“Virtual Serendipity – An Interdisciplinary Performance of the Unexpected” – Eleonora Stacchiotti
During the sixth seminar session of Transmission in Motion series Knowledge in Making – Design by Doing, the discussion took a meta turn and researchers from the group Subjects in Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching (SILT) have been given the floor to speak about the practice of interdisciplinary research, by exploring the potentialities of serendipitous discoveries. Introduced as a “much-discussed theme in and around current-day academia”, serendipity is more than anything also an attitude of someone who decentres and opens their mind to the unexpected. Following the belief that serendipity can play a key role in interdisciplinary research – which synthesizes knowledge and methods from different disciplines as an approach – this session wanted to open a debate about the possibility of creating a serendipitous environment for interdisciplinary research in an increasingly digital regime.
Uncountable times it happened in my experience as a beginner in the Humanities research that I found documents and extra sources for my papers while I was taking a break from my study sessions and walking around in the University Library in Utrecht… Now that everything has moved online and one cannot walk randomly through the shelves’ hallways anymore (temporarily, I hope), the sense of surprise and satisfaction induced by the casual discovery of material perfectly fitting the object of your research is somewhat more difficult to access. Even if browsers have search features that could replicate the act of randomly running into correlated materials, the very action of drifting in space is still missing. As a direct response to present-day circumstances, lecturers, and researchers Ilona Dolmen, Merel van Goch, Anastasia Hacopian, Anne Kustritz, Rianne van Lambalgn, Toine Minnaert, Florentine Sterk, Iris van der Tuin and Roosmarijn van Woerden have presented a virtual museum designed for serendipity. It is divided into four parts colored in four different colors. Each area focuses on specific issues and strategies, like playful ways to engage with data, artistic depictions of the value of randomness, interviews with experts of interdisciplinary research, the exhibition of historically relevant objects such as the medieval books carousel.
For the greatest part of the session, we explored the museum and interacted with each other on Microsoft Teams channels about ideas and thoughts that came to our mind during the tour. Digital objects of any kind and from any background pop up on the colored walls and videos with sound keep going on even when the user is not watching, so to recreate the sound landscape of an exhibition afk (=away from keyboard). You can roam around by pressing the keys to walk our ghost-like avatar around in the virtual rooms, recreating the circumstances of walking around in a museum and finding out more about things you were not expecting. In my understanding, the virtual museum aims to be the materialization of the entanglement between interdisciplinary research and serendipity, or better, the digital museum seems to be there to perform the notion of interdisciplinarity while allowing for a serendipitous encounter between the object of knowledge and the user. The virtual museum is the ‘digital embodiment’ of interdisciplinarity because it is formed by several digital objects coming from different disciplines, methodologies and approaches to knowledge. The way users approach them is driven by serendipitous random encounters.
Even if I acknowledge the effort and appreciate the attempt to reach serendipity in digital times, to what extent can we create random situations to engender serendipitous outcomes? Isn’t the lack of ‘design’ and ‘expectations’ at the core of the very notion of serendipity? If we envision the digital environment as a space made up of hyperlinks and designed content, is it possible to think of serendipity as part of our digital life?
Can we really design a space to induce random connections?