SPACE & PLACES
Catalyst Conversations in Boston, MA
By Kathryn Nock, contributor
Kathryn Nock, SciArt Magazine: When did you first gain interest working an the intersection between the arts and sciences?
Deborah Davidson, Founder & Director of Catalyst Conversations: I trained as an artist in a liberal arts setting, and have always been interested in science as a lay person. In fact, I only read non-fiction. I have long been captivated by how the two fields intersect. My studio practice is research-based - it is the way I approach problems, artistically and otherwise. An early influence was my grandmother, who was a doctor. We would read authors together like the great Lewis Thomas, I think this had a profound influence on me. She also had very high expectations of me and was an important role model as well.
KN: How did the idea for Catalyst Conversations originate?
DD: Over six years ago I ran into Boston artist Clara Wainwright. She has always been interested in art as a social practice - one of her projects was the invention of First Night. We were discussing the fact that so many artists seemed to be interested in science and integrating that interest into their work, and the lack of (or need) for some kind of forum to bring people together. From that discussion, Catalyst was born. There followed about a year of intense planning, networking and research, we launched at the end of 2012, and have continued since.
KN: What is the process like for pairing up conversation partners? What's one of the most memorable conversations you've facilitated?
DD: I have been curating conversations between artists and scientists, working with a wide range of makers, practitioners, and researchers on an equally broad range of ideas and subject matters. Pairings for conversations (or sometimes three or four speakers) comes from my interests, often starting with an artist and the ideas in his or her work. Sometimes the pairing comes from an idea I want to explore, like beauty or big data. Once I actually dreamed a phrase that became the subject of the conversation! I think being in the greater Boston/Cambridge area has been a boon in identifying artists and scientists who are willing to participate in the programs I have developed. In fact, I could imagine an uber-event with all those folks in one room! We have had 100 speakers to date.
One of the most memorable conversations I curated was Music and the Brain, with performer extraordinaire Stan Strickland and renowned neuroscientist Ani Patel. It embodied everything that I strive for in this endeavor of art talking to science. The two men were completely sympathetic, and really listening and responding to each other in conversation as if they were doing so musically. What they discussed touched everyone in the audience, as the sense of rhythm is innate to our species. They are each in their own way compelled by the idea of music as a way of healing and connection. I was as enthralled as the audience, in spite of all the preparation in realizing the program.
KN: What is the greatest obstacle you've had to overcome in the development of Catalyst?
DD: The greatest obstacle for me has been to continue having the faith and stamina to maintain not only the programming but everything else needed to sustain the interest in our programs, in an arena statured with great lectures and events any time of the week. In other words, that I remain up to the task I have given myself.
KN: Where would you like to see Catalyst five years from now?
DD: We are developing educational programming which I hope will be very robust in five years and Catalyst To Go, programs developed for companies. We have also started a podcast, Listening to Catalyst. All these things are designed to have a much larger reach than we are able to have now. They have been in the back of my mind since the inception of Catalyst Conversations, and I am excited about their realization. I do feel that all the work in creating compelling programs has led us to being able to take these next steps.
KN: How would you describe your role within the art-science movement both as an individual and as an organization?
DD: As the director of an independent organization I have freedom to design programs without constraints - I think this has enabled me to think “outside the box,” creating something that is truly a hybrid. It sits outside of academia but is welcome there. I am referring to the generosity of both the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the List Visual Arts at MIT who have hosted and partnered with us over the years.
KN: What advice do you have for fellow artists and scientists looking for opportunities to collaborate with others or to make their own practice more interdisciplinary?
DD: Locally, collaborations have been happening quite a bit. For example, the Broad Institute has an artist in residence program, as does the Woods Hole Oceanographic Center. There is a wonderful program here in Cambridge – Catalyst Collaborative at MIT which commission plays with a science theme every season at the Underground Railway Theater. I believe that the conversation between artists and scientists also needs to happen in the education system. This is occurring in some areas of the country with STEAM programs as part of the curriculum. I think that artists and scientists simply need to connect – I hope that Catalyst Conversations can play a role in artist and scientists finding each other. Our programs demonstrate repeatedly how similar the two fields are.
KN: If you could facilitate a conversation between two artist/scientist who have ever lived who would they be and why?
DD: That is a difficult question to answer! I think that Leonardo DaVinci and Neil DeGrasse Tyson would have an amazing conversation – of course, I am imagining one that allows for time travel.