Art – science perspective

This is a piece I wrote as a trigger point for discussion when I MC’d  a public forum on art and science collaboration in the Antarctic (for IceFest 2012).  Key questions are in bold with my follow-on thoughts (personal & from others – though not formally cited here) appearing as numbered footnotes.

Our topic was: What can artists and scientists learn from each other?

This questions suggests a kind of reciprocal collaboration and can be reinterpreted as: ArtScience / Sci-Art interaction:How can the two crossfertilise? 1 But this also begs defining the entities that are coming together. This means questioning:

How do we understand art /artists? 2      And science / scientists? 3

Some other interesting questions are raised along the way:

How are they similar? 4     How are they different? 5

And,  Is our obvious commonality, time in the Antarctic, a common bond across disciplines or are they very different experiences? 6

1 Are they too different to mix? To me, no, and the cultural divide is a big problem for both ‘sides’. As Bridie Lonie puts it “Assumptions tend to cohere around the poles” –so really the ‘polarities’ of art vs science are but temporal moments, with the bulk of the relationship in more middle ground. We get bogged down and held back by dichotomy and self-definition. [But also see 5 ]

2 What things define art/the artist? To me some of the key modern roles are:

Art re-orientates our view of the world. Through analogy & metaphor, art can be critical in creating new hypotheses. It can be comparative and thus analytical. Art, as innovative and collaborative, deserves respect for its cognitive work as well as its emotive effect. It can shift paradigms, in society / science, and act as a catalyst for forms of knowledge transfer and re-envisioning/challenging conceptions. Non-verbal associations (e.g. data visualization) may well communicate complex connections and translate ideas most effectively.

Artist as Intervention: art is action inspiring – often via dialogue (provokes response: give & take: engagement). But engagement is process based – and so, hard to evaluate the outcome. If art can make a constructive effect on society, how do we make that effect tangible? How do we measure & evaluate it?

Art tackling real world issues: If science has a duty to humanity, in these tough times, so too does art. Art without a message (personal exploration without sharing) is a luxury we can no longer afford. Although Art is not forced meaning, it can be fully creative and open to interpretation whilst still exploring a message.

3 A motivating force of exploring relationships between things. Sometimes the goal is to characterise similarities, sometime to contrast, often it is to identify a cause and effect relationship. In both science and art the process can be equally disparate: from purely descriptive to highly experimental. As Martin Kemp says, “Science is deeply imaginative, social, partial and extraordinary”. It is not just justified by its product or utility (though this is a common misconception). It is based on a desire to understand. As such it is grounded in aesthetics, just as art is. The key difference lies after the creative conceptualisation stage: science says these things we think are true to life as we know it (and this is how we can deductively prove it). And for art, proving anything further is not required. While science is tied up in the proofs, it is not surprising then that art excels in communicating concepts.

4 They are both fueled by creativity. This means their inspiration (cognitive origin) and methods have baseline similarities.  Both being influenced by aesthetics means they are both affected by emotion and values.

5 Despite many commonalities it is tricky joining the two without breaching each field’s complexity. Art cannot be subservient. Art (particularly as the current economic underdog) finds itself hard to be seen as ‘a resource’ – when autonomy is part of many modern artists’ identity. There are issues of appropriation vs engagement that must be considered for both sides- mutual influence is the goal.

6 The polar regions are special: Up until physical science methods like ice coring and atmospheric/weather balloons focused on understanding global trends through the collection of polar data, science in the Antarctic was pretty non-utilitarian. In other words it was exploration for the sake of knowing. How did these unique animals survive freezing? What is the life cycle of the emperor penguin? This is science for inquiry’s sake. Exploring to understand – not to harness. It is what lots of science used to be about – before our current craze of technological expectation kicked in.  So to me, the last 100 years of science and art in the Antarctic share perhaps the most common ground they ever have in this century.