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Shock as a fuzzy strange object. Photo: Ramon Sangüesa.























































































Dancing With Sheldon by Paola Tognazzi. Photo: Ramon Sangüesa
















Holoscenes. Photo: Early Morning Opera.







Common Grounds. Photo: Ramon Sangüesa.





















Eating the Invasive Goose. Photo: Lisa Ma.

»Rethinking boundary objects from the arts perspective: strange objects as a critical approach to transdisciplinary projects «
Ramon Sangüesa

What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions that I ask…
my composition arises out of asking questions.
— John Cage

Transdisciplinary projects involving the arts and other disciplines, have found some difficulties that are common to a wide range of cooperative efforts. There are numerous insights, guidelines and principles resulting from years of research on cooperation and collaboration in system science, group dynamics, network science, complexity, innovation, design, management, knowledge management, organizational design and organizational aesthetics. There is plenty of evidence and advice on the inherently difficult task that exploring together the unexplored is.

The three steps of Transcisciplinary projects: hazy beginnings.

Bergmann and Jahn [1] proposed splitting a transdisciplinary research project into three phases: problem-framing and team building, co-creation of solution-oriented transferable knowledge and reintegration and application of created knowledge. Let’s remark, just in passing, the very peculiar status of the co-creative process. Co-creation is not collaboration, it is related to it but different from it. Elizabeth Sanders [9], a well-known practitioner and researcher of co-creation, remarks “It is a special case of collaboration where the intent is to create something that is not known in advance”. That is an important difference. It actually makes all the difference. Joint exploration of a new reality, or the construction of new fields of action require new languages, new ways to communicate, new practices, new forms of knowledge validation, a continuous reassessment of the path that is starting but without knowing beforehand where this path is leading us to. [2]

We can see that most of practical methodological orientations deal with how things should proceed once the project has entered the co-creation phase. In collaboration there are some points where divergence in interpretation of objects of interest brings about translation, mediation, negotiation and eventually consensus. We have to ask ourselves what the characteristics of another type of similar objects should be in the initial moments leading to framing and to co-creation. That is, what are the characteristics of whatever sends us “exploring uncharted territories”. There seems to be a general consensus that the less understood moment in the whole transdisciplinary process is the very beginning of it. That is, not just framing the problem, but actually finding it, making an issue emerge. How do we agree that an issue, is first of all, an “issue”?. 

A characterization of a transdisciplinary issue is typically done in terms of its inherent complexity. It tends to be portrayed as too broad, too general, too complex or involving too many objects and actors than pre-existing disciplines. Transdisciplinary objects are peculiar relatives of the “wicked problems” that Horst Rittel characterized long ago [7]. Issues can be problems in search of a solution but need not to.  The hijacking of issues by the problematic perspective is evident, for example, in the title of a well-known text on transdisciplinary research [3]. However, not everything in transdisciplinary research starts by trying to solve a problem. A transdisciplinary project also can be an exploration and articulation of new fields of action, that is, it can start as a way to define a whole new set of possible problems. The appeal of transdisciplinary is also the appeal of a journey of exploration, that very first moment when the ship, so to speak, unmoors itself and sets sail to the wide sea. Exploration could bring the exhilaration of creating a horizon of new heuristics and new knowledge, of a new “adjacent possible”. Uncharted territories have all the appeal of the strange. Strangeness is an attractor for research.

Strange attraction and strange attractors

Indeed, strangeness about the current state of the world, is the beginning of any inquiry into it. Such an endeavor can be philosophical, scientific, artistic or other. Suddenly, a group of people looks at a configuration of reality, a context, and the pieces do not fit together any longer. Strangeness triggers the desire to go further. That is the moment when disciplinary limits tend to be seen as a straitjacket. Disciplines are too narrow. Not only this, our current epistemic apparatuses, research practices and communication abilities just fail us. Language falls short but our intuition keeps nurturing the belief that things cannot remain the same. We push forward and reach out, find other practitioners and researchers of different sensibilities. We connect with them. Something may start. Uncertainty and ambiguity are all around us.

However, the fuzziness, the haze that covers the very first moments, shouldn’t be completely dominant or an excuse not to be more precise. In the most recent WgIrt meeting, a working and writing group devoted to defining a transdisciplinary protocol organized by Hangar, the very first phases of a transdisciplinary joint project were preliminarily tagged as “Shock”, a very vague characterization if anything.

