with Eleanor Gates-Stuart
Australia-based artist, professor, SciArt practitioner
Julia Buntaine, SciArt Magazine: Your endeavors and work at the intersection of science, art, and technology have brought you far and wide - can you discuss how you found yourself at this multidisciplinary cross-section? What drove you to this type of work?
Eleanor Gates-Stuart: My interest in science and art began with my research during my earlier postgraduate studies at the Chelsea School of Art (now University of the Arts London), having the opportunity to explore behind the scenes at major museums and translating ideas through various artworks. It was not only the works that were shown in the museum that really interested me but the process and the science involved in the making of the replicas, the technology involved and the collective resources, knowledge and skills required to create such an object and artifact for installation. This had a major impact for me in thinking beyond defined discipline practices and “breaking the rules.”
I have always been a bit of an experimentalist, having a questioning mind and trying things out, leading to interesting discoveries of methods and materials, in areas of new knowledge that merge with my own interests of that as an artist. I have always enjoyed physically working with materials, manipulating surface and experimenting with its malleability to become something else - a new object, statement, and an artwork of new meaning. Ideas evolved through pushing limits of endless boundaries, creating visual meaning in new and shared spaces  redefining the process of thought and representation of ideas, often celebrating incompleteness (unanswered) both as discovery and knowledge in a finished work.
The "Virus" series  effectively became my first intersection with science, although other works had been on the fringe of this area. The "Virus" series catalyzed an evolution from a personal narrative into an interest in the actual science. Viruses were of interest to me both as biological and computer phenomena. The latter had been introduced in the work of gatestcherrywolmark  challenging the audience with the notion of the work being undetermined in its authorship and identity. Had the words language and image been infected, unreadable, corrupted, out of control, a lie? Who or what was the source or infection, human or machine? 
"Virus" led to my investigation of “FingerCodes” and to the question: can the notion of identity, through a fingerprint, elicit personal expressions of self-identity? The works in this series show how my interests in history, science, and technology blend together. The idea of humanity leaving traces of identity throughout time is such a stirring vision. Ideas transcend into new concepts through the myriad of information about classification, formulas, symbols, and systems. What stands firm in each work are the fingerprints, the overriding key to the identity that is reaffirmed with further evidence of personal artifacts, clues to authorship and seals of authenticity. Viewers were teased to Crack the Code  and interestingly I was described as being both “artist and scientist”  which puzzled me at the time although this question is often asked these days.
The investigative method of layering materials, structuring knowledge, advocating innovation, and experimentation as legacy of time and progression of intelligent systems in our society shapes my thinking in my new works. For instance, in the science museum installations, this process has been a method for “Communicating Science: Explorations of Science and Art”  where “science” conveys the critical engagement in scientific research that leads to new discovery through experimentation and a result, whereas in “art” I mean the result of creating a visual aesthetic and new meaning through the making of an artwork. Therefore, an artwork not only extends scientific meaning and it’s understanding to a wider audience but also takes on a new meaning as an artwork itself, an aesthetic object that engages and attracts attention. With StellrScope  the brief was enormous in delivering a work that celebrated 100 years of wheat crop innovation . Hence in creating the term, Stellrscope, the meaning Stellr refers to the vastness of the subject and Scope referring to containing the vision. With the term StellrScope defined, simplifying this information into images through aesthetic analysis and extracting complex data to construct narrative into artwork was the task. The focus on physical and biochemical traits of organisms in plant structures, particularly wheat, was very much a step beyond the biological fingerprint codes, evident in previous artworks, as StellrScope required approaching new territory, such as quantitative sciences, mathematics, informatics and statistics.
