An A to Z of Art and Science

I am occasionally asked by both scientists and artists where one should go for information about the exciting things happening in the world of art and science. I also realised that in the midst of big life events, I allowed my Blog-iversary to pass unnoticed. So, without further ado and with the caveat that this is a bit UK-centric, I present to you an A to Z of Art and Science.


ArtsCatalyst and Ars Electronica: Two fine organisations and I couldn’t decide which to start out our alphabet. The Arts Catalyst commissions art that engages with science—critically, experimentally, and sometimes playfully. One of my favourite Arts Catalyst commissions was the Primate Cinema project by Rachael Mayeri. Currently on display in Manchester is IceLab, an exhibition about architecture and science in Antarctica. Ars Electonica is an Austrian digital arts centre, festival and prize all wrapped into one. They funded Pixar back in 1987, Wikipedia in 2004, so it’s fair to say they are forward-thinking. Every year, the festival has a different theme—the September 2013 theme was Total Recall: The Evolution of Memory. The 2014 festival is soon to be announced.  See you there?

Bio Art: A brave new world, where artists are working with biological materials (be it DNA, living tissue, cultures) as the media for their practice. The SymbioticA lab in Australia is a pioneer in this area; Pig Wings by Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary is a piece of particular note. I also think highly of the work of Anna Dumitriu. Ethical issues abound, but that is generally an area of particular interest for the artists engaged with bio-art. Can we use art to address the ethical issues that we are faced with in biomedical science? The book, Signs of Life: BioArt and Beyond is a great primer for this area.

Climate Change: This is one of the greatest challenges facing science and our society today. Antony Gormley and others have written optimistically about the contributions that artists might make towards addressing climate change. Cape Farewell is the forefront of this effort, bringing together artists and scientists on trips to some of the most at-risk regions of our planet for exchange and inspiration. Also, note Invisible Dust, which engages both artists and scientists in producing meaningful responses to climate change through art.

High Arctic at National Maritime Museum, 2011, Image © United Visual Artists

High Arctic at National Maritime Museum, 2011, Image © United Visual Artists

Data: We are swimming in it, and while developers and designers are thinking about data visualisations, artists are thinking about it as a new medium. These aren’t literal representations of data, but truly creative uses of data, often in three dimensions. The Royal College of Art’s Information Experience Design MA is doing great work in this area. I wrote about the UK Open Data Institute’s Data as Culture programme—and more things look to be up on the horizon!

Environmental art: The science/art purists might not put it in here, but I’m going to let it in because land art is probably the area of which I am personally most fond, as a geologist. Environmental art is a tricky area, because it has a tendency to be didactic, but at its best can be incredibly provocative, bringing us to re-examine our relationship with the world beneath our feet. There is an incredible diversity in this area– Tania Kovats, Chris Drury and Marielle Neudecker are just a few personal favourites. Also worth mentioning is the Center for Land Use Interpretation in the US, which hosts artist residencies.

Flowers – I don’t mean bad vaguely impressionist painting. There is some incredible art engaging with botany. George Gessert is well known for his breeding and hybridization of irises-as art. Rob Kessler has worked extensively at the Kew Botanical Gardens, turning their scanning electron microscope to pollen grains, capturing images that are integral to his art. I have also wrote about the wonderful botanical photography of Karl Blossfeldt and his masterpiece, Artforms in Nature.

GV Art Gallery – A gallery in London, run by Robert Devicic, that focuses on artists who engage with science. It’s also a great gathering space for discussions about science and art. On my blog, I have covered GV Art exhibitions on taxonomy, neuroscience, and graphite. Their current exhibition is NOISE and whispers , featuring sound art. Watch this space.

Hacking– This is what art engaging with science is all about on some level. I don’t mean getting into your email, but I do mean interrogating, questioning, and repurposing science and scientific information. The biohacking movement is doing some marvellously interesting things, and the Met Office recently joined up with the V&A for a fashion hack using Met Office data. Yes, really.

Interdisciplinarity Yes, Yes, and Yes. Aeon Magazine recently published this great piece about why it matters and we shouldn’t focus ourselves too narrowly.

Joy—Let’s face it, this isn’t something you should go into for the money, but rather you are a scientist who is fascinated by art, or an artist who loves science.

