Getting Over Art and Science

Nice Topic, Getting Over Art and Science

Posted in: “Art Meets Science: Get Over It”
In the Linkedin  Scientist Artists Collaborations Group
T.Collins, 2012 August

When given a chance I often ask people how they would define Leonardo da Vinci, as an artist or scientist? Of course academia has come a long way since the 16th C. We have developed robust disciplines and now embrace inter and intra disciplinary approaches to increasingly complex and ‘sticky’ problems. We increasingly offer dual degrees and some cases art/science degrees to foster new strengths and potential leadership. Over centuries we have refined knowledge through the development of separate disciplines. Results include incredible human advances but also a troubling separation between knowledge, power and impact. Some would argue that the current age of the anthropocene is one result. This issue, along with climate change are amongst the dominant emergent issues of our day… with a potential relationship to art and science.  (I’ll suggest a specific cultural aspect in my conclusion.)

In the late 20th C aesthetic philosophy and cultural theory moved art towards the social and environmental complicating ideas of aesthetic beauty, the sublime, (and the artists relationship to the spiritual). At the same time science has embraced ideas about ecosystems, complex systems and social science in the past century.  And in every case the work is refined and extended by new computer tools. It is important to move across these boundaries of art and science with modesty and attention to where we make our primary contribution and our secondary contribution. I am an artist and make no claim to ‘doing’ science. I can interrogate and contribute to the cultural issues, the values that emerge when science and its methods engages society and environment. I can use scientific tools and follow scientific method. But my voice is not authoritative in science; I work in the realm of art and culture primarily by shaping aesthetic perception.

The question we have been asked is ‘does art and science matter?’ The arts bring an open ended (yet methodical) critical approach to questions of culture and value while science brings a structured approach that seeks to isolate questions for definitive analysis. (Both disciplines benefit from slightly different forms of peer review and validation.) There is productive tension embedded in the difference between the disciplines that is worth attending to.  There is new knowledge and resources in the interstitial spaces between disciplines. However the art/science cross is problematic in that there are issues of authority (lack of PhD’s) and resources (lack of research funding) in the arts. This skews potential relationships in significant ways and sets up art to serve, interpret or communicate scientific outcomes rather than to shape the methods and analysis of an integrated approach to art and science.

The supernatural was leveraged into the mix as an example of something art does that science doesn’t do. While the enlightenment has moved us beyond kings, the gods still lurks amongst us and shape problematic ideologies and actions world wide. This is an area with great polemic value. I would ague that an alternative path into this realm would be through ideas of historical vitalism, Berkson’s ideas about ‘Elan Vital’ and on a slightly different tack Marturana’ and Varela’s ‘Santiago Theory of Cognition’. An organizing principle would be the differentiation between the soul as a personal possession (shared with god) versus the vital forces and decisions that shape life. Of course this latter point brings the spiritual (along with the moral and ethical) back to nest amongst all living things on earth. If we are going to survive the 21st C we need to begin to rethink the limitations of anthropocentric ethics and politics. This is another cultural  polemic that I would argue is essential to the art/science discourse.

I am of course presuming that the aesthetic integrates the ethical and the political.



Thinking Art and Bio Remediation

Thinking Art and Bio-Remediation an American perspective.

T.Collins, In a conversation recently with Tim Joye  in Flanders, we got to talking about remediation art.  2012, July

First a few references:, and

There is a lot of potential for artists to work on these issues, although I have argued in the past that it got significantly more difficult in the 1990’s with increased regulation driving much of the work into engineering firms, undermining major art and design projects (that were not able to bring in the engineering expertise) around the US.

I think it is important to differentiate what we do – from what scientists do. The artist’s job (as I understand it!) is to mobilize human values. To create the potential for new ideas to reshape human perception and normative experience – from here new values emerge. Artists give form and shape to ideas through text, images, symbols, narrative and material objects. Artists engage the world from a critical cultural perspective, revealing constraints and at times real opportunities. Scientists on the other hand solve problems with facts and intentional certainty.

Remediation is a complicated bio-science. There are plants that ‘transform’ toxicants into other compounds which is great, real bio-magic! There are many others that are bio-accumulators (Much of John Todd’s work is done this way.) In his case the plants in his ‘living machines’ can accumulate heavy metals and precious metals, which then need incineration or possibly post-processing.

As you know artist such as Mel Chin and Buster have touched on terrestrial approaches in the past, Georg Dietzler was deeply into it. On the aquatic side John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd are pioneers, with their ‘living machines’.  Some of this work has been applied at the level of a small city in Eureka California. Jackie Brookner and Betsy Damon (amongst others) work in variations on this theme.  Various landscape architects groups such as James Corner’s group ‘Field Operatons’ are noted for some of this work. Keith Bowers of ‘BioHabitats’ takes a science/engineering approach to restoration and remediation.

We (Reiko and I) have spent a good bit of time with scientists (and some of these artists and designers) and have a good sense of what can and cannot be done. Much of the work by artists ends up being demonstrators or prototypes that help the general public and local decision makers see a different way of working. However… the ‘real work’ needs to be done with scientists with few exceptions.

For artists there are many ‘practical’ constraints (regulations) on the toxins and processes,  making this hard work to sustain. When we worked at Nine Mile Run what we thought to be a plant toxicity question, proved to be a problem of material condition. The ‘soil’ was dark, very hard, with little vegetative matter and a low pH. The sunlight would heat this ‘soil’ very quickly so that any moisture would evaporate and surface temperatures were significantly higher than ‘natural soils’; this made it very difficult for seeds to sprout or small plant to survive the first year.