Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Convergence of Art & Science

by Caitlin Strokosch Glass (2005)

This is part of the
Toolbox for Communities
This essay appears courtesy of
The Alliance of Artists Communities.

Ecology and A Sense of Place

Artists' communities often talk of their "sense of place." Sometimes elusive, sometimes concrete, this sense of place encompasses the human history, the built and natural environment, and the relationship and proximity to the local community. Artists' communities recognize that they are part of and inseparable from their local ecology, and they often have a natural connection and commitment to their ecologies. Randall Koch, Director of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, explains: "You can't separate the sense of place that is so essential for artists' communities from a commitment to the physical space. There is an increased consciousness of place at an artists' community, and the importance of place means that honoring the space is not really separate from the mission."

For many organizations, this commitment is manifested through stewardship of their property. The Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California, for example, resides on a 580-acre former cattle ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. While their primary function is as an artists' residency program, their dual mission is to support and enhance the creativity of artists by providing uninterrupted time for work, reflection, and collegial interaction in a setting of great natural beauty, and to preserve the land on which the program is situated. For some, ecological stewardship is an equal partner to the service of artists. One such place, A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans, is dedicated to preserving the bottomland hardwood forest and providing within it a peaceful retreat where artists can work. For ASITW, offering opportunities to artists is a natural extension of their environmental commitment: "The work of artists raises humankind's consciousness of the interdependence of all life, inspiring us to envision and strive for a better world," write co-founders Joe and Lucianne Carmichael.

Many residency programs(The Sacatar Foundation in Bahia, Brazil; Rockmirth EcoArts School, Atelier and Residential Artists' Retreat in Sapello, New Mexico; and Nantucket Island School of Design and the Arts in Massachusetts, to name a few)encourage their artists to be especially considerate of the local ecology. Some(like Santa Fe Art Institute, and the Artist House at St. Mary's College of Maryland)have nontoxic studio policies and seek to educate artists about nontoxic materials for the health of both the artists and the environment. Says Taylor Van Horne, Director of Sacatar: "We are in a low-tech environment, and we urge artists to work directly and simply with available materials and methods." For Rockmirth, says Director Judyth Hill, "the pristine quality of the land is the source that feeds the artists. That's what we strive to preserve here."

While rural residencies seem naturally connected to this eco-consciousness, there are many urban residency centers that take special note of their ecology as well. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, for example, aims to generate a cultural life for neighborhoods that encompasses both people and place. The LMCC has found that many urban artists want to use recycled materials and address issues of ecology and the environment in their work. One of the ways in which LMCC responds to and encourages this is through a partnership with Materials for the Arts (which is cooperatively run by New York City's Departments of Cultural Affairs, Sanitation, and Education), which allows access to a warehouse of recycled materials. "Ecology is an idea we function with and that is reflected in our daily practices," says Erin Donnelly, Residency Director and Curator. "Whether looking at creative adaptive reuse of buildings or working with recycled materials, we are deeply engaged in the ecology of our neighborhoods."

Because of the intensity of the residency experience, many artists-in-residence develop an intimate and personal relationship to an artists' community's ecology. "Ecology" comes from the Greek word for home�oikos�and it's no wonder that these homes away from home often shape the artist's experience and work in powerful ways. Art Farm, in Marquette, Nebraska, is a working farm that hosts artists-in-residence. Experiencing rural, farm life while in the midst of creating new work affects the majority of artists that come to Art Farm in often unexpected ways. "Art Farm's physical presence is in its buildings and land," writes Director Ed Dadey. "More elusive to describe is the ambiance, the subtle influence of the environment's impact on time and space. Time is kept by sun and night sky, not by clock and calendar. Space is marked by proximity to sound and silence. The sky and your ears will be filled with the sound and shapes of an incredible number of birds and insects. And, like it or not, the weather will be your collaborator in all undertakings."

Reaching Across Disciplines

Artists' residencies have always served as "research and development" laboratories for new creative work, something the sciences have long understood the value of. The residency environment is also particularly well-suited for collaboration and synergy between often disparate-seeming disciplines. Pamela Winfrey of the Exploratorium, a museum of science, art, and human perception in San Francisco that hosts a residency program, explains: "I rub brain with neurobiologists, anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, etc., all the time and feel that actually, it is our differences that create the really interesting work. This is true of our best residencies when a scientist and an artist really hit it off together."

In this spirit, many multidisciplinary organizations are forming creative residencies as a way of addressing ecological and scientific issues. The Center for Land Use Interpretation, for example, operates a residency program for artists' researchers and theorists who work with land and land use issues in an innovative and engaging manner, in order to support the development of new interpretive methodologies and ideas. Residents primarily work out of the CLUI facilities in Wendover, Utah, and explore and interpret the landscape of that remarkable desert region. The space arts (projects that engage with the themes of outer space exploration and space development) have also become increasingly interested in residencies, as a way of fostering the interdisciplinary and collaborative work that is essential in space arts.

