Lecture 11 Art and Science

Genuine interdisciplinary collaboration between practitioners in arts and sciences can be a complex process. This lecture explores some case studies of the challenges and outcomes of meaningful arts-science collaborations. The works that sit at the cusps of disciplinary boundaries, there are always negotiation between the artists and scientists in balancing the need for scientific accuracy with making the science accessible and allowing for artistic creativity. Two key challenges remain evident: the establishment of a common language between researchers in the arts and sciences, and developing a sound understanding of the practice of research in the different fields. The lecture includes works from the Australia Network of Art and Technology’s Spectra Symposium.

In week 10, we ended with Eliasson’s Vær i vejret, 2016. This installation in a public space provides opportunities of an audience to encounter a phenomenon. That is an exhilarating encounter with something that may also be an everyday experience (fog, mist, running through the sprinkler). The extraction from its context – so we pay attention to the phenomenon. The experience prompts reflection and questions: what is is that we are experiencing here?

Eliasson’s works are often considered within this art-science nexus, but his works do not illustrate science or scientific problems. Rather, he is interested in presentation a different way of understanding our experiences in the world. Referring to his collaborative work with geologist Minik Rosing, Ice Watch (2015), Eliasson states:

Art can offer people direct experiences of phenomena, which can be more effective than just reading an explanation … or looking at charts, graphs and data… This is an important step towards motivating people not just to know something but also to respond to it, to feel the urgency of it and to take action. (King, 2017)

Eliasson warns against, “art … made into a vehicle for explaining some kind of scientific problem.” (Foster, 2015). Speaking as a participant and observer at Bundanon’s Siteworks, geographer Leah Gibbs also cautions against this, she writes:

Arts-science collaboration is not simply a means of communicating research truths. Rather, collaborative work – and particularly collaborative, embodied methodology – makes a real difference to research practice and outcomes: it pushes us to reflect on assumptions of our own practice; calls for new skills, methods and techniques; opens possibilities for observing and for asking previously unimagined questions; and presents possibilities for political engagement and communication with new publics. (223)

What are your views on these works such as these? When you encounter works made in this tradition (for example, works you may have encountered in the excursion to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences), what are your reactions and responses? Do you find them illustrative? Do you find yourself intrigued and wanting to find out more?

To unpack different perspectives, it is important to recognise that when framed within research, both artistic and scientific endeavours are understood as knowledge-making practices. In ‘The Self of the Scientist, Material for the Artist’, James Leach presents a study of the art-science research collaborations funded by the competitive Arts and Science Research Fellowships scheme in the UK. Leach’s investigation focuses on the social processes of art-science collaborations and the meanings generated from these knowledge-making practices. Interestingly, he uses Intellectual property definitions to highlight the distinctions between art and science as knowledge production:

Intellectual property law is based on a fundamental divide between expression (copyright) and utility (patent). Expression has potential aesthetic or artistic value, while patents apply knowledge for practical uses. Both require novelty, but in a different sense for each: expression is based on the right of an author over a novel creation, while utility is based on a demonstrable effect on the material world with no reference to aesthetic value. (145)

This is a rather dry but nevertheless useful distinction to think through the responses Leach solicited from participants of the scheme. Leach reports a constant drawing of boundaries that distinguishes the disciplines made by both artists and scientists. A scientist is quoted to say: “The artist may be seeking to allow an audience to interpret and question. Science as communication requires a more direct pedagogical approach.” (Leach, 150) An artist says, “If I look at science and I don’t understand it, I don’t doubt the quality of the science. If I look at art and don’t understand it, I do doubt the quality of the artist.” (Leach, 152) These distinctions point to the “perceptions of subjectivity and objectivity” in relation to knowledge making. (Leach, 152)

While the apparatus of scientific endeavours absolves subjectivity from the research materials, that is: “the results of [scientific] investigations do not depend upon the context or the person of the investigator” (Leach, 150); contemporary art as research is perceived as subjective self-expressions or intersubjective experiences. The artist and the scientist are on unequal footing in knowledge-making. Leach writes:

Art as knowledge production then was about subjective interpretation that may be shared, but not in the same way that science­ as ­knowledge of the external, verifiable reality is shared. Art was seen not only as unverifiable but also as fundamentally contestable …. [Scientists are] in a position to make judgments about art because of their very humanity, whereas artists are not in the same position to make judgments about the accuracy of science. (153)

What are your thoughts? Did you study science at school? Do you know anyone working within scientific disciplines (an relative, a friend)? Do you find that they approach the world different from you? How would they approach problems?

Below are three contemporary artists working in different Art-Science collaborations. Their artistic practice come from a media arts tradition of inquiry. These artists ask questions in regards to the environmental challenges we face, how we perceive the places to which we belong, and our bodies – and how they work. The value of art in such projects lie not in communicating science, but more precisely in its affective capacities to convey not only the challenges we encounter as human beings, but more importantly, the hopes action can inspire. Wonderment is an embodied experience in these works.

Leah Barclay is an Australian artist and composer working at the intersection between art and science, specialising in acoustic ecology. She successfully worked with marine biologist and ecologist in setting up hydrophones in waterways to monitor and assess the health of the environmental systems.

Grayson Cooke is a New Zealand born, Queensland-based artist who works with images to tell stories about the material and cultures of the lands we inhabit. In Open Air, he works with Australian Geoscience and satellite images to bring us different views of the Earth and consider our place within.

Cat Jones works with neuroscientists to uncover how visual perception of our bodies may change the way we feel in our bodies. Her artworks and performances have contributed in fields in medical sciences including management of chronic pain.

How well do you consider these collaborations between art and sciences work in terms of their speaking to the public?

In recent years, art’s affective capacities in art-science collaborations are most recognised in the environmental and social sciences particularly geography. Speaking about such cross-disciplinary events, Harriet Hawkins urges practitioners and researchers “to build critical reflections across disciplines that not only spark deeper conversation but that also induce a desire for interdisciplinary rigor.” (155).


Reference list:

Foster, S 2015, ‘Olafur Eliasson on Art and Science’, Art Practical, Issue 7.2, viewed 7 October 2018, https://www.artpractical.com/feature/olafur-eliasson-on-art-and-science/

Gibbs, L 2014, ‘Arts-science collaboration, embodied research methods, and the politics of belonging: “SiteWorks” and the Shoalhaven River, Australia’, Cultural Geographies, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 207 –227.

Hawkins, H 2017, ‘To talk of turns… Three cross-disciplinary provocations for creative turns’, Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, vol. 4.2, pp. 121–256.

King, A 2017, ‘Artist Olafur Eliasson On Art, Science And Environmental Consciousness’, Euro Scientists, Art And Science Special Issue, Viewed 7 October 2018, http://www.euroscientist.com/Artist-Olafur-Eliasson-Art-Science-Environmental-Consciousness/

Leach, J 2011, ‘The Self of the Scientist, Material for the Artist: Emergent Distinctions in an Interdisciplinary Collaboration’, Social Analysis,  vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 143–163.


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