Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Julia Buntaine explores the potential power of art and science collaborations

Posted 18 Nov 2016 / 0


Last year, Pratt Professor Ágnes Mócsy started a new speaker series at Pratt called Art.Sci Affair. The series is designed to foster conversations about what Mócsy referred to as “scientists who dip into art” and “artists who dip into science”. This semester’s speaker was Julia Buntaine, an artist with a background and continuing interest in neuroscience.

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Buntaine is the director of the SciArt Center and editor in chief of SciArt Magazine, so she has a view of science-art collaborations that extends well beyond her own work in this inter-disciplinary field. She used this view to present a talk that asked the question is there untapped potential to solve our 21st-Century problems through art and science collaborations?

I really enjoyed Buntaine’s opening rationale for considering art/science collaborations as a key source of innovation. She suggested that our society is driven by the twin forces of science and art, an apt view of the cultural forces at play. She suggested that the stereotypical right/left brain duality — and the way that we portray scientists and artists as somehow working only from one side of their brains — is “neuroscientifically unfounded”, an important point that I wholeheartedly agree with. Buntaine discussed why science and art have become more and more separated realms over time, largely due to hyperspecialization within and between both fields (she also said that “a bit of postmodernism really didn’t help”, suggesting that part of the problem may be the failure to recognize science’s unique and powerful methods as anything but another form of culture). She also emphasized the major differences in funding level between science and art, although she put this difference in some context by acknowledging that the cost of doing science may in part justify this difference in economic social support.

Buntaine then led us through a really diverse and interesting set of science and art collaborations, starting with some early work by the Experiments in Arts & Technology collaborative. She then moved through a broad catalog of contemporary works that address — or at least make commentary on — some real problems we now face. A lot of these were very interesting biological works, including the Swale barge, Mara Haseltine’s Enchanted Oyster Sweet Spot, Natalie Jeremijenko’s Butterfly Bridge, and Elizabeth Demaray’s Hand Up and PandorBird projects. While many of these projects probably veer more into the making the public aware of the problem realm, some actually do engage real problems. Buntaine also highlighted a few projects that seemed to me to maybe mis-address our problems. In principle I have no problem with genetically modifying organisms to suit our needs, although the welfare of animals does concern me. But genetically modifying a sheep to act as our personal dialysis system? This seems more like an artistic stunt that’s riding science’s wave than a real solution to an actual problem. You can add bioluminescent trees that act as streetlights to that list: not only does this idea have a serious energy budget problem (can trees thrive if a huge portion of their photosynthetic success goes to making light for us at night?) but it’s a solution to a problem that we don’t really have (Do we really have an inability to rapidly provide low-impact streetlights? I will take solar-powered LED’s over waiting for a bioluminescent tree to be concocted… and then to grow!).

Buntaine also talked about some of the interesting work that she does through her two SciArt projects. She discussed The Bridge, a very smart program of The SciArt Center that pairs artists and scientists for a collaborative effort that only requires process (in the form of a blog). It’s basically a platform for dialogue between two people with overlapping interests that they didn’t know they had: rather than have people apply in pairs, The Bridge is populated through an open call for both scientists and artists, who are paired based on their background and goals. Very cool. As we at Pratt are in the process of launching our STEAMplant initiative, programs like The Bridge serve as models and inspiration.

There was some great discussion after Buntaine’s presentation. When asked about the proportion of artists and scientists who are working in this area, she estimated that it was about 90% artists, 10% scientists. She suggested that this is in part due to the fact that artists always gravitate to providing commentary on and interacting with social trends, and the emergence of science and technology in our society is pulling a lot of artists to this topic. But she also acknowledged that part of this has to do with the abundance of people on both sides of the art/science divide: it is far easier to become an artist (although not necessarily a good one) than a scientist.

I would also add to Buntaine’s explanation that many scientists may be put off by the way that their fields are appropriated by artists. This is especially important for works that attempt to address real social problems. It’s wonderful that artists become well-read in their scientific fields of interest and respond by making things that incorporate scientific ideas and apply scientific principles. But that’s not how science solves problems.

I see these artists’ works as hypotheses. Let’s take Natalie Jeremijenko’s Butterfly Bridge as an example: we know that there are potential problems in cities with animals whose dispersal corridors are disrupted. Her hanging gardens filled with plants that appeal to butterflies seems like a very reasonable response to this problem. But do they work? A scientist would test the hypothesis that these bridges aid in wildlife dispersal by actually measuring their effectiveness. So if artists want their projects to be real solutions, they don’t necessarily need to do the science but they need to collaborate with scientists who can bring data to bear on hypothetical solutions. Some artists may feel that their work is designed to provoke public dialogue and contemplation — which is great — but then that means that their work is not actually a pathway to solving problems. Some artists may say that testing their designs is more the responsibility of scientists, but if that’s the case we are not talking about an art and science collaboration. To produce a real powerful collaboration between art and science, both practictioners need to be able to do what they do best, and that means we need projects that aren’t just informed by science but actually supported by scientific explorations.

A more unsettling manner in which science is appropriated by art occurs when a project misrepresents science. Although I don’t claim to know all the details and goals of the Swale barge, what I gather from their website kind of disturbs me as a scientist. Is a barge that uses a variety of regenerative technologies to grow food a valuable educational tool for city residents distanced from their food sources? Yes! Is it responsible to promote this project as a model for future food supply? No way! Any scientific analysis of our food supply suggests that we simply don’t have enough land area in cities to provide fresh food by local gardening. Just try filling out any ecological footprinting survey and you will discover that there’s a remarkable amount of land out there providing you with your year’s worth of food. How many barges (and rooftop gardens, and even as-yet-unproven vertical farms) would we need to meet the goal of Swale‘s “floating food forest”? How much impact does this barge have compared to a conventional farm? These are scientific questions that need to be answered if the problem Swale is designed to solve is providing urban residents with fresh food. It’s interesting that Swale‘s list of collaborators includes many scientists; if I expect this project to be anything beyond an educational exercise, I would like to see a clearer (scientific) vision of our actual food supply and its potential for conversion emerge from this project.

I take Buntaine’s claim that science and art collaborations can transform our society and solve many of our problems very seriously: that’s in large part why I am so excited to work at Pratt. But her presentation got me thinking as much about the issues with science and art collaborations as it re-doubled my excitement for these collaborations. Scientists, whose ability to apply their findings to a direct problem is often limited, desperately need the creative and practical problem-solving skills of artists and designers. But if these collaborations are going to be true cooperative efforts, the art of science also needs to be well-represented in the resulting work. As scientists, we are very used to our normative ideas being unseated by scientific discoveries. If you have a particular conception of how the world ought to be that relied on an assumption of how the world is, then you need to be prepared to shift your ought if the foundational is you relied on turns out to be wrong. A lot of artistic projects are bourne out of a normative stance — we ought to be protecting urban wildlife, or we ought to be providing an alternative food source — and only sometimes engage scientific realities in the pursuit of normative goals. When an artist doesn’t actually engage in scientific questioning of their work, it’s hard as a scientist to take these art-sci projects very seriously. Better incorporating scientists — and their process — into these collaborations would increase their potential to solve our very pressing 21st Century problems.

A Major Post, Art & Design, Collaborative Art, Department of Mathematics & Science, Green Design, Industrial Design, Installation Art, Neuroscience, Public Art, Public Outreach, Resilience, Science (General), Science in Art & Design, Sculpture, Sustainability, Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Urban Design, Talks & Seminars

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