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‘Artists and Designers Play a Crucial Role in Establishing a Vision of Humanity That Is Sustainable, Equitable and Ethical’

Dr Laini Burton, Senior Lecturer and QCA Honours Program Director (Design, Design Futures, Digital Media, Fine Art, Photography) at the Queensland College of Art (Griffith University) in Australia, studies body politics, bio-art and design, fashion theory, performance and body/spatial relations.

At the upcoming XIX April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development, she will be delivering a presentation entitled ‘Inside Out: Prosthetic Organs as Wearable Art’, which will address the growing field of bioart and design, and the significant questions that are raised for artists and designers working with life as raw matter. Her lecture will examine specific examples of wearable art produced by architect and designer Neri Oxman, and in appraising these examples, she will register speculative critical design as a methodology that interrogates the underlying assumptions of bioart and design processes as they converge with the life sciences.

In an interview with the HSE News Service ahead of the conference, she spoke about her recent research, the inspiration she derives from her students, what motivates her, and what her greatest concerns are today.

Laini Burton

— How did your cooperation with HSE begin? Are there any special long-term joint projects that you plan to discuss while you are here?

— My involvement with HSE began with The Russian Fashion Theory Journal Editor-in-Chief Dr Liudmila Aliabieva, who has been very supportive of my research. I have published with the journal a couple of times. It was at Dr Aliabieva's suggestion that I considered presenting at the conference. Of course, I was thrilled at the prospect and feel grateful for this opportunity to share my research. In terms of long-term mutual projects with HSE, there is some discussion of my joining the Dissertation Council, so I hope to hear more about this when I arrive.

— Is this your first visit to Moscow?

— This will be the first time I have ever visited Russia and I am very excited. Actually, I hope to see snow, although I see the weather channel reports it is getting warmer. I live in a tropical city where it has never snowed.

— What is the main topic of your presentation at the conference?

— The central aim of my presentation is to analyse how speculative design artefacts can provide us with ways of considering the future of the human body, particularly at a time where the instrumentalization of technologies to extend ourselves and our capacity to engage in the world is rising exponentially. It is this confluence of art and design, science and technology that interests me the most as a scholar. My keenest focus, however, resides within art and design – where I am trained in practice and theory – although, I believe our analyses must include broader moral, ethical, political, social and cultural considerations if we are to address the anxieties that these technological shifts bring to the fore. It is my firm belief that artists and designers play a crucial role and responsibility in establishing a vision of humanity that is sustainable, equitable and ethical.

— A lot of your research focuses on body politics and masquerade. How do you combine theory and practice?

— The relationship between body politics and masquerade arose from my PhD research. The way we 'fashion' our bodies – for example, through surgery, technology such as social media, garments, our demeanour – all determine how we engage with the world.

I was trained in the Fine Arts and have since gone on to teach in digital media, fashion, and design. I developed the Fashion major at my university, along with many courses – among them Anatomy for Artists. I am now the Program Director of Honours – our fourth year of study. I manage the Fine Art, Photography, Design, and Digital Media degree programmes, and design and deliver the curriculum.

I am very passionate about the role of the Honours year as the pathway to higher degree research. My understanding of how theory and practice operate together enable me to see the bigger picture, which is necessary when working with various disciplines.

— How do you encourage your students to get started? What are some of the global examples you share to motivate them? 

— I always encourage my students to begin with a burning question – a passion project –something they find impossible to ignore and which drives them to seek answers. If you are passionate about what you pursue, the commitment to the topic will not wane. As I begin to know my students, I can relay to them examples that support their research. Sometimes my examples come from disciplines outside of their own, but I do this purposefully so they 'think outside the box'. Interdisciplinary approaches are something that artists and designers are well accustomed to.

— How would you describe the students you work with? Apart the main disciplines, what is it that you are trying to teach them?

— Students are increasingly sophisticated in the way they approach research. They have so many more 'tools' to use now – tools that did not exist when I began to study. There are things that do not change, however, and that is a desire to learn and improve oneself, to contribute to society in a way that is meaningful.

The arts in Australia often face funding cuts and, at times, a lack of recognition in how important they are as disciplines. The arts are a fundamental component of modern life! In fact, as disciplines, art and design write the history of humankind. Literature, music, painting, textiles, ceramics, fashion, design... all of these things allow us to study what has come before us, and what will continue to shape how we will move into the future. This is the message I relay to my students. That is, while we may have different approaches to learning, each discipline has something valuable to offer in terms of our future.

What I would like to see is less separation, and more collaboration between those disciplines we call 'S.T.E.A.M' (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics). We can really learn from one another.

— What are you learning from your students?

— I am always learning from my students. Sometimes, it is a matter of how to navigate their learning difficulties, so I can better support them, and sometimes their questions make me consider my own assumptions of knowledge. Most often, however, they remind me that I love to teach, I love to learn and that I am deeply appreciative of my job. I especially like supervising PhD students because of the deeper engagement with their research. However, when I see the confidence of my undergraduates build, I feel proud.

— What inspires you and helps you to keep going?

— My inspiration is twofold. First, I firmly believe that interdisciplinary approaches to research and development can provide solutions for contemporary problems, prompt us to ask the right questions, and yield positive results for the future. Second, my family inspires me and drives me to achieve and succeed. I am endlessly grateful to my husband and sons who bring me joy and purpose.

— What is your dream concerning economic and development issues globally and in emerging countries in particular?

— Concerning economic and development issues globally, and especially those in emerging countries, I would wish for leaders of developed nations to see developing nations as equals and hear and see their concerns as their own. We only have one planet! Our impact, however small we may consider it, is part of global footprint. Some issues that concern me the most are plastic and global warming. We need to reassess our practices and seek creative solutions to these problems as a matter of urgency.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE news service

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