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Dissolving the Wall Between Art and Science

Science fiction fans have long known that art and science aren’t as deeply divided as they’re made out to be. We’ve seen science concepts jumpstart a story that lead its readers to consider the universe in a new way. And we’ve seen fictional visions of the future inspire scientists to work towards a world in which fiction—be it space travel, medical science, or just hospital beds that look like the sick bay gurneys in Star Trek—are possible.

And yet some are still convinced the divide can’t truly be breached. But why? Consider this argument: Marcel Duchamp, a French artist who challenged conventional artistic standards of his day, claimed a urinal was art, and entitled it “The Fountain.”  But the urinal wasn’t shaped by an artist’s skill and a paint brush. It was the cold need to design an efficient, watertight, and easy-to-clean shape.  Duchamp’s art was shaped by physical restrictions (and some chutzpa), not the just rarified need for aesthetic appreciation. Art and science were one. More and more artists and scientists are reinterpreting art and science, or rather, dissolving that line altogether.

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Science in Art

Theo Jansen, a Dutch artist and kinetic sculptor, put the crossover best in, of all things, a commercial he appeared in for a car company: “The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds.” Sounds like something only an artist would say. Jansen’s work, however, dips deep into mad scientist territory. “Since 1990,” Jansen explains on his website, “I have been occupied creating new forms of life. Not pollen or seeds but plastic yellow tubes are used as the basic material of this new nature. I make skeletons that walk on the wind, so that they don’t have to eat.”

Watching Jansen’s “Strandbeests”—his name for the kinetic sculptures that appear to walk once caught by the wind—move across the ground, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re watching skeletons of imaginary creatures. Jansen engineers sails that pump wooden or plastic legs so a beast scuttles across sand like a lobster. He designs a cardboard beast with many different sections that catch the wind like pinwheels and rolls the creature forward. He even makes desert beetles with shells covered with solar panels. The most successful of his beasts are incorporated into the next generation of design, as if the creatures evolve over time.

Those who prefer physics over biology only have to look up at the night sky. Even as unknown pin-pricks of light, the sun and stars have inspired artists for thousands of years. As scientific knowledge became more advanced, art kept pace. Early artists made gilt models of the solar system, using data to make art. Later artists made the rings of Saturn and the red spot of Jupiter into iconic images. Today NASA releases pictures of galaxies light years away—after they’ve been colorized and detailed by artists. This colorization process is not a step away from reality. It’s the only way NASA can let people see these images. Current observatories measure neutrinos, gamma rays, ultraviolet lights, infrared, and radio—none of which can be seen by the human eye. Science discovered a new way to look at the universe, and art made it visible to human eyes.

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Art in Science

Jansen’s work and NASA images give the impression that science and engineering can inform art, but surely art can’t guide science, right?

Consider Leonardo DaVinci and the sketches he left behind for inventions that would only be realized centuries after his death. His ideas were ludicrous flights of fancy at the time, but the ideas of his flying machines, tanks, and submarines were taken up by scientists and engineers in coming centuries and made real. According to Hunter Cole, a geneticist and internationally-shown artist, the collision of disciplines isn’t entirely unexpected. “They have a lot in common,” she told Chicago Art Magazine last year. “People associate art with creativity and whimsy and people associate science with facts and structure, but you actually need to be very creative as a scientist.” She should know. Cole created line drawings with bioluminescent bacteria, took time-lapse photos of the way the bacteria grew from her original art, and set them to music based on the protein sequences found in the bacteria.

So if art and science both begin with people interacting with the world in a creative way, where does that creativity lead? Joe Davis, called the “éminence grise of the bio-art movement” by The Washington Post, a sculptor who has taught at both the Rhode Island School of Design and MIT. He has embedded artwork into bacterial genomes and created a device to turn light information into sound so that the viewer can “hear” cells. Davis has built an airplane powered by frogs’ legs, encoded poetry into fruit fly DNA. Although he has been mixing art and science for over a decade now, he still remembers the suspicion he was viewed with when first approaching scientists to help with his plans: “In the beginning, scientists were not comfortable talking to me. It took them a while to trust me with their secrets.” He does admit, however, this may be because some of his early ideas were a little too out there: “I still come up with ideas that are dangerous and don’t realize that they are dangerous.”

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Revolutionary or Dangerous?

Some would argue that both art and science have responsibilities to be subversive, but not dangerous; in 2004, Steven Kurtz, a professor at SUNY Buffalo was arrested on terrorism charges after the discovery of certain bacteria and biological material at his home, despite its intended purpose being no more sinister than creating some “bio-art.”

So even when it can lead to the FBI knocking on your door, why do art and science keep crossing streams? Cell biologist and artist Ahna Skop once told an interviewer, “I loved science but I was stuck genetically in an artist’s body” (and vice versa, of course). She goes on to explain that her artistic reliance on visual stimuli, rather than data, gave her insights into cell division that helped her earn a doctorate, postdoc, and eventually an honorary degree for her work.

Perhaps it’s because the same thing is at the heart of both disciplines: A desire to understand how the world works, and to communicate your discoveries to the world at large. Art and science attempt to answer the same basic questions but from different directions and in different languages; it seems inevitable that one would bleed into the other. Thinking about it that way changes science art from kooky experimentalism to important work that asks questions in a language that everyone can understand. That it can also amuse, inspire and just plain look awesome is a happy accident to catch your attention when you least expect it.

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Graeme McMillan

Graeme-McMillanGraeme McMillan lives, writes, and is currently learning to bake in Portland, Oregon. His writing has appeared throughout the internet on sites like Time Magazine’s Techland blog, io9.com, and Comic Book Resources, and if pressed, he’ll admit that he tries to use his powers for good.