The question is if we can identify the traits of this very special moment beyond such general labels. I am talking about a genuine effort to create this starting impetus, beyond spurious ways of seeking transdisciplinarity. I am not talking, for example, of the motivations that connect with the power plays that may explain the creation of new disciplines when an institutional setting is becoming too crowded for newcomers.  Making an issue emerge, cannot just be left to a question of power struggles, or to pressures by current “In the news” issues or just personal motivations, although the latter are one of the main thrust behind discovering or making an issue. Do we have a technique to make issues emerge?

In the same way that we have been able to come about a plethora of methods for sustaining cooperative efforts, the question is how we can create tools to bring and share strangeness to our way of looking at the world and start a genuine transdisciplinary effort. Let’s remark also that “issues” have the power to elicit many connections in the social dimension involving actors other than researchers of established disciplines. In [2], for example, the point is made about the social dimensions of sustainable transdisciplinarity projects and the agency of heretofore excluded individuals. A similar point is made in the area of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). In Responsible Research and Innovation, people that are not necessarily researchers or innovators, but just plain citizens, are invited to research and innovation projects. The idea is to take into account their opinions and interests to actually modulate, or even cancel, the research and innovation done by experts. This is achieved through different forms and rules of encounter. Actually, some of these conventions actually work on the form of the issues posed by the citizens. Some of these objects may include virtual platforms to start discussions, face to face meetings, the creation of visualizations, new languages for joint analysis between experts and citizens, the joint creation of mappings, and other new objects that trigger discussion and conflict.

Boundary objects and strange objects

In a sense, these objects have a family resemblance with the boundary objects that were originally proposed by Star and used, for example, by Etienne Wenger in the area of communities of practice. However, there are some differences with them too.

Let’s remind the original definition of boundary object by Susan Leigh Star [10]:

Boundary objects are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.”

If we stick to this original characterization of a “boundary object” and, specially, Star’s own revision of her definition of the concept [11], we can see that the real value of boundary objects resides in their ability to be readapted to local use by each of the communities on, so to speak, both sides of the boundary. There, the boundary object is adapted to a local use within a given social world. Star herself remarks very clearly that “When necessary, the object is worked on by local groups who maintain its vaguer identity as a common object, while making it more specific, more tailored to local use within a social world, and therefore useful for work that is NOT interdisciplinary” (emphasis added by Star herself).

In contrast, strange objects have the power to convene people with different backgrounds and epistemic horizons towards a co-creative use of the object itself or the objects that are triggered by it. That is, to actually start a truly transdisciplinary collaboration. Strange objects reveal the intricate constellations of values, practices, attitudes, interests and power relationships that operate in several planes and dimensions within an issue. They are an assembly, engines of controversies. That’s one part of their interest and usefulness. They allow the emergence of aspects of an issue, they bring in people that can respond to a facet or all facets of the issue with their own interests and abilities but, and that’s the crucial difference, they are able to create a new merging of practices, concepts and disciplines, a generative co-creation of them.

Strange objects have different dimensions and features that let them actually perform the functions that can initiate a transdisciplinary project.

For one, they have an organizational aspect that includes ways to maintain a critical balance between consensus and dissent between the people affected by the issue the object is able to reveal. This object is performative in the sense that sets actions in movement. It is also emotional and has the appeal to bring in possible participants in the first place, however different their perceptions on the object itself might be. In that aspect strange objects are similar to boundary objects, although, and in contrast to the latter, they specifically let cooperative work and transfer of knowledge emerge along time. They also have an informational structure that allows new knowledge to be created and described. They are of an indicative nature: that is, they are not the “issue” itself but they can reference to it, or they allow participants to identify the reference. In a way, they are foundational with respect to the issue.

Within these dimensions strange objects should have some of these characteristics:

(1) Strange objects are thick objects. They are things full of ambiguous, even contradictory, meanings. They have an important place in the network of meanings in a single or in several social contexts.

In our current work in “Fusió Creativa: Art i Ciència” at the University of Lleida in Catalonia, we have uncovered the “migration” and “migrant” objects. The work in progress “Migrar para sobrevivir”  (“Migrate to Survive”) the fields of cell migration and migratory global fluxes and the affected bodies of women migrants have spawned a research involving both neuroscience, sociology and the performative arts.

