Article categories: Scientific Serendipity
March 17th, 2010

I’ve been thinking about artist and scientist collaborations recently. I have been wondering why I find them so compelling and so important? Why, for instance, I am fascinated and drawn to the results and outputs of such collaborations? Why, when science and art join in these collaborations new ideas and understanding emerge that don’t emerge in other ways? And in particular, why do some of the results of these art and science collaborations give me some hope for the future at a time when many of the other results of technology, make me a little nervous about our lives and even our planet (instead of making my life easier and more comfortable as promised)?

This started me thinking about other forms of multi-disciplinary collaborations. In particular, it got me thinking about the apparently successful, and widely practised, form of collaboration that we usually call the corporation. It combines multiple professionals, including designers, engineers, manufacturers, salespeople, marketers, logisticians, MBAs, lawyers and political lobbyists. The output of these collaborations has filled our malls, living rooms and bedrooms with so much stuff that it would make Ottoman Sultans, Aztec Emperors and the entire court of Louis the XIV collectively green with envy. These corporations have filled our roads with swift and powerful vehicles, our skies with amazing flying machines, and our waters with small pleasure craft and massive tankers. And yet, I would say, they have not filled us with deep satisfaction and understanding.

These same collaborative forces, in conjunction with endless user tests, focus groups, customer feedback forms and surveys of all sorts have also produced vast oceans of popular art. Music of myriad genres is distributed on invisible waves and silvery disks that fill the stores. In theatres our eyes are overwhelmed with large moving pictures of real actors and synthetic creatures; in our living rooms we can view tens of channels devoted to humorous family bickering and police SWAT actions. And, though many of these dazzling works are created with advanced technologies, I rarely come away enlightened or enriched.

These same global collaborations, having first scattered us about the landscape with planes and automobiles, have now given us amazing forms of communications to reconnect us. Just this morning I talked by phone with my mother on the other side of a continent and received ten pieces of email from friends in four countries. I can instant message with my son or put digital photos of my vacation on the Internet for the entire globe to see. There is even remote video conferencing, invented with the express purpose of allowing the far-flung employees to collaborate even better. Yet all these mediated meetings seem only like fragments of human interaction. I will travel great distances, at great expense, for a simple hug.

There is little doubt about the sheer inventiveness brought forth by these company-based collaborations. I have worked in corporations and loved the complex human interaction and the creativity they engender. In fact, they seem to produce new things in such quantity, in such abundance, that, frankly, we are getting the sense that it all might be about to destroy the world. This cornucopia has surely destroyed our sense of self in our own culture, in our own tribe. Where, really, did the 10, 000 things in my kitchen come from? Who thought of them? What am I to make of them? I can’t even remember buying most of them. Ask anyone and they will tell you they’d love to get rid of a lot of the junk that is cluttering their lives. Something deep and fundamental seems to have gone wrong, not with our ability to make things, but our ability to make things that matter.

So I’ve been thinking hard about collaborations and wondering if there might be others forms of collaboration that together with our existing corporate collaborations might actually create a world we really want to live in.

Now there are two professions that seem to stand somewhat outside the usual process of making new products: art and science. They are unusual in that they seem more like callings than professions. Though there is something similar about them, they rarely get together on their own to collaborate. But when they do, and it usually requires some help, the result can be something special that helps us make sense of and understand our world. In the end this sense making and understanding may allow us to design and build new products and services that do that thing that we all want; create a world that we all want to actually live in.

Of course, the scientist is not totally unconnected to the on-going corporate collaborations. Scientific explorations of the physical world, and the resulting equations, make the work of the corporate engineer and designer both easier and more original. Thus large companies hire scientists as employees, feeling perhaps that they have cornered part of the equation market.

On the other hand, I don’t think I am speaking out of turn in saying that this science-corporate relationship is a little uncomfortable. The transient, trend-driven commodities that are the output of companies are antithetical to science’s deep and timeless way of thinking about the universe. The scientist, with vision and intelligence, attempts to sort through the local effluvia to find what is permanent, simple and universal. The secretive process by which product is made is often in direct odds with the open, peer-reviewed one required by scientists for the untangling of nature. The corporation may provide the scientist with a desk, cool tools and a paycheque, but it is at best a marriage of convenience.

