thoughts on art & science collaboration

Early last week we had a two-day meeting with experts throughout the field of the currently established bio-art scene. Everyone of importance was here. And yet, it was striking in the lineup already: there was 1 scientist only among about 15+ artists in the group.

What struck me during the discussion is the repetitiveness of some basic notions that artists find important, and how I’m not agreeing with them, and how my priorities are very much different.

What I heard

The recurring ideas put forth by the artists I found were, in brief:

  • having a discussion in itself is a goal
  • trying out different processes in itself is a goal
  • science creates ‘problems’ that need to be addressed

It seemed that the people attending all agreed that the product of the artist’s work is not the artwork itself, rather it is a set of discussions, the process he goes through, and ethical debates involved. As if their work is somewhat like a performance: the viewer has to take part in the whole process to appreciate it, including the discussion, the process which the artist goes through, the ethical positions he takes. It seems the person best suited to understand the work is the artist doing it – as he’s in the center of the whole process. As if he was creating the work for himself, and you can only try to get into his shoes, and you can get close, but will never succeed really – never understand totally.

It also seemed that for the artists trying out something differently in itself constitutes ‘research’. This probably ties in with the notion that the process is the product itself, thus a different process would produce a different artwork already. They were shocked to learn that scientists are not really interested in dumping their proven scientific method, which is of course at the core of scientific research. Unfortunately this also implies that the artists don’t actually understand the nature of the scientific method, and thus science or research itself.

An additional interesting re-occurring point was that science creates problems, and that it is for the artist to have an ethical judgement on science. It is interesting to see that people put themselves in a position of being able to tell good from bad, and thus commandeer people (in this case scientists) in the good direction, and avert them from their otherwise detrimental ways.

Having all these positions, the artists actually could not say why their collaboration with scientists would be interesting / worthwhile to the scientists themselves, or for science in general. It seems the nature of the collaboration is pretty much one-sided, with scientists taken for technicians in an activity not involving them in a fundamental manner.

What I think

From what I heard, I really think there’s a long way to go if there is to be a real, two-sided collaboration between artists and scientists. For one, the scientists should be heavily involved as early as the definition of the goals of such a collaboration, as opposed to artists drawing up a roadmap of what they want to do, and then calling in scientists to help them out technically.

Of course I’m not a scientist myself, put my points in short are:

  • involve scientists in the process, and build on their insight into real knowledge
  • understand scientists goals and needs from such a collaboration
  • concentrate on a work of art
  • as science creates new possibilities – let’s show these to people

My position, termed ‘positivist’ by some members of the group, is that the product of an artists work is the artwork itself. The work itself is his form of expression and shows his position on what he wants to express. If a debate surrounds his work, that is done by people exposed to the work – audience members, connoisseurs and art critics. But this is a different role than that of the artists.

I also think that the artist should really know his craftsmanship – the material he’s working with. Like sculptors knowing their stone or metal, a bio-artist has to know his living organisms and his science. This is how he gains insight into the material he’s working with, and is especially essential if he’s trying to reflect on the technology through his work.

Of course, it might take years to gather such an insight, and this is where the nature and level of collaboration with scientists comes in. In a collaborative project, it is important to regard all members of the group well. Especially if it is the scientist who has the deep knowledge into the material in question. Reflection, extrapolation on future possibilities and insight come from experience and deep knowledge gathered through long hours of work.

Usually, the artist will use already existing scientific results in his work. As a remote possibility, he might drive some real research to fulfill a vision shared by both participants, but which can not be reached by what is already available. Such a case would be the ultimate level of collaboration between the parties.

Science opens up new possibilities – and it is for people to decide what they do with them. An artwork can hint at such possibilities. An artist working with scientists can help them show the future they are continuously creating during their tedious work in the lab. Such a collaboration can show people the ongoing expansion of our possibility space, that is the result of science itself. It can show insight into nature and a vision for the future that will be ours in the end.

One Response to “thoughts on art & science collaboration”

  1. PeterFuchs Says:

    As I am coming from the field of art theory, which deals about some similar terms then you used in this post, I would like to highlight some details in your text :
    Yes, you are a positivist, but the tradition you are working in, arts, is a profoundly positivist tradition by origin. What you are lacking in the above discussion might be quite familiar for me from debates on modern art in the last few decades. Science, skill, craftsmanship, artifacts, all subject of a long term discussion in this field. In a modernist/positivist system, artifacts (artworks) and the “progress” of science are considered to be the parts of a same grand scheme, to “open up new possibilities” as you wrote. On this regard the artwork is in fact really a “hint” – a model, a piece of “know how” which we should use as a source of inspiration – which means the artist must have a full knowledge of the field he/she is giving the for. This is called since the high Renaissance period the idea of Skill, which not only applies to the complete knowledge of the material you are working with, but also of the nature you want to copy.
    It might be sad to see, how nowadays artist are neglecting the tradition of modernist movements, which encouraged people to excel themselves in scientific fields in order the “develop” and “make life better”, yet, I am aware that times change, and a modernist, positivist position is challenging to be upheld in a critical system like the nowadays artistic reproduction . Still, we are changing these systems, so we have the possibilities to get it back to the right track.

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