Opening Ion Channels:
Finding true exchange in NEST Studio for the Arts
By Erin Espelie, guest contributor
Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a preeminent virologist at Columbia University, was the first scientist I ever interviewed for one of my films. The interaction with him was a rushed, awkward affair. As a lapsed microbiologist, I got caught up in reminiscences about having a home in a laboratory. I spent too much time proving my scientific camaraderie and following my set list of questions. Thankfully he was skillful at speaking about honeybees and colony collapse disorder; the film got made. A few years later I interviewed three astrophysicists, including Dr. Kate Sholberg, at Duke University about their study of neutrinos and photons. By then I had worked with a range of other scientists for moving-image projects and developed different strategies. The interactions were constrained.
Still, I was keenly aware of being an extractor of information. I learn about new research. I present my vision of that research. Laborare in Latin means "to work" and co means "together." Working together, collaborating, requires open channels for relay and exchange. When crossing disciplines, power dynamics and expected outcomes become harder to align and maintain easy passage. Also, it comes back to time: who has the hours to recalibrate traditional formats?
Stills from Espelie's film Beyond Expression Bright, for which she interviewed astrophysicsts at Duke University.
With a colleague of mine, Tara Knight, at the University of Colorado Boulder, I set out 18 months ago to find better means for collaboration. We were responding to the legacies of consilience - to use Aristotle's and E.O. Wilson's term - of uniting distinct forms of knowledge. We were thinking about the photo-botanist Anna Atkins and the naturalist-illustrator John James Audubon, the poet-physician Erasmus Darwin, the polymath Athanasius Kircher, and so many more.
Contemporary attempts at reuniting or "cross-pollinating" the arts and the sciences, often gravitate toward one of two models: artists are encouraged to be "inspired" by scientific research and, in turn, create their own individual artistic works, or, in the inverse, scientists seek ways of translating the complexity of their research to the public through various media forms (typically through "data visualizations").
Knight and I aimed to form a new studio, which we dubbed NEST (Nature, Environment, Science and Technology) Studio for the Arts based at the acronym-happy University of Colorado Boulder. We certainly encourage empiricism within these existing models. Still, a central research goal for NEST Studio is to explore alternate ways of passing information and methodologies back and forth. Nest is a verb that has roots in the scientific method: to find categories of containment, in the lineage of Linnaeus, and connections that maximize efficiency and inspire innovation and discovery while maintaining autonomy. We were aiming for that, as well as using 'nest' as a noun, concerning ourselves with establishing a physical base, too.
This past September we launched our first exhibit, "Embryonic." We featured artists from all around the United States, including silk batiks of endangered coastal ecosystems made by Mary Edna Fraser who collaborates with Duke geologist Orrin H. Pilkey. We created a video loop using bacterial time lapses made by Mehmet Berkmen, a senior scientist at New England Biolabs, and the artist Maria Peñil Cobo. Their work began aesthetically, Berkmen says, "to capture the beauty of bacteria on agar plates," yet it actually resulted in technical breakthroughs, published in the Journal of Bacteriology in January 2018. For "Embryonic," NEST also partnered with the BioFrontiers Institute, Fiske Planetarium, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to make installations out of large-scale glass plates, solar telescopes, and outmoded research specimens created in the development of microwave-based circuit research - respectively.
Most gratifying for me was the new work that NEST commissioned from graduate student pairs: one student in the arts/humanities and one in the sciences. These partnerships truly tested what might be made when time, resources, and intention could be offered. Hydrologist, Alice F. Hill, and Toma Peiu, immersive 360-filmmaker, spent last summer studying the Aral Sea basin in Central Asia together. They explored the vast, arid ecosystem shaped by centralized agriculture and dwindling glaciers of the Pamir and Tien Shan ranges, where water, land, and labor are utterly stressed by pressures to commodify. Their exhibition included heads of cotton; old View Masters; and a VR headset, transporting you to the sandy stretches of Uzbekistan.
A wood sculptor, Aaron Treher, and an ecologist, Molly McDermott, partnered to make alternate barn swallow habitat. Sarah Crump, who studies climate change on Baffin Island partnered with Nodin de Saillan, who is getting his PhD in English, to make woodblock prints using sediment collected in the field. Amy Richman made cyanotype prints of seeds in consultation with evolutionary ecologist Megan Blanchard. And mechanical engineer Aaron Lamplugh tested scores of material samples with ceramicist and mathematician Camila Friedman-Gerlicz until they landed upon a plaster that could be embedded with activated carbon. Thus, they created an incredible panel of renewable pieces (see image below) that absorbs environmental pollutants from the air, sequesters the toxins, and passively cleans interior environments. The duo is currently testing these quantitatively in the most noxious of places, nail salons, which disproportionately affect women of color and immigrants.
Embryonic originals (left to right): Ceramic wall hanging (4' x 4') that passively cleans the air (Lamplugh and Friedman-Gerlicz); table display of quantum computing iterations from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
An off-camera interview I conducted back in 2015 was with the documentarian Ken Burns. I was talking to him about his PBS productions, on behalf of Natural History magazine, and slipped in a personal question about what he considered the role of the contemporary arts to be, as someone who operates so fully in the realm of history and fact. He responded by saying, "The arts have always spread the news. They tell you what’s going on. They offer tangible proof - photographs and paintings - that are saying, 'See? This is what’s out there.'"
What's out there? Just as we cannot know certain truths about the cosmos without a requisite telescope, I do believe we cannot fathom the possibilities of artistic-scientific exchange until willing people gather together equipped with the means of getting beyond formalities, time constraints, and resource limitations. We need more spaces to do so! As stated in the journal Nature in 2016, art-science engagements offer mutual benefits, ranging from breakthroughs in research to improved communication skills. We need the news that art spreads.
From February to July of 2019, NEST is co-sponsoring an exhibit at the University of Colorado Boulder art museum, which I co-curated with Hope Saska. It's called "Documenting Change: Our Climate (Past, Present, Future)" and it features the work of Maya Lin, who so diligently has worked with ocean and aquatic biologists to create work about our country's rivers. The exhibit also highlights the weavings made by Tali Weinberg, who collates data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a graphite-flecked landscape by Teresita Fernández, meditating on how we see the juncture of land meeting water. NEST is also commissioning work for a new aerospace building on campus and working with the Earth Lab, directed by Jennifer Balch, to make new pieces for "Wild/Tame," our second fully independent gathering of scientist-artists.
In each of these new attempts, I am trying to learn new ways to find true open channels into and out of the sciences. My next film will be about cyanobacteria who harvest light. If I can make it a fraction more equal for my scientific collaborator, I will consider it progress.