Art vs Science no longer

As the environmental challenges facing the world transition from distant problems to imminent threats, artists and scientists are working together to spur the societal changes necessary to overcome them.

In February this year, researchers from the University of Melbourne participated in Water Futures – a trans-disciplinary knowledge exchange presented by Arts House, Tipping Point Australia, AsiaTOPA and Arts Centre Melbourne. Its aim was to bring artists and scientists together to discuss, address and imagine sustainable water futures.

Dr Benjamin Henley from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne attended as a delegate during the three day event. For him and many other participants, the experience served as an insight into the growing momentum of art-science collaboration and its potential for effective climate action.

“It really opened my eyes to the breadth of thinking, and a new set of ways to communicate my science, through artistic expression,” says Dr Henley, who is working on climate variability and impacts of climate change on water resources.

Water Futures sits within a broader movement recognising the potential for art and science to work towards common outcomes.

Science Gallery is an international network of galleries actively engaging with artists and scientific concepts through interactive, thought-provoking exhibitions. The University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus will feature a permanent Science Gallery (opening 2020), and Science Gallery Melbourne’s first pop-up exhibition, “Blood”, is opening in July this year.

“There is a compelling opportunity in art and science to use interdisciplinary approaches to address contemporary issues and tackle wicked problems, without being constrained by the boundaries or givens that you find when the disciplines are kept separate,” says Rose Hiscock, the Director of Science Gallery Melbourne.

Several departments and groups in the University of Melbourne are working with CLIMARTE, an organisation advocating for the difference that art can make in addressing environmental issues. Their biannual festival ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE finished in May this year, featuring a range of collaborative events and exhibitions.

At the launch for the EXIT exhibition currently on at the Ian Potter Museum, CLIMARTE director Guy Abrahams spoke of the empathetic power of art in activating cultural change. He proposed the next artist-led social movement that will change our perceptions of climate and the issues facing us.

This kind of trans-disciplinary action requires breaking down the siloes between science, economics, social science and art.

“Artists are interested in public discourse, current affairs and culture; areas which scientists have actively avoided historically” says Dr Renee Beale, who is both a curator and a scientist.

“Although science has dominated culture for some time, scientists are now recognising the need to learn from and engage with artists, particularly around environmental issues.”

Dr Beale collaborated with Anna Madeleine to produce “One Last Call”; a participatory artwork for ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2017 asking people to recycle their old phones, and in exchange leave a final message to future generations, extinct species or loved ones. She has a PhD in Genetics from the University of Melbourne and worked as the School of Chemistry’s Cultural Collection curator before becoming Creative Community Animator at the Carlton Connect Initiative.

“[Art and science] are similar because they are experimental and have a common root in philosophy, but over time they have evolved separately from each other with specialised knowledge,” says Dr Beale.

She thinks this infrequent contact leads to some tension in methodology and perceptions of audience and output.

“A scientist can sometimes assume the artist is there to transcribe their research into pictures, and an artist may find their ideas too difficult to be explored in the laboratory.”

Yet as Dr Ben Henley puts it, this is a constructive discomfort and should not be mistaken for incompatibility.

“We don’t always speak the same language, and it can take a while to get moving,” he says.

“But when you do actually really connect up your ideas, and feed off each other, a transdisciplinary group as a whole has more value than the sum of its individual members.”

In Dr Beale’s experience, the nature of collaboration can vary between projects. “In the majority of art-science projects scientists contribute to the underlying ideas behind the artwork. There are few collaborative projects where you would say the scientist helped actually make the artwork. The artist and scientist don’t sit down and paint together.”

To those involved, the slightly grinding and undefined interaction in this trans-disciplinary space is what makes it so exciting. Science Gallery uses the ambiguity in these collaborations to challenge complex problems.

“Each discipline plays on the other; it is their juxtaposition that forms a strong, compelling narrative and approach,” says Rose Hiscock. “We are continually thinking and rethinking, and looking at issues from different aspects.”

Water Futures, CLIMARTE and Science Gallery are proving that trans-disciplinary projects produce innovative ways of approaching the challenges facing us, by asking a completely new range of questions, and contributing to novel solutions.

This is only the beginning; the seam between art and science will be one to watch over the next few decades. As Dr Henley reflects, “Art has a way of speaking, where words and graphs just can’t. It can challenge our thinking, generate emotion and spur action like no other form of expression.”