Emerging Art Education through Intra-Action within STEAM

Christine Liao
University of North Carolina, Wilmington, USA

Citation: Liao, C. (2019). Emerging art education through intra-action within STEAM. Transdisciplinary Inquiry, Practice, and Possibilities in Art Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries Open Publishing. DOI: 10.26209/arted50-03

Abstract: Inspired by Allan Kaprow’s lecture at the 1965 Penn State Art Education seminar, this essay discusses new directions for art education in the context of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) through feminist theorist Karen Barad’s (2007) concept of intra-action, i.e., “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies” (p. 33). In this effort, art education is re/conceptualized as emerging through intra-action with STEAM. Art, art education and STEM are understood to be entangled. I provided examples from art exhibitions focused on STEAM and examples of curriculum practices to explain the intra-actions and possibilities for art education. STEAM curricula that are transdisciplinary in nature constitute the embodiment of these intra-actions and emerging art education.

Keywords: STEAM, Intra-Action, Agential Realism, Transdisciplinary

In response to the 1965 Penn State Art Education’s A Seminar in Art Education for Research and Curriculum Development, especially Allan Kaprow’s lecture “The Creation of Art and the Creation of Art Education” at the seminar, this essay explores STEAM’s (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) potential for art education. In particular, I discuss new ways to re/conceptualize art education and new directions for art education in the 21st century through STEAM. Kaprow (1966) argues that art education does not and should not follow a fixed curriculum. He proposed an experimental art education that emerges through interactions between artists and young students rather than via lesson plans that separate art learning from real artistic experiences. Kaprow’s vision of art education is something without a set of rules or a planned route. In his view, teaching and learning happen in the interacting space between artists and students. The key is that he sees artists as capable of bringing imagination to life:

[I]n the artist’s sense of Being, in his active participation in the life of imagination, he may, as an example to philosophers and particularly as a teacher to young children, exude the power of dreams so directly, that the theory ceases to be a THEORY (and a lesson-plan) and simply exists as a way to be alive. (p. 84)

Inspired by his vision of an unknown space of art education emerging through experimentation, I see the inclusion of STEAM in art education today as offering opportunities for art educators to rethink art education and to move toward realizing and situating Kaprow’s vision. In this conceptual work of re-envisioning art education, I take Kaprow’s conceptualization a step further to see the new possible space of art education as created through the framework of feminist theorist Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism (2007)—a theory that reconceptualizes “reality.” Agential realism recognizes reality as constituted by agencies that intra-act rather than things that precede their interaction.

The theoretical framework proposed here in order to re/conceptualize art, STEM, art education, and STEM education draws on two important concepts, intra-action and phenomena, in Barad’s theory of agential realism. Specifically, Barad’s (2007) concepts of “intra-action,” which refers to “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies” (p. 33), and “phenomena,” which refers to “the inseparability of agentially intra-acting components” (p. 33) are central to my endeavor to understand the implications of STEAM for art education. Through the concept of intra-action, art education is re/configured not as an existing field influenced by other disciplines but as a space that is continuing to emerge through intra-actions. And, through phenomena, art (education) and STEM disciplines are not defined as preexisting intra-actions in STEAM. Instead, art (education) and STEM are understood to be entangled. Barad (2007) refers to her theory as “ethico-onto-epistemology,” thereby acknowledging the entanglement of these three. Therefore, my goal is not to effect any kind of separation between art, art education, STEM, and STEAM, but to recognize the messiness of any attempt to figure out the boundaries of these terms.

I begin by discussing the STEAM phenomena in (art) education in recent years and re/conceptualizing STEAM as phenomena in the sense of Barad’s theory of agential realism. I then introduce the concept of intra-action and provide examples that embody intra-action within STEM through the means of art. These examples provide directions for art education and STEAM curricula. Further, I discuss intra-actions between art education and STEAM based on the understanding that neither of these disciplines and none of the possibilities they express existed before the intra-actions between art and STEM. STEAM curricula that are transdisciplinary in nature constitute the embodiment of these intra-actions. The process of thinking through the concept of phenomena and intra-action is complex, as there is no singular phenomenon or intra-action. Instead, phenomenon and intra-action are ongoing and forever forming each other. Art education is not a single practice. Instead, there are numerous practices formed though intra-actions within art education. I conclude by referring back to the report of the 1965 Penn State Art Education Seminar and Kaprow’s core vision of art education to urge art educators to explore the transdisciplinary spaces generated by the intra-actions within STEAM.

