Perspectives on Art–Science Collaboration
This article presents a summary and reflection on presentations by artists and scientists at the 2016 International Conference on Mobile Brain-Body Imaging and the
By Madeleine V. Z. Gorges(1), Brandon D. Jones(2), Joseph C. S. Siu(3), and Stephanie Scott(4)
(1) Developmental, Cognitive, & Behavioral Neurosciences, Department of Psychology, University of Houston (2)Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (3)Department of Music Theory, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester (4)Department of Journalism and Media Communication, Colorado State University
In the 19th century, an Italian physiologist named Angelo Mosso made it his life’s ambition to record the “pulse” of the brain. Mosso believed the brain was the materiality of consciousness and he carried those philosophical ideas to a physically testable outcome by designing the first machine that could detect the changes in blood flow in the brain of a live person. In order to record the activity of the brain, Mosso had to find patients who had suffered serious head injuries that left part of their brain exposed through the broken skull. Today Mosso’s technology has evolved to completely non-invasive electroencephalography (EEG), in which a cap of electrodes can detect the brain’s electrical activity through the intervening layers of hair, skin, and skull. In fact, mobile brain-body imaging (MoBI) has freed EEG recording from many laboratory constraints and can even record data from the brain of a dancer improvising on stage. With modern neuroimaging we can now design investigations to study how the brain functions during the most complex human cognitive processes, including creativity.
Mosso was, in many ways, a scientist and an artist—his descriptions of the first recordings of a sleeping patient’s neural activity contain vivid, expressive imagery: “It was one of the most interesting sights to observe in the stillness of the night, by the little light of a little lamp, what was going on in his brain when there was no external cause to disturb this mysterious life of sleep. Then came stronger blood waves, which flooded the convolutions, raising the height of the pulsations. We scarcely dared breathe.” Since then, a variety of neuroimaging techniques have allowed us to record the physical structures and functional activity below the outer surface of the cortex. The beautiful images of the brain that have emerged from neuroscience research inspire awe at the dynamic, complex system nestled within our skull. Colorful maps of the brain appear on front pages under headlines boldly exclaiming that science has uncovered another treasure to add to our chest of knowledge. Some scientists even reach out directly to the public and present the fluctuating brain activity recorded with MoBI as a real time projection on a screen during a dance performance. This type of open invitation to view MoBI recordings pulls back the curtain that separates the bulk of the research published in academic circles from the general public. To feel so close to the cutting edge of scientific data collection through artistic performances is a rare privilege for many people, inspiring dreams and discussions.
With such discussions inevitably comes some critical thinking. Truly scientific, controlled, reductionist conclusions based on complex analyses of the data remain a few steps behind the initial recording of the data. Some critics feel a sense of alarm at how much a general audience adds their own interpretations to their understanding of the “science” they see in the colorful brain images. The data projected on the wall for the audience in a live MoBI performance has not necessarily been filtered to remove all of the motion artifacts that are picked up by the electrodes, and thus any interpretations drawn from watching the signal in real time may be merely a visualization of the movement of the dancer, not the underlying pattern of the faint electrical activity that makes it through those layers of skull and scalp. The neural activity is there too, but it takes teams of scientists with experts in signal processing to clean the data and isolate the signal from the noise. An audience watching a live feed of MoBI data only catches a glimpse of one slice of the long, painstaking scientific process; yet the colorful maps of the MoBI data projected on a diagram of the top of the head look like publishable figures, at least to an untrained eye. How many caveats should be presented along with the MoBI demonstration? How much should scientists carefully contextualize the results they disseminate in order to avoid confusion between a layperson’s interpretation and the scientists’ intent? Is the purpose of science to provide replicable observations that support a hypothesis? Or is it to inspire inquisitive minds to explore, question, and perhaps even join the field? Many tax dollars fund scientific investigations—perhaps we owe taxpayers a window into part of the scientific process.
Just as some scientists are now attempting to move towards a scientific understanding of art and creativity, many artists explore scientific ideas and themes through their artwork. For example, Greg Dunn transforms the brain into a work of art in his detailed paintings and multimedia images of the brain. Dario Robleto creates installations to present perspectives on the history of neuroscience. Julia Buntaine’s sculptures and mixed media creations cover topics from cellular structures to alpha waves. In her presentation at the conference, Buntaine expressed her view that art can serve as a way to allow the public to ask questions about science and think about scientific subjects critically. Dr. Monica Lopez is both an artist and a scientist. Through her company, La Petite Noiseuse Productions, she utilizes theatre and film with live musical improvisation to both communicate cognitive neuroscience theories to the public and obtain novel data for understanding the creative process. After her live performances, she analyzes recordings and publishes the results in academic journals (Lopez, 2016). In this way, Dr. Lopez uniquely ties in both disciplines within the studies’ design, execution, and analysis. These examples barely touch the surface of the many ways in which art forms can celebrate scientific accomplishments, create new forms of scientific data, and also offer a platform for critique.
Given that science and art seem so interested in each other, an important question in this burgeoning era of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) is how can artists and scientists come together in collaborations that will benefit all players, including the public. There are three main points in which artists and scientists might overlap in collaborative projects: the question, the process, and the product.
