Finding a home for interdisciplinary research: Dissolving disciplinary boundaries through the development of an audio/spatial installation

STAY HOME explores the multiple experiences of, and within, the home during the pandemic with a view to examine more long-term changes in our conceptualization, experience, and concretization of the home. A complex phenomenon such as the home requires a multi-faceted research team, and STAY HOME involves researchers from the fields of architecture, science and technology studies, theology, and history. These four disciplines have rarely, if ever, been brought together, but this interdisciplinary constellation provides the necessary knowledge to examine what has happened to the home as a physical, social, existential, and technological site during the pandemic. However, bringing together these disciplines also raises questions regarding interdisciplinary research and collaborative research outputs. The scholars of STAY HOME produce individual PhD-dissertations and research by design experiments, but like many other interdisciplinary teams, must overcome disciplinary boundaries and develop new ways of collaborating when working on joint projects.

In this blog post, the STAY HOME research group presents their collaborative process with developing an audio/spatial installation through interdisciplinary research methods. This endeavour solved some of our challenges of creating a dialogue between the four disciplines involved in the project, but it also tested our skills regarding scholarly communication across disciplinary boundaries, and, finally, opened some unexpected research perspectives. The installation, entitled IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK reflects upon peoples’ experiences of home during lockdown through an audio/spatial bodily experience for the general public. It was shown as part of the larger exhibition BEHAVIOUR/WELFARE at the Royal Danish Academy – Architecture, Design, Conservation from September 2022 to March 2023.

We begin by introducing the STAY HOME research group, its ambition and object of study, as well as the individual projects being undertaken by the researchers. Then we describe our collaborative process in more detail, including the challenges faced, and continue by showing how this process informed shared and individual insights. On this basis, we conclude with some insights that might be useful for other interdisciplinary research groups. We suggest that the development of a common ‘boundary object’[1] (Star 2010), in this case the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation, enabled exchanges and insights across disciplines, which can also inform individual monodisciplinary projects.

Interdisciplinarity in the context of STAY HOME

The COVID-19 pandemic upset many functions and boundaries of the home. It reminded us that such functions and boundaries are culturally and socially defined, and that they shift across time, impacted by historical circumstances. The pandemic served as a catalyst, foregrounding material, and digital boundaries as well as experiences, social structures, functions, and dysfunctions of the home. For many people, the pandemic gave a new perspective on the lives we live in our homes. These shifts as well as their potential to inform future homes are the object of study in the project STAY HOME: The Home during the Corona Crisis – and after (2020-26), which is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.

The creation of STAY HOME was spurred by an intention in the PI-group to engage with the covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions from an ambitious interdisciplinary perspective, while at the same time having a strong foundation in research fields related to the Humanities. The aim has been to contribute to ongoing research on, and around, the corona pandemic and to gather methodological insights from the interdisciplinary work, and from the ongoing concern with public outreach prepared by the project editor. STAY HOME is led by Professor of Church History Mette Birkedal Bruun, whose experience with interdisciplinary historical research into boundaries and zones that demarcate privacy and the private at the Danish National Research Foundation Centre for Privacy Studies serves as an inspiration for STAY HOME’s even more comprehensive interdisciplinary profile.

STAY HOME’s core research group is comprised of a postdoc and three PhD students, each of whom is responsible for an individual research project exploring a particular aspect of the home. Working within Science and Technology Studies, PhD Student Katja Pape de Neergaard examines the increasingly digitally networked home, how the materiality of home and digital technologies enacts everyday privacy, and individuals’ lived experiences with navigating networked homes during a time characterized by uncertainty. Historian Katrine Rønsig Larsen historicizes the experience of family violence in her PhD dissertation. Through historical cases and interviews from the pandemic, she explores how individuals have interpreted and conveyed their experiences with domestic violence in ways that evolve historically. Architect and Assistant Professor, Nicholas Thomas Lee’s post-doctoral research project entitled, ‘Dwelling in a Time of Social Distancing’ examines the unprecedented demands that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on the domestic interior and its architectural arrangement, with a particular focus on novel domestic morphologies and threshold places. In her PhD dissertation, theologian Anne-Milla Wichmann Kristensen focuses on the pandemic as an experience of crisis, using the German American theologian Paul Tillich’s notion of ‘kairos’ (the opportune moment) as an analytical key. The STAY HOME editor, sociologist Emma Klakk, has a double function as academic coordinator within the research team and communicator mediating between the scholars and the general public on the STAY HOME homepage (mainly Danish), social media channels, and at workshops and other events.

