Art & Science: Towards a meaningful and mutual exchange

By Dr Svenja J. Kratz and Anita Gowers

Since the establishment of UWA’s dedicated art and science lab  SymbioticA in 2000,  there has been a growing interest in fostering connections across art and science. An increasing number of academic staff and HDR students are working across the nexus of art and science at major Australian Universities including UNSW, Curtin, QUT, Monash and UTAS. There has been an explosion of investment in organisations and public programs to further encourage interdisciplinary engagement – just think of the newly established Science Gallery franchise at Melbourne University. Outside the university sector, residency and funding opportunities such as the Australian Network for Art and Technology’s Synapse program have also helped increase the profile of, and interest in, art and science.  Indeed, even bioart, once controversial and decidedly on the fringes, has gained notable acceptance in the contemporary art world, with a dedicated feature in the 2014 Artlink Magazine, Life in the Anthropocene

So where to now?

The interest in art-science has resulted in a spate of projects and activities that are branded art-science, but operate in a superficial fashion in which the art is seen as largely decorative or representations of broad aspects of science rather than a genuine exchange.

Well…despite the relative success of art-science in the creative and academic imaginary, it remains a field that is poorly understood by outsiders resulting in the wide-spread perception that the primary purpose of art in this context is science communication and PR. Without consideration, the flows between disciplines can also be rather one-sided with artists relying on the expertise of scientists to develop their work with little creative input and limited benefit to their own scientific research. The interest in art-science has resulted in a spate of projects and activities that are branded art-science, but operate in a superficial fashion in which the art is seen as largely decorative or representations of broad aspects of science rather than a genuine exchange.  In the public outreach arena, art is often seen as a fun way of teaching and honing STEM skills.  While art-science should certainly enable a multiplicity of engagements, it is important to look beyond the surface and perceived novelty of the coupling to note the potential of art and science to facilitate meaningful and transformative exchanges that are mutually beneficial for researchers from both disciplines. It is important to see the value of art in the equation as fundamental rather than mere aesthetic input.

To glimpse the potential, we need only turn to the pioneering work of Joe Davis; an artist who in 1988, before the human genome project had even begun, collaborated with geneticist Dana Boyd to develop a system for encoding a simplified image representing “life and the female earth” (Davis 1996, 70) (really a vagina) into bacteria as a contact message for alien forms of life (Anker et al. 2008). While the project has an air of the ridiculous, it was in fact a considered critique of the culturally censored images of humans (with absent female genitals) that were being affixed to shuttles to represent humankind during space missions. The work was a scientific feat that illustrated that DNA could be used for data storage and that bacteria are ideal receptacles, as they can remain in dormant state for a prolonged period of time – ideal for space travel (Davis 1996). In this way, Joe and Dana preceded the scientific application of DNA storage by a decade (Church, Gao, and Kosuri 2012) while the concept is still doing the rounds on popular news and science sites today (Gallucci 2017, Lindemann 2017).

In the BioSynthetic Systems exhibition. . . researchers from both disciplinary fields worked together to translate movement of fluorescently tagged cells on a custom electro-spun scaffold into 3D printed sculptures as part of a holographic display monument commenting on the agency and potential of bio-technological life.

Of course, facilitating ground-breaking interdisciplinary and art-science research is easier said than done. With this in mind, the Creative Exchange Institute (CxI) at the University of Tasmania, established by the Provost (a neuroscientist), has been set up to facilitate cross-disciplinary and cross-faculty research to highlight the unique research contributions of the creative arts and design and to increase funding and recognition for interdisciplinary projects.   Set up independently from specific schools, faculties or colleges, CxI has no direct disciplinary affiliation. This structure enables CxI researchers to more easily create linkages between and across different disciplines and identify potential research opportunities and partnerships.  Indeed, CxI has brought together academics from various disciplines who had otherwise not collaborated before to deliver innovative research projects. Grant success rates for these projects that encompass the humanities, visual and [1] performing arts, architecture, medical and environmental sciences has been exceptional. One of the key research areas within CxI is the Science Art Lab (SAL). Established in 2016, the aim of SAL+ is to support interdisciplinary research projects that span art, design, science and technology with a particular focus on critical future making and promote considered public engagement with new and emerging technologies.