The Coming of STEAM

STEAM is related to the STEM movement in education, itself a much-discussed topic in the pre-K-12, college, and community education contexts in recent years (Angier, 2010). The term STEAM is used in educational contexts to refer to educational approaches and practices designed to encourage students to participate in STEM fields and to thereby develop as innovators capable of competing in the global economy (Eger, 2013; Maeda, 2012; Trilling & Fadel, 2009). Even though there is no consensus on what constitutes effective STEAM education practices, STEAM has been adopted in one version or another by many schools and educators mostly in the US, but also in other countries (Yakman & Lee, 2012). The National Art Education Association (NAEA) issued a position statement in 2014 defining the STEAM approach to education as “the infusion of art and design principles, concepts, and techniques into STEM instruction and learning” (2014, para. 1). The NAEA position statement signals that STEAM is growing in importance in the field of art education where it has the potential to make a far-reaching impact by changing the ways in which art education is understood and practiced.

It is important to understand that although STEM comprises science, technology, engineering, and math, which are considered discrete subjects, I use the term STEM herein as if these subjects constitute one “thing.” Although this approach is not without drawbacks, using the overarching term, STEM, to describe these subjects here aligns with the general discourse of STEM in education (Storksdieck, 2011). The idea of integrating these subjects has been around since the 1990s with the acronym “SMET” used by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which later became STEM (Sanders, 2008). Critics have pointed out that emphasizing STEM serves to endanger liberal arts education (Cohen, 2016; Zakaria, 2015). Others remind us that art is essential to cultivating creativity and, thus, important to include in STEM. STEAM offers the most promising path toward achieving the goals of innovation and economic growth (Maeda, 2012; Trilling & Fadel, 2009). Some advocates for STEAM use the term STEM + Art(s) because STEM is a relatively well-established term (Wynn & Harris, 2012). STEM + Art raises the awareness of “adding” Art to STEM (or the other way around). However, these constructs of STEM and art continue the binary narrative of STEM versus Art.

The term STEAM is being used increasingly in the education field, and also in the art world, as practitioners in the latter context have become aware of the STEAM education movement. Examples of STEAM practices in art can be seen in STEAM, a 2014 exhibition curated by Patricia Miranda at the ArtsWestchester’s Arts Exchange. According to Miranda (2014), “[i]nspired by the STEM to STEAM dialogue in education, this exhibition presents artists using the interdisciplinary concepts of STEM to explore how science, technology and art overlap, interact, and innovate” (p. 6). The exhibition included pieces showing the involvement of artists in scientific disciplines (Hodara, 2014), addressing scientific, technological, and environmental questions and expressing connections between art and STEM. For example, in his work projecting sequences of fractal images onto a sculpture mounted on a wall, Carl Van Brunt “focuses on the imagistic potential of fractals” (Miranda, 2014, p. 32). Another approach to visualizing science can be seen in work by Evan Read who “translates images of the subatomic into digital abstractions” (Miranda, 2014, p. 22). As a way to consider and posit imaginative though incipient solutions to pollution, William Meyer created a transparent backpack with a “complex system of earth microorganisms, chemistry and botany” (Hodara, 2014, para. 7), capable of providing clean air. Several artists questioned “reality in the face of new technology” (Miranda, 2014, p. 9). For example, Scott Fitzgerald’s Isopleth is a large wall projection that interacts with viewers. The title refers to “a line on a map that connects places with similar attributes” (Miranda, 2014, p. 23). The work calls into question what we think of as real and what we think of as virtual spaces. Overall, the exhibition embodied the ideas of STEAM and the connections among the STEAM disciplines. Looking back to Kaprow’s (1966) idea of connecting the art world with school art education, we can see the value of this art exhibition. Kaprow argued that artists would bring “magic” to the classroom. The idea of connecting artists’ STEAM expression to education brings what he considered artist’s “magic” to the discourse of STEAM education. This is a step toward connecting art world and art education.

