Where are we now? Art, Science and Interdisciplinary Practice (edited transcript)

by Hannah Redler, February 2016. Keynote address at the Silent Signal Symposium.

Julie Freeman in collaboration with Zooniverse Commissioned by the Open Data Institute and The Space www.weneedus.org

Still from We Need Us (2014); Julie Freeman in collaboration with Zooniverse; Commissioned by the Open Data Institute and The Space www.weneedus.org


Early in 1999, when I had just started researching artists as part of my role as art curator at the Science Museum, I found a letter in a copy of Flash Art magazine which asked ‘with the current advances in science, how on earth can art compete?

Science was indeed enjoying unprecedented levels of visibility. Increasing developments in the Public Understanding of Science were amply fed by the truly paradigm-shifting advances in the field:  the Human Genome Project was closing in on its objective; the role of digital technology in our lives was likewise tipping from offering an astonishing and interesting potential future, to being an embedded and ubiquitous reality; Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide web, having transformed the Internet from a clunky text-only environment to the dynamic, media-rich system we use today, was only just celebrating its 10th birthday. But I found the comment intriguing. Firstly, because it was so wholly unusual to see ANY references to science in arts press at the time, and secondly because I didn’t, and still don’t, see art and science as in competition. More, what interests me is how they can be in conversation, with each other and with us, as audiences, researchers, explorers and learners.  

Animate Projects’ Silent Signal project is built on conversations. It brings together six artists and six scientists, tasked with creating new animation in an experimental process of collaboration. AfterGlow by boredomresearch and Dr Paddy Brock presents us with an apparently sublime landscape infused with a danger suggestive of implication rather than information design. Genetic Moo and Dr Neil Dufton’s Battle of Blister employs colourful flat silhouettes of busy human bodies, who act out a ‘fantastical journey’ through the body’s chain reaction to a bite. Immunecraft is a fictional game, developed by Eric Schockmel and Dr Megan MacLeod which gives users agency over a real-life cell culture. The piece, Dr MacLeod concedes, holds no hard data “but” she says, “the concepts are there”. Samantha Moore’s project Loop, created with Dr Serge Mostowy, builds an animated conversation around scientists’ work, impressing upon us that their imagination is a fundamental part of their doing and emphasising creative process alongside fact-finding. Personal experience, but of service-users rather than professionals informs Ellie Land and Professor Peter Oliver’s Sleepless. It considers new links between sleep and mental health through finely drawn lines and a play between synchronisation and de-synchronisation of image and sound. Charlie Tweed and Dr Darren Logan’s The Signal and the Noise suggests an awe-inspiring potential future reality where DNA molecules become calculating machines, hybrid computing devices used to monitor and repair living things, including humans. Finding a shared language to work together has been as important to the collaborators as finding new visual forms to articulate the shared understanding they’ve arrived at.

Art and science have not always been as separate or as siloed as we have experienced them in our lifetimes. The conversation not just between art, science and technology, but also around the evolution of those terms can be traced back in one form or another to early human civilizations. I won’t trace this history within the confines of this talk. When we look from the late 19th century through to the turn of the Millennium, however, via the Industrial Revolution, Modernism and Postmodernism, we see how new industrial and modern materials and systems seem to have encouraged key individuals to branch out of their comfortable disciplines. Porous membranes can be identified in the simultaneously striking pattern of increasing division, atomization and refinement within the inner workings of our concepts of science, art, time and human experience.

Historian of science Timothy Boon writes in his book Films of Fact: a History of Science in Documentary Films and Television[1], ‘The nineteenth century witnessed a revolution in the sciences in which the relatively small-scale 18th century disciplines of natural history (which recorded and classified the world) and natural philosophy (which explained and investigated natural phenomena) gave way to large, influential and powerful sciences – the specialised, professionalised and distinct disciplines of physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and earth and social sciences.’

During the same period in the arts, we have seen a worldview dominated by the representational, neoclassical and picturesque shift. Fixed single-point perspectives have given way to views that are multiple and allow for motion, both of the viewer, the subject and the artist. Abstracted and conceptual proposals have joined, and often replaced mimetic representation. The dominant materials of paint, marble, stone or wood have expanded to include photography, film, computer software, hardware, industrial and architectural materials, everyday objects, rubbish, and the processes, practices, materials and ideas of all of the sciences. New subdivisions, materials and ideas have created new movements and sections of disciplines unleashing the expansion of vision made possible with the white heat of precise focus. Which is brilliant. However, their con-current attempts to legislate and define themselves by their allegiances and beliefs result in boundaries, or boxes, which if uncontested and non-negotiable, can dangerously contain them as well as frame them.

