By Helen Albert, Editor
The distinction between art and science hasn’t always been as stark as the modern perception would have you believe. Early astronomers, mathematicians, inventors and biologists would have seen artistic work as an important part of their investigations. But as C. P. Snow pointed out in his infamous “two cultures” essay, the 20th century has seen a movement towards specialisation and thus a segregation of the disciplines. However, in recent years the value of creativity and a different mindset in tackling scientific problems has been re-discovered. For example, using textile knowledge and techniques to design the ideal scaffold to encourage cells to grow new tissues. Artists have also gained much inspiration from science with organisations such as the Global Science Gallery Network and the Wellcome Collection regularly showing work that crosses the divide.
Recognizing this blurring of traditional lines, Central St Martins, University of the Arts London created a pioneering MA in Art and Science that began taking students in 2011. To explore the value that art can have on motivating scientific creativity, members of the Biochemical Society and students and tutors from the MA course met up at the Archway Campus of Central St Martins for a collaborative and hands-on workshop.
The aim of the day was to explore how participants’ work was viewed by others, gain new perspectives, and explore what it means to experiment in both art and science contexts.
Participants were asked to bring one or more objects that related to their work in some way to provoke discussion about their research or practice. These ranged from a dandelion head encased in resin to a model of a CAR T-Cell. Everyone was given a minute to stand up and introduce themselves, as well as explain what their objects meant to them.
The MA students had been tasked with developing exercises for the workshop to help stimulate everyone’s creative juices. The morning sessions focused largely on discussions in rotating groups. These included group poetry writing – where everyone wrote a line of a poem and then passed it round to their neighbour who wrote another (the results were surprisingly good!); as well as a short more active session that could best be described as a combination of yoga and tai-chi.
The afternoon session became more hands on with ‘sensory activities’. These involved artists and scientists pairing up along a long table with one of each pair being blindfolded before swapping over. The first session involved the blindfolded person describing what they could feel in a paper bag and the other person drawing what was being described. The second session was similar except it involved the blindfolded person smelling an unknown smell and describing it to their partner who then drew an image of what the description evoked for them. A wide variety of colourful interpretations and images resulted!
At the end of the afternoon session, the MA students gave the scientists the opportunity to find out more about and participate in their own specific projects. For example, using naturally produced inks to paint with and experiencing an autumn scene through a virtual reality headset.
Finishing off with a discussion session and drinks and networking time, the day was deemed a success by all, with many participants from both the art and science groups expressing a wish to continue the discussion at a later date and potentially set up mutually beneficial art-science collaborations.
By their own words, participants gained “new insights into how Art and Science can work together”, re-affirmed that “artists are similar to scientists in many ways” and “met interesting new people I could potentially collaborate with in the future.” In fact, collaborations are already developing from the day, proving that the closer we can work together, the better for all concerned.
You can find out more about the MA Art and Science course here, including information about their latest exhibitions and shows, and learn about the Biochemical Society’s Education and Public Engagement work here.