The winter solstice was an auspicious time for me to stumble upon the work of Tracy Hicks, a fellow artist-scientist who is has become an inspiration for me and for symbASA. While building a new house and moving into a new phase of life, Tracy has been working a lot lately with tracking the light by moving art objects around to mark the sun’s path. There’s more going on there that the artist can share with us, and more will emerge as he works, but for now I’m inspired by the ephemeral nature of his miniature installations, these ever-shifting sun markers made of art fragments. Stonehenge is public and grand; these installations are small, private, moving and shifting daily.
I met Tracy while exploring a very promising locale for establishing a symbASA Art-Science Center in the NC mountains, near Penland School of Crafts (more on that in a later post). I was walking to the top of a mountain on that property, and as I breathlessly reached the peak, I came upon this:
Tracy has invited those of us in his community to participate in the work as well. The opportunity to witness, and participate in, another artist’s creative process, to both verbalize and physically experience the work in progress, is an invaluable experience. This is true of the scientific process, too. We should all experience the open-ended explorations of art and of science early and often in our lives, so that we understand that the wonderful Made Things in the world (including ideas) don’t just arise gracefully and fully-formed to the Lucky Talented Few. The making of art and of science is a fascinating series of meanders, sometimes rushing fast through the middle of a stream, but sometimes traveling through a thicket, leading to the edge of a cliff, or into a dark cave.
Boards of Directors and of Advisors are necessary and wise, but symbASA also needs a Board of Muses. We want to be inspired by those who are out there traveling fiercely and courageously through their thickets and caves, and be there to celebrate when they occasionally come out splashing into a roaring stream. What is a muse? Someone who is Working.
Collaboration is Together-Working. Co-labor is an even more powerful kind of muse, where artists or scientists working in a similar vein but not too closely aligned move in and out of familiarity and foreign territories. When I watch my son play jazz, I witness great “riffs” in real time that catch and play with the ideas introduced by someone else’s themes. In playing jazz, improvising in real time, Playing in public (not just playing music, but Play in the higher sense of the word, like Work), the jazz musicians are baring their process to the listeners. It doesn’t happen alone, it’s a conversation. I like this conversation that Tracy and I are starting to have about art-science, and specifically about art-science in that place. I don’t know where it will go, but I do know through those Co-Labor-ations, symbASA will grow in ways that neither of us expect. The sum of Co-Workers, Co-Players, is greater than its parts.
Here’s to Co-Work, Co-Play, aMUSEment, and following the lights and darks where they will lead us.
Hi fellow artistes and scientistes — here is an opportunity for you at AESS:
We are sad to report that the wonderful Institute for Figuring has tragically been devastated by fire recently, and much of their work was damaged or lost. These are the clever hands and minds who are responsible for the Crochet Coral Reef. This brainy, math-y crowd-sourced yarn bombing project depicts myriad forms of marine life using yarn as a sculptural medium. More than 7,000 folks have contributed to the project, which has exhibited all over the world.
It turns out that crochet is an ideal technology for modeling hyperbolic geometry such as is found in corals and of sea slugs and other things with undulating form. Flat surfaces that increase as they widen, such as when adding stitches for every new row, create wavy edges. It reminds me of what my high school biology teacher, Mary Eyles, told us: if you are asked the reason for the form of a structure in biology and you don’t know the answer, nine times out of ten the reason is “increased surface area.” (She also took us to her house where she had collections of all kinds of animals in jars, told us stories of her orangutan in Malaysia, Wa Wa, and served us brains and eggs. But that’s for another post.)
The IFF is a project of twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim. Margaret has a wonderful TED talk about the project, well worth a watch. The fire is a huge loss and we certainly wish the good folks at IFF all the best. Help them out and order their book from Kickstarter - it makes a nice holiday gift.
In response to a question on the LinkedIn group STEM education, a member asked if the arts “soften” STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education. I post my response here because I have heard this skepticism a lot lately, and because I am passionate that the arts can actually strengthen STEM education, if arts educators and art-science collaborators are careful to be accurate, to find the simple core of science narrative that they wish to convey, and if they are thoughtful about choosing the right metaphors that illuminate rather than confuse the STEM concepts.
