Department of Art Chair on the Crossroads of Art and STEM

The ever-narrowing gap between art and STEM has made the synergy between the two increasingly visible. Linda O’Keeffe, professor and chair of Stony Brook University’s Department of Art, is ready for the challenge of leveraging that relationship even further.

“As a STEM university with art schools, Stony Brook is an interesting place,” said O’Keeffe. “Being an interdisciplinary artist, I was very curious.”

A native of Ireland, O’Keeffe — a prominent figure in sonic arts — was chair of art at the Edinburgh College of Art in Edinburgh University when the pandemic hit. She found herself in crisis management mode, an environment that lasted for 2 1/2 years. The experience left her discouraged and disillusioned about her career.

“I didn’t feel like I had experienced or transformed the department in any meaningful way,” she said. “I’d done some things, but mostly what I’d done was held it together.”

She was looking for a more creative opportunity when the Stony Brook position was posted, and as she explored the university, O’Keeffe became fascinated by the Governors Island climate initiative.

“I’m still fascinated by it, and that’s a big reason why I wanted to come here,” she said. “I thought about being part of the Climate Exchange campus and I said, ‘this is my area, my practice is within the climate crisis. There are opportunities for me here.’”

O’Keeffe’s most recent work focuses on gene editing for climate adaptation, a DNA-modification method designed to aid organisms in adapting to climate change or help mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture. The idea of leading an art unit embedded within a STEM space on track to become an epicenter of climate research offered great potential for interdisciplinary thinking, collaboration, and teaching.

Okeeffe drifting
Linda O’Keeffe’s audio and video exhibit ‘Continents Drifting’ was part of the 2023-2024 Faculty Exhibition at the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery.

Though O’Keeffe doesn’t have a science background — her PhD is in sociology in addition to degrees in communications and fine art — she’s always had an interest. “I started looking at science more when I was doing my masters,” she said. “I was interested in chaos theory and quantum theory through my academic work, which was a masters in fine art, but under the heading of virtual reality. I became very interested in this idea of alternate universes and other worlds.”

When she began working on her masters, she started to think more about how she could combine her two passions. She was especially interested in sound.

“I love using sound as a sculptural object and how that could be related to thinking about molecules and how they move through space and how objects produce sound and how sound differs from light,” she said. “So you start digging into the medium you’re working with and it becomes a scientific interrogation.”

O’Keeffe became art chair in January, and said the priority after her first semester is thinking about what the future can be for Stony Brook Art, and to begin thinking about the department in an “ecosystemic” way to coordinate all the parts. To this end, she’s created a curriculum committee, a web and social media presence committee, and a tech and space committee.

“All those things are interlinked and we need to talk to each other,” she said. “But the bigger idea is to start to plan for the future. What is the future of art? What are we all doing collectively? And how does that become part of pedagogy? My priority right now is to start those conversations. I want to create a passion for that discourse and for everyone to be excited about reimagining the future of art for this department and within this university.”

O’Keeffe’s areas of specialization are acoustic ecology, social soundscapes, sound and installation art, and she focuses on climate change, gender inclusion, and technology in music. She says that synergy comes out in the art she produces.

Okeeffe feat

“Following the completion of my PhD I began to look at how I can engage with different audiences,” she said. “So I’ll think about workshops that introduce people to the way that I research a question. You can listen to and document your environment, and you can think about the impact of certain things and your perception of them. Writing about how I develop creative methodologies and how I research ideas and how I produce art was something new to my practice. That’s shaped by those experiences.”

O’Keeffe also embraces the transformational change that artificial intelligence promises. “I think the idea of some new intelligence producing art from a perspective we will have no comprehension of will be genuinely exciting.”

O’Keeffe said that in the end, art is a feedback system.

“Whatever is happening around us has a relationship to the people who are producing art,” she said. “So when we think about the future of art, it’s also the future of everything else as well. What are we moving towards? How will art respond? But also, how will we influence thinking in those areas as well? How are we challenging? I think the only way to think about the future of art is that whatever else is happening in the world, art will be responding to it.”

And O’Keeffe will be on the front line of Stony Brook’s response.

“There’s an opportunity to take the lead in reshaping and reimagining the way we collaborate here and what the future of art will be within Stony Brook,” she said. “I feel like I came at a good time to do that.”

— Robert Emproto

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