Curating Art and Science: preserving quality

In the Spring of 2017 I was part of a project called Friendly Stalking. Being an aspirant philosopher, the project required me to follow an artist and his research work at the Zero Footprint Campus on the University of Utrecht. For me, this was a first practical encounter between science and art, which resulted in a growing fascination for the crossovers and new developments in science, tech and art.

I can’t say it was an easy run though. For several reasons, I felt frustrated and irritated during the process of developing a well-founded opinion about this project. Now, I know there is nothing wrong with frustration; it often functions as a catalyst for further investigation. However, there is nothing more difficult than putting intuition into words when feelings are preventing to think clearly. I needed some reflection on this project to help structure my thoughts, so I discussed it with a lot of artist friends, curators, and scientists and attended a course on curating art and science projects. I decided I wanted to explore different ways to approach these new kinds of art forms, which make use of the latest techniques and scientific research and therefore apply a particular kind of methodology. How can we preserve quality within these projects?

Equal Level playing field

Back to Friendly Stalking; what was it all about? Friendly Stalking aimed to stimulate a two-way traffic by inviting scientists to actively relate to the artists at Zero Footprint Campus – part of Department of Search University of Utrecht. Scientists who accurately follow the ‘work in progress’ of the artist thus have the opportunity to explore new ways of inquiry that can lead to the enrichment and deepening of their own scientific work.

As one of the participating scientists, I followed an artist by the name of Arne Hendriks, whose project was titled ‘KankerCel’ (CancerCell). With KankerCel, Arne…

 

“wanted to create an equal level playing field for sharing views on growth. By creating a stimulating space for learning, which included a bar for protein shakes; a garden for growing furniture; and a dialogue room to initiate discussions between cancer researchers and economists; KankerCel is trying to develop a new language with which we can strengthen our immune system, against our irrational desire for continuous growth.”

 

In short Arne succeeded in doing this: he created a stimulating space, laid a connection and understanding between disciplines by using ‘geography’’ and let them ‘dance’ together within dialogues and small creative assignments.

Arne talked with economists, oncologists, biologists, and linguists. It was fascinating to learn about the correlation between fighting cancer and fighting a war, as well as parallels in the parasitic behaviour of both capitalism and cancer. The discourse that resulted from this great variety of disciplines was rich and interesting. Similarly, the encounter between an artist that is specialized in thinking in design, and a scientist that is trained in academic research gave rise to a number of opportunities to gain new perspectives.

Pinning down methods

However, perhaps due to my own field of work -Philosophy- and the short timeframe of the project, I missed a depth and questioning that I find very important. I became curious about the methodology of art, how it interacts with technology and science projects, but most of all I became eager to contemplate about these kind of projects in such a way that I don’t miss any major points. But what are the major points? What are the pitfalls and potentials of art and science projects? Thus, the main question for me, in perspective of the Friendly Stalking project,  is: could creating a space like Arne did -an unstructured, but open and equal space- serve to dissolve boundaries, and help us to rethink the relationship between art and science?

For me the role of art and the artist were unclear, as well that of science and the scientists. But maybe this is the way we should approach the third culture: it is messy, it is unclear and it doesn’t need structure. By pinning down methods and roles, we could exclude possibilities that may be very important for an understanding and development of new approaches, right?

Maybe the crux is finding how to balance on the fine line between developing a structured and solid artistic research/approach and “pinning down methods and roles.”  The line is difficult to determine, but extremely important and in my opinion a measure of quality for projects concerning a crossover between disciplines.  As Isabel de Sena (an independent curator, specialized in curating ArtSciTech projects and connected as a lecturer at Node Center) replied to me in an email:

 

“A rigorous artistic project is well thought through and structured, yet does not delimit by pinning things down. These are the projects I feel are truly meaningful at the intersection of ArtSciTech, and they are the reason why we’re interested and committed to the field, despite the blood, sweat, and tears. I hope they will become less rare.”

 

In this respect, the project of Arne that I followed at the campus perhaps can’t even be called an artistic project, because he focused more on a communitarian/social objective, intended to serve open communication.

On how to dissolve boundaries & create a framework

Was Arne ‘just’ mediating between the disciplines? I felt there was no clear structure and furthermore asked myself how we could possibly learn from this kind of research? On the other hand, isn’t this a shortcoming of my own? Isn’t that just precisely the kind of boundary Arne wanted to break down? Maybe, yes. Creating an unstructured, but open and equal space definitely helps in dissolving boundaries, and provokes us to rethink the relationship between art and science.

But to truly come to fruition, it needs to move beyond the preliminary phase towards a more concise and rigorous process, with a defined structure. Not doing so means missing out on what could develop into great opportunities, and render the art a mere by-product or an illustration.

I do find very interesting the idea of exploring the didactic potentials of artistic strategies within an equal space, created to openly discuss methods and theories. Certainly because of the rising demand for new learning and teaching methodologies. The significance of engaging interactions between researchers with different backgrounds can be (!) very valuable in learning about new perspectives.

Maybe the main reasons I felt a lack of depth is: A. because I was not previously acquainted with the project and therefore missed background information; B. the project was completed within a time span of a few weeks; and C. In my opinion it didn’t take off after what should have been the first stage of ‘dialogue.’ It takes time and focused attention to develop a solid theoretical framework in which art and science can play an equal role. Departing from this matter of fact, I do find it important to first and foremost ask what ‘art’ is, and what ‘science’ is. Questions about frameworks need to be asked time and time again, just as all questions that are concerned with perspectives on our methods and theories. Not to pin down roles, but as I said earlier: to create a base structure ready for deeper investigation.

That said, this is my experience based on the few weeks at the campus of the University and I cannot assess how KankerCel developed further. Either way, the involvement with this kind of project has become a very fruitful venture for me personally: it was the start of my research on the topic of art and science.

My conclusion thus far is that combining art and science is not an easy fix to extend the reach or stretch the boundaries of distinct disciplines, nor does it naturally open up discussions. Although for obvious reasons it is not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to combine art, science and technology, in practice there are many projects which try to combine those disciplines just for the sake of it, thereby neglecting critical self-reflection or an awareness of potential pitfalls. As a result, there are many projects which are poor in quality, which abates the contribution that art can make to science and technology.

That all said, I’m working on several projects of my own and it is very hard to overcome pitfalls and cliché’s: input and critiques are welcome. If you would like to think with me about this subject, please feel free to contact me.

Highlight photo: work of Arne Hendriks