Artists in the Lab. Some Critical Remarks


The neuroscientist Steven Rose claims that an instrument itself, e.g. a scientific tool, shapes, and sometimes reduces, the world it depicts and our perception of it. Thus, when we hold a hammer, everything will appear more or less as a nail (Rose, 2005). But what would happen if the same instrument were taken out of its original context and employed in an alternative way to its prescribed usage?

The existence of a relationship between art and science and the use of scientific instruments by artists is neither surprising nor a unique feature of our contemporary age despite the scepticism of those who considered humanities and sciences two separate domains (Snow, 1998). From the nineteenth century onwards science and art have become autonomous. Before that time art and science shared the same epistemological horizon: science was not a finite body of knowledge but natural philosophy. Art itself was embedded in natural philosophy as, for example, theories and practices in anatomy as Vesalius’ De humanis corporis fabrica (1543) clearly show. In the Renaissance, artists such as Filippo Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, Leon Battista Alberti have been systematically confronted with science and, in particular, with a science of vision as testified by their use of perspective and machines for vision.

In the past decade there has been a proliferation of science-art exhibitions and festivals drawing the attention of the public to the cross-fertilisation between techno-science and art and to the artefacts produced within artist-in-the-lab projects. Border traffic between art and science has become an important feature of various innovative, late twentieth-century research practices such as genomic and brain research. Technologically embodied science becomes the material site of collaboration between scientists and artists with a common drive to experimentation. But is it really solely due to these collaborations that the boundaries between the two cultures become permeable?

In the UK, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) was created in 1998, the sci-art consortium the following year. The 2001 report ‘Imagination and Understanding’ published by the Council of Science and Technology (CST) further fosters the development of collaborations between scientists and artists. The report points out that divisions between arts, sciences and education are considered a cause of deceleration of the economy, therefore, a scheme which supports the creation of innovative outcomes from collaborative projects among artists, scientists and universities is felt necessary.

Such collaboration is growing steadily partly because artists are eager to use high-tech instruments that are more likely to be developed within the scientific field. One of the plausible reasons for the popularity of these partnerships is the sense of frailty of the individual facing the challenges and complexities of our technically-driven world.
The understanding of complex phenomena and the attempt to make sense of the chaotic stimuli that overwhelm us is somehow made easier. On the one hand, in the aseptic laboratory, the attention focused on single details, the scientific way of proceeding by hypothesis and assumptions to be tested through well defined experiments, might reduce the artistic tension born of confronting the complexity of the world. On the other hand, collaborating with an artist might help the scientist explore hybrid methods and even challenge the experimental system itself.

An ‘experimental system’ is a closed and well-defined system, apt for simplifying the complexity of the phenomenon to be analysed, but, at the same time, it must always rely on the epistemic horizon of other systems and landscapes that might redefine the experimental object and, consequently, the ‘experimental system’ involving it (Rheinberger, 1997). Departing from the reduction of complexity, an ‘experimental system’ might face the re-presentation of complexity after fragmentation. This new complexity might pose questions and problems not only for the analysis and interpretation of the experiment in question but even for future scenarios. However, the cross-fertilisation of scientific by artistic procedures might help lay bare and challenge the assumptions followed when preparing and interpreting an experiment.

That said, a number of contemporary experiments growing out of art-science collaboration do not really influence or leave a trace on the artist’s or the scientist’s practice. Too often such collaboration does not evolve into autonomous and vital experiences – whether artistic or scientific – disjointed from commercial and scientific outputs or, if they do, those results are not easy to track down beyond temporary exhibitions or symposia (1). In order to grasp the possible reciprocal synergies between the artist’s and the scientist’s practices, those collaborations should be discussed and analysed in their unfolding as well as in the traces they leave in the everyday activity of the scientist and of the artist.

The ‘attached observer’ – a methodological stance taken from the ethnographic field – is an attempt to understand the process rather than only the outputs of these collaborative projects. The introduction of a third agent beyond the artist and the scientist has the merit of focusing attention on the forms of the collaboration itself not only retrospectively, as often happened in papers and articles written after the collaborative project had already ended, but while the project unfolds within the laboratory (Leach, 2006: 447-451). Consequently, the key words are process – not output – and interaction between the people involved.
The attached observer acts as an observer and sometimes even as a participant within the project, triggering questions, facilitating and questioning the interaction itself, exploring possibilities that might show new directions of research for the artist and the scientist individually, even after the specific collaboration has ended (Mandelbrojt, 1994). As social anthropologist James Leach puts it: ‘those new directions, perhaps more than any finished physical output, are a genuinely collaborative product, unimaginable without the particular relationships between those involved’ (2006: 449).

Clearly, when the ‘attached’ observer is designated by the institution which hosts and finances the collaboration between scientist and artist, the risk is to create a highly controlled environment. A fruitful cross-fertilisation between art and science can happen outside regulated artist-scientist collaboration. This is not to say that such collaboration is meaningless nor sterile, but a common space for experimentation might be created even in the absence of an actual interaction between the two actors involved (artist and scientist, science and art) in a physical space. Being in the same space – the ‘artist in the lab’ projects – is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for opening up a common space for interaction. By way of conclusion, I would like to recall Rose’s statement. While the artistic use of a scientific instrument is not per se capable of maintaining the complexity of the phenomenon under investigation, nevertheless, some artists’ practices, regardless of their taking place inside a scientific laboratory, might be a possible means to keep the hammer in the hand without reducing the world to a nail.

Nota: (1) For a critical perspective on contemporary artist-scientist collaboration see Dorfles (2001). For a positive evaluation of such collaboration see Ede (2005) and also Arends and Thackara (2003) who showcase a number of artist-scientist collaboration sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest non-governmental source of funds for biomedical research.

Bibliographical references:
Arends, Bergit and Thackara, Davina. (Eds.). 2004. Experiment: Conversations in Art and Science. London: Wellcome Trust.
Dorfles, Gillo. 2001. Ultime Tendenze nell’Arte Oggi: dall’Informale al Neo-Oggettuale. Milano: Feltrinelli.
Ede, Siân. 2005. Art and Science. London: I.B. Tauris & Company.
Leach, James. 2006. ‘Extending Contexts, Making Possibilities: An Introduction to Evaluating the Projects’. Leonardo. 39.5. 447-451.
Mandelbrojt, Jacques. 1994. ‘Art and Science: Similarities, Differences and Interactions’. Leonardo. 27.3. 179-180.
Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 1997. ‘Experimental Complexity in Biology: Some Epistemological and Historical Remarks’. Philosophy of Science. December Supplement 64. 245-254.
Rose, Steven. 2005. The 21st Century Brain. Explaining, Mending and Manipulating the Mind. London: Jonathan Cape-Random House.
Snow, Charles P. 1998. The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Silvia Casini è dottore di ricerca in Film and Visual Studies (Queen’s University, Belfast -Russell Group, UK) e collabora con Observa nell’ambito di progetti internazionali sui rapporti tra scienza e società.