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Artists in Labs: Processes Of Inquiry

by Jill Scott, Editor
SpringerWienNewYork, NY, USA, 2006
136pp., illus., 24 b/w, 61 col. Paper, $25.95
Includes DVD
ISBN: 10-3-211-27957-1.

Reviewed by Craig Hilton
Unitec, New Zealand, Mt Albert, Auckland, New Zealand


The trans-disciplinary renaissance artist may be more myth than fact suggests Sigrid Schade in the forward to Artists in Labs——Processes of Inquiry. Likewise, this report addresses the notion of contemporary trans-disciplinary practice with honesty and skepticism, calling for a more "critical analysis about the roles of the artist and the scientist in the lab context". The book’s editor, Dr. Jill Scott (media artist and professor at the Institute of Cultural Studies in Art Media, Zurich) believes that immersion in the lab context is a "good starting point for a new educational approach to trans-disciplinary practices". Together with Professor Marille Hahne, she founded Artists in Labs (AIL). The six-month project involved placing 14 artists in 9 different science laboratories. The laboratories varied significantly in discipline and focus from pure research to those that utilize scientific discovery for technological advances. The AIL project is documented thoroughly by this book and accompanying DVD, which should be considered an essential guide for artists and scientists contemplating collaboration in a laboratory environment.

Why it is so desirable to have "deep art-science interaction"? asks astronomer Roger Malina. That this is an education opportunity for the artist is a given. Malina says an artist is expected to be cognizant of the contemporary world, but it is also hoped that this interaction will provoke science towards more collaboration with art in the future. Quoted here, Robert Root-Bernstein says the focus is on those individual scientists who are "prepared to work outside current paradigms", and take "conceptual risks that sometimes lead to outcomes that would not otherwise have occurred". Inter-discipline is not an end in itself, so what could these "outcomes" be? This well-edited collection of essays and artist reports reads like a preliminary study of just this question. It is apparent that it is easier to identify potential outcomes for art. However, the question does remain (and this is articulated by some of the AIL artists), what value, if any, can art have in the advancement of scientific knowledge? Perhaps here, the challenge is for scientists to embark on knowledge gathering of a different sort. But would they then still be scientists?

The development of a common language between artists and scientists and the negotiation of mutually rewarding goals is essential for any true collaboration between these disparate disciplines, according to art historian Edward Shanken. Shanken quotes Robert Pepperell who says "the intellectual traffic must pass in more than one direction". Though, at least one AIL artist, Shirley Soh, directly questions this; "For an artist to get to grips with doing good science, collaboration with a scientist is absolutely necessary" but she says "I am not sure how much an artist can really contribute to new discovery in the life sciences or if that should be an important priority". Rather, Soh’s work, at the Centre for Biosafety and Sustainability in Basel, provides an important link between science and the public. In this regard, it is highly relevant that the AIL project occurred in Switzerland where in 1998 a referendum (nicknamed The Gene Protection Initiative), designed to ban the production and distribution of transgenic animals, was only narrowly defeated. This gave scientists a serious shock at the time as suggested in a Nature editorial:

"It is not often that a country’s population deliberately commits a thriving research and industrial activity to the grave . . .. To do so as a result of ignorance or political accident would be a tragic folly."

Perhaps this came about partially because of what Rene Stettler calls the "objectivist attitude" of scientists, "caused by an ignorance of human language and communication skills which neither help to humanize the sciences, nor address moral or aesthetic values". While there is some truth in this statement, the writings of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, and Marvin Minsky, to name a few, suggest that some scientists can not be so easily categorized. In this regard, Malina discusses the benefits of pulling the scientist away from the microscope for a less reductionist view, pointing out that this is also a good strategy for problem solving. The dominance of the house metaphor in many of the AIL artist’s works, noted by Priska Gisler, suggesting that artists, like the public, tend to look in at science from the outside. For example, Isabel Rohner’s macro-performance, on the facade of the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology’s main building, highlights the surface of the structure that contains nano- and microscopic technologies.

At times, the almost missionary zeal that AIL brought to these isolated experiences served to entertain certain stereotypes about scientists. Thomas Isler expressed surprise that scientists dealt with genetically modified organisms in an emotional manner even though this would be consistent as a reflection of the general debate. Another artist, N.S. Harsha had the impression that scientists simply ask how things work but never why. Perhaps if he had interacted with evolutionary biologists, behavioural scientists or indeed one of the other AIL laboratories in this project he would not have arrived at this conclusion. Rohner’s isolated experience in a microscopy facility, not surprisingly, lead her to focus on the reductionist traits of scientists, with her commenting that scientists had a tendency to fragment objects into small parts. Scientific knowledge does advance slowly and methodically, requiring multiple tests before it can be considered well established. However, recently in biology, advances in technology have allowed the development of more "holistic" approaches where large amounts of data can be acquired, and analyzed as a whole in order to better understand complex systems. The recognition that reductionist approaches tend to fail, because of complexity and redundancy inherent in any biological system, has lead to the development of fields such as systems biology and bioinformatics making genome-level analysis possible. Prior to these developments, biologists concentrated on single genes and proteins, knowing this to be an important initial step in understanding the overall life process. This simple, linear approach to experimentation might give observers the false impression that scientists are not concerned with the bigger picture. Even within the AIL project itself, the laboratories use a variety of methodological approaches. For instance, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute, Dr Rolf Pfeifer, stresses the importance of embodiment in their approach to understanding the principles underlying intelligent behaviour. In contrast, Priska Gisler claims that as specialization increases, researchers lose the overview. For those who regularly read Nature (News and Views) and Science, or attend scientific meetings (keynote speeches), this would not seem an entirely accurate view of science. However, it would be hard to dispute that artists may be able to help scientists place their research in a more human context.

Margarete Jahrmann and Moswitzer’s ongoing project, GoApe, seems to hint that science and technology are somewhat out of control. Roger Malina insists that art should play a role to redirect and change technology. As an astronomer, he notes that accidents are rare because equipment is designed, and made at great expense, to target very specific knowledge. Be as that may, in other fields, there is less control over the process of discovery. While management of invention may be possible, in basic research there are many accidents, changes in direction, and novel uses of technology that can lead to unforeseen discoveries. This creative freedom is valued by both artists and pure scientists alike and without it; the advancement of pure scientific knowledge would be seriously hindered.

Perhaps contrary to the idea that art could be employed to help control scientific discovery, there is convincing argument that artists may be able to teach scientists something about creativity. Professor Walter J. Gehring says "A person who is creative is free from goals". Whether it is possible to be free from goals and still be human maybe debatable, but it is the nature of the pure sciences that they are less bound by goals than their applied counterparts. The pursuit of knowledge is not as goal-orientated as the problem-solving strategies of technology development. Perhaps then, it is as much of a mistake to say that scientists are not creative, as it would be to claim that artists are not methodical. The separation of these things may lead to misconceptions about both art and science. This is not to say that these disciplines do not have much to learn from each other. For instance, the AIL robotics scientists who describe their methodology as "synthetic" (understanding by building), report here that their interaction with artists has provided definitive insight into their projects.

Artists may have more freedom to be creative than scientists–scientists being confined by method (whereas, perhaps artists are more confined by tradition). However, both live in a world of technology, which is increasingly changing their respective practices. This project, which has essentially been an experiment, makes good argument for art interaction with sciences, highlighting potential benefits for both disciplines. Furthermore, in many cases scientists were indeed provoked into further or ongoing interactions with artists. For artists the collaborative potential of this interaction is huge. Though, as Malina rightly cautions, "The challenge is to do this with enough rigour and in ways that can feedback into science and engineering".




Updated 1st July 2006

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