Oxfordshire Visual Arts Development Agency, United Kingdom
By Kimberly Glassman, guest contributor
Though Joshua Browitt did not believe the works at the Unit London needed to be 'legitimized' by this comment, the artist thought "there must be a wider audience who feels differently." As a recent participant in the summer art-science residency at the Oxfordshire Visual Arts Development Agency (OVADA) in Oxford, U.K., Browitt was one of many who had a lot to say on the difficulties of bringing people of antithetical backgrounds into a shared space. This past summer, OVADA selected four artists at various stages of their careers to take part in a program where artists received free studio space and an opportunity to work directly with a group of scientists. The scientists' fields of expertise ranged from chemistry to immunology, molecular design, and bioinformatics. When asked what was to be expected from the collaboration, artist Rhiannon Evans smiled and said: "conversation can only build bridges, surely?"
Taking note of how art-science residencies are increasingly on the rise, I wonder why there is such a persistence to find common ground between these two cultures. More to the point, what role does a place have in giving artists and scientists the freedom to push beyond the boundaries of their respective disciplines? Artists have been traveling and displacing themselves for the advancement of their work since the Renaissance, though the first artist-in-residence schemes emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries. Artists would leave the city to join grass-root artist colonies funded by wealthy benefactors. In the 1960s, residencies became a way to escape society. These spaces allowed them to create their own little secluded worlds, involve the public within open studios, and provide alternative work/exhibition spaces. With the rise of globalization in the late 1980s and 1990s, diversity in art-residencies increased exponentially. These spaces then sought "to create alternative, locally-based centers of knowledge and experience in the arts." Most recently, in the past 20 years or so, artist-residencies have explored the potential for knowledge-exchange in collaborative as well as inter- and multi- disciplinary spaces, which have led to a number of art-science collaborations.
In 2018, neuroscientist and artist Greg Dunn claimed: "There is no such thing as a pure artist or a pure scientist. We all employ thinking derived from observations of both our objective and subjective realities." Despite the fact that there have been, since at least the time of Leonardo da Vinci, what cardiologist Robert Atkins calls "artist-scientists," "pure" arts and sciences only came about in the 19th century. In fact, the term 'scientist' was specifically introduced as a means to unify splintering areas of the field by William Whewell in the early 1800s. He claimed that "an Artist is a Musician, Painter, or Poet, [as] a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist." Thus began the dichotomy that would persist throughout the following decades, culminating in C.P. Snow’s influential "Two Cultures" debate of the 20th century and the 21st century interdisciplinary craze.
Having experienced this first hand in my own school days, studying psychology and history of art at Concordia University, I jumped on the art-science bandwagon, so to speak. In 2016 I joined the Convergence: Perceptions of Neuroscience initiative in Montreal, Canada. Similar to OVADA, Convergence aims to bring artists and scientists together to form collaborative pairings. They have just launched their first Green Labs: A Look at Lab Waste residency project as well as their new art-science podcast, RENAISSANCElab. Though taking place in different parts of the world, both Convergence and OVADA demonstrate how crucial it is to have a physical space mediating between the artist studio and scientist’s lab. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview a number of artists at OVADA, and I was greatly inspired by their moving responses to some of my more probing questions.
Kimberly Glassman: How much of these residencies reinforces the art/science divide by
re-emphasizing their separate specializations and how much helps build bridges between the 'two cities'? Or, rather, does it create 'a third city' or third culture as C.P. Snow would say?
Joshua Browitt: Just thinking in terms of the residency there are definitely barriers that need to be taken down that we did not manage to do over the four weeks between us as artists and the scientists. One example would be that as artists we were scared of asking silly questions and the scientists were scared of exploring their creative sides so there was this immediate barrier. For me it definitely reminded me of the divide in the fields which I found disappointing. We love to categorize and put people and things in certain boxes as a society and I think that this was a reflection of that more than anything. People were scared of leaving their box and preferred to stay in their comfort zones. Having had further discussion since the residency I think we will be able to break down those barriers - it is just taking more time than we all first hoped.
KG: Do you think art is used to humanize the sciences and/or science to legitimize the arts? If so, why or why not?
Joshua Browitt: I think both. When looking at the sort of art I like where there is a scientific aspect I would say both can be applicable. It's funny because thinking about that question, humanizing the sciences seems like a positive thing but saying we use science to legitimize art sounds like a negative. I think this most probably reflects our societies views and perhaps values more than anything. Art and science can definitely work in unison and both fields can be celebrated and enjoyed in an artistic format. For example, you can use a visual or artistic format to make people more aware of the environment and it is beauty and importance to our well being. I think science can inform art more so than art can inform science. I do not think this should be used as a detriment to the arts though as the creative fields can have such an important role to play in our society moving forward if used properly in my opinion.