Food and cooking are concepts, objects, practices and cultural objects that are central to many, almost all, societies and areas of activity. They can trigger processes of co-creation beyond gastronomy itself. A couple of examples may help here. For example, in our own study of the work of chef Ferran Adrià and its organization (elBulli), the process of cooking has spawned a new way of looking at the knowledge associated with food, cooking and gastronomy. Not only it has been the basis for generating of another type of completely different strange objects devoted to the formalization of creative processes. “Data Cuisine”, a project by Moritz Stefaner and Susanne Jaschko, uses the metaphors, processes and materials of cooking to explore numerical data with all human senses. We are now working on its extension to a communicatve set of actions about science, technology and food, that we will present at the most important professional gathering in science center and museums, ECSITE.

The body can become a strange object. In “Wearable Dynamics” and “Dancing with Sheldon” Paola Tognazzi and her collaborators have the experience of dancing with an artificial software and graphics partner both to explore new ways to create coreographies and to explore the neuroscience of perception.

Global Warming, has been called an “hyperobject” by Timothy Morton [5] and other scholars. It connects with so many constellations of concepts, objects, processes and social dimensions that is difficult to consider it anything more adequate to actually trigger processes of transdisciplinarity, It is the quintessential strange objects.

(2) Strange objects are hybrid objects.

They tend to operate beyond divisions, such as natural/artificial, nature/culture, human/nonhuman, physical/virtual, process/result. They are beyond these modern dichotomies. Bioart projects are full of processes and results that question the dichotomy between living and nonliving beings or the limits between living organisms and media.
In architecture, Terreform in New York City works with building materials that use live fungus to create structures. They are both very pragmatic and hybrid, since they bridge the typical functional chasm between organic and non-organic materials in construction. At the same time, they connect biology, ecology, sustainability, urban planning and the material flows and economics of construction.

An exhibition done by citizens in the project “Amplifying North Brooklyn” is an object that, at the same time is an art exhibition, the support of an urban planning process, a participatory instrument. and a visualization of interests and needs at neighborhood level.

(2) Strange objects are controversial. They shake preconceived states of affairs, disciplinary fields, and established practices. They generate dilemmas and conflict.

The well-known “Victimless Leather”by Oron Catts and Ionat Zuur questioned the living/non-living categories and induced different controversies about this fundamental division of the modern mindset. It also opened subcontroversies on other aspects such as the ethics of Bioart.

The project “Holoscenes” by Early Morning Opera puts the viewer in a very awkward position. Since it deals with raising sea levels, it portrays live people performing their daily routines within glass cubes that are slowly flooded with water. Your stance as a passive viewer of the exhibition is a conflict in itself.

Part of the “Reclaiming the Streets” project has involved the occupation of vacant lots - even very tiny ones in spaces delimiting the two lanes in two-way streets- to cultivate food which has spawned a strong controversy on the rights of the activists to actually change the spatial uses recognized in urban plans to respond to the shortage of fresh food in neighborhoods.
Cyberattacks by activists groups fall also in the area of controversy since they expose or damage private and public information on grounds of improving the public benefit by making information transparent and free. The project “Transparency Grenade” by Julian Oliver, both exposes the privatization of data, impulses transparency but makes you think about the problems of total transparency.       

(3) Strange objects are generative. They should be understood also as entities with a procedural aspect: they trigger processes of co-creation and joint reflection.

In a previous work, Common Grounds in Sinergies at the Art Sant Mònica art center in Barcelona, physical collectively prototyped objects become triggers of ideation for a possible investigation of the concept of “synergy” from a transdisciplinary perspective. The “strange object” was, in that case, the process of prototyping an exhibition to start the investigation (not as the result of it).

Hack meetings and hackspaces are new objects that create the opportunity for actually developing new ideas and implementing them into working software or hardware systems. Living Labs, understood as a methods of innovation or a space for designing innovative products and systems are generative objects: they create the conditions for participatory innovation.

These formats have been adopted by mainstream capitalistic processes to create new ways of innovation. For example, the “Innovation Jams” that IBM has championed within the company worldwide, are a case of this strange object in the corporate innovation landscape. 

(4) Strange objects are democratic. Anyone can point to and use them, anyone can start from their own “shared incompetence” but still be able to distinguish the assembly of meanings that the object has and be able to describe the possible connections to “wicked problems”.

Performing Shared Incompetence is strange object that turns on its head the typical assumptions of how science communication should be performed by proposing new processes that start from the fact that scientists and artists are also ignorant in aspects that the public may be not. A whole set of communication and research practices have evolved around this strange object, mostly around the projects of the initial “Experiment! “ group and its associated “institution”: the Research Centre for Shared Incompetence.