The aforementioned 1989 invention of the World Wide Web and the digital revolution, of which it plays such a part, have certainly added their own lists of boxes and boundaries. But their convergent, systemic and networked nature along with their mass accessibility, have contributed to a heightened cultural awareness of the interconnected nature of things and ideas. During the same historical moment in the UK, from the late 1980s onwards, or the run up to the millennium, the cultural sector enjoyed a time of permission, risk and plenty. In the UK the art and science worlds achieved major new public bases in London: Tate Modern and the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing, both new buildings, both launched in June 2000. Large-scale public engagement with contemporary art in the UK can be discussed as pre and post Tate Modern. Its arrival was a watershed which dramatically expanded arts audiences. Equally the Science Museum‘s Wellcome Wing, conceived as a ‘theatre for contemporary science’, offered an unprecedented opportunity to show its commitment to innovative forms of contemporary science communication. Both were shaped by and contributed to a contemporary condition that is discursive, collaborative and expansive. Community, media and participatory arts and democratising communications tools in the previous years were just some of the influences remodeling a museums culture that acknowledged engagement works best when people have the option to do things as well as see things and to find out for themselves.

Silent Signal itself sits within a clear 20 year history of projects that have self-consciously defined themselves as ‘art and science’ projects. Whilst acknowledging the irony that we need to explain our division to express a more unified intention, I’d like to to discuss the work of key organisations and individuals supporting the development of this field in Britain and one in Ireland since the 1990s. Those I will mention are touchstones in a much larger arc. As we only have 30 minutes there will be glaring omissions, for which I apologise. Amongst these are the Arts Council England’s Interdisciplinary Arts department, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Natural History Museum’s contemporary art programme, BOM (Birmingham Open Media) and Vivid Projects in Birmingham, Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry’s work with artists, and the forthcoming Science Gallery London to name a few.

What do we mean by an ‘art and science project’? We’re on shifting sands but I hope we can agree they are projects that work with and across the languages, materials, aesthetics and ethics of the two very broad disciplines. I think it’s reasonable to say the term represents practices characterised by artists whose work is rooted in an active engagement with the tools and processes of science, as well as its surrounding concepts. Sometimes these have involved artists entering the places usually occupied by scientists on their own. Rarely it goes the other way, and sometimes there have been collaborations between practitioners from these commonly perceived ‘opposite’ worlds. These have always been driven by individual practitioner’s curiosity and research; that artists will seek out new areas to colonise is not new. What is really new (in the UK and Ireland) in the last 20 years is how they have been facilitated by major funding, commissioning and exhibiting structures and organisations.

In being funded by the Wellcome Trusts Arts Awards, Silent Signal is by association rooted in the Arts Awards ground-breaking predecessor, the Sciart programme which Wellcome Trust ran between 1996 and 2006. Sciart’s original aim, which later expanded, was to fund:

visual arts projects which involved an artist and a scientist in collaboration to research, develop and produce work which explored contemporary biological and medical science.’[2]

It created, many argue, a brand new context for artists to consider science and access to scientists as a viable direction for their work. It didn’t always work; some projects were criticised for simply ‘chasing the money’ and ‘being shallow or unresolved’. Notable celebrated projects included Helen and Kate Story’s now in famous Primitive Streak series of 27 couture-quality garments for a fashion collection charting the first 1000 hours of human life, and Alexa Wright’s award-winning After Image, developed in collaboration with neuropsychologist Dr P Halligan and Neurologist Dr J Kew, which took the form of 24 digitally manipulated portrait photographs of people who have experienced phantom limb disorder and were created to question whether the true body is that which we see or that which we experience? Other projects included works of theatre, new interactive visual tools for children, artists’ residencies, major large-scale interactive environments and even punk pogoing robots as part of a study on pleasure. So a very, very broad reach.

The Wellcome Collection’s specially commissioned evaluation of the programme by Paul Glinkowski and Professor Ann Bamford[3] captures the ambition, legacy and learning of the programme. It tells us that participants responded to the emphasis on process and mutual exchange, which the programme fostered. It states that for the scientists the kudos of Wellcome support was an important factor in allowing them to take the projects seriously. Participants – particularly the artists – appreciated a sense of ‘permission to fail’. If we look at the history of innovation this is presented as a key factor time and time again, though Glinkowski and Bamford’s summary observes that although ‘participating artists and scientists learnt much about one another’s disciplines from their collaborations’ they ‘appeared generally not to have gained a high level of new insight into their own[4]. The Silent Signal partnerships, it can be noted, have evolved from this position.

