7. APPENDIX B: Working in the Third Culture: Belief and Techniques for Science-Art collaboration

APPENDIX B: Working in the Third Culture: Belief and Techniques for Art-Science collaboration

Building Crystal Cities: from the Super-Collider event at Selfridges, February 2014

When I first planned out the report, there was an additional chapter, intended mostly for fellow science-arts practitioners or people interested in getting involved in the field. The content of this section didn’t really fit with the rest of the report, so in the end I decided to leave it out.

One of the unintended benefits of putting the report up online is that I can now sneak that additional chapter in as an appendix, no panic.

During my research trip, I asked everyone I met a question: How can we do science-art better?

That’s a very broad question, and everyone had a different take on it. Most of the people I met wouldn’t describe themelves as science-artists: I met with producers, curators, academics, social innovators, editors and policy-makers, as well as artists and scientists. The advice I received ranged from suggestions for how to collaborate with someone from a different background, how to define a project’s goals, what kind of topics make for successful science-art projects, how you should behave around your collaborators, and a good number of stories about project disasters.

I gathered these snapshots of wisdom into a few ideas and themes, and from this assembled material I have drawn six short lessons or ideas – possible things to consider before undertaking your next project, or to add to your existing toolbox of ideas. If anyone has anything to add to this, further suggestions and/or stories are very welcome – just throw in a comment.


The Two Cultures

In a 1958 lecture at Cambridge, novelist C.P. Snow coined the term ‘The Two Cultures’ to describe what he felt was a growing gap between the sciences and the arts. For better or worse, the ‘Two Cultures’ image of the Sciences and the Arts as completely separate worlds has become the accepted stereotype in Australian culture.

There are indeed key differences between the disciplines of science and art. The professional industries are structured differently, the career trajectories for artists and scientists trace different paths, and the work itself uses different skills.

These differences create challenges for interdisciplinary collaborations. Science-art projects do sometimes founder upon unexpected challenges and blocks, different expectations or attitudes, and gaps in shared language. Despite these difficulties, there have always been science-art collaborations, and since the early 1990s, the frequency and visibility of these interdisciplinary projects have been growing.

UK artist Heather Barnett is one of a growing number of practitioners who create work exclusively at the intersection between science and art. As well as creating her own work inspired by biological design and self-organising systems, Barnett teaches university courses on science-art at Central St Martins and the University of Westminster.

She explains: ‘At this point, art and science is now if not its own discipline, its own field. Disciplines are defined by methods and intentions and contexts and I think art-science is interdisciplinary; the research methodologies it uses are amalgamations or hybrids. Some work is dominant within a domain: some art-science projects are driven by artistic ideals and practices, some by science processes and mindsets.’

This growing community of interdisciplinary science-art practitioners make up what editor John Brockman calls ‘The Third Culture’.

Why do we need Science-Art?

Science-art collaborations offer a number of benefits to practitioners:

  • By demanding they develop skills and understandings from both disciplines, science-art confers a diverse and flexible skill-set on its practitioners.
  • The creative artwork of practitioners can be enriched by the conceptual rigour of the sciences.
  • Science and research practice can be stimulated by the creative tools of the arts, and strengthened by being shared with different audiences and communities.
  • Collaborations between artists and scientists can occasionally result in entirely new directions for research and exploration, as in the case of Experiential Futures and Systems Gaming.

Perhaps more importantly than the benefits to practitioners, though, are the benefits science-art practice can confer on society more generally. As the director of the Stockholm University Environmental Humanities Laboratory Marco Armiero articulates in the quote heading this chapter, the diverse set of climate and global change problems we are currently facing demand equally diverse responses.

‘The world in which we live is a hybrid world’, Armiero explains. ‘The increasing demand on human and social knowledge to meet global challenges calls for post-disciplinary training that sets knowledge to work in new ways. We need practitioners who combine skills, methods, and theories from the creative humanities – historical, aesthetic, visual, anthropological and artistic – with an understanding of environmental, energy, media and technological issues, informed by the sciences.’

Australian Science-Art

Australia has a history of interdisciplinary science-arts practice stretching back at least three decades, and our country’s science-art scene is recognised internationally for the high standard of work it has produced.

Dedicated science-art organisations such as the Australian Network of Art and Technology (ANAT) and the University of Western Australia’s Symbiotica lab have established significant reputations for their longstanding and committed support for innovative science-art practice.

Funding bodies including the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship and the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research’s National Science Week initiative have supported a wide range of interdisciplinary projects, and arts organisations, science institutions, museums, science centres and festivals, all offer varying degrees of support where they are able. Australian science-arts practitioners such as Stelarc, Oron Catts, Patricia Piccinini, Kirsty Boyle and Keith Armstrong are recognised worldwide as leaders in the field.

Despite these achievements, there are areas in which Australia’s science-art community could be strengthened and developed.

In comparison to the quantity and quality of interdisciplinary work currently being generated in countries such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and Canada, Australia has a long way to go.

