Culture with a small ?c? is veering out of control. Increasingly not only western society but the global community is being deluged by scientific, technological and cultural changes and choices, all of which threaten to swamp us with demands for decisions. How to cope and make sense of our world? Denna Jones offers a way forward.
Science and art collaborations are not unlike combining oxygen and hydrogen to form water: can two distinctly different molecules bond through physical attraction to create an essential ingredient? In the case of water, yes, in the case of creative alliances between the arts and sciences, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Nevertheless, despite the more than occasional tortured pairings and outcomes, collaborations between scientists and artists are shaping up to become a booming 21st century industry.
In the beginning...
The genesis of science and art collaborations has been mythologised to an extent, and as a result many within this field of study tend to assume it appeared as an outcome of the infamous C P Snow ?Two Cultures? lecture at Cambridge in 1959 and the rebuttal delivered by F R Leavis several years later. At the time the debate was largely intended for the cultural elite, and clearly addressed an ?us? versus ?them? attitude between science and the arts. But more than forty years before the Snow debate, D?Arcy Thompson wrote a groundbreaking work on the basic shapes of life, On Growth and Form (1917). Believing a simple explanation preferable to a complex one, Thompson wrote an engaging, intelligent book that went beyond good science and became great literature. Moreover, his views came with a practical by-product which proved useful to both scientists and artists: the ability to organise and systematise thinking as a tool for approaching ideas from a new perspective. On Growth and Form was a seminal science textbook, but also an essential reference tool for twentieth century artists. And ?research artists? - artists who specifically sought to enrich their work not through appropriation of scientific imagery, but by understanding the common areas between their disciplines - became more common.
But back to direct collaborations between scientists and artists. What now? Exploring the overlaps between the methodologies of scientists and artists - how each can benefit from the other to develop ways in which to explain our humanity - is the ideal model for science and art collaborations. But is this happening? In recent years the science/art collaboration debate has been democratised to the point where at times a demagogic dialogue has erupted, fuelled in this country by practitioners such as scientist and cultural commentator Lewis Wolpert. Dismissing the need for programmes such as Sciart (founded by the Wellcome Trust in 1996) which fund collaborations between scientists and artists, Wolpert has argued ?Why scientists and artists, why not car mechanics and artists?? Taken at face value, his comment seems valid, but on quick reflection, the challenge is hollow. Scientists, not car mechanics, are changing the way in which we live. Accelerated scientific discovery - think of the societal changes appearing as a result of the Human Genome Project - is the source from which society is creating a language of response. Sciart and similar ventures assist collaborations between scientists and artists - but these programmes are usually for professionals only and demand a tangible and viable outcome. Once funded, the necessity to deliver product often overshadows outcome. Sciart is currently funded through a consortium including the Wellcome Trust, and its increased funding base allows awards for both research & development and production.
A pairing scheme
There are alternative models though. One particular programme linking artists and scientists deserves mention. And it doesn?t even demand outcome per se - the scientists and artists can ?talk and drink beer for two months? if they so choose, although none have to date. The programme is PAIR, the Artist in Residence programme, at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), California. Talk - true dialogue between paired scientists and artists - is the basis for the PAIR programme. Another element of PAIR which to an outsider would seem key to successful pairings is that both the artist and scientist need to work and live in the San Francisco Bay area. Other programmes, Sciart is but one example, often stipulate that only one partner (and funded collaborations often include up to a dozen participants) need be resident in the country providing the funding. The rest of the collaborators can be spread across the globe. One could argue that the ease and immediacy of contemporary communications dispenses with the need for close proximity of partnerships, and that outcome is driven by content and inspiration, not relationships between artists and scientists. But PAIR recognises that regular ?face time? and direct interaction between pairings may result not only in genuine long-term friendships, but will ultimately benefit the local community, not just professional colleagues.
Goals and directions
Reading through PARC?s goals for their artist and scientist pairings should be essential reading for all scientific and cultural institutions which are planning (or already have) either an artist in residence or funded collaborations between artists and scientists. It is worthwhile paraphrasing two of PARC?s goals here:
Not to make good art and good science (though this happens), but to make better artists and better scientists.
PAIR is not about trying to bring humanity to science, to make it more intuitive, more creative or more emotional. Science already is all those things and more. It is not about trying to make artists more analytical, rational, down to earth or physical. Art already is those things and more. In many ways these are the areas of greatest overlap between the artists and the scientists.
To create some sense of order out of a rising tide of cultural chaos, and allow society a bit of breathing space to contemplate the pace of change, collaborations between scientists and artists must continue to be encouraged. Our ability to make informed decisions on whether we allow avenues of discovery to develop and be adopted as common practice (human cloning being but one example) depend on knowledge of these practices being democratically disseminated. Let?s go beyond just funding scientists and artists to create new ideas; let?s encourage more interaction and cultural exchanges between lay members of both disciplines rather than leaving it to professionals only; let?s look for and highlight existing parallels between the two. And finally, let?s prove Claude Bernard wrong. Creative collaborations between artists and scientists can go far beyond the idea that ?Art is I; science is we.?
Denna Jones, Curator of the Two10 Gallery at The Wellcome Trust.