Returning to difference in practitioners’ experiences, the findings also suggest (for reasons not given) that although artists frequently reported an expanded practice ‘it is not generally felt that Sciart projects had contributed to a shift or development in scientific processes or outcomes’[5]. The reasons are probably multifold and not least related to the academic structures and regulations of professionalised, normally institutionally-based, science practice, which by their nature, cannot help but be less fleet of foot than those of the independent individual artist. Again, it’s nice to note with Silent Signal that at least one scientist notes their appreciation of being able to go “beyond the boundaries of convention”.

The Sciart report does state ‘that Sciart had helped to more closely connect the cultures of art and science; that high-quality aesthetic outcomes were found to have resulted from a significant proportion of the projects and provided evidence of widespread dissemination to sizeable audiences, an overwhelmingly positive media and critical review; and that a number of scientists also testified that their involvement with artists had encouraged them to adopt a more speculative approach to their research[6].

A key player in the Sciart awards was Dr Ken Arnold at the Wellcome Trust, who was also the curatorial vision holder behind the Trust’s world-famous public venue, the Wellcome Collection, which includes the beautiful Reading Room, and is now led by Simon Chaplin as Director of Culture & Society and James Peto Head of Public Programmes. The Wellcome Collection opened in 2007 to explore the connections between medicine, science, art and life. Its curation, programme and enviably brilliant tagline ‘The free destination for the incurably curiousare agenda-setting in the field of art, science, exhibitions and audiences.

The Science Museum, London, also has a claim on this field. In 1996, the same year the Sciart programme commenced, the Science Museum was enjoying the time of plenty that characterised pre-millennium museums. Its senior management team, including Gillian Thomas, John Durant, Graham Farmelo and Heather Mayfield, that were financially able and intellectually prepared to take risks, commissioned an Arts Policy. The Policy committed the Museum to engage contemporary artists in every major capital project. At that point the Museum was about to embark on a multi-million building programme of new galleries, and an entire new Wing – the Wellcome Wing (funded predominantly by you-know-who and the Heritage Lottery Fund) – and designed by starchitect Richard MacCormac. The Wing would support an expansive worldview, informed by multiple voices that would be inclusive of objective and subjective opinion. It would offer an architecture aimed to amaze and engender a mood of heightened expectation.

It represented a from-the-ground-up opportunity for the Museum to deploy new strategies for more discursive two-way interpretation, softening the Victorian ‘talking down-to’ voice of authority in favour of a more ‘talking-with’ approach to communicating with visitors. The Arts Policy ensured that art was a fundamental part of this interpretation strategy. I was fortunate and honoured to be employed during the Wing’s development, to commission artists and purchase new works for new digital and biomedical galleries. This led to a long association with the Museum during which time I was able to build on the Policy to formalise and lead the Science Museum Arts Programme – or SMAP – a contemporary art programme that ran for nearly 20 years. SMAP created situations and propositions that would foster a culture of exchange and reciprocity between art and science, for large general audiences to consider, albeit within the microcosm of the specialised museum. During the life of SMAP we collaborated with over a hundred artists on temporary and permanent interventions, solo exhibitions, research and socially engaged projects, residencies and events. We worked with artists from within visual, sound and media arts discourses as well as writers and dancers. Purchases included Marlene Dumas’ The Expert and The Experiment from her Rejects Series for a case about cloning in the Who am I? biomedical gallery. She insisted, to my delight, in writing her own labels which toyed with certainties, trust and assumptions in science.

We were also proud to be amongst the first UK museums to actively commission and collect media art including Christian Moeller’s 2004 work Do Not Touch for the Energy Gallery. Do Not Touch is a floor to ceiling capacitive pole surrounded by a floor-based graphic, admonishing visitor not to touch. Should they disobey this typical museum directive, they are either punished, or rewarded, depending how you look at it, with a mild electric shock, amplified by an accompanying ‘shocking’ sound. In a recently published Thames & Hudson black-spine, Art since 1989, Kelly Grovier, in a whole section about art and science writes about the work, calling it ‘an irresistible dare’ that seems to ‘tease visitors into taking risks, without which few scientific discoveries would have ever been made[7].