It is fair to say that my involvement in art and science has enabled me to work on some very exciting projects, both as artist-led research and in the realm of science communication. The latter is as a result of my doctoral research at the Australian National University at the National Centre of the Public Awareness of Science, focusing on Science and Art  and as a recipient of National Science Art Commissions  to create artworks for science museums in Australia, such as Questacon: the National Science and Technology Centre for the Centenary of Canberra Science Art Commission and at the Scitech Discovery Centre as the Rio Tinto Innovation Central Artist in Residence. More recently I completed my Professorship at the National Chung Kung University (NCKU) in Taiwan where I had the opportunity to have input into the inaugural technology and arts postgraduate research program, “Techno Arts,” enjoy the multidisciplinary cross-section of the wider university, and collaborate with fellow researchers. In this collegiate environment, my research in the Life Sciences Faculty, the College of Planning & Design and the Institute of Creative Industry Design, soon generated interest in science technologies into the arts program and now has its first Techno Arts Graduates . Back in Australia, my research continues with my associations with Taiwan, particularly with a multidisciplinary project with the Orchid Research and Development Center at NCKU.
JB: Through the use of new media arts you provide immersive experiences to your audiences. In your recent project "The Immersive Mesopelagic Performance Lab," you bring us below the surface of the ocean. What was the inspiration for this piece, and how was it received?
EGS: “What if you could experience the Mesopelagic Zone, as a 'local resident', engaging all your senses? What if you were a marine scientist, and could inhabit data collected over years? What if you could spread awareness of the unique physical and biological properties of this critical yet under-appreciated ecosystem through embodied practice?”
This was our challenge in designing the Immersive Mesopelagic Performance Lab (IMPel), a workshop where artists and scientists collaborated to research and develop a “performance lab” designed to allow humans to inhabit the perspective of deep sea organisms and embody different processes and patterns key to the daily life and health in the Mesopelagic Zone of the ocean.
As a group of six scientists and artists, we explored this concept, IMPel, investigating the interdisciplinary space with scientists and non-scientists, existing “up close” to remote ocean life creating new perspectives on ocean research for scientists, dynamic content for artists, and a more direct emotional and intellectual connection between non-scientists and the Mesopelagic zone. It was successful in exploring the many possibilities, presenting a final public performance, as well as creating “rough cuts” of two or three discrete experiments.
This project was supported by a competitive seed grant from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) and the Gulf Research Program (programs of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). The grant supports collaborations and investigations resulting from Discovering the Deep Blue Sea: Research, Innovation, Social Engagement, the 14th annual Futures conference, held last November and of which, we are all now Futures alumni.
The IMPel project is an extension of the DAY IN A LIFE working group that emerged organically out of the larger Communication, Adaptation, Resilience and Climate Change working groups at NAFKI. As artists and scientists working together, we quickly developed a shared passion for using theatre and installation as a kind of radical play to disrupt and enliven traditional ways of researching and learning about the deep ocean. We genuinely enjoyed the ratio of artists to scientists, and the ease with which all individuals contributed to the overarching project idea. After throwing together our presentation in the pressure-cooker and quick turnaround framework of the conference, we were eager to gather and spend more in-depth time developing our idea.
JB: Can you talk a bit about your experience as an artist working with and at scientific institutions, such as your recent residency at Scitech Rio Tinto Innovation Central? What are the challenges, or surprises, you encounter?
EGS: One of my first residencies in a scientific institute was in a computer technology research organization and I had selected to work in an area that posed the most challenge for non-scientists to understand its research. The research was crucial in determining risk and viable solutions to supporting complex computer systems and software architecture in the National Government in the event of power failure, system crashing, and security alert. The challenges I faced were learning new knowledge quickly, adapting to an unfamiliar environment, bringing value from an artistic perspective to a new discipline field, and creating a body of work alongside communicating my research perspective. Actually the body of work that evolved from this experience was my "FingerCodes" series that included my residency at the University of California Santa Cruz.
This encounter provided me with an excellent basis to use that experience for working in other residencies. Being placed outside of my comfort zone enabled me to showcase my creative skills and communicate my ideas succinctly in achieving artistic projects in scientific institutions. I have to admit that in some cases, what I found to be overtly “arty” and sometimes abstract in my presentations was equally matched with further abstraction and enthusiasm for collaboration. The results have been outstanding, hence our publication of “Art and science as creative catalysts” and “Understanding Insects”  part of the StellrScope commission and residency at the CSIRO.