Wasily Kandinsky, Composition VI (1913), oil on canvas, 195 x 300 cm, State Hermitage Museum, Russia

Wasily Kandinsky, Composition VI (1913), oil on canvas, 195 x 300 cm, State Hermitage Museum, Russia

KandinskyWassily Kandinsky is not an artist typically associated with science, but in some ways I think was one of the best at merging scientific ideas with his art. A synaesthete, he was fascinated with the interface of our minds and consciousness with art and claimed to be able to hear his paintings. UCL scientists have since confirmed that he was right—hearing and vision are inextricably linked—so it is likely the ‘pure tones’ that Kandinsky painted were real.

Leonardo (Da Vinci)—Perhaps the greatest artist/scientist of all time and a touchstone for those of us with feet in both worlds. The exhibition of his anatomical drawings at Buckingham Palace’s Queen’s Gallery last year was spectacular. Leonardo is also the name of an Art and Science journal, published by MIT Press.

Methods are integral to the work of artists and scientists. Both form hypotheses, perform experiments and produce results. What each of these stages might look like, respectively, is generally vastly different. But the research process is essential to artists who are engaging with science; their supposed genius is 99% perspiration – very much like scientists.

Susan Aldowrth, Transience 1, 2013, etching and aquatint, 14.6 x 9.3 cm, Image courtesy of GV Art

Susan Aldowrth, Transience 1, 2013, etching and aquatint, 14.6 x 9.3 cm, Image courtesy of GV Art

Neuroscience is perhaps one of the richest areas for collaborations between artists and scientists. After all, the brain is the source of our consciousness, perceptions, inspiration and madness. A couple of years ago, the Welcome Collection had an incredible exhibition, Brains: Mind as Matter, which included real brains, manuscripts, artworks, videos and photography. In terms of artists, Susan Aldworth is at the forefront of engaging with neuroscience, producing wonderful prints based on brain scans and making prints using slices of real brain. Neuroaesthetics is also an interesting, but extremely contentious field.

Open minds Goes without saying, I think!

Physics Another rich area of science that artists are starting to tap into. CERN has an incredible artist in residence programme, Collide@CERN, which I wrote about in my most recent post. Also of note, the Institute of Physics Artist in Residence programme. One of my favourite artist doing amazing things with physics is Mariko Mori, who has done incredible things with data from cosmic ray detectors.

Mariko Mori, 'Tom Na H-Iu II', 2006. Glass, stainless steel, LED, real time control system, 450 x 156.3 x 74.23 cm. Courtesy of Mariko Mori Studio Inc. © Mariko Mori. Photo: Richard Learoyd.

Mariko Mori, ‘Tom Na H-Iu II’, 2006.
Glass, stainless steel, LED, real time control system, 450 x 156.3 x 74.23 cm. Courtesy of Mariko Mori Studio Inc. © Mariko Mori. Photo: Richard Learoyd.

eQuality – Putting artists and scientists on equal footing is a central tenet of the Collide@CERN programme. Ariane Koek, founder and director of the programme, argues that this is essential to creating an environment where artists can truly creatively engage with science. I can’t help but think this rings true, and while the realities of funding regimes that allow artists to engage with science may present challenges in this regard, it is something to be aspired to.

Roger Malina—Doing great things for art and science, stateside. Astronomer and editor of the Leonardo journal and Distinguished Professor of Art and Technology at the University of Texas, Malina is a great advocate for linkages between art and science and provides insightful and critical analysis of the art/science interface.

Science Gallery The Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin is not your typical science museum, presenting fun and funky exhibitions featuring art, science and everything in between. Their current exhibition is Grow Your Own: Life After Nature. I’m incredibly delighted that a sister Science Gallery London, associated with Kings College London has secured funding and will be opening in 2015.

Two Cultures– In 1959, Cambridge chemistry professor and fiction writer CP Snow argued in his Rede Lecture that the whole of western civilisation was split into the humanities and the sciences, and that this hindered us from solving some of the world’s greatest problems. There is some disagreement as to whether how much progress we’ve made since then or become even more specialised, but suffice it to say there is an ever-growing contingent of people determined to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration. The UK Arts and Humanities Research Council has a Science in Culture programme, which is doing great things to foster arts and humanities approaches to science.

