Pockets of Unknowns

by Heather Barnett, January 2014.

“At the time of writing the projects are at an embryonic stage, with final outcomes some way off. Yet already, valuable insights are apparent.”

Collaboration at the intersection of art, science and technology has seen a steady incline over recent decades. Science funding bodies such as the Wellcome Trust recognise the potential for art to enhance science communication and many arts funding bodies value interdisciplinary approaches to creative practice. The same trends can be seen within the remits of other research funding bodies, creeping into educational practices, and present in broader cultural domains.

In many respects, this is nothing new. We could refer to past eras where disciplinary boundaries were less distinct, where natural philosophy naturally intertwined different modes of inquiry in the grand pursuit of knowledge. Despite the subsequent creation of the divided disciplines we could argue that both science and art are motivated by curiosity and inquiry, require creativity and experimentation, and progress through observation and intervention. Despite the widely divergent methodologies, motivations and mindsets, both ask questions and make propositions, whether deductive, speculative or imaginative.

Clearly, science offers art a vast field of creative stimulus and inspiration, a cutting edge toolkit to play with and a palette of novel materials to manipulate. Clearly, art offers science a spectrum of creative and imaginative approaches to science communication, engaging audiences who might not be reached by conventional methods. But there is far more to interdisciplinary interaction than a ‘magpie and mediator’ stereotype, and it is evident from the artists and scientists engaged in Silent Signal that a genuine exchange is taking place.

At the time of writing the projects are at an embryonic stage, with final outcomes some way off. Yet already, valuable insights are apparent in the interviews conducted with the participants. Some scientists comment on how useful it is to find new forms of telling their stories to a novice outsider, of ‘thinking and talking more in terms of metaphor and simile’. Equally, they recognise how the artist, as interloper in the laboratory, has encouraged the scientists to view what they do differently and ‘unlocked different perspectives of our science, questioning fundamentals we would not normally challenge’ and offering the freedom ‘to explore ideas outside the normal constraints of the discipline’. Despite the uncertainty of precise roles and outcomes at the outset, the process of collaboration has been ‘fluid and iterative’, a reciprocal dialogue exploring the ‘fuzzy boundaries of [the] disciplines in search of a meaningful point of engagement’.

Many expectations or preconceptions have been challenged: scientists surprised at the depth of the artist’s engagement with the science; artists surprised at the extent of the scientist’s subjectivity. Between both parties, parallels appear in areas of interest and points of synergy emerge. The interactions between the artists and scientists, between their bodies of knowledge and their practices, are already leading to novel ideas and interpretations, and the artistic outputs have the potential to explore the range of biomedical subject areas in innovative and insightful ways.

As the collaborations, which predominantly take place in the domain of the laboratory, continue to develop it will be interesting to observe the artistic development and see to what extent the artist feels ‘responsible’ for the science. Artwork which stays too close to the science can quickly become didactic and weighed down by information, whereas overly imaginative interpretations run the risk of deviating so far from the scientific foundation so as to become meaningless. The artworks produced through Silent Signal need to stand on their own terms yet reflect the scientific research in meaningful ways, and this is a hard line to tread. In this endeavour there is no need for compromise, where both disciplinary sensibilities become diluted, but a need for a conceptual space in which the structures, complexities and nuances of the science can rise to the surface in the art, where viewers can locate their own interpretations, experiences and understanding.

Collaboration is inherently risky. It is impossible to predefine what the exact benefits might be and it requires, not only considerable time and energy, but a willingness to step outside of disciplinary habits. As Sîan Ede states in her book, Art and Science, ‘We may be afraid of the uncertainty and chaos … but we should be able to acknowledge our susceptibility to see things from a range of viewpoints and be confident in the value of such approaches’. Seeing one’s own research through the eyes of a disciplinary ‘other’ can offer fresh perspectives, altered practices and unexpected outcomes.

Silent Signal embraces the unexpected by taking an emergent approach, of encouraging interactions, exchange and dialogue, and providing a platform for people with shared interests – but who would be unlikely to otherwise meet – to come together to inform, exchange and create. Through the collaborations and through the evolving artworks the project can suggest new ways of thinking, new ways of telling stories and the opportunity to discover numerous ‘pockets of unknowns‘.

Heather Barnett is an artist, researcher and educator working with biological and imaging systems. With interests including biomedicine, perception and emergence, projects have included microbial portraiture, cellular wallpapers, performing cuttlefish and slime mould installations. She teaches on the MA Art and Science at Central Saint Martins and leads the Broad Vision art/science project at the University of Westminster.