An Interview with Emily Cross

from MasonARC’s Interview Blog Series: The Impact of Covid-19 on Arts Programming, Practice, and Research

Megan Stutesman: Tell me a little bit about your background in the arts and arts research, and what you’re currently working on, and what you’ve worked on in the past.

Emily Cross (Professor, University of Glasgow & Macquirie University): Okay, so I am a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and I am also a former professional dancer. So, I’ve always been really interested in motor learning and observational learning and these sorts of things, from a dancer’s sort of perspective, but these have been some things that have really informed my cognitive neuroscience training and research development and what I’ve been looking at as a team leader for the past few years. So, we’ve tried to, over the past ten years or so, really apply, neuroaesthetics to performing arts, with a particular focus on dance.

Megan: How do you see your work connecting to larger ecosystem arts research, arts policy, and arts practice in the world?

Emily: Having been fortunate enough to have opportunities to spend time with dance companies and other kinds of big organizations where artists are very much involved, it’s a very delicate dance. I think they’re [scientists] often characterized as having different kinds of aims and priorities in research. I think that’s true to a certain extent, but I don’t think it has to be that way, or they’re mutually exclusive, but I don’t think it’s necessarily easy to find that common ground. So, I would say that I’m always really careful as a neuroscientist, that we don’t waltz in as scientists and say “we’re going to find all of the similarities between the sciences and arts by using the scientific method,” which is a terrible idea. So, I think that scientists need to be really careful and need to listen more and listen better when collaborating with artists and to support and sustain, and be useful when supporting work that applies to the arts. I think in terms of public policy, that again, scientists should do a lot more listening and understanding from the art community; what it is that they want from us and how people might contribute. Again, build these collaborations with the arts and have two-way communication from the ground up.

Megan: What is your perspective on the utility of arts research?

Emily: I mean, I think the utility in arts research is huge, and I think it’s so important now more than ever, especially in this recent push towards STEM. It’s unfortunate because arts research is hugely vital in understanding who we are as a human culture and where we come from and where we’re going, and science doesn’t really give us that. The value of arts research for arts within itself is tremendous and it doesn’t need science to legitimize itself.

Megan: How has the arts ecosystem shifted because of COVID?

Emily: Whether it’s blasting really big and live music festivals, or arts festivals where people come together and appreciate stuff in an embodied presence, that’s something we just don’t get by watching these phenomenal dancers, and cohorts, and musical groups brought together on Zoom and online. It’s still impressive, but fundamentally different from watching it live.

Megan: What has your arts research been like during the pandemic? Can you talk about your own unique response to COVID’s lockdowns with regard to your research on the arts?

Emily: I mean we’ve had to switch to online testing and in some ways with arts-related research – it’s not a huge deal. So, we pivoted to online research and we showed people videos of dancers, or of paintings, and that was fine online. But for the neuroscience side of things, we can’t be doing anything with neuroscience right now because we need in-person testing. All of our neuroaesthetic and dance neuroscience research has paused and hasn’t resumed yet, and who knows when it will.

Megan: How do you see the cultural value of art and arts research? Do you see a shift in the value of art and arts research during to the pandemic?

Emily: People question why we fund this [arts research] when there’s a pandemic going on and there’s a hunger, and climate crises going on. When tensions flare and people are feeling stressed because of pandemic issues or politics, it’s easy to lash out at other [non-pandemic related] research and question its value. So, I think that’s a huge issue. But if we strip away all of the arts, arts research, and other [non-pandemic related] research, we have a very hollow existence. Yet, all of the Netflix viewing and others indicates how much people are watching arts. It’s important to understand the value of the arts and that should be remembered.

Megan: What are your goals in the use of arts research and practice and what are your expectations for your arts research?

Emily: I would say that the goals are to continue to build truly collaborative and hopefully equally beneficial research endeavors with artists and scientists in that space and to never have that well run dry. My goal to seek out those collaborations and to ensure that, you know, we can get funding to support them and ask really interesting questions for both the scientific community and the artists. I’m also hoping that with enough creativity and ingenuity, that we can find ways to articulate why this sort of research is so important for humanity to survive and bounce back from the pandemic.

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