The “extitution”, a strange object itself in the organizational landscape, has a strong potential for generation and co-creation. For example, Campo de la Cebada, a square in Madrid, is a place where citizens and activists have created a social system, based on technological metaphors and implementations, that generated art initiatives, learning projects and new political forms. It received the Ars Electronica Prix in 2013.

(5) Strange objects should have critical potential. They should allow participants to sustain reflection and criticism all along the project, including reflection on the project iself.

The burgeoning area of Critical Making has shown how to intertwine participatory criticism and prototyping and how the results and processes that this activity involves led to a multifaceted understanding of issues with a strong critical component. Also, a critical reflection on the process itself is allowed within Critical Making.

“Nuclear Dialogues”, is a project by Zoe Papadopoulou’s. An exhibition where one sees a table with a very peculiar tea set. The pastries are “Yellow Cakes”, the name by which a certain type of uranium ore is known. The tea is complemented by the sound of the reading of a nearby Geiger counter. Zoe is inviting us to reflect on the radioactive pollution of our foods by using a cozy but uncanny display of objects.

“Human Invasive Interactions”, a project by Lisa Ma, creates a wealth of strange objects following the methodological guidelines of Speculative Design. It generates proposals in real, specific, cases that challenge perceptions towards the geographical, and economical environment and its effects our social and biological health. One part of the project concentrated on the role of invasive species around Ghent in Belgium and included designing and implementing a complex set of participatory events and media productions . One of them introduced a new twist into the ecological food festival of the city, creating new menus with British Squirrel, a species considered as invasive in Belgium, as well as new dishes with invasive species of geese.

(6) Strange objects should have potential for institutional merging and fission. They should help open up new action fields and help define them.

When ArtScience was introduced several years ago as a potential field of action, there were no recognizable institutional umbrellas to accommodate such practices. Still there are many institutional hurdles around it (recognition, evaluation, etc.), but it has created an opening in the institutional landscape. Without the artscience, object it is difficult to understand the creation of a lab and research program such as, for example, Biophilia in Aalto University o The Laboratory and its Master’s degree program in Harvard.

Computer Science is a strange object in the landscape of knowledge disciplines. It started by a transdisciplinary mix of mathematics, logics, electronics, engineering and organization science. Moreover, it created knowledge practices that could not be identified with any of the pre-existing disciplines. It is interesting, for example, to investigate about the epistemic practices of Douglas Engelbart or Xerox PARC to understand how reflective practice on the way that computers were built led also to new theorizations of computing as an abstract process.

(7) Strange objects can be morphed.

Whether they are abstract or material, strange objects should allow to be transformed by the transdisciplinary research process. It is by the very transformation of objects (material or virtual, static or procedural), that the research proceeds and opens ups new questions. The object itself should make it easy to agree on the need to stop its morphing by the participants in the project.
The norms and rules of Open Source software development projects includes complex provisions to actually change the project itself and the rules for decision making, division of the project (“forking”) or to stop it altogether.   
Open Design is a set of requirements on the process of design itself that includes its own replication by third parties. Not only this, Open Design processes, in a similar vein to Open Source projects, are based on the assumption that anyone (in principle, a designer but not necessarily so) can change the initial specs of the design.

(8) Strange objects are openers and closers of processes.

“Victimless Leather”can be seen, for example, as a result of a research process or as the beginning of a new one. Closing a project is as important as opening it. “Beta permanent” is a useful approach but it morphs along time and ends up by closing a project. Swen Seebach [8] has stressed the importance of marking the end of a project, however “open” and “beta permanent” it were. A clear signaling of the end of the project can be identified by creating a precise object. It can be the result of the project itself or it can be an event to finish the cooperation and disband the participants.

(9) Strange objects are recursive.

Morphing and closing do not need to let the object stay at the same level of complexity that it had when the research project started. A “germ” before Pasteur opens up a new field but it is a completely different object once microbiology starts as such.

Again, in Open Source one can find some recursiveness in the rules that are used in developing a single project and to steer a whole set of projects.

Metadesign is an approach to participatory design that is devoted to the sharing of principles of design... to let other people design.