Intra-Actions between Art and STEM

In order to explore how art and STEM disciplines intra-act, I will explain intra-action in Barad’s framework of agential realism where the concept refers to “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies”:

That is, in contrast to the usual “interaction,” which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction, the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action. (Barad, 2007, p. 33)


Barad bases her theory on discoveries in quantum physics, particularly Nobel Prize–winning physicist Niels Bohr’s interpretation of quantum physics. She describes Bohr’s theory of quantum physics as philosophy-physics. The defining feature of Bohr’s interpretation—i.e., the understanding that agencies do not preexist the intra-action between them—is based on his view of the “wave-versus-particle nature of light (and matter)” (Barad, 2007, p. 100). Without getting into too much technical detail in regard to this debate in physics, I will simply explain that the two-slit experiment was designed to find the answer. Originally performed by physicist Thomas Young, the experiment was modified by others such as Bohr and Einstein in various ways over time. For Bohr and Einstein, these are gedanken experiments, i.e., thought experiments. However, given recent technological advances, it is possible to perform the two-slit experiment in a lab setting now, and electrons and molecules have been used as input sources to perform the experiment (Barad, 2007). In the experiment, the source, electrons, for example, is sent through two parallel open slits. The nature of the source (i.e., waves or particles) is observed on the screen behind the slits because waves and particles differ in regard to the patterns they create. However, the observation from the experiment is that the electrons (considered to be particles) behave like waves. In other words, the electrons express the nature both of waves and of particles. In order to measure and “catch electrons in the act of behaving like a particle and a wave simultaneously” (p. 104), Bohr modified the apparatus for his version of the experiment. He argued that “if a measurement is made that identifies the electron as a particle, … then the result will be a particle pattern” (p. 104). Based on Bohr’s arguments according to which it is not possible to determine whether electrons are either waves or particles until a measurement has been taken, (in other words, the act of measurement determines the nature of what is measured). Thus, Barad explains that there is no pre-existing agency.

Applying this idea to understanding art and STEM, we can say that neither art nor STEM pre-exists specific intra-actions. Through intra-actions, art and STEM mutually construct what they are known to be. In Barad’s words, the specific intra-action is an “agential cut,” which “enact[s] a resolution within the phenomenon of some inherent ontological indeterminacies to the exclusion of others” (Kleinman, 2012, p. 77). We can think of this agential cut as the disciplinary divides in our schools. If we consider human knowledge as a whole, the public school curriculum in the U.S only teaches selected and separated knowledge for the most part, then there are agential cuts that shape and define the disciplines. The establishment of the Media Arts Standards in the National Core Arts Standards of 2014 is an example of these divides, these agential cuts. The establishment of the standards is a cut that defines media arts and separates and excludes them from visual arts. However, visual arts and media arts intra-act and will continue to define each other.

I will discuss examples that embody intra-action between art and STEM (specifically, biology and ecology science) through artists’ works in the 2013 exhibition Intra-Action: Multispecies Becomings in the Anthropocene, curated by Madeleine Boyd and Eben Kirksey. The purpose of the exhibition, which was held at the MOP Projects gallery in Sydney, Australia, was to explore the

collaborative possibilities of intra-action, a concept that at its core critically challenges the metaphysics of the individual. Embracing a multispecies intra-action conceptual framework enables significant advances in thinking with more-than-human agencies unfettered by long-standing anthropocentric or essentialist categories of animal/human nature/culture/science/art and so on. (Boyd, 2015a, p. 6)

The exhibition specifically concerned multispecies through Barad’s agential realism according to which humans and non-humans contribute equally to intra-actions. The artworks showed examples of multispecies entanglement through intra-action.