In order to improve the infrastructure that currently exists for Australian science-arts, it might be worth establishing a set of goals for the community as a whole. A consultation process with stakeholders from the Australian science-arts community could clarify questions such as:

  • What is a reasonable standard for Australian science-art?
  • What are our ambitions for this community?
  • Where are the gaps in the structures that currently exist?

I will refrain in this report from making recommendations regarding any specific Australian institution or organisation. Instead, I have extracted some insights, tools and principles for successful interdisciplinary science-art collaboration from the diverse set of individuals, organisations and projects I encountered through my research fellowship.

The Collaborative Process

In the two forms of work I’ve discussed in detail (Experiential Futures and Systems Games), successful projects require the involvement of both artists and scientists. Practitioners in those fields recognise that they do not possess all the required skills, and are willing to engage experts from other fields as collaborators.

However, even with the best will put forward, it’s not always easy for artists and scientists to find common ground in their approaches.

As part of my Churchill Fellowship (and for months leading up to it) I asked every artist, scientist and producer I encountered with any experience in this field whatsoever for their advice on managing arts-science collaboration.

From the hoard of rules, philosophies, heuristics, and aphorisms I received in answer to this question, I have sifted out six key principles applicable across a broad range of projects. This is by no means a definitive list, but hopefully it offers a sense of the sorts of skills and approaches that effective collaboration demands.

1. Finding Collaborators

One hard limit on the number of science-art collaborations that can get underway is simply the number of potential collaborators.

It is worth asking the question: Out of all the scientists and artists in Australia, how many might be interested in undertaking a cross-disciplinary collaboration?

One in three? One in ten? More like one in a thousand?

One factor influencing that figure is how many scientists or artists are even aware that such cross-disciplinary projects exist. How familiar are they with the work of science-arts practitioners? How many science-art projects have they encountered, and were they successful examples or failures?

I suspect there are many scientists and artists who would be willing and eager to collaborate across disciplines, but who are simply not aware that this is possible, or how to go about it.

In London, science-art work is far more visible and held in higher regard than in any other city I have visited, and also has a higher ratio of practitioners from both disciplines involved in interdisciplinary collaborations.

In my own experience, I have encountered numerous scientists and artists who are completely unfamiliar with the idea of science-art, let alone any concrete examples. Among those who have been made aware of the existence of this field, a not-inconsiderable number have gone on to pursue their own forays into the field.

I believe that if more people from both the science and arts communities are exposed to science-art, there is a strong likelihood that more scientists and artists will recognise the potential benefits and initiate their own collaborative projects. Sometimes people only need the knowledge that something is possible in order to do it themselves.

Campaigns communicating the concept of science-art practice, as well as the specific outcomes of science-art projects, should be targeted at the science and arts as well as the general public, and tailored appropriately for each audience.

This does not entail a marketing campaign: artists and scientists do not need to be ‘sold’ the idea of interdisciplinary collaboration, but rather informed of its existence, its strengths and limitations, and the spectrum of work being produced under its aegis.

  • Who initiates collaborations?

Another question around the formation of new collaborations is: Who initiates cross-disciplinary collaborations: the scientist or the artist?

My research indicates that the answer is: both, in roughly equal measure. Sometimes an artist approaches a science institution with an idea for a new work, sometimes a scientists will contact an arts community with an interesting avenue for new research.

But in addition to these, many collaborative projects are initiated by a third party, an organisation or an individual with a particular area of interest, who brings together a group of artists and scientists in order to make it happen.

These matchmakers include festival curators, museums and science centres, government departments, arts venues, research institutions and independent producers.

An example of one such matchmaking organisation is the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), a science synthesis centre in Santa Barbara in Canada. The primary activity of synthesis centres such as NCEAS is to run workshops, bringing together a diverse group of experts for a week to tackle a challenging theme or problem.

Although the centre is primarily intended for scientific synthesis, NCEAS has invited a number of artists to participate in workshops. Director Frank Davis explained, ‘By bringing in people from across disciplines, the work tends to happen at a higher level. Involving participants from more diverse backgrounds sometimes helps to produce more compelling stories with greater impact.’

Alongside scientist and artist collaborators themselves, it is important to recognise the value of those organisations and individuals who are bringing practitioners together and making those connections.

2. Structuring Projects

One urgent task when commencing a new collaboration is to identify the structure of the project. As well as the content you wish to explore, critical logistical questions must be answered, including: How long will it take? How big will it be? What processes will be used to research and develop the work? What skills will be needed? Where and when will the outcome take place?

It is difficult to find funding for new interdisciplinary projects. When financial support for a collaboration is not forthcoming, there are two typical solutions:

  • Work together on small, flexible projects that require few resources and can fit around other commitments. The University of Westminster’s undergraduate Art-Science Program uses this model, prompting students to collaborate on numerous small-scale projects throughout the semester. Creative solutions to the significant financial and time constraints on these projects are strongly rewarded.
  • Take a long lead time to extensively pursue funding and R&D before undertaking a large-scale project. Toronto group The Mission Business exemplify this approach. Beginning the preparations for transmedia experiential futures work ZED.TO in early 2010, The Mission Business worked for two and a half years researching, devising, fundraising, finding partners and building momentum before finally launching in mid-2012.