The arts don’t necessarily “soften” STEM for anyone, but rather provide creative alternatives to our two dominant forms of communication, namely little symbols that stand for sounds and numbers. The science of education has shown that when doing the work of decoding those symbols into language and math, the brain is busy and thus cannot attend as well to the content itself. Communicating STEM concepts directly, through visual media, dance, sculpture, video, and other art media helps illuminate STEM concepts, especially for learners who do better with visual, kinesthetic, musical and emotional learning styles.
What’s more, every STEM researcher and educator I know came to STEM originally because of some spark, usually early in life – experience in the outdoors, experience with building things, a fascination for something beautiful, full of wonder and awe. If we want to communicate STEM, we can’t ignore the importance of that emotional connection. Wonder and awe and a fascination for STEM is the engine that drives us, let’s share that wonder with others. The arts can convey that spark, that emotional connection.
The mission of symbASA is bridging art and science to inspire curiosity, creativity, courage, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.
Below are some of the projects we are engaged in, and some that are just getting started:
A national meeting. The emerging art-science arena has undergone an explosion of activity in the last few years. The STEM to STEAM movement, arts events and residencies at science organizations like museums and field stations, scientists reaching out to engage artists in collaborations, creative workers who defy either the “artist” or “scientist” label and simply follow their inquisitive minds, all of these are great examples of art-science and they are happening at an accelerating rate. There have been a few NSF-NEA sponsored symposia to examine some of the larger questions of this emerging field, to define art-science, evaluate its quality, examine its outcomes, and set out best practices. But there has yet to be a large, comprehensive, inclusive national meeting, with thought leaders, practitioners, educators, and those who are new to this growing field or just curious about it. We think it’s time for such a meeting, and we’re working to organize one, for summer of 2015.
An inclusive network. Establishing a network of like-minded individuals, even when there are differences among factions, is an essential part of any growing field. We are working to establish a network of art-science workers all over the country and internationally, to serve the needs of this growing field. As we have been working with artists, scientists, and art-science creative workers, we have heard a lot of debate about what art-science is, and what art-science is not. This is characteristic of any growing movement, the desire of different factions to have a say in the identity of the movement and its values. Some are more interested in using the tools, techniques and concepts of science to make art, such as this series entitled Codex: Genome by Suzanne Anker. Others work in the long tradition of art illustrating science, like Carol Abraczinskas‘ work in paleontology. Sometimes art-science emerges as both art and science, like these works of Eshel Ben-Jacob, or the Silk Pavilion at MIT. But the high-art camp is sometimes disdainful of the art-in-the-service-of-science camp, and there is a kind of clamoring for the right to define art-science. And where does STEM to STEAM fit in? Does art-science in the service of education deserve the same respect as Most High Art? Our position on this debate? It’s all good. Let’s all get together, zoom out and remember that what we are all trying to do is to inspire the six C’s, and although we are going about it in different ways and come from different cultures, our ultimate goal is to create a populace that is capable of steering our very difficult future. We’ll need all those C’s we can get.
A Guide to Art-Science Collaboration. One practical tool that we are developing is a Guide to Art and Science Collaborations, to help artists and scientists better understand each other, translate the languages and values across disciplinary boundaries, and to encourage egalitarian and respectful partnerships. Scientists want to ensure that artists get the story right; artists may place a greater value on creative expression. Scientists often communicate Too Much Information, in a data-heavy barrage that has the unfortunate effect of inducing eyelid-heavy audiences. Artists who pare down to the kernel of an interesting science story or a compelling image may miss subtle but important details and thus skew or obscure the very meaning of the science they hope to convey. Because I have worked in both fields and across these boundaries, I am poised to work as a translator and diplomat for these collaborations. This guide will build respect, balance and understanding across disciplines, and give courage to those who are reluctant to try collaborating.
