Guest Post: Ariane Koek – Art and Science Conversations

The 21st century is being heralded as the era when arts and science interactions finally come of age. That’s according to José Carlos Arna the Director of Etopia – the visionary art and technology centre which opened two years ago in Zaragosa, Spain, in the midst of the economic crisis.

It is being forecast that the influence of arts/science interactions mixed with technology on culture will be as significant as the technology and arts movement was in the 70s as exemplified by the extraordinary E.A.T project held at Bell Laboratories in the USA. This highly influential project fostered collaborations between such artists as Robert Rauchensberg and dancer Lucinda Childs with engineers like Billy Kluver and Manfred Schroeder. Its influence in performing and visual arts has been felt ever since.

However there is nothing intrinsically new in arts and science interactions. Artists throughout millennia have nourished their curiosity and creativity with the ideas of science and natural philosophy.  What is new in the 21st century is the intense cultural focus on arts/science interactions – partly driven by economics as the arts gets to grips with funding cuts; partly driven by a solution focused society in an era of global challenges, including climate change and political uncertainty; partly driven by the promise of certainty which science holds now for the public.  Innovation is seen as the key to tackling these issues, and new ways of looking which combine the worlds of emotions and feelings (arts) with the worlds of method and reason (science) are seen as the pathway to innovations which will provide the solutions to these global challenges.

The UK has a great cultural tradition of arts/science interactions –  for example the Wellcome Collection and Arts Catalyst, which under the directorship of Nicola Tiscott and curatorship of Rob La Frenais, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.  This organisation has led the way in showing imaginative cultural engagement in the the arts and science – most recently shown by Agnes Meyer Brandis’s Moon Goose project. Equally, visionaries such as ex dancer Scott de Lahunta have pioneered the engagement of science with dance, bringing neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to the work of choreographer Wayne MacGregor and his Random Dance Company. Many of Wayne’s early interactions with scientists were in fact supported in 2003 by what was then called the AHRB, leading to the establishment of Wayne’s work to where it is today right at the cutting edge of arts/ science/ technology which it combines with a seamless ease and aesthetic which blurs any boundaries.

This is the cultural context in which I was approached to collaborate with the AHRC Cultural Value Project and AHRC Science in Culture theme. Our joint mission was to work together to create a one day series of conversations between artists and scientists to lay open for investigation some of the values of cross-fertilisation of artistic and scientific practices happening today.

Together, we curated 4 conversations between 4 different already collaborating pairs of artists and scientists, and these were the focus of the day. These conversations were held in front of a specialized and invited audience across the fields of arts and science, who commented, engaged and responded to what was being said. All these views were to feed into the AHRC Cultural Value as well as Science in Culture theme. The aim was to put forward different perspectives on arts/science interactions, uncovering their different permutations, possibilities and differences.

I was asked to be involved because in 2010 I was hired by CERN – The European Organisation for Nuclear Research – the world’s largest particle physics laboratory outside Geneva to be their first Head of International Arts. This is to my knowledge the first time a major international science laboratory has created a post specifically for a cultural specialist, with the remit to put arts and science on the same level as each other and not as a straight forward communications tool. The post was as a result of a 3 month feasibility study into creating an arts programme which I carried out at the laboratory at my own initiative as part of my Clore Fellowship in 2009. The laboratory embraced the feasibility study, and out of it was born the Arts@CERN programme which I created, fundraise for, and direct since April 2010.

One of the four conversations which we curated for the one day workshop featured an artist/scientist combination from the CERN Visiting Artist programme – the lightest touch strand of the Arts@CERN programme which just provides one day curated encounters rather than the intense 3 month curated deep time experiences of the flagship Collide@CERN residency programme.  Nevertheless the one day encounters have impact, leading to many artists either developing projects from these one day encounters, like Mark Baldwin, artistic director of Rambert Dance Company whose new piece The Strange Charm of Mother Nature was inspired by his visit to CERN, and fashion designer Iris Van Herpen’s Spring/Summer 2015 fashion collection featured on the Catwalks of Paris this year. And curation really is the key here – a feature which is often left out of any analysis of arts/science interactions and yet it is something which people like Scott deLahunta do so well and yet so invisibly.

CERN physicist Dr Bilge Demirkoz and Visiting Artist Goshka Mocuga demonstrated so well in an open ended and frank conversation that mutual respect and fascination leads to a continued engagement. They were first introduced in 2012, when Goshka was preparing work for Documenta 13. Bilge’s words about dark matter featured in that exhibition. Since then, Goshka has been commissioned by the Centre d’Art Contemporain to make a CERN inspired work, and continuing her conversations with Bilge is leading to a work in the show which takes into account, amongst other things international politics, relations and the role of science engaging with the unknown.  For Bilge, the experience is opening her up to a different way of seeing the world and engaging with it, through feeling, rather than exclusively intellect. Both say they feel as if this dialogue is only beginning, but what this pair show is the basis of the Arts@CERN programme as a whole – fundamental research for artists at a laboratory famous for fundamental research for scientists.

