Third-culture club

The 'sciart' movement is bridging the gulf between the 'two cultures' that C.P. Snow lamented more than 50 years ago. Matthew Reisz reports from the lab of the imagination, where anything can happen

March 15, 2012

For a long time, Nicola Clayton, professor of comparative cognition at the University of Cambridge, led a compartmentalised life as "a scientist by day and a dancer by night".

No longer. For the past three years she has worked with the Rambert Dance Company as science collaborator, then scientific adviser and now scientist-in-residence. She already spends two days a week with the London-based company and soon hopes to spend a year with it while on sabbatical.

Clayton became involved in a dance piece called The Comedy of Change in 2009 - the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species - which was "inspired by Darwin's ideas of natural and sexual selection". She met choreographer and artistic director Mark Baldwin, she recalls, and "brainstormed ideas about science that could inform the piece. I couldn't do it if I wasn't a dancer. A dance piece has to work in its own terms and cannot just be a new kind of lecture to convey ideas. You need to find things you can express in movement."

Wide-ranging concepts such as "replication" and "formation" might be relevant to both ballet and evolutionary theory, but the parallels were too vague to be useful, Clayton and Baldwin found. Details of double helixes, base pairs and amino acids, at the other extreme, would only constrain choreographic creativity.

So discussion of what would be effective on stage led to three "big picture ideas" - "same/different" (individual variation), "past/future" and "conceal/reveal" (camouflage) - which underlie female sexual selection and much of the comedy of courtship. From this, Baldwin, a composer and a designer created a work that incorporated birds of paradise and drew on science but was not bogged down in scientific detail.

Early this year, Rambert Dance's What Wild Ecstasy premiered in Aberdeen as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Clayton was heavily involved with the piece, which explores issues of sexual conflict, including the strange love lives of wasps, in which the females reproduce sexually and the males are asexual clones.

Like film, fiction and dance, science has plenty to say about sexual attraction and sexual difference, although it obviously relies on its own distinctive approaches and techniques. As a result, it is sometimes argued that the "two cultures" are just too different to throw any light on each other: no one ever comes out of a romcom or a production of Romeo and Juliet saying: "I wish there had been more about biochemistry."

Yet ever since the time of Leonardo, there have also been people with a foot in both camps: artists with a deep interest in science, and scientists such as Clayton with a passion for the arts and an understanding of what can (and cannot) be expressed through a particular medium. This has been institutionalised through the creation of posts for artists-in-residence within laboratories and science museums and, more recently, scientists-in-residence in arts companies. And there are clear indications that we are likely to receive more and more reports from such sorties across the frontier between science and the arts.

In 2000, the artist Susan Aldworth inhaled too much white spirit and collapsed in her studio. Shortly afterwards, she had a scan and found herself "looking into her brain in real time". Although she is now senior research associate at Swansea Metropolitan University and research fellow in print at London Metropolitan University, she also has a background in philosophy and became fascinated by "links between the physical brain and our sense of self".

This has now led to a large body of artwork engaging with neuroscience and, more recently, with people's experience of epilepsy and schizophrenia.

"I use the science to chase human identity," Aldworth explains. "Neuroscience has an enormous amount to offer us and is a great place to look for imagery and ideas, yet I also like to question what a brain scan is, since it offers interiority but not the self. We need to be wary of explanations that are purely neuroscientific."

Aldworth featured in an exhibition, Art & Science: Merging Art & Science to Make a Revolutionary New Art Movement, at the GV Art Gallery in London last year (its current group exhibition, Polymath, explores similar themes). Long at the forefront of the science/art or "sciart" movement, this is the only independent commercial gallery with a human-tissue licence, enabling it to show challenging and often controversial work exploring areas such as prosthetics, transplants and genetic engineering.

Last year's exhibition was curated by a long-term enthusiast for the "revolutionary new art movement" (and the eventual creation of a "third culture"), Arthur I. Miller, emeritus professor of history and philosophy of science at University College London.

"There has always been science-influenced art," he says, "but [there were] no major collaborations until the 1960s."

Of course, "there will continue to be a market for emotional art", he adds, but he is far more enthusiastic about the areas that have been explored on the frontiers of science: from robotics art and zero-gravity dance to attempts to redesign the (increasingly obsolescent) human body.

Until now, there has been "much more biology- than physics-based art, because it's easier for artists to learn the basic principles and get access to labs", Miller says, but he has been involved in a number of attempts to redress the balance.

One was a collaborative project with graphic artist Fiorella Lavado called Weaving the Universe (2009-10), which set out "to evoke the ambiguity and beauty of the Cosmos in the large and in the small, while exploring the human mind, the means by which we imagine these strange worlds".

Miller is now working with photographer Anaïs Tondeur on another project devoted to the notion of the multiverse, addressing questions such as: "Is there any evidence our Universe once collided with another one?"

Two other developments, however, are even more significant for the future of sciart.

Cern, the world-leading particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, has now adopted a cultural policy based around its Collide@Cern artists' residency programme.

This is the brainchild of Ariane Koek, head of international arts development at Cern, who discovered during a pilot study that the lab's scientists hitherto had felt disconnected from its visiting artists. The new residency programme gives artists "science inspiration partners" and requires them to reach out to the wider Cern community through public lectures, informal fortnightly discussions in the refectory and a creative blog.

Those applying for residencies are assessed by a jury on the basis of their portfolios and a proposal for a project inspired by Cern's research, although Koek confidently expects things to turn out differently when they actually get there. She has no interest in artists who become mere publicists, attempting to communicate difficult science to a wider audience. To avoid this, she believes, it is essential to limit the residencies to a few months at a time, so that the artists do not become so overawed by the marvels of subatomic physics that they lose any sense of having something interesting of their own to express.

Equally unrewarding, she says, are cases where artists feel constrained to use scientific techniques or simply present undigested scientific material (such as images of a cell) as art. The plan instead is to offer artists "a laboratory of the imagination, where freeplay can happen".

Although she hopes to extend the residencies to fields such as architecture, literature and new design, Koek has initially secured funding from Ars Electronica and two private donors for a residency in digital art, while the City and Canton of Geneva is supporting one in dance and performance. The former was awarded to the 28-year-old German artist, Julius von Bismarck (from a field of almost 400), at the end of last year. The winner of the dance and performance prize is set to be announced this month.

Meanwhile, Central Saint Martins, part of the University of the Arts London, recently launched what course leader Nathan Cohen believes may be the world's first MA in art and science. The course includes units on how art and science might relate to each other as well as research methodologies, and will have distinct outcomes in the form of an exhibition, a dissertation and a publicly accessible symposium. Applicants must put together project proposals.

Cohen hopes to attract 30 to 35 students for the two-year programme in future years and is delighted that he is getting many applications from scientists and mathematicians for 2012-13 entry alongside those from arts and humanities backgrounds. He reports examples of students exploring nanotechnology through ceramics, and particle physics through audience interaction, as well as those researching visual representation of endangered languages and even the fractal patterns of slime mould growth.

As part of the MA, Megan Dowie, postgraduate research fellow at the University of Oxford's Medical Research Council Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit, will welcome between six and eight artists to her lab. On the basis of this, they will create an exhibition at the city's Old Fire Station later this year. While she hopes that this will increase public interest in her unit, Dowie also believes that the interaction with artists will make her "go back to my work and think differently about it, and why I am doing it. It can enliven and reinspire you when people are fascinated by work and equipment you take for granted."

Some people, admits Cohen, "still argue that art is art and science is science and never the twain shall meet. But it's exciting that there is now a place where the discussion between them, and with the sceptics, can be carried out at a high educational level."

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