What science can do for art.
Artists have been using science for a long time. One of my favorite examples of this came from developmental biologist Scott Gilbert, on a visit to Spelman College ten years ago. Standing in the hall, looking at a painting of Gustav Klimt’s Danaë, he pointed out to me that the images in the fabric in the bottom right are developing embryos. (The story of Danaë is that Zeus impregnated her in the form of a golden rain that streamed through the ceiling and into her womb… Mary’s not the only one.) Klimt was hanging around in salons in the very art-science-y Vienna at the fin de siècle, and this painting is just one example of that culturally integrated time.
Science is advancing at such a rapid pace that it provides a bottomless well of weird new narratives for artists to play with. Raw data also bring interesting new subjects to the artists’ studio. Nathalie Miebach uses meteorological and oceanographic data as patterns for musical scores and woven sculptures, and I just can’t stop thinking about them.
Materials and tools of science when repurposed for art yield fascinating results. Michael Oliveri’s Nano landscapes, using scanning electron microscopes (SEM) to look at the intricate surfaces of metals, are a perfect example. Oliveri was inspired by images that the scientists were tossing out as irrelevant visual noise, artifacts of the SEM process but devoid of any of the desired data. One man’s artifact is another man’s art.
What art can do for science.
As part of a growing trend to engage a broader public in science, art can communicate science in new ways. This role of art-science, along with myriad science cafes, science festivals, radio shows and podcasts like RadioLab, Science Friday, and Story Collider, is part of a movement to make science hipper, warmer, and funnier. These friendlier versions of science were recently explored by the MIT-sponsored Culture Kettle, in a report called the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement. With these art-sci for sci-comm collaborations, it’s important to make sure that the artist’s voice doesn’t get lost in this role, or get reduced to being just an interesting mouthpiece for the science. Making the artist’s integrity a priority in art-science was underlined in this joint report by a 2011 NEA-NSF joint conference called SymBIOtic ART and Science.
An inspiring new example of using art to model science comes from artist Matthew Shlian (pronounced “Shline”). Working with folded paper, he calls himself a “paper engineer.” Shlian says, “I don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time. The work I make is the way I can start to understand.” Einstein said the same thing, basically: “If we knew what we were doing, they wouldn’t call it research.”
Shlian has sought to interact with scientists. Presenting his work to scientists and engineers at the University of Michigan, this happened: “They understood my work in a very different way than I ever had, as a tool to represent scientific principles. I was showing them a book form, a pleated structure that sort of rotated around on itself, and this guy stood up and said, ‘That’s it!’ He had been working on something called an autophagosome, which has a double cell membrane and rotates around on itself during cellular division.” (Here’s a simple illustration of autophagosome formation and function – it’s like a temporary garbage truck that delivers cell waste to a lysosome, so that waste can be broken down.) “He’d been trying for years to to visually depict how it moves. He could see it in his head, but couldn’t get it as a flat image to show his students. My book form moved the way forward.” * You can see more of Shlian’s images and a short video on this page, and he is featured in the February/March issue of American Craft magazine.
Similarly, the work of Carl Flink and Black Label Movement has helped cellular biologist David Odde model the somewhat violent activities that happen inside a cell. They use a technique called bodystorming, where the dancers and scientists work together to physicalize the intercellular processes. Their Moving Cell Project conducted a delightful residency at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, performing works in progress around town and getting feedback from the bustling community of scientists and students there.
Here’s the thing. Art makes you a better scientist.
Beyond science communication and modeling, perhaps the most universally appealing aspect of art-for-science is that art-making activity gives scientists (and any entrepreneurial innovators) more creativity. Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein have published decades of scholarly work showing that arts immersion builds more innovative minds, in science and all kinds of other entrepreneurial pursuits. In their book, Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, the Root-Bernsteins outline tools of creativity which are employed in both lab and studio.
Recently, the Root-Bernsteins published convincing evidence that among the arts, it is crafts that are most useful in developing a creative brain. Examining the lives of Nobel-prize-winning scientists, the real paradigm-shifters who advance their field forward, the Root-Bernsteins noticed a pattern. Immersion in crafts gives scientists the creativity to make truly innovative advances in science. Using tools such as observation, visual thinking, pattern recognition/ pattern creation, and manipulative ability gives crafts-making scientists (and all of us, really) a cutting edge. Makes sense. We are hard-wired to use our hands and minds to fashion things, and using our hands and minds to do things they were meant to do brings a certain kind of joy. There’s a great word for this: Funktionslust -pleasure taken in what one does best. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, humans gotta make. To learn more about the relevance of crafts, try a cyber-visit (or if you’re near Asheville, a physical visit) to the Center for Crafts, Creativity and Design.
Whatever the reason for bridging art and science, it’s important to recognize that the art-science divide is a recent one, and false. Imagine Leonardo’s face, looking at Facebook: “Are you a left-brain person or a right-brain person? Take this test and find out!” Leonardo had both sides of his brain, and so do we. In an organ built entirely of networks, one of the most important parts of our human brain is the corpus callosum, a section in the middle that connects the two sides. The more time we spend using that bridge, the more creative we’ll be, whether we do our work in a lab or a studio.
“Only connect!” - E.M. Forster
*From “Visual Tactile & Intuitive: Matt Shlian’s folded paper creations are an artful take on geometry,” by Joyce Lovelace, American Craft, February/March 2015, pp. 58-67.