The Art - Science Connection

By Janet Brown from her blog Better Together.

Last month, I was fortunate to be invited to a small gathering of scientists and artists at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Undaunted by the academic title of the convening, “Examining Complex Ecological Dynamics through Arts, Humanities and Science Integration,” I attended with a colleague and GIA member, Bill O’Brien, senior innovation advisor to the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Bill and I joined artists and scientists who are primarily working at scientific field stations focused on environmental data collection and research.

For some time, I’ve been contemplating the meaningful relationship between arts and the environment. Coincidentally, this spring Grantmakers in the Arts had commissioned Helicon Collaborative to survey our members who are funding intersections of artists and environmental work. The research findings will appear in our fall Reader and be discussed at our upcoming annual conference in Los Angeles. The question in my mind has always been, what is the role of the artist, in partnership with the scientist, as environmental advocate?

The history, of course, is clear. Prior to cameras and sound recorders, artists travelled with scientists to draw, paint, and write about environmental discoveries. Sometimes, the artists were the scientists themselves. The National Science Foundation has a history of supporting the artist/scientist partnership, most famously at the field station located in Antarctica where there has always been an artist in residence to capture images and emotional content of research and discoveries.

A highlight of the two-day gathering included presentations by world-renowned artists/environmentalists Newton and Helen Harrison. Their work has spanned decades and influenced millions with projects like the “Heart of Holland” and their current work in the Tibetan plateau. Ariane Koek reported on the creation of the artist residency program at the world’s largest physics experiment, CERN, located near Geneva, Switzerland. Bill Fox, director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art discussed his recent work in Australia and the role of artists currently working with field stations. Fred Swanson, Oregon State University, explained the successful relationship with humanities colleagues and the writer residency program at the Andrews Experimental Forest, Corvallis, Oregon.

Throughout these presentations and those of other artists and researchers, I began to develop a sense of definition for artists in this work. For me, they seem to fall into two categories: interpreter or translator. Many of the scientists were, in fact, seeking interpreters for their work. These are artists who can give the analysis of data collection empathetic meaning. The word “empathy” for scientific discovery was used frequently. A great example of this is the work of artist Marty Quinn working with scientist Lindsey Rustad at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. Marty has turned their environmental data into graphic charts, assigning each data set a musical sound (or instrument) that represents temperature, wind velocity, absorption of moisture by plants, precipitation, ground water levels, etc. Lindsay needs only to listen to the real time broadcast of the music to know what’s happening at her field station.

The CERN example struck me as translating science. These are artist residency programs that ask nothing more of the artist than to create art which may be inspired by the specific scientific findings or environment but need not be. The artist is not replicating science in an artistic format but rather creating art that is based on the inspiration of the scientific encounter.

Many years ago, I attended a speech delivered by Dr. Ernest Boyer, then President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He said, “Several years ago, in a now forgotten airport, I found in the New York Times an interview with Victor Weisskopf, the world renowned physicist, who was discussing the big bang theory. Near the end of this provocative conversation, Weisskopf said that if you wish to understand the big bang theory, and I did, you should ‘listen to the work of Haydn.’ At first, I thought he was kidding, that the New York Times had skipped a line. And yet, upon reflection, the point was absolutely clear. Weisskopf was reminding us that occasionally human experiences are so profound, so intellectual and evocatively overwhelming, they call for symbols beyond words. The big bang theory must be felt as well as thought. If you want to understand it clearly, go off in a corner and listen to the works of Haydn.”

There is indeed an artist – scientist connection. We need to all be thinking about how we support it in a world where science needs interpretation and translation in order to save a planet from itself.