What is the Challenge of Art/Science Today? | Leonardo

What Is the Challenge of Art/Science Today?

By Patricia Bentson

Editorial by Jack Ox and Richard Lowenberg

It is as difficult in 2012 to successfully implement artist/scientist collaborations as it was in the early 1990s for John Seely Brown, director of Xerox PARC, and Rich Gold, founder of PAIR (PARC’s artist-in-residence program). They had to ask and explain many of the same questions we grapple with today while trying to create atmospheres that enable interdisciplinary collaborations. Brown was actually surprised that scientists volunteered part of their research time in order to engage with artists.

We have moved beyond the initial phase—that of artists having relationships with engineers who help them create new instruments to use for making their art, and artists serving scientists by helping to represent artistic concepts for the public. Today art and technology seems to have lost its reason for being and relinquished its place to something quite different: art/science, which refers to worldviews, conceptual systems and research based on equal contributions from differently trained minds. Stephen Wilson, a PARC PAIR participant from 1994–1996, wrote: “During sixteen years of working as an artist with emerging technologies, I have become convinced that artists must work at the heart of the research process and not just as consumers of technological gadgets” [1]. What insights and working methods can artists and scientists bring to each other today? Do Art and Science live in very different domains, or are they the same domain but seen through different filters? Most importantly, what can happen when human relationships between members of these groups grow and stimulate new kinds of thinking that emerge from a blend of two cognitive realms?

We are making efforts to grow such ideas in New Mexico with the Scientists/Artists Research Collaborations (SARC) Program; its initial kickoff was part of ISEA 2012 in New Mexico. This state is an appropriate venue for these actions owing to New Mexico’s relatively significant populations of both scientists and artists. The scientists live here because of the many research institutions, including the National Labs: Sandia and Los Alamos. New Mexico therefore also attracts artists who want to work with scientists.

SARC’s summer 2012 pilot program did not immediately pair up individual scientists and artists, nor did it simply expect preplanned projects to be the basis for collaboration. Instead, groups of artists and scientists began to communicate online and during scheduled site visits, with in-depth discussions about the nature of art/science collaborations. SARC is also creating a pool of artists and scientists to engage with as we move beyond our efforts of the summer of 2012. We have found scientists who are eager to engage, who recognize that research problems from different realms can function as a method for breaking though “unsolvable” problems.

Documenting the processes of participation is all important. How and when does collaboration begin, and can it be sustained? How might sustained program development be supported? What about community support? The pilot program was video/audiorecorded and we asked the participants to keep detailed diaries via a “collaborator” web site. There are other such experiments now happening around the world. Will current example-setting practitioners demonstrate the value and reasons for ongoing efforts, and will the extended arts and sciences communities recognize their worth?

SARC should join and share with others so that we can collectively compose successful methodologies for implementing artist/scientist research programs. How do we nurture, massage, and birth these important artist/scientist relationships? Educators should be working toward creating new curricula that engage cross-disciplinary science-and-art students from early learning through their advanced academic careers [2].

It is important to recognize the art/science collaborations described above as part of larger needs, understandings and directions in today’s locally-globally networked world. With that insight comes the underlying requirement that our advocacy for art/science initiatives have direct, pronounced and diverse social intents and benefits.

Jack Ox
Leonardo International Co-Editor

Richard Lowenberg
Program Director Art and Science Laboratory

Editorial published in Leonardo 46:1

1. Stephen Wilson, “Reflections on PAIR,” in Craig Harris, ed., Art and Innovation: The Xerox PARC Artist-In-Residence Program (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999) pp. 186–208.
2. Jack Ox, “A 21st-Century Pedagogical Plan for Artists: How Should We Be Training Artists for Today?” Leonardo 43, No. 1 (2010) p. 1.