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Questioning art-science collaborations: Live debate at Imperial College London

June 2012

Design Science's Anne Odling-Smee was part of a live panel discussion at Imperial College London organised by molecular biologist, Dr Marta Archanco and chaired by Stephen Webster, Director of the Science Communication MSc course at Imperial College

The panel were each invited to share their perspective on art-science collaborations, and afterwards to discuss how research conducted by imperial scientists is inspiring artists, and whether or not the inspiration could be reciprocated.

Anne was joined on by fellow panelists Catherine McDermottErica Seccombe, and Fernando Abaitua Elustondo.

Listen to the podcast

Anne’s thoughts on art-science collaborations

As a designer, I’m more at home discussing design and science than art and science, but through my practice I work with both scientists and artists so I hope this gives me a relatively informed perspective for this discussion.

There’s a distinction to be made between art that communicates scientific ideas and art that appears to be scientifically engaged because it employs an aesthetic associated with science. Whilst I think that the former offers huge potential for both science and art, and for society in general, the latter I’m much less convinced by.

A brilliant example of the first description is the image of DNA, allegedly inspired by molecular biologist Francis Crick’s wife, Odile, a sculpturer. (The story here remains ambiguous due, I suspect, to the reluctance in those days to accredit scientific discovery to women). 

The now universally accepted double helix visualisation is essentially an invented image which bears no relation to what DNA actually looks like. You could think of it like Harry Beck's London Underground map. Yet it provides a means of explaining visually how the molecule works and has consequently been instrumental in advancing scientific research. Crucially, it helps to communicate, like a piece of language, which to me demonstrates why art and science are, and need to be, inextricably linked.

Art that’s more concerned with the aesthetic of science as opposed to the process of science seems far less interesting, though it fares in society remarkably well. In my albeit cynical view, I think it piggy-backs off the beauty or surprise that nature freely provides, whilst communicating little or nothing of its own about that beauty or surprise. 

At a time when people seem more confused and out of step than ever with the mechanics of the world they live in, I wonder about adding this kind of aesthetic to our visually-saturated environment.

What if scientists or science publishers paid more attention to sharing the meaning of images behind their seemingly veiled research? What if artists learned more about the science behind the imagery or objects they employ? Might both they, and the rest of society, be better able to converse with and understand their visual world?

Is it time for art to become more of a key player in the scientific field?

Of the scientists I’ve talked to about this, all share the opinion that art gains more from science than science gains from art. I think that, nowadays, and unfortunately, they’re right. But I don't think this always has been the case. For Leonardo da Vinci the distinction between these and all the other disciplines seemed to be barely relevant. 

Since the industrial revolution began in the 18th century, science has been shaping art through new technologies such as photography, film and now virtual reality. Now that we’ve developed such sophisticated means of visualisation and the science community is increasingly opening its doors to the rest of society, is it time for art to become more of a key player in the scientific field, and to start to help effect science back by offering alternative ways to visualise, or even explain it?