Interview with Hillary Mushkin, Caltech

Hillary Mushkin is a Research Professor of Art and Design at Caltech in Los Angeles. Her interest lies in developing collaborations between scientists, artists, designers and engineers to explore new avenues of research. The PLASMA team met up with Hillary in her office during our stay in LA to find out more about the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration and upcoming projects.

PLASMA: What do you teach at Caltech?

Hillary: I teach classes related to art and technology here. I’ve been teaching a New Media Art History and Projects class for many years, focusing on new media technologies from our current time going back to Duchamp. We study artists working with technologies that result in mass reproduction of objects and information, as well as distribution and communication.

Students get to make projects with contemporary new technologies of their choice. The students are all undergrads, most of them with no art history background – for example, they don’t know who Duchamp is. It’s exciting when the course makes and impact on them at the end of the 10 weeks. One student even told me he regaled friends at a party tossing around the term ‘duchampian’.

I enjoy talking to science and engineering students about using tech to do things that are not necessarily practical, but instead raise questions and evoke wonder. It’s fun to imagine with them what might be possible, rather than what is functional.

I teach another class called Critical Making. We start with contemporary maker culture, and connect it to the history of design and DIY culture. At the same time, the students create prototypes and models using 3D printing, textile circuits and other modes of making.

Next year (spring 2020) I am co-teaching a new class on computer algorithms and the public sphere with a computer scientist.

Hillary Mushkin, pic Clemens Fantur

PLASMA: What are you hoping to achieve teaching these materials to engineers?

Hillary: For me it’s very important to work with students at Caltech. Around 40% of them are computer scientists, and many are going to obtain positions that affect people and society in the future. What I want the students to do is not just to think how to make things work but also consider why they should (or should not) make them, and how things can impact society.

Science and engineering research is like art in the sense that it has to do with experimenting, discovery and seeing the world in different ways. I want students to think creatively when they ask questions about the world. While engineers often develop hypotheses around practical questions, artists sometimes have questions that are impractical or push the boundaries of what is expected. I think it’s those kinds of questions that can lead to unexpected and new insights. So, I think it’s very valuable to have creative ways of thinking when you are a scientist or engineer, too.

Science has a particular methodology behind it that shares a lot of parallels with the way in which artists work. My aim is to understand the different methodologies that are used in seeking and making knowledge.

PLASMA: Do you also lead mixed teams where you put together artists and scientists?

Hillary: Yes, I co-lead Data to Discovery, a data visualization program with colleagues at NASA/JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) and Art Center College of Design. My collaborators work in computer science, human-computer interaction, user-centered design and interaction design. We develop projects focused on data visualisation challenges with scientists here and at JPL. We bring in interns who have backgrounds in computer science and design to work together with us. Each summer we usually work with three different science and engineering research groups.

For example, last summer (2018) we worked with researchers at JPL in the PIXL group to help develop a new way to visualize and work with spectrometry data collected from Mars. They explained to us how some of the procedures of interpretation don’t work as well as they would wish. That’s where design expertise comes in. We worked with them and their sample data to develop a prototype for interactive visualization software that helps them see, engage with and understand their data in new ways.

PLASMA: What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your role?

Hillary: Translation, language. It’s hard to find a shared language amongst disciplines. For example, the term ‘design’ refers to something completely different in engineering than it does in the fields of art and design. For them, to design is to engineer. So, when a designer says, ‘I also design,’ they are like, ‘what do you mean?’

In general, why would you say that it’s a benefit for a scientist to collaborate with other disciplines, especially art and design?

I think it’s beneficial for scientific research at certain points. I think that what I’ve found based on my experience is that people will come to you when they are seeking a different perspective. For example, my classes are elective, and students who enroll are already interested in learning from art and design history and practices. The collaborators I work with outside of the classroom are attracted to talking to artists and designers when they are looking for new, creative ways to think about what they are doing. Those are great reasons to talk to anyone, really!


Hillary Mushkin, pic Clemens Fantur

Hillary Mushkin is Research Professor of Art and Design at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), leading a new art, design, science and engineering initiative. As a visual artist, Mushkin explores intersections of media, technology and authority in visual culture. She works in diverse forms including drawing, digital media, and public engagement. She collaborates with others from fields including art history, poetry, architecture, and geography. Mushkin’s projects have been exhibited at the Freud Museum (London), the Getty Museum (Los Angeles), and White Columns (New York). She has also produced works in alternative contexts including sidewalks, a state park, and the 29 Palms Marine Corps base.


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