Sometimes, external producers or partners might guide the shape of the project by making a strong curatorial offer.

Often these suggestions do not match what the project seeks to do or how the collaborators wish to work, but sometimes, a provocative suggestion at the right time can trigger exciting new ideas and inspire new partnerships.

The Battersea Arts Centre in London is known for its innovative programming and support of new work. BAC’s One-On-One and Blink Festival have both proven irresistable to artists who fight to be involved despite the lack of financial or logistical support, simply because of the stimulating curatorial concepts behind them: The One-on-One Festival is a festival of performance works created for just one audience member at a time, while Blink is a festival of performances under three minutes long.

The strict restrictions these festivals impose on performers often proves inspirational, with artists responding eagerly to the challenging brief.

Similarly, it may be possible to attract artists and scientists to engage without offering financial incentives, simply by providing them with a sufficiently stimulating provocation.

It is worth working with curators and producers to explore structures for science-art collaboration that are inexpensive, but potentially rewarding because of the creative or scientific challenges they offer.

3. Clarifying Goals

Before commencing work on a project, whatever it is, it is important to articulate what you hope to achieve with it.

The process of discussing possible project outcomes, agreeing on a set of key goals that are worthwhile but achievable, and recording them for later reference is a valuable way to begin a new collaboration.

What is achievable will be shaped by factors such as time, money and other resources. It doesn’t matter how small the project goals are, so long as you know yourself why you’re doing the work.

One important but frequently overlooked goal is: ‘To still be on good terms with collaborators at the end of the project.’ No matter how disastrous a project outcome may be, as long as you still like each other, you can take a breath and then try again.

Articulating your project goals then prompts other questions to consider, such as: How can you measure whether or not you achieve your goal or progress towards it?

There are many different ways in which to judge the success of a project. For artistic projects, success can include positive critical reviews, audience numbers, money from ticket or artwork sales, or offers of new opportunities.

In the science world, success is sometimes measured in terms of data gathered, coverage by media, research papers published and number of citations.

For projects seeking to have some kind of social change impact, it is important to articulate how you think that change might take place. This involves answering questions such as: What drives social change in the system you’re interested in? How will this project result in the change you are hoping to see?

These intended social change outcomes might be measured in changes in government legislation, media coverage drawing attention to the issue, or public surveys to determine whether peoples’ attitudes have changed.

It is harder to measure the success of projects with longer-term social change goals, because the changes they hope to effect are a long way off in either case. In those situations, Frank Davis argues that the project team should create a ‘Theory of Change’.

‘A Theory of Change says “If this project is successful in achieving these long-term changes, the first steps out of the gate immediately after this project would look like this…” You can assess within a short time whether those first steps are being taken or not, and therefore whether the project is still on track.’

For science-art projects, quantitative metrics may be less important than the qualitative metrics.

Andrew Giger, CEO of the Singapore Science Centre, highlights the value of qualititative measures in curating science exhibitions for the Centre’s young audience.

‘My priorities for our exhibitions are the qualitative experience – does the participant get something from it that they wouldn’t get anywhere else? My success stories are individual observations of a kid who is really engaged with an exhibit.’

He gives the following example: ‘In our climate change exhibition there’s a wall of ice. It’s a refrigerated metal plate that collects moisture and freezes it over. It’s a bit like an iceberg, and it allows visitors to experience and touch ice.

‘I once observed a kid who spent at least 20 minutes at the exhibit, scraping off the ice and trying to find different methods of harnessing the ice and collecting it without it melting, including making a paper container to collect his ice shavings.

To me that was fantastic – he learned so many things about how to insulate, how ice regenerates, including social interactions – but it wasn’t intended. For reasons like that, I try to remember in our programming to leave some space for people to find their own experiences.’

The lesson I take from this is to take time at the beginning of the process to clarify your project’s goals and how you will measure its success.

4. Attitudes

New York Hall of Science director Margaret Honey says, ‘We have a strict process for selecting the collaborators we’re working with – it’s called falling in love. If we’re amazed with someone we’re much more likely to hire someone.’

Whatever else, a collaborative relationship cannot sustain itself all the way through a complex and demanding project without a basis of mutual respect, appreciation for each other’s work, and enjoyment of each other’s company.

Collaborations also require strong leadership to shape and facilitate the collaborative process, a sense of curiosity and excitement to find reward in those moments of discovery, and a willingness on all sides to compromise. In many ways, compromise is the lifeblood of collaboration.

5. Support Systems

There are a number of different tools and resources that can help in the development of a project. Having access to appropriate hardware and software tools, relevant data relating to the project, experimental equipment, creative supplies and even paper and pens can be enormously valuable.

Ensuring that you have all the potentially useful tools ready to hand before commencing a development process can make an enormous difference to the outcome of the project.

Other, less tangible support systems including things such as mentors, expert consultants, volunteers, test audiences/participants, and friends and family members who can feed you during busy stressful periods.