In the interactive art project TE+ND Rover Prototype (2013), by Marnia Johnston in collaboration with Corey McGuire, a moving planter-like robot carries plants. The work “explore[s] migratory ecology in an era of climate change. The rovers are robotic fostering environments that care for their own garden of native plants by interacting with participants and actively seeking out light and water” (Johnston, 2012, para. 1). In order to “provoke thought about justice for all species as we question whether a robot should save a plant that humans have labeled a weed,” co-curator Eben Kirksey gathered “weeds and fallen plants from liminal urban zones” (Boyd, 2015b, p. 13). The artwork embodied the intra-actions between humans and plants, environment and species, climate and human. The intra-actions made visible the challenges of species entangled with environment.

Also featured was Trish Adams’s Urban Swarming (2013), a piece that embodies “social-cultural and ecological issues” (para. 2). This work includes footage of aggressive honeybee behavior available for download via QR codes in several inner-city venues. Viewers can download and view the footage with their own city venue as a backdrop. According to Adams, her intention was that

Participants [would] consider the layered relationship between humans and honeybees as they face closely linked issues. The video images of desperate honeybee responses, viewed against the backdrop of the rushing mass of the urban population, scurrying hither and thither created a scenario where both humans and honeybees exhibit mindless—possibly doomed—behaviours. (2013, para. 3)

The artwork shows a connection between species or that they do not preexist agential cuts that separate this (still) entangled being. The presence of scientific concepts (or in the overreaching term used in this essay, STEM) in these artworks shows the connectivity of disciplinary agencies. This art and STEM intra-action provided direction for art education curricula in terms of understanding and communicating complex and intertwined issues through uncovering the inseparability of involved agencies. STEM presented through art magnified the entanglement of the disciplines and the unavoidable movement toward STEAM.

These artworks embody intra-actions whereby art and science “merg[e] and emerg[e] in the ongoing process of becoming” (Boyd, 2015a, p. 9). Constituted by the relations performed though art and science, human and non-human, material and immaterial, the exhibition showed the inseparability of art and STEM. Art cannot be identified through/by the aesthetics of these artworks, and STEM cannot be identified through/by the subjects of each piece. Art and STEM are not separate subjects, but they are STEAM, continuing to intra-act and emerge. By thinking through Barad’s framework, by considering art and STEM as not beginning with separation, we see them as the same phenomena so that new possibilities can be envisioned.

Intra-Actions within STEAM Education

Phenomena in Barad’s agential realism refers to the primary ontological units that constitute reality: “phenomena do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of ’observer’ and ’observed’; rather, phenomena are the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting ’components’” (2003, p. 815). In this framework, art and STEM are not individual “things/subjects.” They are intra-acting “components” of STEAM. STEAM, therefore, the phenomena are enacted by these intra-actions. “[R]eality is not composed of things-in-themselves or things behind phenomena but ’things’-in-phenomena” (Barad, 2003, p. 817), such that STEAM can be re/conceptualized as created by the relations performed though intra-acting between art and STEM. The artworks discussed in the previous section are examples of emerging STEAM. It is important to note that my intention in bringing artist’s art practices involving a scientistic or technological method to the discourse of STEAM is based on Kaprow’s (1966) suggestion to bring artists and their “magic” directly to school art education. The artworks can act as pedagogical directions that involve understanding, evaluating, and solving the challenges facing humans and the environment.

I extend the discussion presented thus far from art and STEM disciplines to art education and STEAM education. Although STEAM can be re/conceptualized as created by the intra-actions between art and STEM, to think through Barad’s agential realism, STEAM is more complex than just the “product” of the intra-actions. STEAM education is the entangled phenomena of art and STEM education and is in the continuing becoming. The intra-actions between art, STEM, and art education are possible because art education is not singular. In reflecting on Kaprow’s (1966) vision of bringing and reflecting what happens in the art world to art education, we need to discover art and STEAM education through intra-actions, or in other words, through STEAM projects similar to those artwork examples discussed herein as practiced by artists and that are transdisciplinary in nature. Transdisciplinarity, according to Nicolescu (1997), is “the unity of knowledge” (para. 4). The difference between multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity is that multidisciplinarity refers to studying several disciplines at the same time (Nicolescu, 2008), and interdisciplinarity “concerns the transfer of methods from one discipline to another” (Nicolescu, 2008, p. 2). However, transdisciplinarity is “at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline” (Nicolescu, 1997, para. 4). We can see transdisciplinary as an entangled space or phenomenon wherein intra-actions of disciplines, or in the focus of this essay, art and STEM, continue to evolve.

