Bridging the gulf: the new era of art/science collaborations

Bridging the gulf: the new era of art/science collaborations

One of my favourite things about the maker community is how it brings artists and scientists together under the same banner. I recently spoke to a few artists who are collaborating with scientists in more traditional locations—in labs, in libraries, in research groups—to find out more about their work and how collaborations between art and science benefits both fields.

Everyone can agree that light travels at 186,000 miles per second, but we can’t all agree on the artistic merits of a Picasso or a Kandinsky. Sixty years ago, C. P. Snow famously described the arts and the sciences as being “two cultures” separated by “a gulf of mutual incomprehension, hostility and dislike”. It feels natural for us to separate science—known for being dispassionate, rational and objective—from art—which is imbued with emotion, creativity and individuality.

But how deep is this gulf between art and science? When watching artists and scientists at work, the similarities may actually be more striking than the differences. Experimental artists use a similar method to experimental scientists: working within a set of pre-determined rules and constraints that produce results that may or may not match the experimenter’s expectations. The scientific method has always closely followed the methods of traditional crafts, with contemporary research laboratories resembling modern versions of old artisan’s workshops. “Synthetic biology is fiddly, it’s repetitive, it’s very much like fine embroidery,” says Anna Dumitriu, a bioartist who is as comfortable working in a lab as she is in an artist’s studio. “And clinical microbiology is very similar to etching, you work with slightly dangerous things that you don’t want to put your fingers in. There are processes and procedures that you have to go through. It’s a very similar feeling.”

Anna is one of a growing number of British artists who work closely with scientists, often as an artist in residence embedded in scientific research groups. There’s a rich history of collaborations between artists and scientists going back to the late 19th century, when artists worked with botanical gardens to create paintings and sketches of plant specimens in the days before photography.

Lydia Shackleton

Artists like Lydia Shackleton created detailed botanical paintings at the turn of the 20th century.

These links are being explored now more than ever before: CERN, the home of the Large Hadron Collider, has been hosting an international roster of artists at its laboratory in Geneva since the 1990s; in 2014 the Wellcome Trust launched a new £1 million residency program at the Wellcome Collection; and in 2015 the Leverhulme Trust spent £300,000 on artist in residence grants, funding artist collaborations with physicists, chemists, biologists and space scientists at universities and museums across the country.

Artists in the Lab

Advancements in technology have helped to close this divide between artists and scientists as science becomes more accessible for everyone. Traditional education pathways that siphoned off students into either the humanities or the sciences at a young age are also breaking down; many secondary schools now offer the International Baccalaureate as an alternative to A-levels, undergraduates can receive a degree in Arts and Sciences from University College London, and the Central Saint Martins art school offers a masters programme in Art and Science. But for artists like Anna, who takes the building blocks of the biological sciences—bacteria, proteins, DNA—and turns them into artworks and installations through a combination of traditional craft techniques and modern digital technologies, having access to cutting edge research laboratories provides her with the tools of her trade, as well as with opportunities to explore new scientific discoveries as they happen.

In February, while working with a team of scientists at the Liu Lab for Synthetic Evolution at the University of California Irvine, Anna created an artwork in the form of a necklace entitled Engineered Antibody made out of amino acids—including an extra unnatural amino acid—based on a newly engineered HIV-antibody developed by the team. The idea for the piece was sparked by an analogy one of the scientists used to explain how proteins are made from amino acids, saying that they’re like a chain of beads strung together with each amino acid making up one of the ‘beads’ in the chain. The artwork is a physical representation of the new antibody created in the lab, which can help viewers to grasp the complex biological concepts behind it as well as encouraging them to think about how scientific research relates to their everyday lives.

Engineered Antibody

‘Engineered Antibody’ by Anna Dumitriu.

For scientists, too, having a new perspective on their work can be a valuable reminder of what happens when that research leaves the lab and enters the real world, particularly in the biomedical sciences and in biotechnology where new developments can have a direct impact on our health and how we relate to our bodies. “Art enables them to reflect on the scientific processes, on the ethical processes, on how it makes them feel and what drives them, why they get excited about certain things and why they’re horrified by other things,” explains Anna. “Art can bring in the historical side, the emotional side, the visceral, all those sorts of things, as well as the intellectual. I usually try to do that through an exploration of the ethical and the cultural implications of a particular concept.”

Bringing Science to the Public

Despite this influence of science on our everyday lives, members of the public typically have little say on what scientific research is done and how it can best improve our lives. While exhibiting and talking about their work is all part of being an artist, we rarely hear directly from scientists outside of specialist journals and academic conferences.