The Science Museum partly included the art programme for its interpretative role. Critics wouldn’t be entirely unfair in claiming that to a certain point we ‘utilised’ the art – but I’ll argue that we utilised it in a good way. We emphatically did not do so as a means to illustrate or explain science. That would have made pretty poor science communication! The intention was to create a richer environment, offer new perspectives and to create new opportunities for encountering art and thinking about science. In October 2008 a collective of young women, the London Tigers, launched a two-week exhibition, Being Connected, in a self-contained gallery which was open to the public. They presented photography, digital film, and scrapyard robots, which they had made in response to a recent electronic art acquisition during a week-long mini festival workshop. The workshop brought them together with professional artists who shared their skills with them through processes designed to expand the group’s experience of art, science and creative technologies. Curatorially Being Connected was a ‘rapid-prototype’ research project, where we sought to expand the ways we worked with as well as for audiences and artists. It followed Big Ideas, a 2005 project in which we engaged with the Science Museum’s pioneering interdisciplinary dialogue-based platform, the Dana Centre, led by Kat Nilsson under the direction again of Heather Mayfield. Big Ideas invited four artists to come up with concept proposals that used the Dana Centre conceptually, architecturally or technically, as a vehicle to unpack processes of science, in participatory ways that would bring the public into contact with scientists through artistic interrogation. The resultant ideas, which were not produced within the confines of our project, included London Fieldworks’ proposition artEmergent, which proposed the creation of a ‘pavilion of ideas’ using rapid prototype machines, a ‘database of brainwaves’ and a marble monument to Einstein by Brian Duffy. Brian’s A Theory of Everything envisioned a public square monument, visually designed to embody Einstein’s unachieved aims to unite the known forces in the universe.

In bringing art works into the Museum we hoped they would either act as provocative elements, encouraging visitors to add their own questions to those of the artists, or as catalysts, which seen in our context, might offer unexpected entry points for visitors to explore science as well as the wider meanings in the art. Some of our aims were successful. The art certainly offered new entry points and added to a richer and more stimulating environment. Others less so. I’m not sure how many people unaided noticed the art interventions amongst all the other weird and wonderful things and high concept design of the permanent galleries. Some impact remains unmeasured. In 2030 I would dearly love to meet the young woman I’m sure is out there who visited the Who am I? gallery case in 2010 about brain science and held planted in her mind the thought that human consciousness may be explored through scientific instruments and artistic investigations through photography, pen and ink or pencil. I wonder what she’ll be doing?

Through their own work and their legendary teaching at the Royal College of Art, Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby have really shaped key conversations between art and science through what they call speculative design. They describe their practice as using “design as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies.[8] Their trailblazing personal practice encouraged students – including key art and and science players Revital Cohen and Thomas Thwaites – to think broadly and deeply about how human beings’ habits and engagements with things might shape and be shaped by advances in science and design technologies.

The Arts Catalyst was founded in 1993 and directed by Nicola Triscott. It initiates, curates and produces, in their words, “ambitious artists’ projects that engage with the ideas and impacts of science”[9]. From the start their models for connecting the world of art and science through artistic practice have been characterised by a strong stomach for risk and highly experimental process, expertly supported by Nicola and her collaborating curators, notably Rob La Frenais. Commissions in the 1990s included: Helen Chadwick’s Unnatural Selection, an early rapid-response, you might say, project connected to IVF and the family; James Acord’s radioactive sculptures; and Kitsou Dubois award-winning choreography in zero gravity with support of Russian astronauts. My favourite project is Makrolab, a work that encompasses recreations of live bio-warfare experiments and labs in remote environments. Conceived by artist Marko Peljhan, a high-tech, temporary sustainable laboratory was designed to support 4–6 artists and scientists working and living alongside each other in isolation for periods of up to 120 days to conduct their own research, but with an emphasis on telecommunications, environment, migration and weather patterns. Peljhan sees these multiple-dynamic global systems as the source of understanding how our planet functions on social, technological and natural levels. The participants really live the work, as choices have to be made between for example whether to have a hot shower or go online for a period.

In January of this year Nicola and her team opened their first permanent gallery space in Kings Cross; the Arts Catalyst Centre for Art, Science and Technology with a typically agenda-setting programme, Notes from the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science.This multi-faceted project’ according to their website[10], ‘investigates the notion of art as a tool or tactic for action with communities, with a focus on projects involving science and technology or driven by ecological concerns.’ It includes leading artists and scientific thought leaders such as the Centre for Alternative Technology and the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. Like Wellcome, their role in the art science landscape has been hugely significant in claiming and charting territories for art within science that others may not have considered yet.

More recently but certainly no less significant is the Science Gallery, Dublin based at Trinity College, and originally directed by Michael John Gorman who moved on to lead up its evolving network of international Science galleries across the globe. (The first of these to open will be in 2017 in London, directed by Daniel Glaser, who himself was the first ‘scientist in residence’ at the ICA in 2002.)