So what we have at CERN now is a fundamental research laboratory in the widest possible cultural sense – not just in science and technology, but also in the arts too.  This is why I was so keen to collaborate with the AHRC to put together a one day symposium. Also what we do which is highly unusual for an arts programme at a science laboratory is to concentrate on the process of discovery and exploration – and not the end result or product/outcome. Thus seemingly counter intuitively as a result we get significant outcomes  – like the world tour of QUANTUM or Rambert Dance Company’s new piece which premiered this Autumn, The Strange Charm of Mother Nature.   Equally what we do at the lab is work with the arts not to illustrate or describe the science. Instead, the arts and science are put on the same level of mutual inspiration and exchange, with the ideas of science and the arts becoming mutual springboards for the imagination for both. This leads to a non-utilitarian process orientated approach which I feel is incredibly important  and needs to be reflected in any scoping of the arts, science and technology sector.

In our product and application driven age, we are becoming increasingly concerned with outcome, impact and societal use. As a result art is in danger of being reduced to becoming increasingly utilised as a tool and a means to an end, with artists becoming the catalysts and solutions for engineers and scientists. The emphasis is moving from the process of creation to exclusively focusing on the outcome/end, in a movement which I call art by design/application. There is nothing wrong with this per se. What is wrong however is the potential for art by design/application becoming seen as the be all and end all of artistic practice – the most fundable because it is outcome and quantitatively driven.  This is due to pressures of economics, quantitative evaluation and funding mechanisms, and it is in danger of   excluding  other ways of creating and making art/ arts, science and technology interactions, namely the more open ended approach like the one we do at CERN.  After all, the open ended approach in science and technology has led to cultural revolutions, like the invention of the worldwide web at CERN.

This belief in openness and the necessity for fundamental research in the arts, like in science, is reflected in the way I strategically created, structured and direct the CERN arts programme.  I say very clearly that there does not need to be an outcome as a result of the residency – this is because an artist exists to create and make and a work of art takes as long as it takes (and not just 3 months or the Collide @CERN residency). What is important is getting the conditions right so that s/he will create something and to trust both the artists and the process.  So far every single artist on the Collide@CERN residency programme has made something – some, like the sound sculptor Bill Fontana within the first 3 days of being there. Get the conditions right for the process to evolve, and new work will develop and create mutual inspirations between the artists and the scientists with mutual but different benefits. For the artist it is clearly the work. For the scientist it is exposure – contamination even – to the world of feelings, emotions and different connections which artists engage with as well as learning new ways of communication, thinking and being in their every day lives.

Thus in part of the conversations for the one day symposium, Visiting Artist Goshka Mocuga exchange thoughts and ideas with Dr Bilge Demirkoz. This is very much the beginning of a relationship which began in 2011 with Goshka’s first Visiting Artist curated experience when she was developing a new show for Documenta 13 in Kasel, Germany. Bilge’s reflections featured in her work and they have continued exchanging ideas ever since. This has an additional resonance because as a Turkish woman scientist, Bilge’s position will also be reflected in a renactment of one of Goshka’s previous works which is happening as part of a major new show at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva.

What is clear from observing them interact is the inspiration they get from each other and the quality of thinking between them. It is a creative collisions between different points of view which leads to further understanding as well as different ideas and approaches to practice. But it can’t be quantified, as such. Bilge can not say how it has changed her science. All she can say it has changed her ways of thinking and looking at the world.

So when we look at the 21st century as being heralded as one between the arts, science and technology, lets also include in this vision the necessity for fundamental creativity – creativity which does not have a defined application or outcome. Fundamental research in the arts is just as much as threat as it is in the science in our world and in this sense they are common allies.. As Peter Higgs said recently, he would have never been able to have had a career in science today, because he could not prove that the theory of the Higgs Boson he was creating existed – catch 22. Equally Tim Berners-Lee under today’s conditions might never have been able to carry out further investigation into his idea for how laboratories could communicate with each other. After all, his supervisor wrote a note which said ‘Vague but interesting.”

Yet it is through openness, the liminal cross over points, and interactions that paradigms can be shifted and changed. With a mixed creative economy, we crucially leave the door open to the unexpected, to the ineffable and creative change in all its manifestations.

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