this idea of transdisciplinarity, and grand societal challenges, even more within the university.
But at the same time, a barrier developed in the political environment, a harsh critique of employers not being able to know exactly the skills of students they were hiring. It was not so much present in relation to research funding, where there’s a better understanding of the necessity of working in a transdisciplinary manner. But on the educational side, there was a strong critique of universities that had moved in that direction. Some Danish employee organizations and state institutions argued that while it’s good that you give the students a broad range of abilities, they were worried that traditional disciplinarity would slip away. Our bachelor program was called Humanities and Technology and then later Humanities, Technology and Design, which was quite transparent, but others set up programmes that were perhaps more obtuse in relation to employability. This has led to a move back toward recognizable disciplinary discourse and tradition.
Across many European countries there are discussions on the use of international ranking systems in relation to research, and new disciplines or transdisciplinary fields can have difficulty here as the rankings are skewed toward disciplinary academic prizes and publications in scientific journals, etc. So we can still work in a transdisciplinary mode but there is a push to do so under a more traditional label. As far as the educational system in Denmark is concerned recognizable, transparent disciplines are needed, in particular for employers, SMEs, etc. This has led to a tension within the universities. We have gone through different waves in the last five or six years with this shift to a more traditional mode in university politics.
On risk and transparency
SMcD: A key phrase that’s come up in these interviews is risk, and allowing risk in transdisciplinary. You mentioned the critique from the government and educators around the value of transdisciplinary study to employability, and I’m wondering if that’s something that was tangible. For instance, was there a sense of a drop in disciplinary rigor? Was there a problem, or was it more of a fear of a problem?
MHP: It’s a complex issue. We were successful in attracting more students, and getting them successfully through them. Traansdisciplinary fields were immensely popular with students, meaning that we expanded a lot. We didn’t register it as much at Roskilde University, but there was simply a kind of overheating, and a lack of transparency. It was not clear to employers how transdisciplinary graduates differed from more traditional disciplinary graduates. They didn’t know what knowledge base they were getting. Or that at least that was the argument. Before the financial crisis of 2008 we had a lot of success in the labor market with graduates in interesting positions, establishing startups, etc. After the crisis, however many of these startups were not able to survive. Many of the newly unemployed were from transdisciplinary fields. That was initially surprising. However, the way that statistics about labor markets in Denmark are presented, people who are financing themselves on different types of projects and startups are often excluded. It’s a problem that we have been struggling with; our transdisciplinary students, for example, in performance design, are not actually unemployed, rather they are working on five or six different projects. They have two different startup companies on the way. So they have lots to do, and they are successfully financing their own livelihood and perhaps even two or three other people. But it’s not captured, and it’s not transparent. This tapped into a political debate though; an argument for more traditional things. The bottom line is that given these issues, university management tend to orient themselves in a more conservative and traditional way.
On space and autonomy
SMcD: I’d like to bring you back a little bit to maker spaces. You have the largest open maker space in Denmark. I’d love to hear about how that sort of space works in a transdisciplinary environment.
MHP: Yes. I painted something earlier that might have been a little negative, but what we achieved in the maker space is autonomous. The users and the employees decide what is going to happen. Of course, we have a budget, and we have buildings from the university. We’re just now running a series of workshops for the Union for Regenerative Farming, on, for example, the role of soil and what is good soil, etc. We have a bio FabLab, and resident artists, technicians, researchers, and so on. While we are preparing a workshop with the Union for Regenerative Farming, we also have a workshop on bio art run by an intern from Korea. We’ve also run weekly prosthetic and wheelchair hack workshops with the Union for Disabled People in Denmark. It’s an open space, with great potential for transdisciplinarity that reaches outside the university bubble, to involve people and practitioners cross-fertilising ideas and actions . This in turn informs our teaching. So it’s an intensely dynamic and productive environment. We have autonomy from the university institution, which is recognized as an important feature of the space in that it allows us to build and weave relationships with the faculty, the students, and the community. We provide teachers, guest teachers, technicians, etc, to facilitate for example, workshops in biology or urban geography. We have the funds and the spaces and technologies to provide those, a space to connect with others from many different contexts.
On community and ownership
SMcD: Can you take us through how the Makerspace is structured from an ownership perspective?
MHP: When we started the new bachelor programme in Humanities and Technologies, we had no engineering department. We also had to invent a new way to include the technology and design element, because we didn’t have a design profession at the university as a disciplinary field. So our suggestion was to create this space so as to maintain the dialogue with our subject fields. We came to an agreement with the university management that we would not teach engineering as a mono discipline, but in a transdisciplinary manner from the beginning; for example, teaching software development through the flow of human bodies in public places, or software development for interesting ways of visualizing meta-data, or creating with virtual reality in relation to chemistry and molecular structures. It didn’t cost the university very muchas there were already excellent makers out there that we could hire. And they brought with them other people and materials and technologies. We set it up as an alternative way of including engineering within a university which doesn’t have a tradition for engineering.
We opened a dialogue with the public, with communities of place and interest, as well as faculty and students, to design a charter that had open access engrained in every aspect. Through some research, we found what was valuable in other makerspaces was a condensed set of principles that we could make apparent; if you pass this door, for example, you have to share what you’re doing. If you’re going to produce patented work, then we’re going to make a personal deal with you about what you’re giving back to the community. We are going to photo document your work here, and it will be displayed on the homepage together with manuals, etc., of what you’re doing. We have an active social media presence and everything is shared and public. It’s important that the space is radically transdisciplinary, but also playful.
On radical transdisciplinarity and playfulness
SMcD: Could you elaborate a little more on that perhaps?
MHP: Radical transdisciplinarity is thinking disciplinarity not only in the sense of the disciplines being trans, or connected, or moving through, but also thinking about other fields of practice outside of the university bubble. That university mode of thinking is not a problem per se, but it’s not the way that I envision the potentiality of the transdisciplinary being realised. There are so many forms of activist practice, artistic practice, other forms of knowledge, other forms of skills, that we have to acknowledge, that come to us from outside of the universities. We conceived of the space as a part of society, and as open to different citizens and groups of people; that could be activists, or artists, or different types of collectives out there.
And it’s also important to us that the space allows for playfulness and invention. Playful approaches to technology and design are embedded in our Batchelors programme and these are captured in practice in the labs. Our students use these facilities for playful engagement in the surrounding world, with mystery sound boxes for example. It’s important that not everything has an end point or a utility outside of the act of making.