Kieran McLean: I think both can be applicable, but I would consider it more of a mutual enrichment, rather than one 'using' the other.
KG: Are artists' use of new technology and scientific tools of experimentation bringing arts closer with science today?
Joshua Browitt: I think so. If you look at artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Wolfgang Buttress, as I mentioned before, I would say that this is the case. There are a lot of things practically that scientists have a knowledge of that artists do not, so I think that this naturally engages artists more with scientists. On the other side of the spectrum you have scientists who are perhaps more inspired by the visual and what is possible from a creative viewpoint so there is an overlap which I find exciting. I think historically the interaction with art and science has ebbed and flowed. Thinking back to Leonardo da Vinci and his influence in art and science he was incredibly prominent in both. I think somewhere down the line we lost this connectivity and interaction between the fields however perhaps there is a window of opportunity for both art and science to really engage with each other again.
Since Duchamp exhibited a urinal in 1917 as a ready-made sculpture called Fountain, there has been a realization that art can be 'anything' you want it to be. With this and the popularity of installation art there is probably a window of opportunity for artists to engage in the sciences more so than they have in a long long time. I'm not sure if this has necessarily been realized to its full potential yet. I do think, however, that we are beginning to see more artists engage with sciences and embrace these creative possibilities. I do not think there are too many limitations on what can be creatively achieved with a science/art unison.
Rhiannon Evans: Maybe the restriction of physical domains of operation have served to restrict open conversations, and technology allows this to happen more easily. The move towards academic cross-disciplinary studies has also opened debate, as have concerns around use of sustainable materials in production especially in fashion and social concerns in science. There are more considerations and open debates of 'ethics' and social impact of applications than previously. This opens both conflict and debate in greater society which spreads both ways. Developments in contemporary philosophy alongside new technology feed into this restructuring of hierarchies within and across the disciplines. Also, fine art education has become increasingly more 'academized' to mimic other disciplines. This may have had an influence.
Artist Alexa Wright and Professor Alf Linney (Faculty of Brain Science, UCL) lay out elements that they believe are essential when creating a successful art-science collaboration:
They rightly point out that "whilst we believe that the advancement of a common language will help to enable successful collaboration between artists and scientists, we also recognize that, at some levels, there are still fundamental differences between the two disciplines."  Their differences are actually what make them such a complementary pairing. Bringing artists and scientists together in a shared space is not a means of creating a hybrid separate third culture, but rather functions as an information exchange where their respective specializations help each other as well as society at large. As a scientist working for The Swiss Arts-in-Labs program remarked, "We realized that art could be a catalyst for the opening up of more discourses about the ethical and social side of our research in the future."
The full extent of the interviews with OVADA artists revealed an interest in science that ranged from the scientific explanations behind their artistic methods (as with Bowitt’s mixture of oil paints and water-based paints such as acrylic with liquid latex, lacquers, and water), a desire to engage scientists in workshops to express their knowledge visually (as with the drawing prompts to visualize DNA studies from the lab), and overall, the project instigated theoretical discussions through group meetings at OVADA’s warehouse. The collective is now looking forward and discussing how the residency will progress in the future. They have founded their two main pillars around knowledge exchange and direct interaction. Actively sharing articles, visuals, and recent news in their area of expertise while also organizing group visits to places such as the Science Gallery London are just a few ways in which the residency is moving towards what Jill Scott, Irene Hediger, Linney, Wright and others have outlined as successful art-science encounters. Similarly, Dr. Cristian Zaelzer, founder of the Convergence initiative, states:
"Art in popular culture has a strong influence in shaping the public’s understanding of science and scientists. Film, novels, comics, illustrations, and other media are more appealing, eye-catching, and memorable than formal scientific lectures. No genetics textbook can compete with X-Men, and no lecture on physics can match the visual wonders of the Enterprise traveling to far-away stars."
While a number of scholars have written entire books looking at revisions of Snow’s debate, others consider the two disciplines so intrinsically related they could be called siblings. We can imagine these disciplines share familial relations living under the same roof.
Like many members of a common household, they get on each other’s nerves, borrow each other’s' things, and end up in yelling matches over who stole the remote to the TV. But much in the same way that Mary Midgley concludes that "problems are not private property," the common ground of the arts and sciences can be found outside their locked bedrooms, in the shared living space of a public, communal home - belonging as much to the arts and sciences as to the other residents of the house, what we may call our proverbial society. Interviews with a number of artists, scientists, and residency program directors reveals brilliant insight into what exactly constitutes this 'residency space' and just how important it is to have an open, interdisciplinary place to call home. Speaking with OVADA artists, it is clear that in the first phase of their artist-scientist residency there is a desperate need for a joint space in addition to a means of translation in order to adequately collaborate with the opposite discipline; to not only reside reluctantly but to live comfortably in an intellectual place they can both call home.