Our collaborative process: Research by Design and creating the installation

Our collaboration began with the establishment of focused reading sessions organized around four central concepts: Home, Phenomenology, Archive, and Thresholds. We each selected research texts, which could shed light on these concepts and at the same time, give each researcher the opportunity to present literature from their respective disciplines. The reading sessions were a way to get to know each other’s disciplines without having to agree on a shared notion of the central concepts, but rather to learn the different nuances, which we individually brought to the study of home. However, the reading sessions primarily facilitated theoretical encounters. An urgent question for us thus became how we could move on to include empirical material in these discussions, and how we could seek to facilitate new insights collaboratively. The desire to address these questions initiated the idea of developing a physical installation, as a type of ‘boundary object’ with a point of departure in the Research by Design method. Discussing the notion of ‘boundary object’ was an early inspiration in our process towards the installation. The term captures the disciplinary liminalities that we navigated in our endeavour to find common ground.

A process diagram showing the development of the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation.
A process diagram showing the development of the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation.

Research by Design as promoted by academics such as Halina Dunin-Woyseth, Leon Van Schaik and Johan Verbeke (2014) is a systematic approach where the practice of design is utilized as the primary means to develop understanding and new knowledge. Birger Sevaldson defines the Research by Design method as, a special research mode where the explorative, generative and innovative aspects of design are engaged and aligned in a systematic research enquiry.” (Sevaldson 2010, 11). The specific Research by Design method deployed for the development of the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation involved a series of workshops where ‘Inputs’ taking the form of a co-authored abstract based upon the earlier reading sessions, historical references, as well as an archive of interviews, formed the point of departure for ‘Operations’, namely the creative development of the audio/spatial installation. Over the course of the creative process, we held a series of workshops where interim ‘Outputs,’ taking the form of demo sound-collages and spatial sketch ideas, were collectively discussed with insights from the individual projects.

The STAY HOME team sitting around a table at a workshop.

Picture of the STAY HOME team sitting around a table at a workshop
The workshops included working with theoretical texts and interview data, categorizing material for the sound-collages, discussing spatial components, and giving feedback on sound collages and design sketches.

Three initial concepts for a spatial installation were developed by Nicholas; they were inspired from an abstract, collectively written by the research group. Of these three spatial concepts, the group decided to develop the idea for an audio/spatial installation based upon acoustic mirroring walls and audio recordings, during Workshop 02. In between subsequent workshops, Nicholas and Katja developed the spatial design and sound-collages based upon collective reflections and ideas from the group. During the development and refinement of the spatial installation, Nicholas took inspiration from a wide variety of examples of acoustic architecture, such as whispering walls, sound devices dreamed up by the seventeenth-century German Jesuit Scholar and polymath, Athanasius Kircher and various ‘sound mirrors’ utilized during the early twentieth century, as precursors to radar. Midway through the process, the initial sketch ideas for the installation were presented to the STAY HOME perspective panel, comprising of senior academics and researchers that represent the fields of anthropology, architecture, science and technology studies, theology, religious studies, and history, as a form of open interim peer-review[2].

Initial sketch of the installation depicting a curved wall making up five circular rooms.
Initial sketch concept for the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation, presented during Workshop 02, by Nicholas Thomas Lee.

The difficulties dogging congenial peer-review of interdisciplinary projects was the focus of an internal seminar on interdisciplinary research and new forms of research publication with Professor Maja Horst (Aarhus University). The final IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK audio/spatial installation can be seen as the ‘Deliverable’ from this process. In addition to being part of the BEHAVIOUR/WELFARE exhibition at the Royal Danish Academy – Architecture, Design, Conservation, the project was also published at the STAY HOME: New Perspectives of the Home conference in November 2022.

Developed design sketch: a circular room within a curved wooden wall.
Developed design sketch of IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK by Nicholas Thomas Lee.

The final version of IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK presented at the BEHAVIOUR/WELFARE exhibition was assembled by ourselves in collaboration with architect and woodworker Anders Drøidal (OFR Design + Arkitektur), adding even more disciplines to our collaboration.

Three of the STAY HOME researchers assembling wooden parts of the structure.
STAY HOME researchers assembling IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK.

The installation comprises of a wooden construction supporting a curved ply-wood wall designed to perform as an acoustic mirror and three sound collages. Visitors to the installation are invited to take a seat and listen to the walls. The closer you sit to the wall, the louder the sound. The sound collages run in loops with no intended beginning or ending. Made of fragments of interview recordings from the first lockdown in Denmark, they recall themes of uncertainty and uncomfortableness, collapse of everyday contexts, and ways in which digital technologies mediated or disrupted interactions. The installation encourages reflections on the messy, composite, and diverse experiences of the home during the pandemic to call for considerations on future domestic practices.