Just as arts organizations are involving scientists in their work, so are science centers involving artists. For many of these research centers, art is a way of making science more accessible. The Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, which hosts an artist-in-residence, explains: "Art and imagery are inherent in the creative process in science and integral to the communication of its discoveries. For theoretical physics, images can be powerful expressions of elegant mathematical equations that are otherwise inaccessible to many."

For Daniel Goods, an artist who works full-time at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, science-based art is about communication. Artists often investigate ideas differently than scientists, and communicating this way of seeing can move the science forward. "If I can change the perspective, just a little bit, so that others think about things a little differently, that is my service here," says Goods. One of Goods' installations, Light/Shadow, is based on a project at JPL that seeks to invent ways of blocking out star light so we can see small planets. Goods communicates these ideas through a system of projections and spotlights; when people interact with the installation, planets become visible. Some of his colleagues recommended that he create special glasses that would enable a single individual to see all the forms, but for Goods, the concept was something best communicated through simple human interaction: "I don't want any extra technology-all I want is you." The piece not only communicates the scientific phenomona, but also represents Goods' experience in the research lab�it takes people coming together to see things differently.

The Santa Fe Institute, which is devoted to the creation of a new kind of scientific community pursuing emerging syntheses in science, has hosted three artists-in-residence over the last 25 years. Robert Buelteman, who uses a cameraless, lensless photography technique, was invited to be an artist-in-residence at the Santa Fe Institute in 2004. The residency has no structure, no term, and no expectations to produce; the Institute is a place for creativity, thought, and inquiry, designed to be interactive. Buelteman makes periodic trips to Santa Fe for several weeks to several months at a time and spends a great deal of time with the scientists, staff, and other visitors at the Institute.

The fellowship of the Santa Fe Institute often revolves around meals together. Presentations are given each day at lunch and dinner, while afternoon tea provides another opportunity to explore and share ideas. For Buelteman, these presentations�both the two he has given and those he has attended�are "very exciting and very intimidating." The Institute is a place where Buelteman feels comfortable asking questions and opening himself up to new knowledge. "When I embrace the ignorance that I am, the blindness that I am, all the time," says Buelteman, "this allows for the possibility of knowledge, the possibility of real sight."

This community at the Institute also provides for Buelteman a coming together of consciousnesses-"an inquiry between ancient wisdom and contemporary physics." He is deeply interested in some of the questions high-energy particle physics is attempting to explain-such as the role of the observer in that which is being observed-that are for Buelteman at the core of both photography and life. "What excites me more than anything about the Santa Fe Institute. . . is that I have found myself at the nexus of the scientific community and the spiritual community I've been a part of for 30 years."

A different kind of residency brought a group of artists to CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland) in 2000. Founded in 1954, CERN is the world's largest particle physics center and is addressing the absolute limits of scientific research. Neil Calder (then Director of Communications at CERN) developed Signatures of the Invisible, a residency program that invited twelve visual artists to CERN for a year, with the goal of producing work based on the artists' exposure to physics. The program came about, in part, from a conviction that "this separation between art and science is artificial and in fact destructive," says Calder. "Both experimental art and experimental science are about ways of seeing, of trying to express our understanding of where we are in the universe." Rather than simply responding to the science, the artists were challenged to understand it and re-represent it through an artistic medium. This encouraged an intensely intellectual interaction between the scientists, engineers, technicians, and artists, resulting in collaboration not simply across disciplines, but also between different practitioners of science and art.

Over the course of a year, the participants negotiated the physical as well as the philosophical components of their work together. The artists were initially overwhelmed by the level of technology available to them (for instance, the ability to fuse gold molecules onto sculpture) and the technicians played a significant role in the residency, helping the artists to realize their vision through the technology available at the lab. The artists were also surprised to find that some of the most innovative art was already being created at the lab by the engineers and lab technicians, who were crafting machines that combined state-of-the-art technology and some of the world's finest craftsmanship. The resulting dialogue explored the question of whether sculptural objects that were created without the intention of being art-but rather as scientific tools-were in fact art.

Signatures of the Invisible helped create a similar dialogue between art and science at other labs, and resulted in an exhibition that traveled internationally from 2001 to 2003. While some American science centers have engaged artists as well, there is a greater emphasis on safety in the U.S. (which is "quite right," says Calder) making it more difficult to facilitate real participatory work with artists. The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in Menlo Park, California, hosted a successful collaboration between physicists and the San Francisco artist Dawn Neal Meson. While many artists are inspired by readily available scientific imagery, Meson's paintings are based on the theories and processes in quantum physics. SLAC physicist Stephon Alexander helped Meson understand the complex mathematics and physics she was interpreting, for which Meson then developed symbolism and visual language to express. Meson's paintings include detailed explanations of the science on which they are based, something she hopes will both inspire scientists to see their work differently and encourage nonscientists to take a greater interest in science.