James Wilkes is a poet and writer who’s interested in finding new ways of connecting the public with science. In 2010, James co-wrote a play with neuroscientist Dr Louise Whiteley called Interior Traces that explores the ways that technology interacts with ideas about responsibility and the self at different times from the 1900s to an imagined future in 2030. In 2012, as poet-in-residence at University College London’s Speech Communication Lab, James then set up public events that put scientists in conversation with thinkers from the humanities and arts while also giving junior lab members some valuable public speaking experience in front of a real audience. “I found a way in which I could participate in the broader life of that lab: even though I didn’t have the kind of scientific training necessary to actually participate in the making of the research, I could provide opportunities for public engagement that the scientists wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” says James.

A New Valve

James Wilkes performing at ‘Where Were We – On Writing, Intimacy, Body’. Photo by Barbara Katzin.

Now James is a member of Hubbub, a collective of artists, scientists and researchers who explore how our bodies and brains are affected by rest, activity and work through various interdisciplinary and collaborative projects. Hubbub are currently residents at the Wellcome Collection’s prestigious medical library and exhibition space in London, and in January James organised a poetry reading at the Collection as part of a project he’s working on with the American psychologist Dr Russ Hurlburt. Russ is an expert in Descriptive Experience Sampling: “you carry a beeper with you throughout your everyday life and when the beeper goes off you make a note as quickly as possible and as closely as possible about what your experience was at the time, whatever that happens to be,” James explains. During the poetry reading, members of the audience were asked to wear beepers and record their experiences when the beepers went off. These interactive engagements between researchers and the public are not only useful for gathering scientific data—they also provide new ways for non-scientists to get a sense of science in progress, and of how important public input can be for scientific research.

Fostering new methods of collaboration is an important theme across all Hubbub’s projects, and they’ve been working closely with the Wellcome Collection to organise events that present their works in progress so that they can get feedback from the public that informs what directions to take their research in. “Rather than public engagement being something that happens at the end of a project, as a way of disseminating ready-made findings to people, it’s possible to think about co-creative outcomes,” James says. “That’s what we’re trying to do, to use it to build relationships with people through the project. I think that’s something that goes for both artistic and scientific forms of enquiry, so I think it’s quite a good way of actually finding a methodology in common.”

The Beauty of Science

While collaborations between artists and scientists can encourage new ways of thinking about science and new methods of involving the public, art inspired by science is also valuable for the same reasons as all other art: as an emotional and visceral experience in its own right.

Popular culture has often drawn on science as a rich source of visual spectacle, particularly when it comes to the physical sciences. Cosmology, planetary science, astronomy and theoretical physics have been a popular topic for TV shows ever since special effects became sophisticated enough to depict outer space on the small screen. In 1980 Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking series Cosmos premiered on American TV, while in 2010 and 2011 Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe shows on the BBC introduced a new generation of viewers to the majesty of our planet and it’s place in the universe.

Line Dialogues

Jane Grisewood working on ‘Line Dialogues’, a series of performances that explore time, movement and the expenditure of energy.

For artists, working with physicists and astronomers can provide a well of artistic inspiration. “It’s a very inspiring environment because it takes you down to the quantum and the micro, you’re flashing between the big and the small, the invisible and the visible, the quantum and the cosmological,” says Jane Grisewood, an artist whose work explores some of the concepts that physical scientists devote their lives to investigating: black holes, dark energy, and the concepts of time and gravity. Jane’s artist residency at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile was a life-changing experience, as she found that working with astronomers and experiencing how they see the universe “changes you and becomes a part of how you think and who you are. You feel that we’re a speck on this tiny Earth. It’s this idea that it’s bigger than us, much bigger. I just feel really lucky that I have this material that I can engage with.”

For Andy Charalambous, an installation artist who works with ideas from the micro world of particle physics, art based on science can be appreciated without needing to work as an education piece. In collaboration with the physicist Dr Austin Ball at CERN, Andy produced a series of stainless steel sculptures inspired by Feynman diagrams, a system of symbols used by particle physicists to represent the interactions of subatomic particles. As each sculpture is based on a specific Feynman diagram there’s an additional level of meaning that physicists can find in his artwork, but non-scientists can also enjoy the sculptures’ clean and abstract lines without needing to know anything about what they represent. “If they happen to get some science from it that’s good, but I won’t push it onto an art audience,” says Andy.

Jane and Andy describe a long tradition of artists who’ve drawn inspiration from the world of science, challenging the popular story of art and science being two separate cultures. “If we go back far enough to Renaissance times, the disciplines were totally mixed up,” says Jane. “Look at Da Vinci and Michelangelo, they were artists and scientists and architects and biologists.” Andy explains that while these links aren’t new, they are now more visible than ever. “Artists have always been using science as an inspiration. Look at computing: when computing first started there was computer art. As soon as there’s a technological or a scientific area that’s new, you will get interested in exploring it as a fine artist. But it’s not happening as unobserved as it used to be.”

Sculpture III

‘Sculpture III’ by Andy Charalambous.

Featured image by Anna Dumitriu.