"Fossilhood is Not Our Forever" (2014). 34” x 47.5” x 36.5”. Fossilized prehistoric whale ear bones salvaged from the sea (1 to 10 million years), stretched audiotape of three centuries of human heartbeat recordings (1865, 1977, 2014), gold paint, concrete, ocean water, pigments, rust , brass, coral, steel, and Plexiglass. Image courtesy of the artist and Inman Gallery, Houston, T X.
While the field of neuroscience as a whole has a collective interest in the big questions about consciousness that sparked the first investigations of the living brain, it is composed of thousands of teams each tackling controllable pieces of the puzzle and taking reductionist approaches, producing millions of individual investigations. Investigations about art and creativity often collect data from artists in the laboratory, and sometimes the artists have little to no input about the study design, nor do they provide feedback about the results. This can have negative consequences on the experiments because the researchers may make unfounded assumptions about everything from what art is to how and when creativity occurs to what kinds of materials an artist would need in order to create a piece of art (Robleto, 2016b). Misunderstanding can also occur in the other direction: artists may have profound, complex, well-thought out ideas about what art is, but they may not appreciate the need for control and manipulation of isolated variables in a scientific study in order to draw meaningful conclusions and produce replicable results.
In addition to reaching out to discuss the details of experiments with the artists they study, scientists could also benefit from realizing that the artists do not necessarily see themselves as isolated data points; they may observe and study the scientists throughout the research process and gain insight into the scientific world, which can then have an impact on their work. An example of this science-art feedback loop is when Janet Biggs participated in a research study about false memories, and then created a video about her subjective experience of participating. When she showed her work to the researchers they became fearful that they would lose their funding if their names were associated with it, and they requested that she remove the name of the university and the lab from the piece. Whether intentional or unintentional, scientists and artists will necessarily form such feedback loops when they work together. That is, an element of collaboration is inherent to their interactions, and deserves acknowledgement and legitimacy.
Not all artists and scientists agree on where to draw the defining lines around collaboration. Biggs expresses skepticism that a true, romantic idea of collaboration—in which multiple minds meld and work equally towards a shared outcome—fully exists. As part of her self-initiated art projects, Biggs had the opportunity to work alongside scientists and artists as they ventured to extreme regions of the Earth, such as the arctic or inside a volcano. Biggs believes that collaboration occurs when artists and scientists can give each other certain kinds of access and knowledge. By sharing an environment or experience during the process stage of any project they can learn from each other, and through repeated interactions can even influence each other.
Other types of collaboration may have more of an explicit interaction or point of convergence. Universities, museums, and other companies provide collaborative environments for artists and scientists to work together. One example is the Blaffer Museum at the University of Houston, which hosted an event called “Your Brain on Art” in which artists wore MoBI EEG caps that projected their EEG activity on the wall as they created visual art. MoBI has been used to understand the audience’s perspective as well: a different museum in Houston, the Menil, allowed researchers to collect EEG data from members of the public as they viewed art exhibits. Other examples of fostering collaborative artistic and scientific events or processes include residency programs such as The Bridge through the SciArt Center. This program pairs scientists and artists who work together for four months on collaborative projects that reflect the combination of their skills. The residency partners often come from different geographical regions, so they collaborate online and update the public about their progress through the virtual space of a blog page for the project. Julia Buntaine, the director of the SciArt Center, sees the artist-scientist residency program as an example of how art and science can be cultural partners. She stated, “Our 21st century problems require the creative thinking that comes from cross-disciplinary collaboration.”
Outside the walls of academia many companies demonstrate again and again that together, science and art can create products of incredible value, functionality, and pleasure. For example, Ars Electronica is a research and innovation institution that partners with over fifty companies to solve the problems of the future and connect art with technology. Other artists target their work to addressing concerns for ecological populations, such as creating 3D printed shells as dwellings for hermit crabs (Elizabeth Demeray), or revitalizing an oyster population with a beautiful, DNA-shaped reef habitats (Mara Haseltine). Even humanitarian missions can use aesthetically pleasing design coupled with practical problem solving, such as Olafur Eliasson’s Little Sun project, which provides portable, sun-shaped, solar powered lights to people in communities without electricity. These examples barely skim the surface of possibilities that emerge from fusions of art and science.
From philosophical questions about humanity to the process of exploring our world to tangible end products, scientists and artists have many opportunities to collaborate, and no two collaborations will follow the same recipe. We find common ground as we acknowledge the importance of ethically engaging the public in critical, yet empowering conversations. When we take a moment to step back from our disciplinary niches, we can see and appreciate many approaches to understanding and describing our human experience. Over 100 years after Mosso first recorded brain activity, famous statements about how little we understand our own minds still resonate. The philosopher Catherine Malabou provocatively writes, “The brain is a work, and we do not know it. We are its subjects—authors and products at once—and we do not know it.” The brain’s hold over our imagination continues to intrigue us and inspire exploration, whether artistic, scientific, or both. Complete knowledge of the brain may be beyond our grasp, but perhaps the brain does not need to be the only end domain. The myriad questions, processes, and products that branch out from deep, core questions aimed at how and why we are human undoubtedly enrich and advance our human experience.
Watch a summary of the 2016 MoBI Conference here: