Generating Projects That Bring Together the Structure and Systems Between Biology and Art to Create Either Biology or Art
In science and the arts, creativity happens at the edge of the known, fostered by its milieu, the environment in which it is allowed to grow. Human growth, for example, from fetus to baby to adult occurs in the right milieu, with pleuripotential stem cells modifying their function based on their environment. In the larger world, the greatest biodiversity is seen at the “edge” between forest and savannah. Are there tangible projects that can be created between the artist and biologist to embrace this concept?
MaKendra Umstead, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar
The goal of scientific research is to illuminate the unknown areas of a particular field. Unfortunately, though, scientific discovery can be hindered by limitations in technology, singularity of thought, and simply “not knowing what is unknown.” What goes unnoticed may actually be the content that holds the key to innovation. With this notion in mind, the team considering biology and art at the 2015 National Academies Keck Futures Initiative decided to focus on “Seeing the Unseen.” The team wants to the catalyze creativity and inspiration by bringing together the distinct yet shared approaches of science and art. This summary showcases the most relevant highlights from its work.
“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
What is essential is invisible to the eye.
—The Little Prince
“Seeing the unseen” in order to advance scientific discovery requires researchers to expose underlying assumptions in their research that that go unapproached or questioned. Like many scientists, many artists in visual, digital, and performing art seek out the unresolvable. Combining the creative processes of art and science may be well suitable for this task.
A Catalyst to Innovative Thinking: Making the Invisible, Visible
In order to catalyze scientific exploration into parts unseen, the team looked for an avenue to combine art and science.
A Web-based portal to connect artists desiring to work on innovative projects and scientists wanting to try a new approach to research challenges would bring the two groups together by creating a virtual space where interested parties can form a community, and artists and scientists would have an opportunity to engage in a collaborative experience. Artists and scientists that connect in the virtual space would be encouraged to have face-to-face interactions in which they explore the unseen and unknown areas of a particular scientific question.
Interested scientists and artists would register for the website and search for individuals who want to form a collaborative team. Based on mutual interests or even experience level, digital interactions will turn into dialogues between artists and scientists. Scientists would be asked to try and identify the assumptions made in their research and artists will interpret and convey the concepts using their own methods. In addition, the artist and scientist would have the freedom to define their preferred collaboration method, potentially taking the form of an artist in residence or an international partnership.
By documenting the collaborative experience by film, photography, and text, the connections and insights that result for both the artist and scientist working together will be made visible in a pop-up exhibition at the culmination of the project. The pop-up installation will be strategically planned to exhibit in unexpected locations where art is not normally seen. The goal of the exhibition is to create an interactive social experience with an opportunity to collect data from a diverse audience and to create a transformative experience for the researchers, the artists, and the public. Accessibility of the information about science and art is a major component of this initiative. One additional layer of seeing the unseen is providing an opportunity for the public to engage in topics they may not usually encounter. A long-term goal of this initiative is to collect a series of successful collaborations for viewing as a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary or a traveling exhibit for arts and science museums, showcasing what happens when the two worlds of art and science collide.
Transformative Collaborations and Human Experiences
“Want to know how paramecium have sex?” one team member asks another. Not a typical lunchtime conversation by any means for an architect and art historian, but they entertained the biologist who was explaining his research and detailing the ambiguous problems in his field and decided to put their concept of connecting scientist and artists to the test. The scientist explained the conundrum of multi-nucleated, single cellular organisms. After viewing slide after slide of two-dimensional plants, the architect began to draw. Trees. Dimensions. Shapes. Then, the architect summoned the biologist for a walk. While picking up branches and sculpting, he shared an insight with the (now skeptical) biologist: instead of biasing interpretations based on the forward view of the organism shown on PowerPoint slides, perhaps looking at it from the top view would transform thinking and conclusions. This insight clicked with the scientist. Their walk had led to a hill overlooking the city of Irvine, California. The rivers, the streets, the topology, all looked different from the top of the hill. Perhaps his work was missing insights because of the very planar view taken in the past. What could he see by looking from a different perspective?
The team members shared their experience and the branch sculpture with conference attendees. Their exhibition emphasized that the collabora-
tion pushed the scientist outside of his comfort zone, provoking him to see his own work through the artist’s eyes.
Innovation Is Never Without Challenge
The team realized that the innovative collaborations between artists and scientists would not happen without challenges. From the scientist perspective, how could the outcomes from these human experiences be measured? How many scientists have the time and interest to actually get engaged with an initiative such as this? From the artists’ perspective, could scientific topics be presented in a way that artists would understand? Does quantifying the human experience after an exhibition take away from the significance of the art? Both fields determined that communication between the artist and scientist would need to be negotiated such that neither infringed on the other’s creative process. The scientist may strive for accuracy while an artist’s goal is creativity. Furthermore, team members found it essential that art was not used as a servant to science, but that the experience should be mutually beneficial for both science and art.
The team explored why certain matters are left ignored, unexplored, and labeled as junk, and looked for ways to open avenues to probe those areas using a different medium. By exploring scientific unknowns through the vehicle of artistic collaboration, the team proposed that through a Web-based platform for connecting artists and scientists, the community could be compelled and inspired to do the same. As an artist stated during a meeting, “As an artist, I can take a big problem and represent it in a form that people can interact with and relate to. . . . I’m not [necessarily] trying to propose a solution . . . but to make the problem more visible.” In areas where scientists may seek to eliminate variables and find the simplest explanation for data, artists may be able to expand the question beyond the confines of the experiment. By combining art and science perspectives to encourage cross-pollination of thought, the potential to enhance both scientific thinking and artistic expression is unlocked and the unseen can be visualized.