In future posts, we will elaborate on more art-science activities that symbASA is engaged in – catalyzing art around neuroscience for the BRAIN Inititative, infusing the arts into biological field stations, developing an artists-scientist matching service, adapting art-science for K-12 STEM education (especially aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards), and other great stuff.
If you are in the Atlanta area, come visit us at the art|DBF where symbASA.org will have a table to disseminate information. The Decatur Book Festival is the largest independent book festival in the country. We are grateful to have a place at the table and hope to see you there!
On Labor Day weekend, symbASA.org will be going public. We have been invited to join the art | DBF tables – the section at the Decatur Book Festival devoted to arts organizations. It will be a great opportunity to get the word out about art-science to the larger public, and promote what we are doing at symbASA. Just in time, we created a new logo, business cards, and brochures. We will be stamping our logo on paper parasols and paper fans so our friends can stay cool (stopping by the symbASA table means you are already cool, but we want our friends to be SUPER cool). You will also notice that we have given our website a fresh new look.
The Decatur Book Festival will be a great event for readers of all ages, If you’re in the Atlanta area, please plan to spend some time at this growing celebration of reading and come to the art | DBF tables and say hi to us at the symbASA.org table. See you there!
This guest post from fine artist Megan Marlatt, faculty in the Fine Arts Department at University of Virginia, nicely sums up symbASA’s vision! Megan has been spearheading an effort to bring arts into Mountain Lake Biological Field Station. nl
The field station could be an artist colony. Both contain and nurture a group of creative individuals inquiring into the workings of the universe; asking “why?” or perhaps, “why not?” Like the artist retreat, the field station is alive with a communal synergy of working professionals driven by a purpose. The artists, like the scientists, confer with one another. They network and discover new friendships and associations with others in their fields.
The scientist’s lab is like the artist’s studio as the artist’s lab is like the scientist’s studio. Perhaps they share a common ancestry with the early medieval alchemist, who in James Elkins book “What Paint Is” compares the alchemist fascination with his lab with that of the artist’s studio practice; fixated on the mixtures of his concoctions and the process of observing materials or matter in transformation.
Furthermore, both the Arts and the Sciences ask questions that demand the application of a process of discovery to find answers. Often no process towards this goal has ever been forged, so a new methodology has to be invented. A new tool has to be made for measuring the growth of a species or a new dance step has to be employed in order to make the awkward leap desired. The process of moving towards the answer can last for years and may never be resolved, therefore the best artists and scientists know that often the questions are more important than the answers themselves.
Both scientists and artists must be creative, however in Rollo May’s book “The Courage to Create,” he states that before there is an act of creation, there must first be an act of destruction. A scientist must tear down a previous theory, finding or presumption in order to discover new ideas. So the artists must mark her clean white canvas while innovating new ways of seeing.
The process towards discovery most shared alike by the artists and scientists is that of observation. They stop and take the time to look at things carefully. They note the color of the sky, the shape of a leaf or the stripes along the back of an insect.
Both work their processes of discovery with no guarantee of a preconceived reward at the end of their labor. In fact, they both know that such anticipations of guaranteed outcomes can be dangerous to the purity of their science and craft, so they keep their eye out for the unexpected. Furthermore, they work despite the fact that no one may ever buy their paintings, nor will anyone ever pay them to sit in a field all day just to count bees. It is for this reason that grant writing becomes an important skill for both of them to master.
Statements by Scientists @ MLBS
Artists often speak of “asking questions” of a subject with their work, while scientists usually imagine they are generating answers. In truth, the processes underlying both disciplines are more similar than practitioners realize – both are creating new methods of investigation to explore natural phenomena.
The 2013 ArtLab collective brought tangible permanent impacts to MLBS in the form of permanent installations and exhibits and lasting human impacts. After the departure of artists from the grounds, there are outdoor installations along the path to the laboratory, and works displayed in the dining hall that continue to stimulate the curiosity developed during the artists’ residencies. Scientists who look at literally thousands of beetles in a summer now see them differently after one artist explored and modeled the folding of insect wings. During our annual Open House for the local community, ArtLab exhibitions were one of the most popular stops and are still talked about by the scientists in-house.
