On Scientific Imagery, Art, and Science

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Welcome to At the Interface. Here, we will explore the exciting edge between Art and Science—examining the space where science and visual culture meet and establishing how, and on what terms, these seemingly disparate fields can mix and interact through the collaborations of those working at the interface.

I would like to start on what some might consider a provocative note: scientific imagery in itself is not art. This might seem a surprising statement from somebody writing an art and science blog, but I say this as a means of introducing you to the world of art inspired by science. Or as some would call it, Sci-Art. I believe that science is beautiful (even when it may not be aesthetically pleasing), and that it has the capacity to produce stunning imagery that can hold its own in own in any gallery. But is this art?

Colour micrograph of Bacillus subtilis, Wellcome Image Awards finalist 2012, © Wellcome Images

This photomicrograph of Bacillus subtillus, a bacterium found in soil, has vivid, rich colours, and swirling abstract patterns that bring to mind painterly abstraction. However, it is a research image of a scientific subject matter, captured by a scientist through the practice of science. It is, in other words, an image with a scientific purpose. So I find it strange to see a gallery of stunning research images titled the ‘Art of Science’, as if it were a surprise that science could generate beautiful imagery. Science should not be afraid to be beautiful, and it should unapologetically claim as its own aesthetically pleasing images generated through the practice of science.

So, without tackling the age-old question of what is art?, how might we define an art of science that is not ‘merely’ one of beautiful illustrations? I would argue that while art may use the methods of science, use science as an initial starting point or inspiration, or comment on science itself, the intention and result of ‘scientifically-inspired art’ (let’s just stick to Sci-Art from now on) is something different.

The difference is not necessarily in the subject matter or the conception. Science is a part of our culture every bit as much as politics, nature, and all the other things on which artists comment, and so it too can serve as a source of material inspiration. In recent years, this Sci-Art movement has gained momentum as artists and scientists start to see the benefits of working collaboratively.

At first overlooked by the art world (and still very much a subculture within the field of art), scientific themes are beginning to be embraced by a range of high profile artists, such as Olafur Eliasson, Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn, amongst others. Another cadre of artists actually work side-by-side with scientists in laboratories, making everything from art out of biofilms to etchings out of their own brainscans.

Birth of a Thought (Etching), 2007 © Susan Aldworth

Artists working in the field of science have a freedom to play, to subvert science and interrogate it in ways that practicing scientists cannot without questions being raised about their integrity or, indeed, their capacity as scientists. Unlike science, art is not about proving or disproving the hypothesis. This is not to say that scientists cannot do art in parallel with science, but I would emphasise that when scientists make art (whether in a professional sense or just-for-fun) the intention is different: it’s to make a piece of art.

Science and art both have an intentionality in how they are conceived and carried out. At its best, science produces objective documents about the world, whereas art—again, at its best— expresses/alters our subjective experience of the world. These boundaries establish the domains of science and art with respect to one another; however, it’s not all black and white because there remains a point—or, if you prefer, an interface—where these two domains meet and where some particularly powerful works are able to cross from one domain to other.

The Blue Marble, 1972 © NASA

And one example especially comes to mind (though undoubtedly there are many more): the iconic shot of the Earth from space taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts. This image—part document and part research image—did something that most artworks can’t even claim to do: it fundamentally changed the way that humanity saw itself.

And in the opposite direction, art has discovered things that science only now starting to explain (see examples in Proust was a Neuroscientist). But that’s for another day.

On the topic of whether scientific imagery can be art, these are just my own thoughts, but I’d be interested in hearing what you think!

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