Strange families and strange futures

Let’s return to the similarities and differences of this very peculiar type of objects with some boundary objects and their genealogies. When one retraces the origins of a new discipline, especially when it is born from the fusion of other pre-existing ones, one finds that boundary objects connect with previous objects that had congregated an epistemic community of practice. However, there are other cases, where a new field of action comes to life more abruptly and where some objects have to be “discovered” or created anew.

For example, “Code” played a role in the birth of the Genetic Engineering discipline that was a bit different from the role of “Germ” in the creation of modern microbiology by Pasteur. The first seem to become a strange foundational object by coexistential closeness between two communities while the second one is more foundational although it may have a temporal relationship with other facets of previous objects. No object is without adherences in terms of pre-existing practices, values, concepts, attitudes but some, so to speak, are more foundational than others. They are stronger indicial towards a new issue and, henceforth can create more easily new practices, new transdicisplinary connections.

The question, that I want to remark here, is how we can create these type of objects. How can we unearth or invent objects that bring about sufficient strangeness as to become foundational for a new issue and then trigger the creation of a transdisciplianry effort.

Let me remind, of course, that I talk of “objects” in a very abstract way that could include both physical a virtual entities, from works of art, to pieces of scientific material, or social arrangements. It reminds us more of an assembly in the sense of Bruno Latour’s “things”.

These objects, as remarked above, should have a continuous, if changing, role in the project, beyond the one they have in finding the issue and starting the cooperation. That is, they should have framing potential -i.e., gathering people to discuss- co-creative potential -generative- an reintegrative potential -reinterpretative-. This last aspect should also include a potential for reintegrating knowledge about the transdisicplinary project itself. Let’s call this dimension the “critical potential” of the object.

We need to cultivate the ability to find among objects which ones are “things”, thick things.
It is by our own way of looking and by risking to change our gaze that we turn objects into things, into strange objects, potentially fruitful and evolutive seeds of transdisciplinary projects.  And this may be where the arts have a strong advantage over other disciplines: their inherent ability to question our point of view and point of being [12].



[1] Bergman, M., T. Jahn, et al. (2013). Methods for transdisciplinary research. A primer for practice. Frankfurt, Campus Verlag.

[2] Hirsch Hadorn, G, Bradley, D, Pohl, C:, Rist, S, Wiesmann, U.  (2006). Implications of transdisciplinarity for sustainability research. Ecological Economics, 60, pages 119-128.

[3] Leavy, P. (2011). Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research: Using Problem-Centered Methodologies. Left Coast Press.

[4] Roger F. Malina, Carol Strohecker, and Carol LaFayette (Coords.) (2015). Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation: Enabling New Forms of Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design. MIT Press.

[5] Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University Of Minnesota Press.

[6] Opazo, Pilar, M. (2014) Appetite for innovation: the organization of creativity at elBulli. Doctoral Dissertation) Columbia University, New York City, NY.

[7] Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169.

[8] Swen Seebach (2015). On the need to close open processes. Research Arts. Accessed on April 14th 2015.
[9]  Elizabeth B.-N. Sanders & Pieter Jan Stappers. (2008) Co-Creation and the New Landscapes of Design. CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts. Volume 4, Issue 1. Special Issue: Design Participation(-s)

[10] Star, S. L.; Griesemer, J.R Institutional. (1989). Ecology, 'Translations' and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Social Studies of Science 19:387-420.

[11] Star, S. L. (2010). This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept. Science Technology Human Values. 2010 35: 601.

[12] De Kherckove, D.; Miranda de Almeida, C (Eds.). (2014) The Point of Being. Cambridge University Publishers.


Prof. Dr. Ramon Sangüesa - holds a PhD in Artificial Intelligence from the Technical University of Catalonia (1997) and a postgraduate degree in Science Communication (Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Also in 1997). He is Professor (currently on professional leave) at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC, Computer Science Department), where he acted as Associate Dean for Innovation in its School of Informatics. Sangüesa is Senior Fellow of the Slab, Strategic Innovation Lab, the Ontario College of Art and Design (Toronto, Canada) and Affiliate Researcher at the Center for Organizational Innovation, Department of Sociology, University of Columbia, New York. Furthermore, he founded Citlab, a civic innovation center, in 2007 where he developed urban innovation projects (UrbanLabs 2008 and 2009) and organizational innovation projects such as Breakout in collaboration with the Institute for the Future. Currently he is coordinating the Data Transparency Lab ( a non-profit research organization that explores the intersection between technology and society in the era of Big Data. He is specially interested in aspects of the Technoself, identity, and new controversies of the digital society. more

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