Trinity College pioneered the concept of the Science Gallery as a place ‘where art and science collide’[11], with a particular emphasis on creating new highly participatory models for engaging 15–25 year olds with science through art installations, scientific propositions, art and science experiments and – crucially – direct contact with researchers. A term of each of the Science Gallery proposals is that they must be connected to a university. Current director Lynn Scarf describes their approach to theming as encompassing “broad interdisciplinary themes”, which to date have included Blood, Trauma: Built to break and Lifelogging. She describes their process as very open – with plenty of open calls and consultation with the community – and porous – allowing fuzzy boundaries to bring in ideas from the outside. She explains that they see themselves as a creative platform shifting the role of the exhibition from being content provider only to being a creative platform for all involved, and especially including the audience, so that the exhibition is a cultural incubator of ideas – the mid-point rather than the end-point of development.

This idea of an exhibition being a mid-point rather than an end-point, which FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool under Mike Stubbs is simultaneously pioneering, is a truly fantastic innovation, and terrifically difficult to engineer. Science Gallery’s ability to do so may well nod to histories of community art and participatory arts practice, as well as innovative interpretation strategies such as Heather Mayfield’s dialogue-based programming, and the attention to risk and process we’ve seen at Wellcome Trust and the Arts Catalyst, but the success is their own and a fantastic model to look to for contemporary exhibition-making.

To conclude, there are still challenges, not least the culture of conservatism that flourishes during economic downturns, both by necessity and design.

In 2014 the Arts Catalyst lost half its Arts Council England funding, though any sense that this represented a loss of interest in their work was confounded by the crowd-sourcing campaign that supported their newly opened center. Neither the Science Museum nor the Natural History Museum have permanent art curators any longer, although both Institutions continue to include artists in their work and the UK design world is – or should be – in mourning at the news that Dunne & Raby having left the RCA last year have now been snapped up by Parsons in New York. A huge loss to the UK.

New forms of knowledge distribution are also emerging. The Open Data Movement[12] argues for data to be released so that anyone can access, use or share. Artists are responding to the celebratory and the personal or politically sensitive dimensions of this offer. Major Museums are developing programmes to open up their collections using open data, which suggest mind-boggling opportunities for researchers from any discipline to get involved and draw hitherto unimaginable links. Internationally, organisations like CERN in Geneva, SymbioticA in Perth, Ars Electronica in Linz and many others continue to pilot and champion interdisciplinary proposals and prizes – frequently with international dimensions.

So I hope I’ve been able to give you a sense of a rich and growing movement with a long tail going backwards that indicates numerous probes into a future that is respectful and informed, though not blinkered, by subject-matter specialism. Excitingly, it seems as if we are in a culture that acknowledges that for all of our accumulated knowledge we have perhaps constructed deep pockets of accumulated ignorance – areas limited by discipline-led single point perspective, but influenced, it seems, by our constant toggle between the physical environment, our networked, digital and imaginative environments and the bodies we inhabit, there is a strong appetite for change.

As I’ve observed before, human curiosity and ingenuity, whether clothed in the garbs of art or science, benefit from an even momentary disregard of existing structures and systems. This allows thinking to move forward and change to occur. So let’s hope that as we strive for the public understanding of art and the public understanding of science, we collectively reach something even better – simply, understanding. Period.

Thank you


[1] Films of fact: a history of science in documentary films and television, London and New York, Wallflower Press, 2008, (paperback 978-1-905674-37-4).

[2] This quotation and other references to the Sciart programme have been sourced from Glinkowski P, Bamford A. Insight and Exchange: An evaluation of the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart programme. London: Wellcome Trust; 2009. www.wellcome.ac.uk/sciartevaluation [accessed 1 November 2015].

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Grovier, Kelly, ‘Art Since 1989’, Thames & Hudson, World of Art, ISBN 9780500204269, First published 2015

[8] http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/projects

[9] http://www.artscatalyst.org

[10] Ibid

[11] From their website https://dublin.sciencegallery.com

[12] For further information and links check out the Open Data Institute website http://theodi.org (there are also other organisations championing the field).

Hannah Redler is an independent curator and museum professional who works with international artists and ambitious organisations on projects bringing together art, science, technology, new media and photography. She has been Associate Curator in Residence at the Open Data Institute since 2014, which she combines with teaching and other projects. From 1998-2014 Hannah worked with the Science Museum Group, predominantly as Head of Arts Programme. @hannah_redler