Since the day Frankenstein’s monster shambled into the popular imagination, scientists have been suspect. Frankensteins are everywhere in popular culture, hell bent on subverting the natural world and bringing down doom on our collective heads. You might imagine that scientists are bitter about this, especially as they keep turning up in books and movies as a sorry collection of lunatics, eggheads, geeks and idiot savants.

But science continues to embrace art, because the artists offer so much. It’s the artists who make records of plants and animals, sculptors who create artificial bones for anatomists, and graphic designers who allow physicists and geneticists to visualise their ideas.

Now there’s even a worldwide movement to put scientists and artists together, to spark the cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Artists meet scientists

“We’ve been noticing an increasing of interest from artists, particularly working in the area of new media arts,” says Andrew Donovan. “Oftentimes the relationships are built before they come to us, because the artist or scientist has such a keen interest in a particular area.”

Donovan’s the director of the Inter-Arts Office of the Australia Council, which oversees the Synapse Art and Science Initiative. It’s a collaborative research program supported by the Australian Research Council, which includes a series of residencies that put artists into scientific environments, and makes them full collaborative partners. Donovan says once scientists get used to the idea, they get excited. “One of the biggest challenges is the length of time it takes,” he says. “When an artist moves into a laboratory, there’s a degree of technical skill they have to master first.”

Synapse has fostered projects like Nigel Helyer’s ‘Audio Nomad’, a hand-held location audio system. Donovan says the device adds layers of virtual reality to physical experiences. It has implications for tourism; a day may come when you will walk over a landscape and have the device tell you about the historical and archaeological layers under your feet—a kind of aural Google Earth. Being Australian, it’s a system with a sense of humour. On a Sydney ferry trip across the harbour the system gave renditions of ‘Money, Money, Money’ as it passed harbour side mansions.

The oldest arts-science collaboration in Australia is the University of Western Australia’s Symbiotica bioart project, established in 2000. It was born from a more traditional artists-in-residence programme in the School of Anatomy and teaches artists tissue culture techniques, from which they create living art. It also offers an opportunity for artists to explore how science impacts society, and is the first of its kind in the world.

“The support from scientists was really positive,” says director and artist Oron Catts. “Interestingly enough, it was harder for the people from fine arts to come to terms with what we’re doing.”

So what are they doing?

Truly disruptive

“At the beginning we were trying to look down the microscope and create objects that were beautiful,” says Catts. “As we developed we looked at less beautiful ways of working. We’re interested in creating prototypes for cultural discussion.”

One such is ‘disembodied cuisine’, which has frog skeletal muscles grown over a biopolymer. The resulting frog steak challenges thinking about food; the way animals are loved and cherished, but also eaten. Catts says it’s also intended highlight how “biological sciences are here to disrupt the perception of life”.

Sounds weird? Not to the US company thinking about commercialising the idea, though Catts says “our project wasn’t about feeding the world”.

Think about it for a moment, and the possibilities multiply. Could Symbiotica have discovered a way of growing food in a Petri dish? Could this one day be a way for space explorers to feed themselves as they venture into the far reaches of the galaxy?

Dr Stuart Bunt, Symbiotica’s scientific director, bristles at the idea their projects need to create tangible, economic results, saying the purpose of having artists in the laboratory isn’t to advance science. “I often get asked what the outcomes are, and it’s the wrong question,” he says. “What makes me most interested are the political questions. It does force you to re-examine what you’re doing, and makes the scientists think.”

He argues there’s a knowledge gap between the two disciplines that needs to be addressed. “A scientist has little understanding of the aesthetics or history of art,” he says, while the artists are too often happy to critique science without understanding it. The Symbiotica project lets both sides come together for mutual intellectual benefit.

“We’re both doing [our disciplines] because we love them, but they’re both poorly understood by the public,” he says. “I’ve also learnt that there’s just as much cynicism and politics and money in art as there is in science.” He adds, “when artists get high and mighty, I’ve learnt that’s all bullshit.”

But Bunt says there’s one outcome that he would be happy to see: changes in the way the arts community thinks about science. “They believe all scientists are employed by big business,” he says. “I don’t know anybody who is. There are all those biases they’ve got from the media, and they don’t believe that scientists are self-reflective.”

Catts, who’s about to set up a similar project at Stanford University, agrees. He says it’s the arts community who are most resistant to Symbiotica. “Art is much more traditional and territorial,” he says. “Scientists are much more open to new ideas.”

Yet art has gained from scientific advances for centuries, from the days when Isaac Newtown’s Opticks gave birth to a whole school of observational art. Which raises an interesting question: when has art propelled science? There are precious biological drawings and paintings, of course. There is the valuable critiquing of science. And maybe something else as well. Could Alexander Fleming’s artistic leanings have helped him discover penicillin? Fleming, a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, was the first to use pigmented bacteria to create pictures. He even created a complete union jack in a Petri dish. But to do so, he needed to know a great deal about which organisms would sit happily next to which, and so he experimented with different coloured entities. It’s possible—though speculative—that he was so intrigued by the artistic possibilities presented by the new mould, he decided to investigate.

Whatever the answer, a Leonardo da Vinci-like marriage of art and science is long overdue. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

This article first appeared in Fast Thinking magazine in 2006.

Related Articles