Following on from my last post on the ‘why’ of collaborations between artists and scientists, here I’d like to look at the ‘how’. When scientists and artists don’t typically have professional reasons for mixing, what are the mechanisms that enable collaboration? Is it the sort of thing that happens at a dinner party, where a painter and a biologist unwittingly decide that a collaborative project would be a good idea? That certainly could be the case, but there are other ways in which these things happen.
What I describe below is by no means an exhaustive list, but is an indication of the ways in which collaborations between the two cultures can be born.
Artist in Residency Schemes
Some of the more outward-looking scientific research organisations realise that there is something to be gained from a scheme that brings artists through their doors. It could be couched as a box-ticking ‘outreach’ exercise, but it is also an opportunity to bring the science happening behind their doors alive to the wider public. This approach has been particularly embraced by the physics community, where studies of the interactions between subatomic particles — which have serious implications for science and cost a great deal of taxpayer money — nonetheless seem of little relevance to the man on the street. As physicist David Weinberg notes based on his collaboration with Josiah McElheny (below), “far more people saw [our collaboration] in one day in Madrid than have ever read my Astrophysical Journal articles.”
Indeed, CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider and the discovery of the Higgs Boson Particle, has a Cultural Policy stating that in addition to inspiring great science, they also hope to inspire great art. Although cash-strapped, the Collide@CERN programme has formed partnerships with organisations, such as Ars Electronica and IRCAM, that have brought in well-regarded artists, such as sculptor Antony Gormley, photographer Andreas Gursky, and current artist-in-residence Julius von Bismarck, and they will soon be home to sound artist (and a personal favourite of yours truly) Bill Fontana.
Other organisations have taken up this idea, ranging from large national research institutes to individual university departments– including the SETI Institute, MIT, Kew Gardens, the Imperial College London Department of Mathematics, the University of Southampton Dept of Medicine and the UCL Environment Institute (to name but a few).
Artist/Scientist Pairing Schemes
I think of artist/scientist pairing schemes as something of a matchmaking exercise, in which a number of artists are invited into a research institute and paired with interested and willing scientists. Like any matchmaking process, it seems to me that this is something that can go either way: sometimes it will work out, but other times it may not.
An interesting example of an artist/scientist pairing scheme is the Earth*Science*Art project, in which 16 artists were paired with USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Centre scientists with interests spanning migratory bird patterns, the mapping of climate change impacts and natural hazards. In this case, the artists spent five months working with scientists. The degree of interaction was determined on a case-by-case basis by the pair involved. In situations such as these, undoubtedly some projects were more collaborative and others more ‘inspirational’, but an impressive and beautiful body of work was produced. And although it seems that this project was a one-off collaboration with a gallery that happens to share a building with the USGS, I would like to hope this might serve as evidence to support a repeat effort, or as inspiration for a neighbouring institution such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium perhaps?
Individual collaborations between artists and scientists
Unsurprisingly, collaboration between an individual artist and scientist generally starts with an introduction, a conversation, and an interest/openness from both parties to trying something a little different. Collaboration in these circumstances is often initiated by the artist who may have an idea and an interest, but who recognises that they would benefit from the help of a scientist in order to fully realise their vision.
A particularly interesting example of this type of collaboration is the Island Universe project by Josiah McElheny, which came from working with Ohio State University astrophysicist David Weinberg. Having been struck by the fact that the galactic Lobmeyr chandeliers in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House were designed in the same year the cosmic background radiation providing evidence for the Big Bang was discovered, McElheny saw the beginnings of a project but needed help getting started. He was introduced to the physicist Weinberg by the Director of the Wexner Center for the Arts at OSU. A short conversation turned into a long lunch, and a project was born that became an enduring collaborative relationship.
The large, abstract sculptures that comprise the Island Universe project are scientifically accurate models of the Big Bang. As McElheny read articles on astrophysics, Weinberg wrote computer models that provided estimates of the positioning of lights representing galactic clusters, super-clusters and quasars in the sculptures. What resulted were stunning modernist, illuminated sculptures that accurately reflect different possibilities on the origin of the universe, depending on the amount of energy or matter present at the beginning of time.
Recipe for Success?
In a detailed account of the collaboration with McElheny, Weinberg writes that — based on his experience, at least — this type of art/science collaboration is improved if each party has sympathy for how the other works and if the two have aesthetic ideas that reinforce each other, rather than pull in opposite directions. Their result is project that elegantly interweaves the details of cosmology with ideas around modernism and design—and many public conversations, which have brought diverse audiences together to discuss the interplay between science and art (indeed it was attending an event with Weinberg and McElheny in 2008 that opened my eyes to the possibilities).
The appropriate foundation for an art/science collaboration seems to depend very much on the individual context: sometimes the scientists will need to be ‘encouraged’ to engage in this kind of outreach by a supportive organisation, and sometimes the artist’s or scientist’s passion for science communication (or expression) will drive forward a partnership. What is particularly promising for such projects is that we are in an era when science needs, more than ever, to communicate its findings in ways that reach across traditional disciplinary boundaries and artists are particularly receptive to the challenges of understanding and interpreting the insights that contemporary science is able to offer into our complex universe.
Are you an artist worked with a scientist? Or a scientist who has collaborated with artists? How did your collaboration get started? Do feed back in the comments section!