Artists also collaborate with corporations but more tangentially. Their work for instance, when purchased at all, is often purchased by companies for their lobbies, or by executives for their homes. Artists, unlike scientists, are not usually seated at company desks (partly of their own choice, partly because they are notoriously hard to manage). But their visions and works help define the products of mass culture, including advertising – from the loopy riffs of Moby to the distressed, flickering pop-up ads on the world wide web.

The artist also acquires technology from the corporation. Unlike the camel hair brush and violin, which were tools designed specifically for the artist, the video camera and the computer were developed by companies for industrial use and then for the general public and appropriated by the artist. But this too is an uneasy marriage (like a labor activist marrying the boss’s daughter). Am I using this digital tool because it makes interesting art, or am I making a statement by using it, the artist asks at every turn.

So I have been thinking about collaborations lately, and how powerful they can be. In particular I have been thinking a lot about art and science collaborations and how, since they are so famously difficult to set up what is it that compels us to push these somewhat like-charged particles together?

From the artist’s perspective it can’t simply be to get more technology. As Billy Kluver, the director of the early art/technology program EAT noted: artists need engineers, not scientists, to help them build and program their works. And from the scientist’s perspective, it can’t simply be to help with complex visualization and knowledge transfer problems. For that task, really, the scientist needs a good designer, not an artist.

From the enlightened curator’s (or the concerned citizen’s) perspective, the goal of such collaborations might be to shake the artist loose from the Sophist post-modernist stance where everything is “socially constructed” and just “language all the way down.” It’s not and science is a good place to learn that. And likewise, it could be to shake the scientist loose from the equally Sophist, Positivist stance where it’s all particles and laws and fierce causality. It’s not and art is a good place to learn that.

But I don’t think that is what is at the heart of it.

I have been thinking about collaborations and the future of the world lately. Our world. A speck of dust in the vast universe on whose surface we all live. Where, as it is now commonly said, half of the people live on less than two dollars per day. Where one half suffers from strange spiritual diseases such as ‘information overload’ and “attention deficit disorder” while the other half dies of cancer from relocated factories and malnutrition from displaced local farms. Where, now that the Internet, CNN and Al Jezeera[1] allow us to see each other, we seem to be only able to speak to each other by blowing up buildings and flattening villages.

Here’s one thing we know about ecologies: diversity produces longevity, innovation and dense beauty. The artist/scientist collaboration is not oppositional to the corporate collaboration. Quite the opposite, it provides another source of creativity, one that is by its very nature both deeply historical and cutting edge. It may be the best way for art and science to intersect with corporations. It grows its flowers from the strata beneath the surface of the popular topsoil, from the fundamental parts of our culture. Neither Luddite, nor irrationally effusive, art/science collaborations can be dyads that seek the deep, the lasting, the thoughtful, the intelligent, the important, the pleasurable, the true: not as after-thought but as primary inspiration. They have, in conjunction with other collaborations, the potential of forming a meaningful backbone on which a new, variety-strewn, planet-wide civilization can be grown. It hurts my soul to think of the alternative.

Designers and engineers often think of what they do as solving problems. But that’s not how artists and scientists think of what they do. They create objects and ideas that bend the very fabric of our lives, pushing out the envelope in which innovation can occur. Combining the aesthetic with the physical, the artist with the scientist, produces not with just more art and science (which it does); or better artists and scientists (which it does); but it might also transform the matrix of innovation here to create a spectacular and productive six billion-seat space ship that we want to live on.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about.

Rich Gold (USA) is a composer, inventor, artist, cartoonist, lecturer and researcher. He created the widely emulated PAIR (PARC Artist-In-Residence) program, as well as the RED Group (which combines art and design with science and engineering).

[1] Arabic Language Broadcast Network

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