Transmission in Motion

Seminar Blogs

“Formulating the Serendipitous” – Bernice Ong

At first glance, the phrase ‘designing for serendipity’ comes across as an oxymoron. Serendipity, a situation underscored by chance. Is it possible at all to design for serendipitous encounters? Is there a science behind serendipity? These were some of the questions that rang in my head as we were introduced to the virtual exhibition created on Artsteps where four separate sections of a virtual hall were organized to host different thematic content. As a virtual visitor, I could explore as I wished, discovering art objects placed all around the space. Separately and only through happenstance, I would also discover a number of other objects and installations outside the exhibition hall when I decided to venture ‘outdoors’.

If I may approach my experience of this session reflexively, I suggest that serendipitous encounters can occur with the intersection of three particular factors: Firstly, there must be a determinable field that comprises a specific area of inquiry; secondly, there must be mobility whereby one is engaged in some form of activity; and thirdly, there must be a receptive attitude to emergent, unexpected situations. To sum, I might say that serendipitous encounters occur in a time of action on the fringes of a determinable field.

To hinge on the third factor then, it seems to me that the discussion on designing for serendipity would apply primarily to oneself in attending to our situational positioning and relational capacities. In thinking through how such an approach would manifest in humanities research, it makes sense that the interdisciplinary model has been advocated or examined in this session. Regarding interdisciplinarity, Frédéric Darbellay and colleagues observe that “the organisation of knowledge is based on interactions between a plurality of viewpoints and the issues and problems treated are located between (inter-) the disciplines and cannot be explored from a single disciplinary perspective in isolation” (Darbellay 2014, 3). Accordingly, for interdisciplinary research to be productive, the process has to be both specified and open, with the researcher somewhat proficient enough to recognize not only lapses, but also opportunities.

From this perspective, it would seem like cross-disciplinary conversations would be most inspiring and instructive. But in the same vein, it would be naïve to think all interdisciplinary settings create the best scenario for serendipity, or to proclaim that serendipity promotes interdisciplinarity, which is in many ways, still an abstract approach. I also see boundaries of each discipline as being somewhat porous and evolving as a question of practice which makes the formulaic proposition of interdisciplinarity somewhat problematic. I would propose a more practicable approach with the suggestion that designing for serendipity may be best thought of through the development of self and one’s own field of research while maintaining shared and open knowledge systems. Perhaps then, what serendipity entails is an attitude of humility, curiosity, and responsiveness—the formulating of fertile conditions for the opportune discovery to be enacted.