“There’s always a danger of falling in love with your model” said Richard Wingate of King’s College London, in the question round of last week’s plenary lectures about art and science at York University .
He was the one scientist among the three speakers, and the kind of models he was referring to were scientific ideas – not people who pose for art. But it was just another example of a theme explored both by himself and speaker Martha Fleming, who is also based at King’s College. When artists and scientists – or any two disciplines for that matter – collaborate and communicate, you run into some interesting differences in terminology. (In yesterday’s blog post I mentioned how a “paper” is interpreted differently in the sciences and the humanities, for example.)
Wingate and Fleming both highlighted the word “artifact” as a word that means something entirely different in science and other fields. In anthropology and archeology, an artifact is interesting: a spear point used by early humans is an artifact. In cell biology, an artifact is a thing that’s not real. Wingate showed a microscope image of a neuron with dots in the background. The dots are not part of the neuron, they’re artifacts. They’re part of the picture, but not relevant to how the neuron functions. Knowing what’s real and what’s artifact is important. He showed two old drawings, done by Golgi and Cajal. They both drew exactly what they saw from a microscope image of a mesh of brain neurons, but what Golgi interpreted as artifacts of the image turned out to be the actual gaps between individual cells. Cajal did draw the gaps. They both saw the same thing, but, Wingate explained, they had different archetypes in their head of what the brain should look like, and that’s what made the difference in the final drawings. (They did, eventually, share a Nobel Prize )
Wingate collaborates with artist Andrew Carnie, and that collaboration has helped the way he looks at scientific images. He has become very aware of the difference between a depiction of a neuron or a brain area and the way it actually is. For example, composite microscope images are a “hyper-realized version” of the real thing. All the parts are in focus in a 3D composite of confocal images, but you never really see everything in focus in reality.
The other two speakers were both artists. Nell Tenhaaf is Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University – one of the sponsoring departments of the event. She showed some of her own, science-inspired work. A lot of “collaborations” between art and science are merely that: art inspired by science, or science explained through art. The goal of the lectures was to highlight where collaboration can be more than just inspiration, and in her case that came with a project she undertook with computer scientists. In that collaboration they found that there are overlapping problems that occur both in computer science and in art, such as interface design. Those problems can be solved from both angles.
Martha Fleming gave some practical advice for interdisciplinary collaborations, and emphasized funding sources: Even a badly-funded lab has much more money than any artist could ever dream of having. Scientists secure funding before they start their experiments; artists are used to getting paid after the product is finished (if at all). Finding a source of funding for interdisciplinary projects has always been hard, in any interdisciplinary collaboration, because funding agencies have very specific guidelines of what they will fund, and many interdisciplinary projects between art and science fall outside of all conventional boundaries.
According to Fleming, interdisciplinary fields are born because people believe in them, and take risks. So is science and art a collaboration worth of risks, or are the fields too far apart?
At the beginning of her presentation, Fleming did a bit of performance art herself that very clearly demonstrated the similarities between art and science. She started by explaining the Large Hadron Collider, with a video fragment from the BBC about the machine. Then she read a further, more detailed explanation of what the LHC is, how it had to be very precisely designed, with all the parts working well together to create one fine-tuned giant machine. Playing in the background, on screen, were the opening minutes of “Der Lauf Der Dinge” (The Way Things Go ). This famous art film shows an incredibly fine-tuned, perfect, elaborate, Rube Goldberg machine, with all the parts precisely designed to work together – just like the LHC. “Science and art”, said Fleming, “have similar ambitions: to explore the world as we know it.”