LASERs: Bringing Artists and Scientists Together | Leonardo

LASERs: Bringing Artists and Scientists Together

By Patricia Bentson

Editorial by Tami I. Spector

These days quite a number of organizations, conferences, lecture series and festivals dedicate themselves to the intersections of art and science, and over the years Leonardo/ISAST has hosted and organized ad hoc symposia, events and conference sessions, including Leonardo Day at the annual NetSci (Network Science) conferences and the symposium Global Warning at the 2010 ZERO1 biennial. In 2008, encouraged by the organizational zeal and skills of scientist, author and cultural historian Piero Scaruffi (a former member of the Leonardo/ISAST board) we began expanding Leonardo/ISAST’s reach beyond the journals and books for which we are most known by organizing a monthly Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) in our local community, the San Francisco Bay Area. I write this editorial as the Leonardo Board liaison for the LASERs and as the co-host with Scaruffi of the San Francisco LASERs. I also write with the hope of promoting our current programs and promulgating additional programs in the future. Currently we alternate the Bay Area LASERs monthly between Stanford University and the University of San Francisco, drawing in audiences that reflect the distinct character of each venue: The Stanford/South Bay audience is, unsurprisingly, more techie than the somewhat artier San Francisco crowd. In the last couple of years LASERs have begun elsewhere in the U.S.A.: In 2011 J.D. Talasek, Director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), began the LASER sister series, DASER (the D is for D.C.), which take place monthly at NAS. Also in 2011, artists Patricia Olynyk and Ellen K. Levy began the New York LASERs, as Leonardo Education and Art Forum (LEAF) events. In the near future two new LASER series will start at UCLA and the University of Texas, Dallas.

Part of the LASER concept is that the sessions occur regularly, typically monthly, with a set format defined by the organizers. The events provide time for informal dialogue and, optimally, allow free and open access to the public. I am convinced that, in addition to the high quality of the speakers, the LASERs’ monthly regularity and predictable format is in part what draws our typically sizable and engaged audience. Since their inception, the Bay Area LASERs have followed the same format: Four speakers present their work for 20 minutes each, with additional time allocated for socializing and networking. Scaruffi purposely organizes each evening without specifying any thematic structure, although I often find that a theme emerges as the evening progresses (my human, pattern-seeking brain apparently resists his anti-thematic mandate). We invite speakers showing expertise in art, science and/or technology who are from a wide variety of disciplines, from photography and chemistry to dance and architecture; the synergy of the evening comes from its diversity of perspectives. One memorable USF LASER this past year featured theoretical physicist Shamit Kachru, visual artist Rebecca Kamen, neuroscientist and vocalist Indre Viskontas and new media artist Scott Kildall. This panel typified the eclectic and excellent array of LASER speakers and, while often after a long day at work the last thing I want to do is go out to listen to a couple of hours of talks, I usually leave a LASER buzzing with excitement and energy.

Leonardo/ISAST plans to continue expanding its community-building efforts through the LASER franchise, eventually including consistent web-postings of the talks for those without access to live LASER events. Ultimately, we envision a worldwide LASER network that federates current and future art/science/technology public lecture programs under the Leonardo/ISAST banner.

Update: LASER series have launched or are in the process of launching in more venues in the U.S., Europe and Canada. Visit for LASER locations and upcoming events.

Tami I. Spector
University of San Francisco
Department of Chemistry
Leonardo/ISAST Governing Board of Directors