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March 26, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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The Art of Science

Making Science Human

Fracking; fossil, nuclear and green energy; medicine and food production; geoengineering, biotechnology; fluoride in your water – if we do live in a democracy, your opinions on all of these technological hairballs are important. But what if most of us laypeople feel we lack scientific literacy to engage? Do we leave all the ethical conundrums to scientists and legislators?

To Rob Zwijnenberg, director of the Arts and Genomics Centre in the Netherlands, the answer is clear: “we cannot leave the decisions about societal applications of new technologies to scientists alone.” What’s more, he adds that it would be “inconceivable not to involve artists… in these discussions.” Artists? Like, pseudo- intellectuals who leave screwed up bits of paper in the corners of galleries?

Popular notions of art and science have crystallised to the point of stagnation–yet try to sum up the differences between them and you’ll struggle to say anything that holds water. Of course: each discipline is populated by people more similar than different, and the categories are just functional constructions relating to conventions and public expectations. By now, these expectations have seen the two disciplines evolve complementary needs: art wants substantiation as more than ‘entertainment’, and science needs humanisation away from inaccessible fact- finding.

Contemporary movers and shakers are traversing the art/science boundary to explore the issues bringing these two widely misunderstood disciplines closer together.

Zwijnenberg’s work is at the cutting edge of art/science collaboration, and speaks to its urgency. He facilitates controversial ‘bioart’ collaborations in university laboratories, using biotechnology and living materials, to ‘culturally embed’ science, and unearth critique regarding disparities between laboratory and everyday ethics. “The materials, tools and technologies of the life sciences are hardly neutral… [but] rife with all sorts of cultural, political, social and ethical assumptions and implications,” he explains.

Internationally, bioartists include Tissue Culture and Art, who create “living sculptures,” and “victimless meat” grown from stem cells, as well as Eduardo Kac, who in 2007 campaigned to free Alba, a green transgenic rabbit, from the science laboratory. Zwijnenberg himself works with Adam Zaretsky, known for his “quest for a transgenic aesthetic,” tinkering with embryos to build the ultimate designer zebrafish and two-headed pheasant. Guided by a driving concern to address the question ‘who owns life?’, Zwijnenberg invites arts students into the lab to explore the possibilities within the parameter of policy and legislation–“bioethics in action”.

Bill Manhire believes that inventiveness whilst working within such parameters characterises the practice of art and science: the capacity to notice the strange or surprising whilst experimenting within constraints. Manhire (Director of Victoria’s Institute of Modern Letters) co- edited Are Angels OK? with physicist Paul Callaghan: a collection of stories, poems and illustrations compellingly capturing scientific concepts, through collaborations between prominent New Zealand writers and scientists.

A work of art opens a void, a moment of silence, a question without answer, provokes a breach without reconciliation – Michel Foucault

In Zwijnenberg’s work, the artwork is this “open space created by the interaction between the embryos, tools, procedures, moral hesitations, public anxiety and scientific hubris. Only in such an undefined open space can fruitful and non- hierarchical exchange and understanding arise.” He believes that all people–not just scientists–should have the capacity to tinker with biotechnology–with life. This means the possibilities must be explored from within the lab, not speculated on from outside. Art’s open investigation of public response enables legislative change to precede commercial availability of technology.

Sophie Jerram’s Now Future also made climate change discussions rigorous–both in specificity and scope. Combining the empiricism of scientists with the thematic inquiry of photographers, musicians and playwrights, the project generated discussion on topics from meteorology to melting ice caps and a world post- supermarket, whilst exploring the diverse belief systems implicated in climate change.

The New Zealand Government aspires to be a centre for science innovation. Considering all these concerns, alongside our government’s ambition, the need for quality science teaching is self-evident. Rex Bartholemew is a much-loved lecturer on science teaching at Victoria’s education faculty, who likes to quote Niels Bohr: “when it comes to atoms, language can only be used as in poetry.” Einstein, Carl Sagan and Dawkins have also made statements to this tune: imagination, creativity, beauty, metaphor and visualisation make art and science more similar than distinct. Indeed, the distinction is a relatively young legacy of the Enlightenment’s taxonomic fragmentation of academic disciplines.

Rex is concerned to “put a human face on science,” often seen as precise and clinical. To him, it has shifted from being a hands- on, explorative art driven by curiosity–a way of looking at the world–to simply a practice of gathering and verifying data. “Along the way, we’ve lost a bit of the beauty of science,” he says, comparing early botanists’ science journals with today’s dry equivalents. He advocates arts, mythology, as well as a favourite notion of Kaitihakitanga–guardianship–to build a big picture and contextualise science. Science doesn’t do expansive, niggly ‘why’ questions, and “it is important that students can ask, ‘What’s the implication of what I’m learning for me?’”

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe – Carl Sagan

In the words of Doris Zuur, founder of Te Ra Steiner school: ‘”learning is not a matter of downloading information for later upload.” Though if you do search ‘tomcfad’ on youtube, you’ll meet Tom McFadden, Otago University’s ‘science rapper’, who raps science in schools and online to make science comprehensible, engaging and relevant. McFadden says he had several such teachers who taught science as “a messy, human attempt to make sense of the world,” rather than facts for a test, or “truths handed down from high”. In human biology, he discovered an engaging window for interdisciplinary exploration.

Elizabeth Connor’s mission is to create “a social epidemic of science enthusiasm,” largely through her Tell Us a Story project, which invites science PhDs to tell engaging 7-minute science stories in light-hearted competition (“singing is good, pictures are good, wobbly hands are cool, shaky knees are awesome…”). The project enables scientists to communicate the excitement of their work, where the media’s portrayal of science tends to controversies rather than processes or inexplicable beauties.

Before Tell Us a Story, Connor felt suffocated in her work, referring to the stifling need to extract all personal pronouns out of science reports (consider Darwin lamenting, “I’ve become nothing more than a machine for grinding theories out of facts!”). Like Zwijnenberg, she warns that the effect of a discipline steering itself through purely technical language can be “horrific”, disguising human or ethical concerns. Work can proceed too methodically, for instance in the treatment of medical patients (poet- doctor Glenn Colquhoun’s wonderful Playing God explores this theme).

These projects all humanise science by bridging the gap with arts, enabling audiences to engage with, enjoy, and challenge scientific concepts, while also exploring wide ranging topical debates. According to Zuur, engagement in science begins with hands-on experience and awe, ultimately leading to the question ‘why?’. From this point, all learning is relative to the individual; “the moment it becomes personal,” she says, “it becomes creative.” If New Zealand is to become a centre for science innovation, let it be through more collaboration with arts!

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  1. Author says:

    Please note the ‘Now Future’ project was a collaboration between Sophie Jerram and Dugal McKinnon. Apologies for not including Dugal’s name in the original published article.

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