Visitors in front of the installation at the vernissage of the exhibition.
The final version of IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK at the vernissage of BEHAVIOUR/WELFARE.

Sound collages as a tool for analysis between disciplines

In between the workshops, as described above, creative experimentation took place. For example, the production of original sound collages, crafted from ethnographic material from an archive of more than 200 interviews from the first lockdown in 2020 in Denmark: The Digitization of Everyday Life during the Covid-19 pandemic in Denmark (The VELUX Foundation), directed by Brit Ross Winthereik and Anders K. Munk. In our collaborative workshops, we had identified themes that resonated across projects and excerpts of interviews related to these themes. With these as a guide, Katja dove into the archive asking; what can we learn from this material about practices and experiences at home, and about the crisis? And what can we learn from exploring it through sound, in the form of voice-recordings accompanied by musical instruments and everyday sounds?

Screengrab of work-in-progress in the audio-software Ableton.
Screengrab of work-in-progress in the audio-software Ableton.

Working with the sound recordings brought attention to atmospheres, silences, and uncertainties that were otherwise overlooked in the interview transcripts. For one of the sound collages, we identified sounds of uncertainty and sounds usually left out of interview transcripts; ‘eh’, pauses, hesitations, slurred speech etc. These sounds of uncertainty represented to us how participants were struggling to make sense of their everyday lives at home during the pandemic. In the interviews, many did not even mention their home directly, because they were primarily concerned with trying to describe the overwhelming ambivalence and exhaustion, they felt by staying home during lockdown (de Neergaard, forthcoming). While the home was often absent from the conversation at first glance, it was very much present, and even problematized, as a place of confinement and a space that had to hold many ambivalent experiences.

In other sound collages, we let the diffuse sounds of the materiality of home and its surroundings take centre stage. Here, we reflect on the ambivalence of being home alone, yet still being in the (if only auditory) presence of bird chirpings from outside, the humming noise of dishwashing machines, one’s own sounds, neighbours, and chit-chatter from the media. Working with these sounds brought attention to all that happens when it seems nothing is happening in isolation, and how the home is subject to constant, yet subtle interference and exchange with elsewhere.

The work with sound exemplifies how working creatively with empirical material fosters attention to new, and sometimes subtle, themes in empirical material and produces new analytical insights. In total, we crafted three sound collages that were finalized with the help of composer Finn Cooney.

Exchanges between individual projects and our collaborative efforts

The development of the installation has affected, and been affected by, our individual projects. The process has provoked new questions, new methods, and analytical insights. For example, Katrine inspired the design process with perspectives from the history of emotions, which is reflected in the installation’s concern with how emotional experiences are formed, echoed, and refracted under changing historical conditions. Her specific research on experiences with family violence is furthermore echoed in the sometimes-dismal atmosphere of the sounds collages as well as in the sound collages’ investigation of the silences and struggles to articulate the new experiences of the home generated in the pandemic context.

Katja contributed with ethnographic insights around digital practices, boundaries and the (digital) connection between home and elsewhere. Katja notes that her own PhD has been influenced by the installation work in that she increasingly draws on critical archival analysis (introduced to her by Katrine) to discuss contemporary digital archives, and she has continued to develop the artistic research practices she initiated with her production of sound collages from ethnographic interviews.

Anne-Milla’s research focus on the discussions of experiences of hope and, particularly, anxiety inherent in Tillich’s notion of crisis resurfaces in the claustrophobic tenor of the sound collages. Anne-Milla brings the digital interview archive into her theological work as a present-day counterpoint to Tillich’s twentieth-century theological works. This approach has proven to be a methodological provocation in a discipline, which is traditionally textually oriented, and her work prompted new questions regarding the selection, weight, and analysis of individual interviews. Furthermore, the installation has affected her perspective on the interconnection between the individual and the home consequently making the home prominent in analysing hope and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although Nicholas uses the Research by Design method regularly in his own work, the interdisciplinary nature of the STAY HOME project has both challenged and furthered his own understanding of the method. Firstly, Research by Design has far greater acceptance as a scholarly method when working solely within the fields of Architecture and Design, however, when utilizing this method within an interdisciplinary research environment one is forced to be even more explicit about the process and its specific ‘Inputs’, ‘Operations’, ‘Outputs’ and ‘Deliverables.’ Secondly, another important learning for Nicholas has been the importance of explicitly acknowledging one’s research archive, particularly in relation to spatial references. During a design process, the Architect often uses many implicit historical references in developing and informing a proposal. During the exchanges with his three research colleagues at the workshops, it became apparent how important it is to clearly ‘cite’ spatial references, in the case of the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation, examples of acoustic architecture as proof of the concept from a technological perspective.