An embodiment of these kinds of intra-actions can be seen in Guyotte, Sochacka, Costantino, Kellam, and Walther’s (2015) transdisciplinary design studio project. They argue that their project points to “STEAM as an opportunity for art students to question the notion of the ’lone artist,’ reflect upon the tension between product and process, and expand disciplinary-based understandings of creative thinking” (p. 2). In this project, students work together on two “design challenges” designed to engage students in social issues. Through intra-actions—i.e., by the students from different fields working together—art education experiences arise from creative collaboration. This experience does not emphasize the individual artist’s agency as traditional art education does. Instead, the intra-action within this STEAM project provided “lines of flight” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) for art education to exist beyond the individual artist’s agency.

Another example is the EcoScience + Art initiative led by Changwoo Ahn, which is a collaborative STEAM initiative that is continuing to evolve. One project in this initiative, The Rain Project, was designed to “promote participation and collaboration in the context of ecological literacy and campus sustainability” (Ahn, 2015, p. 4). Students from various disciplines worked together to build a floating wetland over the period of a year in order to address stormwater issues and improve the quality of the water at their campus. One of the students reflected that he had learned to appreciate artistic aesthetics through this project (McDonald, 2015). Thus, art education emerged in this intra-action within STEAM.

Exemplary STEAM projects are in essence transdisciplinary. As Marshall (2014) put it, “[t]ransdisciplinarity … connotes a practice or domain that rises above disciplines and dissolves their boundaries to create a new social and cognitive space” (p. 106). Arriving at transdisciplinary spaces created by STEAM intra-actions, art education is no longer driven by lesson plans or a fixed curriculum separated from the artist’s practices as in Kaprow’s (1966) critique. Instead, art education is constantly changing the boundaries generating the intra-actions that could re/define art education.


If we are going to fail for the most part, can we not fail more interestingly, that is with a little color? We might even succeed a little here and there… —Allan Kaprow (1966, p. 82)

As the seminar director Edward Mattil (1966) in the summary of the 1965 Penn State Art Education Seminar states:

This report, in a way, needs no ending. It began as an invitation to open the whole field of art education for critical examination and re-evaluation with the hope that some promising research and curriculum development directions would be forthcoming. (p. 425)

My conclusion to this essay is also open-ended. In reflecting on the value of applying Barad’s theory in this exercise of reconfiguring directions for art education, I consider that this way of thinking as “urging ’us’ to re-think our ’location’, our ’position’, our ’identity’, our ’subjectivity’, our here-and-now-and-there-and-then, and yet not simply to accept ’phenomena in their ongoing materialization’” (Parsons, 2014, para. 23). That is, art educators can benefit from rethinking the identity of art education through the ongoing intra-action within STEAM. This re/conceptualization of art education as emerging from intra-actions frees the discipline from existing within pre-determined boundaries and enables its “potentiality” (Massumi, 2002).

Kaprow’s vision of art education is something that is continuing to emerge through experimental encountering. He values unexpected possibilities. In rethinking and extending his vision for current and future art education, the STEAM and art education intra-action is something that could create new space and move boundaries.

I have provided examples showing how the intra-action between art and STEM could provide directions for art education. The emerging directions inform art education’s (continuing) movement toward a transdisciplinary space, i.e., a space that cannot be defined because the disciplinary boundaries are constantly evolving or disappearing. Transdisciplinary work is necessary for our era of global challenges and concerns (Nicolescu, 1997). As the agential cuts of individual disciplines continue, it is important to re/configure the boundaries of disciplines. STEAM is an opportunity for art education to do this. I encourage art educators to explore the transdisciplinary spaces generated by the intra-actions within STEAM.


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Christine Liao

Dr. Christine Liao is an Associate Professor at Watson College of Education at University of North Carolina Wilmington. She received her Ph.D. in Art Education with a minor in Science, Technology, and Society from Penn State in 2011. Her research areas include media arts, digital performance, theorizing virtual body and identity, exploring interactions between virtual and real, STEAM, technology integration in art education, and community art.