- Edmund “Butch” Brodie, UVa Professor of Biology and Director MLBS
This summer there were a number of artists at Mountain Lake Biological Station. As a resident scientist, I thought it was wonderful having the artists around because it made me look at familiar things in new ways.
Scientists and artists both study the world around them. Scientists look for patterns. Artists look for patterns. But we don’t see the same patterns. We are trained to look for different patterns and what you see is in good part a product of your training. This summer we learned from seeing each others’ patterns, learned to get beyond the way we are trained to see things.
Artists and scientists are similar in that both are creative fields. Artists figure out how they want to look at things and to represent them while scientists figure out what questions they want to ask and how to design experiments to answer them. In each case careful study of the situation is needed before jumping in. Over the summer we shared the excitement of each other’s creativity and in some cases the fun of asking different questions about the same subjects.”
- Laura Galloway, UVa Professor of Biology and Department Chair
Biologists have traditionally used drawing to improve observation and to communicate their discoveries. The boundary between biological illustration and art has never been a hard line as illustrated by the work of John James Audubon and other artist-naturalists.
At Mountain Lake Biological Station artists have enriched the fieldwork of biologists by helping us see nature in a richer way than we see when showing things to each other. I hope we led artists to a broader appreciation of their subjects by teaching them about their evolutionary history, their adaptations fitting form and function into complex adaptations, and their roles in natural communities. We had fun together because we shared an appreciation of the beauty and inspiration of nature.
- Henry Wilbur, UVa Professor Emeritus of Biology and Former Director MLBS
We welcome guest bloggers who are writing about bridging art and science to inspire curiosity, creativity, courage, critical thinking and collaboration. Write sciencecandance (at) gmail (dot) com if you want to share your art-science topic.
In their keynote address at the inspiring initial meeting of symbASA (Warren Wilson College, July 26-28, 2013), artist Elizabeth Mead and molecular biologist Carey Bagdassarian set the tone for our meeting in their presentation about emergence. Their jointly taught course at The College of William and Mary, titled “Emergent Dialogues,” informed not only this pithy little startup meeting, but also will help direct the entire organizational structure and process of symbASA itself.
Emergence is a study in math and science that looks at self-organizing phenomena as diverse as ant colonies, cities, the internet, evolution of species… any kind of processes that emerge without a hierarchical leader, that are self-organizing. These processes arise when as a result of individual entities obeying local rules, the collection of these individual behaviors becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.
A familiar example of emergent behavior in animals is the flocking of birds or the schooling of fish. The set of “rules” that any given bird in a flock is fairly simple.
In the keynote address, Mead expressed these in the form of a poem, evocative of human relationships:
If I am too close, I must back off.
If I am too far away, I must catch up.
If distance is optimal, I will align in the direction you are heading.
This elegantly simple set of rules, when followed by each bird in a flock, results in what looks like a choreographed group behavior, but it’s not a top-down, predetermined choreography but rather an organic response to environment, each individual responding to its neighbor. It’s an improvisational dance, shifting and responding in real time, that can result in breathtakingly beautiful group behavior like this video:
Bagdassarian shared another powerful phenomenon about swarming behavior. He has witnessed schools of fish with millions of individuals, the entire school the size of a whale. But unlike a whale, which takes a few minutes to turn and change direction, a school the same size can turn almost instantaneously. How potent a metaphor for how this organization (and any organization) can work beautifully in concert and still remain flexible!
One of the most powerful experiences of the meeting came as a total surprise: Buncombe County dance teacher Amanda Arrowood actually teaches “flocking” as an improvisational dance exercise, and serendipitously, she led us in a few of these. The result? We actually DANCED the science. We got to feel a little bit of what it might be like to be a bird in a flock. Each group of dancers grouped closely together in diamond formation, and the dancer at the front started off as the leader. The individual dancer’s “rule” is to keep optimal distance (as in the poem above) and to align with / mimic the dancer who is closest, in front or in peripheral vision off to the side. Once the leader turns and changes direction, a new leader emerges. It’s a real challenge to pay attention to the closest dancer rather than to the leader. In a large flock of birds or school of fish, the way this manifests itself is that there is a slight delay from the leader to the rest of the group; the movement transfers through the group in a kind of a wave. For me, the powerful metaphor inherent in this beautiful and entirely satisfying exercise was that we stay not too far and not too close, pay closest attention to those closest to us, and the group’s cohesiveness emerges out of all those individual balanced relationships.