Insights for interdisciplinary research groups: Takeaways from our collaborative process

Embracing theoretical difference and nuance

One challenge that interdisciplinary research teams often face is the need to establish a shared language across disciplines. This applies to the concrete terminology and concepts used within each discipline, but also to the underlying assumptions, i.e., how different disciplines methodologically approach a research problem, how they employ theory, and what empirical data they use and how (Siedlok and Hibbert 2012). The effort to identify and create common terminology is an elusive and time-consuming endeavour. The challenges arguably vary according to the particular disciplines that are brought into dialogue with each other, which may pose more or less deep disciplinary and vocabulary differences to overcome. In many cases though, attempting to reach a mutual definition of central underlying concepts can obstruct the productivity of conjoining different disciplines to explore new problems.

The process of developing the installation as a ‘boundary object’ between disciplines mitigated such challenges. Through the reading sessions, workshops, and feedback meetings, our collective and individual understandings of our core concept, home, became more complex and nuanced. In the reading sessions, we structured our theoretical encounters in a way that embraced nuance and complexity; we sought to understand the premise and traditions of each other’s disciplines, not to force them together into normative conceptual definitions. The notion of home thus became a (conceptual) place for us to meet as researchers, and a place from which we were able to venture into each other’s fields.

From theoretical encounters to analysis through creative production

To capture this theoretical nuance, and not least to use it to understand empirical material and the experiences of our interviewees, we used artistic research practices, namely the Research by Design method. We suggest that the installation, and perhaps more importantly the process that led to its realization, is a useful format to foster interdisciplinary exchange. Meeting in and around the installation stimulated attention to analytical insights, rather than disciplinary differences. Through the workshops and the design-related aspects of creating the installation, we facilitated a shared space, into which we could bring our academic perspectives, without a need to constantly define their differences. Meeting in and around the installation, as a ‘boundary object,’ allowed us to let disciplinary boundaries dissolve and be redrawn as needed, as we discussed empirical material, design ideas, and creative interpretations. We considered this work as reflection-in-progress, rather than a communication of shared results.

Interdisciplinary work produces disciplinary inspiration

The installation facilitated an experience for audiences to reflect upon the home, but it also produced important new reflections and inspiration for the individual research projects. Sceptics of interdisciplinary research may argue that it risks diluting the individual researcher’s academic profile and disciplinary standards. However, we experienced that the interdisciplinary collaboration led to an increased ‘groundedness’ in our individual projects and made each researcher feel more at home in their own discipline. We suggest that there are several, interrelated explanations for this. Interdisciplinary research compels each researcher to clearly state what their approach is, and the ways in which they approach empirical materials, which helps elucidate and raise their awareness of their taken-for-granted ways of thinking within their own discipline. As noted, it also provides each researcher with new analytical and methodological insights for individual projects and challenges their own research methods and field-specific assumptions.

Advice for prioritizing alternative formats of collaboration despite structural barriers

Complex societal questions demand interdisciplinary research perspectives, and more and more interdisciplinary research is being funded. However, the academic system is not always equipped to support the work conducted by interdisciplinary teams. As multiple disciplines are brought together, so are varying, and sometimes competing scholarly requirements, values, and standards for knowledge production. Creating common ground in this encounter can become a significant barrier because the research teams struggle to find a shared scholarly format. As we have shown, interdisciplinary work benefits from alternative formats of collaboration, but is often confronted with the lack of avenues and appreciation for such work. While our creative collaboration produced nuanced collective and individual insights, the installation format proved difficult to peer-review; it does not result in any publishable deliveries in the traditional sense, and as such, does not result in any ‘credits’ in the conventional academic system which prioritizes peer-reviewed written outputs. Additionally, individual researchers often work on mono-disciplinary projects, which must be peer-reviewed within their own disciplinary fields (Christiansen 2021). Such challenges can leave teams unable to disseminate shared insights, but also be a demotivating factor for interdisciplinary knowledge production.