Vibronacci (bioluminescent sculpture) © Duncan, Palmer, Broad Vision 2013-1

Vibronacci (bioluminescent sculpture) © Duncan, Palmer, Broad Vision 2013-1

Universities– In the UK, it would seem that universities are starting to see the ‘light’ when it comes to interdisciplinarity. University College London and Kings College London have both started liberal arts programmes (this is nothing new in the US). The Broad Vision programme at the University of Westminster brings together undergraduates from the arts and sciences, exposes them to the others’ field, and they collaborate on projects. In the world of art schools, Central St Martins is pioneering with an Art and Science MA programme. I was really pleased to work with this group on the Encounters between Art and Science exhibition at the British Library.

Visualisation– I like to get on my high horse occasionally and argue that data visualisation and photographs of science are not in themselves, art. But I do believe they have their place as essential tools of science, science communication and public engagement. And speaking more broadly, visualisation is something at which artists excel; it is also something upon which science depends. So, it would seem therein lies ample ground for cross-fertilisation of ideas and methods.

Wellcome Trust This influential UK biomedical charity doesn’t just fund groundbreaking scientific research; it also funds arts and humanities approaches to the sciences, and is an important source of funding for arts projects engaging with the biomedical sciences. The Wellcome Collection‘s exhibitions are consistently excellent. It is hard to pick favourites, but Atoms to Patterns, Brains: Mind as Matter, and Dirt particularly stand out in my mind. Also, hats off to the Wellcome Trust for their open access policy work!

Anaïs Tondeur - Mutation of the Visible (After a pariedolia), 2013 - Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

Anaïs Tondeur – Mutation of the Visible (After a pariedolia), 2013 – Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

eXtra-terrestrial Why should artists limit themselves to just our own planet? Space offers a multitude of places where art/science flights of fancy can take place. Galileo’s drawings of the moon through a telescope might be considered the first space-art. Today, Anais Tondeur, has taken where Galileo started and produced a series of drawings of the moon, as observed at different times in history. The Arts Catalyst has done some great spacey work—in 2014, they will be revisiting their   Republic of the Moon exhibition to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Young people (by which I mean education) – In the United States, the STEM to STEAM movement is, er… gathering steam. The general idea behind STEAM is that innovation isn’t enabled by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics alone. Rather, art and design have an important role to play too. I wish it well, and would like to see something similar integrated here in the UK.

Zooming ahead… I’ll go ahead and admit I couldn’t think of anything decent for Z and leave this list with the general comment that it should be apparent that this is a space where a lot is happening, and which I hope has a bright, bright future. Stay tuned…

As mentioned, this is a bit UK-centric, making it more of an A to Zed than an A to Zee – so I would love to have some comments on what I’ve missed out or you think should be in there!

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6 Responses to An A to Z of Art and Science

  1. Pingback: An A-Z of Art and Science | Catch 26

  2. Wynn Abbott says:

    Worth giving a shout-out to Liverpool’s FACT (Foundation for Arts and Creative Technology) and Brighton’s Lighthouse — who do pioneering work at the cusp of art, technology and digital media.
    Also, science festivals – which are spreading rapidly across the UK – are important platforms, not only for showcasing science and art, but for bringing cultures and ideas together curatorially. Some festivals have been slow on the uptake with art and science – but most of the major festivals have increased their number of art projects significantly over recent years.

    Edinburgh Science Festival is a particularly good example, with a solo show by Marilene Oliver (one of the best) and an ambitious large-scale installation at the National Museum of Scotland featuring at the 2013 festival.

    One of the science festivals I run – London Science Festival – was created with the specific mission to engage the public with science and showcase ‘science as culture’, strong on art, history etc. An example is Helix by David Blandy, Daniel Locker and Adam Rutherford, which launched at this year’s festival, and is likely to feature are several more science festivals around the UK in 2014.

  3. Johanna Kieniewicz says:

    Thanks Wynn, those are excellent additions!

  4. The list I have prepared consists more than 600 (has both major and minor ones) names and covers almost the entire world!
    You can see the list here:

  5. Pingback: Articles of Interest November 8, 2013 « National Creativity Network

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