Article categories: Issue 68
June 5th, 2009

The concept of the Artsactive network came into being in 2005, during a symposium organised by Disonancias in Madrid. A discussion I had with Roger Malina (Leonardo), Jill Scott (Artistsinlabs), Bronac Ferran (Arts Council England), Emmanuel Mahé (France Télécom) revealed a common awareness of the need to share experiences and tools in order to learn from others, as well as to get across to a wider public the importance of developing such exchanges between people from the world of research and industry, and those accustomed to working in art contexts.

The name of the network only emerged a year later at a Symposium organised by Fact in Liverpool, UK. Several proposals for a name incorporated the idea of science and art – because, as we will see later, most of the programmes deal with science, and only a few of them with industry – but we finally chose a name that captures the essence of all the programmes. Specifically, the idea that the arts can play an active role in society, and that artists are professionals who should be integrated (as should any other professional) into research teams so as to share different values, ideas or methodologies.

The network has grown since 2005, and has incorporated new members on the basis of a simple criterion: all promote the integration of artists in science or industry contexts, or the integration of scientists or entrepreneurs within art contexts. Today the network gathers together 11 organisations that each run their own exchange programmes, two organisations that promote them, and four experts who develop work directly related to them. Most of the members are located in Europe (in the Czech Republic, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland), two in the USA (San Francisco and San José) and two in Australia (Adelaide and Perth). New programmes – since they answer a real need in society – are being created in several countries, and the network will certainly grow over the coming years.

Although each programme is independent and has its own characteristics (its own objectives, organisational models and fields of activity), I will try here to establish a very basic typology with which to describe them.

The general objectives can be broken down into four lines of approach:

    1. To create new representations of scientific or industrial development in order to disseminate the fruits of research within society at large (Artistsinlabs, Arts Catalyst, Ectopia, Leonardo, Transgenesis).
    2. To encourage debate about ethical issues, and to change contexts and directions, mainly in the field of science, computing and biotechnologies (Arts and Genomics Center, Artistsinlabs, Arts Catalyst, SymbioticA).
    3. To develop new sources of innovation and creativity, which can lead to the creation of models or prototypes (ANAT, Arts Council England, Disonancias, Leonardo, Fuse).
    4. To democratise knowledge (SymbioticA).

The programmes deal mainly with sciences (biology, physics and computer science in the case of Artistsinlabs; air, space and biotechnology in the case of Arts Catalysts; genomics in the case of Arts and Genomics Center; biology or wet biology in the case of Ectopia and SymbioticA; and  general sciences in the case of Transgenesis), with a combination of science and industry (ANAT, Arts Council England) or mainly with industry (Disonancias, Fuse).

Five of the programmes are promoted by public organisations associated with the art field: one directly from an administration (the Arts Council England), and the others from public or publicly funded organisations (ANAT, Arts Catalyst, Item and Transgenesis).

Four of the programmes are organised from media art / design universities (Artistsinlabs, Fuse), or science universities (Arts and Genomics Center, SymbioticA). Two of the observers (James Leach and Samuelle Carlson) also come from academia.

The other programmes are led by private initiatives, but still very few are supported by industry or innovation-related public administrations: Ectopia is supported by a private foundation (the Gulbenkian Foundation), Leonardo gets its funding from various private and public sources, Disonancias is run by a private company working in arts management (with the support of the regional government’s department of industry), Emmanuel Mahé (advisor) works within a private company (Orange R&D), and Bronac Ferran (advisor) works freelance.
It is interesting to note that almost none of these initiatives are run by art centres (except ITEM, which is run by FACT, and the participation of the Montalvo Arts Center in Fuse).

Artsactive is developing a series of tools to help the development of the programmes:

* Sharing model contracts between organising entities, labs/companies and artists.
* Establishing a list of labs/companies and artists that have participated in the different programmes, and thus encouraging the transfer of knowledge and information not only between the members of the network but also between their partners.
* Establishing a list of artists that have registered patents, in order to boost the profile of artists as formal researchers, although we also want to use other legal criteria in the future.
* Communicating calls for artists and events organised around this theme;
* Developing a list of reference publications and blogs about art/science/industry collaborations.

As I mentioned earlier, most of the programmes were created only recently, while the results are clearly projected in a context of mid-term or long-term outputs. That is why one of the remaining tasks for Artsactive is to develop, not only individually, but also collectively, indicators to assess the developments of the programmes and the results of the collaborations.

Artsactive is obviously a work in progress. Much effort still needs to be put in, but we are convinced that the growing development of the economy of knowledge in the western countries, the necessity to develop strategies of ’open innovation‘(that seek a balance between internal and external sources of innovation for labs and companies), as well as the need to integrate ethical issues within any economic, social or scientific activity, will lead more and more organisations to seek contributions from artists, either to fundamental or to applied research projects. We hope that the previous work done by all the programmes individually and within Artsactive network will make it possible to move from an experimental scale to a much greater level of activity across a broader group of countries.

Practical information: If you are a company / lab, or an artist / group of artists wishing to participate in one of the programmes: most of them organise calls for labs/companies, and calls for artists; you can also contact them directly through their web pages to submit your request. If you organise art/science/industry collaborations, and you want to join the network: contact the member who is geographically closest to you. If this member thinks you fit within the network criteria, he/she will submit the application to the others, and the decision will be made collectively.

Arantxa Mendiharat
Arantxa Mendiharat (Bayonne, France) has been coordinating DISONANCIAS from Donostia – San Sebastian (Spain) since the platform was launched in 2005. She is also co-founder of She studied political sciences in Bordeaux and arts management in Paris and Edinburgh. Her main interest lies in the links between artistic practices and social changes.

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