To succeed despite concerns over lack of conventional publishing, we found that a generous academic and collegial culture is a crucial component. It requires courage and motivation to continue with efforts that do not have predetermined means of being published. In our case, prioritizing an inspiring work environment allowed for unique reflections that informed both shared and individual projects. In addition, prioritizing funding for the role of Emma Klakk as our project editor has been a central feature to completing the project. Emma has handled a lot of both visible and invisible administrative and communicative labour in the research process, which can otherwise easily exhaust many research projects.

Finally, we experimented with alternative formats for peer-interaction, all organized around the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation and the STAY HOME conference, where the work and its process were disseminated to peers from a wide variety of disciplinary fields. Yet, challenges with facilitating constructive interdisciplinary work cannot be solved by individual teams alone. The academic community needs to think both critically and creatively about how such work is valued, to gain the much-needed insights from interdisciplinary projects.

Concluding remarks

Interdisciplinary teams face a number of challenges related to organizing collaboration, forming shared vocabularies, valuing ‘unpublishable’ efforts, and creating productive exchanges between collective and individual projects. In this blogpost, we have shown how organizing our collaboration around an audio/spatial installation as a boundary object for interdisciplinary exchange, helped mitigate such challenges. Using a Research by Design approach, we facilitated a shared space where we could let disciplinary boundaries dissolve and be re-drawn as needed. This process showed the benefits of embracing theoretical nuance, how creative practices fostered new perspectives on empirical material, and produced new methodological and analytical inspiration for our individual projects. We thus suggest that such a format of collaboration is beneficial for interdisciplinary teams, but also note that it requires patience, courage, and a supportive and generous leadership to succeed.

Notes

[1] In the article, This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept (2010), the American sociologist Susan Leigh Star discusses the role of ‘boundary objects’, particularly in relation to collaborative endeavours, whereby it allows “different groups to work together without consensus.” Star identifies “interpretive flexibility” as an important aspect of any boundary object, while emphasizing that boundary in this case should be understood as “a shared space”, rather than “an edge or periphery”, particularly in relation to interdisciplinary work.

[2] We have benefitted immensely from collaborations with composer Finn Cooney, architect Anders Drøidal (OFR Design + Arkitektur), architect Peter Alexander Bullough (SUPERNATURE), Olivia Toftum, the STAY HOME perspective panel, Standard Practice, The Digitization of Everyday Life during the Covid-19 pandemic in Denmark, and all our interviewees. Furthermore, we thank the Carlsberg Foundation for funding our research and STARK GENTRÆ for sponsoring materials for the installation and assisting us in the reuse of the installation and the materials afterwards.

Research team

PI-group

    • PI: Mette Birkedal Bruun, professor of Church History, Faculty of Theology, University of Copenhagen, director of the Danish National Research Foundation Centre for Privacy Studies.
    • Co-PI: Brit Ross Winthereik, professor at Responsible Innovation and Design, Department of Technology, Management and Economics, The Technical University of Denmark.
    • Co-PI: Karen A. Vallgårda, associate professor of History, University of Copenhagen.
    • Co-PI: Peter Thule Kristensen, professor in History of Architecture and Interiors, Head of the master programme Spatial design, Institute of Architecture and Design, The Royal Danish Academy.

Editor

    • Emma Klakk, Sociologist and Academic Officer, Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen.

Perspective panel

References

Christiansen, Agnete Solvej. 2021. “Forskerne vil gerne arbejde tværfagligt, men ofte bliver anstrengelserne ikke belønnet”. Sciencereport.dk: DFIR vil undersøge tværfaglighed og tværvidenskab (sciencereport.dk), accessed 13/07/2023.

De Neergaard, Forthcoming. Sounding uncertainties: Sounding as analytical strategy for engaging with digital ethnographic archives”.

Sevaldson, B. 2010. “Discussions & Movements in Design Research: A Systems Approach to Practice Research in Design”. FORMakademisk, 2010, vol. 3 nr. 1: 8-35.

Siedlok, Frank and Hibert, Paul. 2012. Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research: Course Reader (2017).  University of Strathclyde.

Star S. L. 2010. “This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept”. Science Technology & Human Values 35(5): 601–617.

Verbeke, J. 2014. “This is Research by Design”. In M. Fraser (Ed.), Design Research in Architecture, An Overview. Farnham: Farnham: Ashgate: 137-159.



Cite this blog post
Katja de Neergaard, Nicholas Thomas Lee, Katrine Rønsig Larsen, Anne-Milla Wichmann Kristensen, Emma Klakk and Mette Birkedal Bruun (2023, September 1). Finding a home for interdisciplinary research: Dissolving disciplinary boundaries through the development of an audio/spatial installation. STAY HOME Research Blog. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ukf2

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