Article categories: Guest EditorialsIssue 68
June 4th, 2009

Contemporary art and science share a great deal in common. Not so much in the productions, but certainly in the thought processes they use to get there.  In the context of a future in which innovation is a key driver for success, both art and science could benefit from a good dose of ‘thinking outside the square’. This edition of Filter looks at a growing movement of artists and indeed scientists who are exploring why they should work together.

Explorations in the arts and sciences have fascinated me for some time. I am interested in the spaces between their silos and cultures – in the tensions and explorations that occur at the boundaries. These are the places where new insight and new ‘knowledges’ are often found. After studying both the arts and sciences, much of my work has involved bringing practitioners, or researchers, together and communicating the ideas that result. This step, involving a broader audience – the ‘uninitiated’ – is essential if we want new ideas to have influence and longevity, and it is a hope that this edition of Filter will help spark this.

Both art and science are creative endeavours, involving making new things and articulating new ideas. In both areas of practice there are moments of intense highs and lows, moments of isolated contemplation, repetitive experiments, trial and error and self-correction. Both are also social worlds, where discussions of ideas and continuous questioning and challenge are vital. This process of collaboration is essential in our new world order. It is from collaboration and the cross-fertilisation of ideas  that new discoveries will come. The potential of our ‘collective experience’ and ‘collective consciousness’ is only just beginning to unfold. But how best do we encourage this collective creative expression in individuals and indeed in institutions and organisations?

The world of science research is changing, with developments in research infrastructure encouraging a climate of collaboration in which teams work across disciplines, regions and countries. Rather than large centralised organisations, the best research is being driven by global networks, linked-up science precincts, innovation hubs or distributed nodes. These new structures connect networks of people, encouraging mobility and flexibility rather than fixed and rigid structures.

Investing in human capital is now well recognised as essential for our future. Our research must contribute to solving our most pressing problems, be they violent conflict, economic and cultural inequality or an unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels. Scientists need to see the macro picture, to understand the totality of their research and realise the outcomes, applications and potential of their work. Artists, also working as researchers, can help scientists achieve this. We need to proactively foster this shared creativity and reap the rewards of collaboration for humanity.

Most academics would agree there has been a recent resurgence of interdisciplinarity in intellectual enquiry and its research agendas. But as yet this is only a fringe activity and much needs to be mainstreamed across all organisations, requiring, in the process, major cultural change. Isolated silos of knowledge within the dark corridors of powerful tradition no longer represent our collective wisdom. As is commonly understood, knowledge equals power and it is the fear of losing power that underpins resistance to change. This fear in turn fuels an ignorance and prejudice that leads to deep-seated inequality and discrimination, alarmingly prevalent in the 21st century.

The majority of organisations need reform to encourage and take advantage of these new ways of working, and the changes need to be both administrative and cultural. Fixed structures create inflexible thinking, perceptions and moral judgement and can become isolationist, providing little inspiration or exposure to new relationships, knowledges, practices and experiences.

To address these challenges organisations need to be able to work more ’horizontally’, not just ‘vertically’. Whilst hierarchy can stifle creativity an aware management can actually breathe life into it!

So what do we do about it and how can we make a difference? Well, to borrow a term from science, one way of influencing change is to introduce a catalyst to the system, an enabler with an agenda for change. Such a catalyst paves the way, breaks through structural boundaries and brings groups and cultures together to design and pilot new ideas and programmes. ANAT has played this role in the contemporary arts sector in Australia and, increasingly, with its partners internationally. Because most artists work independently of an organisation or institution (whereas scientists generally work within them) they need support to negotiate collaborative art/science projects, including the securing and allocation of resources.

Organisations such as ANAT are crucial to this brokering and support process and to celebrating the exciting outcomes of such partnerships.

We open this issue with a personal reflection by one of Australia’s most successful new media artists, Justine Cooper, about how her experiences with science and scientists have influenced her work.

Marcello Costa, an internationally regarded neuroscientist who is passionate about unusual alliances in all respects, looks at what makes us creative and reveals the great similarities between explorers of the natural world (scientists) and explorers of inner experiences (artists).

Chris Henschke, a Melbourne-based sound artist, provides insight into the application of such synergies in his account of experimenting with light beams at the Australian Synchrotron.

The practicalities of exhibiting art and science collaborations can be challenging, and their meanings are not always immediately obvious to its audience. The experience of artist Kathy High explores some of these issues.

ANAT has funded artists to work in science and research settings for over 15 years. Snippets of memorable experiences from some of these ANAT sponsored artists represent the diversity of the projects supported.

The international growth of collaborative art/science practice is illustrated in Arantxa Mendiharat’s article surveying the activities of Artsactive, an international network of organizations supporting artists’ programs in science and research labs.

We also hear from two scientists who clearly recognise the benefits of new insights and of ‘thinking outside the square’. Both Tanya Monro and Robert Williamson get it. They explain how the world of science research is moving away from silos of isolated disciplines and provide their own perspectives on the value the arts bring to this process.

In conclusion, I believe that bringing people together from different sectors, interests and cultures can create more than the sum of their parts. Their fusion can create great energy and excitement, resulting in an explosion of ideas and activity. Creative ideas can be unpredictable, as can be their producers! We need organisational and personal change in order to build new and flexible models to accommodate our differences and similarities if we are to capture these ideas.

This edition of Filter hopes to inspire those scientists and artists (and their managers) who have yet to contemplate the value and advantages of collaboration. With benefits potentially flowing to the economic, social and cultural arenas, the time is ripe to invest in our imaginations.

Linda Cooper
Linda Cooper is a consultant for program and policy developments in the arts, sciences and cross-culture issues. She is currently Director of the Bragg Initiative in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet in the Government of South Australia, and is Project Director for the establishment of the Royal Institution Australia as a national organisation based in Adelaide.

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