Interdisciplinarity: Artistic Merit

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Professor James K. Gimzewski was highlighted in Nature Magazine’s feature about scientists who are merging together their love of science and art. Hybrid art–science efforts have gained support in recent years. Some institutions see them as a means of enhancing creativity and innovation, and a growing number are creating cross-disciplinary centres. Examples include the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and the Art|Sci Center + Lab at UCLA. “We are absolutely on the brink of a new renaissance,” says James Gimzewski, a nanobiologist at UCLA who began collaborating with artists ten years ago in the hope of engaging and educating the public. Artistic collaborations seem to thrive particularly in newer areas of scientific exploration, including synthetic biology, nanotechnology, robotics and neuroscience.

Blue Morph, by Victoria Vesna and James K. Gimzewski

“We’re trying to raise the visibility of our interest in supporting art–science collaborative projects,” says Bill O’Brien, senior adviser for programme innovation at the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in Washington DC, which is increasingly directing funds to science- and technology-focused arts projects — responding, in part, to growing interest. It spent about US$963,000 on such grants in 2012, up from $304,000 in 2009.

Other major science funders are also fostering academic efforts to create art–science collaborations. Guna Nadarajan, dean of the University of Michigan School of Art & Design in Ann Arbor, is helping to build the NSF-funded Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design (SEAD) to help artists and scientists to connect and collaborate, and to explore how to conduct research at the intersection of art, science and engineering. So far, SEAD has 300 participants across 30 research institutions and art colleges.

Meroë Candy, senior arts adviser to the Wellcome Trust in London, one of the world’s largest biomedical-research funders, says that the organization’s arts budget has grown from £100,000 (US$153,000) in 1996 to £1.4 million this year.

Industry, too, has discovered the potential of artistic aspirations. “Executives are eagerly hiring people who bring a key element of creativity to produce game-changing ideas,” says Nadarajan.

Artistic interests often help scientists to enhance their own creativity in the lab. After 11 years as an evolutionary biologist at the University of Montreal in Canada, François-Joseph Lapointe was restless — so in 2005, he started a second PhD in dance. These days, he pursues both dance and scientific research. When his science focused on finding genetic signals of evolutionary lineages, for example, he developed choreography that assigned movements to each DNA nucleotide, and performers danced out their own genetic codes. He has begun work on metagenomics, or the study of genetic material in a particular environment, and hopes to sequence his dancers’ microbial genomes. Some colleagues suggest that splitting his time means that he is shortchanging his science, but he disagrees. “I am happier and more productive when I use my brain differently,” he says.

Meaningful scientific advances can benefit from an artistic perspective, says Gimzewski. Scientists often think reductively, in terms of phenomena isolated from their environment; artists, by contrast, observe and study inter-related phenomena and then craft an interpretation. For three years, Gimzewski has been working on a project to build an artificial brain, funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and he says that he would never have tackled such a complex project without his visual-arts experience, which changed his science. “I used to look at single molecules, but it’s essential in the world today to work in complex environments,” says Gimzewski.

You can read the original story here.
James K. Gimzewski’s ART|SCIENCE PROJECTS webpage
Victoria Vesna’s webpage