Creative Problem Solving

STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has been a leader in this movement of interdisciplinary, collaborative residencies for fifteen years. "We perceive a world where artists and scientists collaborate directly with each other to create innovative interdisciplinary work and projects that have a positive impact on society, technology and culture," reads their vision statement. The STUDIO has received funding from the National Science Foundation for many of its residencies, including the 3 Rivers 2nd Nature project, which addresses the meaning, form and function of the three river systems and 53 streams of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. A team of artists, historians, botanists, Geographic Information Systems specialists, landscape architects, scientists, engineers, and water policy experts are working together to conduct an analysis of the green infrastructure that provides social, aesthetic, ecological and economic benefit to the Three Rivers Region.

An increasing number of residencies are tackling difficult ecological issues, addressing their rural or urban environments with a thoughtful mix of intellectual rigor and creativity. The residencies are "striving to not only be positively impacted by their environment, but also improve and become active participants in their environment," says Pamela Winfrey. Building on conversations at the Alliance's 2001 Future of Creativity symposium and the last two annual conferences, Alliance board member Allan Comp is leading an Eco/Arts Initiative within the Alliance to discuss how residencies can bring together the arts and sciences to address ecological challenges unique to each residency's community. One model is already being created�the Crowley Creek Collaboration at Sitka Center, a residency project led by Comp that will bring artists, scientists and others to Oregon over the next year to collaborate with each other and the local community to create a holistic plan for watershed restoration.

Establishing a strong, long-term relationship with the community is a critical benefit of this work. Says Randall Koch, "Artists' communities have a responsibility to interact with [their local] communities and be a conduit between artists and the local community." While artists-in-residence come and go, the organizations must provide the sense of permanence. Comp says, "The community needs to know you won't be gone in a week. Artists' communities are there to stay, and need to share ownership in the community." Facilitating sophisticated collaborations that address serious environmental issues takes time, trust, and a sense of humor, something Comp has discovered in his work with AMD&ART, which is dedicated to "artfully transforming environmental liabilities into community assets" (AMD stands for acid mine drainage). "Collaborative work means sometimes you have to lock the door and make sure everyone's singing from the same hymnal," says Comp, "but if we are to realistically address our whole environment, it's our only good option."

Art and Science as Partners

While it's easy to see the role of scientists in environmental projects, Comp talks of the value artists add: "From my own experience, it is the absence of the arts and the consequent dominance of the sciences that leaves too many reclamation or environmental projects impoverished of their human connections, their commitment to community, the very reasons for civic engagement." One of the driving forces behind the Crowley Creek Collaboration is an understanding that neither science nor art could adequately address the ecological issues. "While science dominates restoration thought, it seems increasingly clear that science is necessary, but not sufficient-and neither is art. I think this project can help establish a clear role for artists and humanists, not as solitary visionaries, but as participants; not as some mystical or magical process, but as an important, critical perspective; not as arbitrator, but as co-worker, one among many disciplines equally necessary to the recovery and revitalization of this whole place," says Comp.

This increasing view of artists and scientists as equal partners, where neither discipline is compromised, is an exciting development in the residency field. Of course, there is a risk in such interdisciplinary collaborations that neither the art nor the science will be taken seriously. "For many years at AMD&ART," says Comp, "I think we were seen as too artsy for the serious environmental and science funders, and too environmental for serious arts funders. Thanks to a rich variety of adventuresome funders, we've been able to create a site that has art and environment all in the same place."

Indeed, it is this search for balance that has drawn so many to the convergence of science and art. And balance is the essence of ecology. Sam Bower, Executive Director of greenmuseum.org, a nonprofit online resource to support and advance the environmental art movement, writes that, "This growing and global movement has�taken on an increasingly collaborative eco-activist agenda as well as a visually stunning and celebratory one�. Addressing the world's problems will require creative and inspiring collaborations between people, places and creatures." Residency programs are positioned to do just that.

To find residencies that facilitate interdisciplinary work between art and science, or to join a discussion with Allan Comp and members of the Alliance about the ways in which residencies can address ecological issues, contact Caitlin Glass, Program & Communications Director at the Alliance of Artists Communities, at cglass@artistcommunities.org.

For more information: Robert Buelteman; Dan Goods; Dawn Neal Meson.
© 2007 greenmuseum.org

Copied from: http://greenmuseum.org/generic_content.php?ct_id=227

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