My residency, Under the Surface at Scitech Rio Tinto Innovation Central was focused in Western Australia’s mining and minerals and the innovation involved in looking under the earth’s surface, working with research scientists at CSIRO minerals and Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines. Visualizing innovation was a crucial part of this research and the context of scientific brilliance as it places Australia at the cutting edge of global science. Under the Surface was commissioned by the Scitech Discovery Centre to explore ways in which art can help communicate science to non-scientists and scientists alike, particularly in this instance of the science museum. The installation was aimed at playful engagement allowing the audience to interact with the artwork by using their body gesture (hand movement) to control and explore the layers of context. Influenced by scientific innovation and with reference to historical artifacts, Under the Surface was a collaboration of knowledge and information sharing in bringing this artwork to completion. It explores complexity of technology in scientific and industrial innovation, repositories of information (both physical collection and electronic) through visual communication and interpretation through artworks.
Figure 8. The Immersive Mesopelagic Performance Lab: Images Left to Right: Body Mapping – Bioluminescence, ‘Echo-Glocator’, Directional Sound Experiment, Oceanographic Data, IMPel Immersive Performance Lab, Deep Ocean Organisms, Experimenting with Smell, Spatial Awareness - Distance and Location. Supported by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 2017.
In both StellrScope and Under the Surface the number of visitors to the installations were above 18,000, an audience far beyond what I have experience in an art gallery. Admittedly the context of the work is different than showing in the art space although the aims in the making of the work remain artistic. A distinctive surprise is the wear and tear on the works as the children certainly challenge the robustness of the installation and the interactivity of the work. Hopefully in this playfulness, the content was absorbed.
JB: The newest version of perhaps the oldest art technology - the paintbrush - is the virtual reality Tilt Brush made by Google. From your experience, do you think the Tilt Brush is a fad? In your opinion, what's the next version of a 'paintbrush' after this?
EGS: Possibly, the Google Tilt Brush could be perceived as a fad and like any new technologies, the fun is experimenting with the tools and many users are finding the Tilt Brush exciting. I guess it depends on the relevance to your work and the capabilities that can be delivered. Personally, I soon became frustrated at the limit of the “brushes” after I created a few virtual paintings. It was not because of the images I had created but more to do with how I wanted to extend these works into other works and extract the virtual driven concept into physical objects, sculptural forms, and materials research. I had two main objectives really - firstly I wanted to see if I could extend the Under the Surface mining and mineral research to create a virtual gold mine that would be fun to experience, called Gold Rush. This was relatively easy and I enjoyed the effects offered with the brushes and being able to look inside and out of the clusters. I then created a “scene” for the wheat crop and merged some of my 3D Maya images in final renderings of the saved images, as in Mutants.
Overall, I would like to explore the possibilities of Mutants further using new scientific data, seeing what can be visualized in 3D on the web, and collaborating with several participants on the one project in real time and having the options to create new installations, especially pushing the boundaries of physical materials as quite often the challenge can be in adapting for real world solutions and applications for better living. I still enjoy the Tilt Brush as a creative tool such as mapping ideas visually and I would like to explore the game option in working with a team to investigate the interactive elements, building narratives and virtual spaces. I am not sure how the Tilt Brush would cope with large data sets and being able to deliver the visual effects that other software offers but it is brilliant to hear how it is used as part of a learning tool in virtual experiences and VR science labs .
JB: What is the biggest lesson you've learned as an active participant in science-art collaborations, and why?
EGS: The most important lesson I learned was to be prepared for revision of the project whilst driving the original concept to completion. That is not necessary a negative view but one that I came to learn whilst juggling with the whole process of design, build, logistics, politics, and project management. My experience stems from international logistics of building hardware overseas, negotiating international standards of materials, local install at venues, and compliance of safety and regulations procedures that can impact design and aesthetics, power outage impact on devices, and so on. I suppose that can seem a little daunting but having a strong vision, shared with colleagues and the support of the host organization, generates tremendous energy and often extends the possibilities of the project and collaborative initiatives. I would also recommend taking the opportunity to share your ideas as early as possible, as it provides an active and responsive situation for inviting feedback and building a vibrant and successful collaboration.
JB: While the amount of cross-disciplinary work in the art-science-tech realm is on the exponential rise, there is still much headway to be made in terms of infrastructure, funding, visibility, and impact. What's the most important thing you would like to see change in the next 10 years?
