Debra Henning: Disappearing the Gulf between the Arts and Sciences

By Debra Henning

“We are in a revival of a cosmopolitan renaissance where we make the combination again between imagination and knowledge. We need art and science to make a connection. Out of this we can create new things for the future.”
– Koen Vanmechelen

When Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution appeared in 1959, author Charles Percy Snow, a trained molecular physicist and a successful novelist, succeeded in calling attention to a problem that had long been on his mind – the cultural divide that existed between scientists and humanists. “The intellectual life of the whole of western society,” he warned, “is increasingly being split into two polar groups. The problem was a “total incomprehension of science,” and there was, he wrote, “only one way out: it is by rethinking our education” (pp.19-20).

What Snow wanted was a rigorous system of education, patterned in part on the Russian system, in which both theoretical, as well as applied science and engineering would become integral to the intellectual life of the country. Ever the scientist and novelist, Snow had a unique perspective on the success of Russian education. It could be judged, at least in part, he believed, by the extent to which science became assimilated into art.

“One finds that [Russia’s] novelists can assume… at least a rudimentary acquaintance with what industry is all about. Pure science doesn’t often come in…but engineering does come in … They are as ready to cope in art with the process of production as Balzac was with the processes of craft manufacture” (p. 38).

For the most part, however, Snow found it “bizarre how very little of twentieth-century science has been assimilated into twentieth century-art… It has got to be assimilated along with, and as part and parcel of, the whole of our mental experience, and,” he added, “used as naturally as the rest” (pp. 17-18).

Forward a half-century from the publication of Two Cultures, and we find promising signs that the assimilation of science with art that Snow advocated is, indeed, occurring. In art processes and evaluations, including those created by the MAEIA project, art and science come together to re-contextualize and bring to life – sometimes quite literally – the abstract concepts of science and, further, to apply theory to practice in innovative art/science collaborations.

In keeping with the cross-disciplinary focus of the Next Generation Science Standards and the National Core Arts Standards, MAEIA’s model assessments include, for example, an assessment titled, “From Landscape to Land Art,” in which students are asked to analyze what the artist’s portrayal of nature tells us about his or her view of the natural world. In the assessment, students are presented with images that demonstrate the creative assimilation of science within art. With works of art ranging from Edward Hick’s familiar Peaceable Kingdom to a photo of Indra’s Cloud, created by Anne Percoco from over 1000 water bottles and floated on the polluted Yamuna River in India, students are asked to create a docent’s guide that explains how the artist uses contextual information, visual elements, and media to convey his or her view of nature. In the process, students must come to terms with National Core Arts and Next Generation Science Standards, “relating artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical contexts,” while also developing an understanding of “how Earth’s surface processes and human activities affect each other?”
Art\science collaborations, including those indexed at Synapse and many others taking place at such centers of collaboration as Harvard’s Artscience Laboratory, MIT’s Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST), and the Network for Science, Engineering, Arts, and Design (SEAD) at Texas A&M University, offer educators and students, alike, rich opportunities to re-contextualize and perhaps better understand scientific concepts through creative artistic expression. The following artists are a few among many who are currently bridging the arts with Earth and life science.
Artist Mara Hasseltine creates “art that addresses the link between our biological and cultural evolution.” Embracing the practice of geotherapy, Hasseltine explains, “we are at the dawn of the Anthropocene age, where human generated pollution threatens the habitability of the biosphere. The principles of Geotherapy encompass the cross-section between art, technology, and social change.” Upon engaging, for example, with her micro-portraits of coral, “the viewer takes part in how life functions beyond the lens of what the human eye can perceive.” In an uncanny application of a concept straight from the NGSS, Hasseltine has used nature’s microscopic structures and patterns to create at the macroscopic level, incorporating the patterns of fish gills to build artificial habitat structures for oysters.
When Glenn Kaino, a Los Angeles-based conceptual artist, explored the behavior of coral polyps, he uncovered a link to human behavior. In a review of Kaino’s exhibit Tank, Hannah Stamler explains, “Tank integrates fragments of a decommissioned M-60 Patton military tank into aquarium environments. There, the translucent cast pieces of the tank are transformed into breeding grounds for coral polyps, which will continue to grow in seven aquariums, slowly spreading and articulating their progress in bright colors and patterns.” While participating in Detroit’s Culture Lab 2016, Kaino explained that the project originated from a military experiment in which old tanks were dropped into the ocean, where coral and algae soon covered the eroding metal and created a new environment for marine life. But Kaino also discovered a dark side in his “living paintings.” As colonies of coral approached each other, the organisms responded with chemical and mechanical means to ‘protect’ their boundaries. Stemler: “In Kaino’s words, corals’ reclamation and negotiation of space suggest that ‘at the most basic level of life there is a colonial urge…..[T]he impulse toward colonialism may exist in nature.’” If so, that acknowledgment might serve as “a first step towards addressing and ultimately combating this instinct in ourselves.”

One of the most compelling examples of the assimilation of science with art comes from the Belgium artist, Koen Vanmechelen, founder of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP), now in its twenty-fifth year. To use Snow’s words, Vanmechelen has made science “part and parcel of the whole of [his] mental experience” and uses that knowledge “as naturally as the rest”.” As explained on Vanmechelen’s website, “The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP, 1999) is a global, trans-disciplinary and trans-temporal examination of the themes of bio-cultural diversity and identity through the interplay of art, science and beauty. In the CCP, artist Koen Vanmechelen crossbreeds chicken breeds from different countries. His ultimate goal is the creation of a Cosmopolitan Chicken carrying the genes of all the planet’s chicken breeds. Much more than a mere domesticated animal, the chicken is art in itself. It serves as a metaphor for the human animal and its relationship with the biological and cultural diversity of the planet…. Vanmechelen’s crossings are solutions. Many years of crossbreeding have proven that each successive generation of hybrids is ‘better’. It is more resilient, it lives longer, is less susceptible to diseases, and it exhibits less aggressive behavior. Genetic diversity is essential, proves the Cosmopolitan Chicken Research Project (CC®P).” The 20th species of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, the Mechelse Wyandotte, is now in Detroit, Michigan as part of Vanmechelen’s exhibit ENERGY/MASS at the Wasserman Projects.

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