What are Strange Tools?

The Strange Tools Research Lab (STRL) creates new tools for research and novel solutions to social dilemmas. Within the Digital Futures Initiative at the University of Cincinnati, the Strange Tools Research Lab has been developing a series of projects that address social-ecological issues and empower underserved communities involving beekeeping, soil conservation, veterans, and artists with disabilities.

The Strange Tools Research Lab was established in 2018 with an internal grant from the Digital Futures Initiative at the University of Cincinnati. The founding members included researchers from the fields of Engineering, Cognitive Sciences, Neurosciences, Philosophy, Fine Arts, and Art Education.

When we are skilled at using a tool, we focus on the task at hand, and the tool fades from our view. Hammers, spoons, and toothbrushes are useful because we know exactly what to do with them, without having to think. But these kinds of tools are only helpful when we already know the solution to a problem, and they work best when we already have experience in using them. For the most important problems we are facing today as local and global communities, none of that is the case. We do not yet know the solutions to the wicked problems of the 21st century, and tools needed to solve them have yet to be invented. Strange tools are the opposite of hammers, spoons, and toothbrushes in central ways: Instead of disappearing from our view while we solve a familiar task, they unsettle our expectations, render the situation strange, and draw our attention to possibilities that would normally go unnoticed.

The Strange Tools Research Lab investigates, applies, and disseminates strange tools through research and practice. Novel technologies and new solutions to problems, when they first appear, are unexpected and unfamiliar—‘strange’.
We contend that the emergence of these strange tools can be both researched and actively facilitated. Our interdisciplinary teams combine different modes of inquiry, from neuroscience, cognitive science, engineering, design, art, and philosophy. By surprising each other with new ways of thinking about difficult issues and by remaining open to dialogues that shape their own trajectory, we create space for new strange tools to emerge and collectively explore how they can help us solve complex wicked problems.

The interdisciplinary work of the Strange Tools Research Lab is informed by a specific understanding of both art and science. We believe that art can solve problems, and that science is inherently creative. This is why art and science should be methodological allies, not rival intellectual cultures. Only by using all the tools at our disposal and applying them in new and strange ways will we be able to tackle the problems facing us today.

”Experiments with cows heads (Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme)”

Alva Noë’s book, Strange Tools, provided the name for our Lab . Like Noë, we are convinced that “art is disruptive and destabilizing, and also that it is a mode of investigation, a form of research aiming at transformation and reorganization’’ (Noë, 2015, p. 131). With Jacques Rancière, we believe that art has the potential to effectively address social problems and catalyze change (Rancière, 2010). This process involves “first, the production of a sensory form of ‘strangeness’; second, the development of an awareness of the reason for that strangeness and third, a mobilization of individuals as a result of that awareness” (Rancière, 2010, p. 142).

Historians of science have undertaken detailed studies to show that scientific experimentation is more than a tool for confirming or falsifying theories (Rheinberger, 1998). Instead, an experimental system is capable of producing new scientific insight only because it is open to unknown effects and the emergence of something radically novel. It is “designed to give answers to questions we are not yet able to ask clearly” (Rheinberger, 1998, p. 288). We think of the Strange Tools Research Lab as such an experimental system, as a “machine for making the future” (Rheinberger 1998, p. 288, citing François Jacob). “An experimental system in which a scientific object gathers contours and becomes stabilized, at the same time must open windows for the emergence of unprecedented events” (291). In any investigation capable of discovering truly novel solutions to wicked problems, “one never knows exactly where it leads” (Rheinberger 1988, p. 291).

”Sample of Bioreceptive lightweight concrete material, designed by Marcos Cruz, Richard Beckett and Javier Ruiz Bartlett School of Architecture. Displayed as part of the exhibit ’Designs for Different Futures’ at the Philadelphia Museum of Art 2019-2020”

The convergence of the arts, design, engineering, cognitive sciences, and neuroscience forms the backbone of the research conducted at the Strange Tools Research Lab. At the lab, we investigate how experiences with art and design can enhance public health and community engagement. We do this by inventing, applying, and evaluating new tools at the interface of the arts and sciences. Our research combines qualitative and quantitative methods to capture the specificity of human experience while also generating data that allow for quantitative analysis and precise visualization. We draw on the arts and sciences to develop communicative and visual strategies that can be deployed by public health groups to inform and engage the public.

It is of prime importance to us that the problems we set out to solve are based on real needs of the communities in which we are embedded. This can range from the needs of the global community, as described in the United Nations Sustainability Goals, to the needs of local communities. We aim to collaborate closely with community organizations and other institutions to ensure that our activities address pressing issues effectively and that the strange tools we develop are deployed where they are most needed. Through this approach, the solutions we develop continue to be tested and evaluated after they leave the lab, to facilitate lasting impacts and foster long-term connections between the communities we serve and the lab. We have developed strange tools for beekeepers and urban gardeners, and are developing new tools for veterans and artists with sensory impairments.

Noë, Alva (2015). Strange tools: Art and human nature. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Rancière, Jacques (2010). Dissensus: On politics and aesthetics. (S. Corcoran, Ed. Trans.) Continuum.

Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg (1998). “Experimental Systems, Graphematic Spaces” in Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication. (T. Lenoir, Ed.) Stanford University Press. pp. 285-303.

Strange Tools Research Lab (STRL), Cincinnati, OH