EGS: It seems ironic that as creative people we are still trying to prove our value to get ahead of the game and be part of the higher investment opportunities. Being creative does not always equate to being the most desirable or best choice although I would argue that we have the highest means and expertise to collectively be outstanding. Working collaboratively, whether interdisciplinary or mainstream, is an advantage. Maximizing the strength of intellectual ideas and transferring such knowledge into use also empowers audiences, or users, to gain insight of something new, often relating their own experience (and memories) into a level of understanding that has meaning for themselves of the work or research. The advantages are that we can create a work to stand on its own merit, be critiqued, enjoyed, stir emotions, amaze, etc., and we know how to deliver messages, communicate, enhance our environment, and dynamically engage in how we want things to be and look, and to make a difference. These strengths, creative and intellectual tools, are a major asset in collaborative and interdisciplinary research, particularly in extending research development and process beyond experiment into output with industry and business, as well as in the public domain. For me, the scientists who are my collaborators, government, business stakeholders, and the wider public are all an important part of my audience and clearly important to be engaged in the experience of the work and its meaning.
In Australia, my experience of government subsidies and policies as an artist has generally been positive and the benefits personally rewarding in terms of uniting sectors of education, science, and business. There are many organizations for arts funding and research, including the Australian Research Council, the Australia Council for the Arts Creative Partnerships Australia, and the National Association for the Visual Arts to name a few, including the Arts Party. Funding artistic practice is challenging, with artists seeking crowd funding and other entrepreneurial activities as well as working in a related field and/or casual employment to support their artist practice.
I have always been an advocate for researchers to consider artists to be part of their teams. Often the artist is overlooked unless there are visualization components, design elements, and so on. Even then, given the skill base required for software and high-end scientific research, an artist may not have such qualifications. It is not always the case and I personally have had the opportunity to be part of some great teams in science organizations and government projects. Much value has been gained from all parties and I has been rewarding to see the impact that cross-disciplinary work has been attributed. One of the most important things that I would like to see continuing is the strength of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines integrated with the arts, referred to as STEAM. As funding tends to dwindle from the arts it is important that the infrastructure and education of young students are supported and that arts are part of the critical thinking and creative solutions integrated into the importance and emphasis of STEM – STEAM. Too many university arts programs are disappearing and yet cross-disciplinary work is increasing. It is not that creativity has disappeared but rather our skills are advancing, particularly in technology, and the arts are an important facet of challenging and building conceptual and intellectual rigor into the debate.
JB: What are you working on right now, or what's next on the horizon?
EGS: If we acknowledge that plants are intelligent, responsive and adaptable, how would they react or be impacted if we share our DNA? What could we learn from the plants that might show benefits of this fusion and would we gain an insight to the effects on the plants system?
The saying, “feel the blood running through my veins,” is often used to describe our emotions, our mood, feelings or anxiety, especially when we are feeling “pumped” and full of energy or highly charged. The effects of this state are often shown in our human behavior (being nervous and agitated); perspiring – sweating (tasting salty); having a brighter complexion (being flushed and looking red in color); sometimes our decision-making is affected (stronger or weaker responses). What could we learn from this “Blood Fusion” and the plant in terms of its appearance, fragrance, flavor, and behavior?
Working in collaboration with the Orchid Research and Development Center (ORDC) at National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan, I am both artist and scientist, arguably an artist developing her research interests amongst scientists with her sights on scientific enquiry and experimentation with biological material. Here at ORDC many a scientist could equally claim their artistry within the amazing scientific images and output of visual data, likewise I venture into the world of science with artworks aligned to my creative inquisitiveness and lust for experimentation.
My collaboration with the ORDC is multifaceted, sharing the research knowledge of the Center with the wider general public, providing students with the opportunity to work interdisciplinary at the life sciences faculty and also to advance my research knowledge of the Orchid plants. I have been conducting my own experiments, learning advanced techniques from the scientists, and extending my scientific research and obtaining results that will form a basis for new works of art and important documentation. Recording the process becomes part of the artwork. It is this dichotomy of communicating scientific fact, as art and explorative media, that is directly related to the science, history and innovation, that is of interest to my research and ongoing investigation in science and art.