Linkages between art and science are proliferating, and fast, but to what end? Whether it is a formal collaboration between artists and scientists, a call for artists in residence at scientific institutions, or a simple ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ to present a gallery of research images as ‘art’, there is something in air. Some of this work is truly brilliant, some is genuinely good, and some is well intentioned, but some may well be detrimental to both art and science.
So, what exactly is the point of this art and science movement? For those of us who are involved in this area, and generally see collaborations between artists and scientists as a good thing, what exactly do we hope for from this brave new world? Here I present what I view to be the most compelling reasons for collaborations between artists and scientists and my vision for where I hope things might go.
Science and scientific ideas have long inspired art and artists, from Leonardo DaVinci and Picasso, to Turner and Kandinsky. In harnessing the scientific zeitgeist of their times to the making of their art, they showed how scientific ideas can inspire great art. So in some sense, this is nothing new: science is simply part of a larger cultural discourse with which art can engage. However, more recently the ways in which artists are engaging with science are deepening.
Science offers a range of new media and methods for artistic exploration. Who ever said that the tools of the artist were limited to the paintbrush, pencil, or chisel? Good artists, particularly those who are conceptually rigorous, will choose the medium that is most suitable for the questions that they are interested in exploring. Bio-artist Anna Dumitriu, frequently uses bacterial cultures in her work, as well as robotics and interactive media of all sorts. What better way to explore cultural and ethical implications of modern microbiology than with microbiology, itself? More radically, Susan Aldworth’s most recent exploration of human consciousness involves not only brain images, but also brain tissue. This was not done cavalierly: it was done with utmost care and in partnership with the Parkinson’s Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital. But, by using the tools of neuroscience as part of her pallet of media, Aldworth is able to provide an insight into ourselves that science itself cannot manage.
A precondition of this greater engagement with science is that artists themselves be literate in science. Well known for their reading of philosophers such as Proust, Foucault and Deleuze, should art students not read Stephen Hawking and Charles Darwin as well? I am not saying they need to become scientists themselves or ditch the philosophy (quite the opposite). Rather, by immersing themselves in the ideas of science, artists expose themselves to the big questions of life from a different perspective and add new and exciting set of media to the toolbox with which they are able to explore these ‘big questions’.
In collaborations between artists and scientists the payoff for the artists may seem the more obvious: a piece of art. So, does science benefit? Or is this simply something for scientists who are also passionate about art or public engagement?
I would probably argue that both are correct in different circumstances.
The most obvious benefit to a scientist may well be be better communication skills resulting from prolonged engagement with a non-specialist. This should not be sniffed at: speaking at the British Science Association’s annual Science Communication conference, Brian Cox noted that many scientists are so used to playing to their peers as an audience, they tend to still do so when speaking to non-specialists. Rather we should speak at the level of which our audience is capable and prolonged engagement with non-specialists can help in this respect.
However, there is some evidence to suggest that engagement between scientists and artists may even result in better science. At the recent State of Matter symposium, Ariane Koek, who leads the Collide@CERN programme, reported that the scientists involved in the programme find that artists often ask questions they would never think to ask. Sometimes this is because they are very basic questions, but it is also comes from a different way of thinking.
Chemist James Gimzewski began collaborating with artist as he was looking for fresh ideas, pushing out reductionist thinking, and interested in being exposed to a different way of questioning. Rather than taking the direct way to solving a problem, artists may pay more attention to the potential detours that scientists are often trained to ignore. Botanist Stephen Tonsor, who has collaborated with Natalie Settles, notes that an artist in residence explores areas that are related to the area of scientific practice, but do not get readily addressed by the scientific method. The artist thinks and acts upon ideas in ways that challenge and permeate their engagement with the world, enriching their scientific process.
Often unacknowledged and impossible to manufacture, serendipity plays an enormous role in scientific discovery. While there is no guarantee that the collaboration between an artist and scientist will lead to that ‘Eureka!’ moment, at least some scientists hope this sort of engagement may help them to approach their science in a slightly different way. Although the pay-offs may be less immediate than the production of an individual piece of art, they are potentially more enduring.
A vision for the future
I would like to hope that the art and science movement isn’t just about the production of art and science in their own rights, but also about a more integrated society. Writer and historian of science Arthur I Miller has suggested that we are on the verge of a ‘third culture’ where art and science feed back and forth to each other, enriching each other [ed: this was my understanding of Third Culture, but please see comment below from Arthur Miller]. I’d like to hope this comes to pass, but also that it doesn’t result in a homogenization or dilution of what art and science individually bring to the table.
Good art and good science necessarily require high degrees of specialization. If we were to create large numbers of scientists who didn’t think ‘like scientists’ this would be problematic. And the same goes for art and artists. But, by creating spaces in which both scientists and artists can work together, communicate and learn from each other, both science and art can benefit.
While recognizing the degree of specialization required in both practices, I also hope that the art and science movement goes some way to addressing the way that we identify ourselves as ‘artists’ or ‘scientists’. Many of us begrudge our secondary education, where we were forced to pick one or the other, without an opportunity to continue the music alongside the chemistry. I’d like to hope that, as scientists increasingly collaborate with both artists and designers, being literate in both art and science becomes, once again–as it was, perhaps, in the Rennaisance–a critical element of being an educated person.
I don’t claim any of this will be easy. Along the way, some fairly bad art will undoubtedly emerge, as will scientists and artists who find themselves jaded by the whole experience. I suspect that in most cases, some sort of shared praxis is needed for the collaboration to truly be successful. But with all manner of collaborations bubbling away, with art and science programmes in higher education, and with increasing recognition of the mutual benefits of art and science, the future is bright.
What else would you hope for from art and science?