SAL+ is currently supporting BioSynthetic Systems, an art-science research project exploring the potentials of bio-fabrication, developed in a creative partnership between Tasmanian College of the Arts (TCotA) at UTAS and The Centre for Regenerative Medicine at QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI). In the BioSynthetic Systems exhibition held at QUT in March 2017 as part of the Critical Connections Symposium (another CxI affiliated event), researchers from both disciplinary fields worked together to translate movement of fluorescently tagged cells on a custom electro-spun scaffold into 3D printed sculptures as part of a holographic display monument commenting on the agency and potential of bio-technological life.  The project was an outstanding success as the project is co-owned and the endeavour presented a range of technical and conceptual challenges that were interesting for academics from art and science.  The positive prototype development for BioSynthetic Systems has resulted in an ongoing relationship between researchers from QUT and UTAS with discussions to develop for further research projects.

While BioSynthetic Systems is just one example, it signals that with the right institutional support, art and science can start to move towards the potential shown by pioneers like Davis and Boyd in which disciplinary strengths are combined to develop unique projects that extend the theoretical, critical, technical and creative capacities of the arts and sciences.


References

Anker, Suzanne, Susan Lindee, Edward A Shanken, and Dorothy Nelkin. 2008. "Technogenesis: Aesthetic Dimensions of Art and Biotechnology." In Altering Nature, Volume One: Concepts of ‘Nature’ and ‘The Natural’ in Biotechnology Debates, edited by Andrew Lustig, Baruch Brody and Gerald McKenny, 275 - 321. New York: Springer: Philosophy and Medicine.

Church, George M, Yuan Gao, and Sriram Kosuri. 2012. "Next-generation digital information storage in DNA."  Science 337 (6102):1628.

Davis, Joe. 1996. "Microvenus."  Art Journal 55 (1):70-74.

Gallucci, Maria. 2017. "Scientists find an unlikely place to store digital files: DNA." accessed 24 June. http://mashable.com/2017/03/07/dna-molecules-digital-data-storage/ - Lk6Xn0jIDaqQ.

Lindemann, Katherine. 2017. "DNA could be the future of data storage." accessed 24 June. https://www.researchgate.net/blog/post/dna-could-be-the-future-of-data-storage.

 [1] BioSynthetic Systems is a collaboration between Prof. Dietmar W. Hutmacher, Felix Wunner, Dr. Svenja Kratz, Dr. Bill Hart, Lumen Cloud (Michelle Xen and Richard Candy) and Michael Maggs with Dr Jacqui McGovern and Dr Christina Theodoropoulos.  Prototype development for BioSynthetic Systems project was made possible by a Creative Sparks Grant from the Brisbane City Council. Creative Sparks is a joint initiative of Brisbane City Council and the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.


Anita Gowers holds a B.A (Hons) and Research Masters from the University of Queensland. She has worked in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors across disciplines.  Anita has a demonstrated track record in interdisciplinary research, team building and business development and has held many board positions in the not-for-profit sectors.  Anita is responsible for driving the direction of research at the Creative Exchange Institute at the University of Tasmania.

Dr Svenja Kratz is a new media artist interested in transdisciplinary creative practice, particularly the intersections between science and art. In 2013, she completed a practice-led PhD across contemporary art and biotechnology in a creative partnership between the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI) and the Creative Industries Visual Art discipline at QUT. Svenja is currently Science Art Lab+ theme leader within the Creative Exchange Institute at the University of Tasmania and works as a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Creative Practice at Tasmanian College of the Arts (TCotA).