Of course, in a real flock or swarm, as in human behavior, a rogue individual can also break off and others may follow it, thus splitting the group into two. Splitting is a trade-off for trying new options on the one hand, but also risking a danger of leaving the protection of the larger group. On the other hand, multiple groups can merge into one. I’m hoping that symbASA is a way of bringing together some disparate groups doing similar things in art+science. As a larger flock, we will be pretty powerful!
At our meeting we heard a wide variety of presentations – Warren Wilson College faculty members Amy Boyd (Biology) and Bette Bates (Fine Art) presented about student work that used art and science to study botany. Paleontologist Tony Martin of Emory University and visual artist Ruth Schowalter shared their beautiful visual art about tracks and traces of ancient creatures. Mark Hanf and Garius Hill of Geometry of Nature shared their art-geometry-geography tools based on Buckminster Fuller’s maps of the globe. Educator Carrie Lewis demonstrated how she uses dance to teach math to middle schoolers.
We dreamed, we schemed, we made a little art, we made a lot of new friends. Can’t wait until next year…. so we’re not waiting! Full STEAM ahead.
What’s next for symbASA?
- Planning next year’s meeting to be bigger and better – arts exhibits and performances, science poster sessions, art-science workshops, panel discussions, presentations, and whatever else folks (you!) may want to do.
- Inviting folks working in art+science from all over the country, from every arena, to join us for next year’s meeting and in all our endeavors.
- Developing a guide for collaborating called “What’s a System? How Artists and Scientists Can Work Together.”
- Writing a White Paper.
- Submitting grants to federal agencies and private foundations.
- Building a network among arts organizations and science organizations to promote collaborations between artists and scientists, and serving that network.
- Catalyzing some art-science projects of our own.
- Flocking. Join us?
Contact me at sciencecandance (at) gmail (dot) com and find out what cool projects you can help with over the next year! And we hope to see you at the symbASA meeting next summer.
First report from very first event of very first symbASA meeting. Wine and cheese mixer. We have only just met for a few hours and already the chemistry (and music and paleontology and visual art and sculpture and entomology and astronomy….) is really good. I can tell it’s going to be a fabulous meeting. What we talked about in just the first few hours, over wine:
the courage to leave academia when the walls are too rigid (wow Cherilynn! You go!),
how the world tells us science is “better” than art and what to do about that,
the realization that the term “art-science,” like “love,” is too varied and too vague to be described with just one or two hyphenated words,
can we value deep study and virtuosity but still leave room for the curious novice,
Leonardo the magazine/ org,
Leonardo the Italian guy who drew this:
…and OK he was a genius and all, but back in Leonardo’s day it wasn’t all that unusual to look at the world as both an artist and a scientist,
what can we do to instill inquisitiveness in the next generation,
is art-science collaboration and any other kind of weird cross disciplinary collaboration harder for people from other cultures, especially immigrants (two of the folks at our table were second generation immigrants, felt the pressure to succeed in a standard American Dream path),
how does language affect how artists and scientists work together — for example, the word “system” means one thing to an artist, another to a scientist…… and I would posit means one thing to an evolutionary biologist and another to an astrophysicist,
how do we convince academia to value tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media that reach potentially tens of thousands, and not just peer reviewed pubs which are read by ten people if we are lucky (five of those being collaborators, two being co-authors, one being the scientist’s mother) … and why doesn’t art-science “count” in the eyes of your department head?
I’d like to say that all this left me speechless, but clearly not, I am rarely at a loss for words. But it did leave me breathless. And I confess that I was driving down the road crying tears of joy today, so grateful that this event has come together, such a rich, RICH mix of interesting minds, like oxygen. And this was just the first few hours!
I can’t wait.