by Roger F Malina | January 2, 2011
In preparing for last year’s US National Science Foundation/National Endowment of the Arts workshop, I was forced to articulate the best case for why it would be a good thing for society to encourage more collaboration between artists and scientists,
I found it impossible to quantify my gut feeling and the passion I have developed after 30 years of working with artists involved in science and new technologies. I can generate general heuristic arguments, but I don’t know yet how to make them precise enough to develop “criteria of quality”, or to quantify their value within general innovation or creativity theory, never mind their socio-economic value to society. Some of my attempts can be found at: http://malina.diatrope.com/category/art-science-radar-2/nsf-nea-workshop/
We are not alone in this dilemma, as many disciplines face governmental budget cuts in many countries which seek to maximize near term economic impact of government investment. Science and the Arts are going to be severely cut in the efforts to reduce government deficits. English astronomers have started a “save astronomy’ movement in England, http://www.saveastronomy.org.uk/.
In his Presidential Address to the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) , Andrew Fabian comes to the reluctant conclusion that it is not possible to quantify in economic terms the benefits of astronomy to society. He concludes with gloomy concern about cuts in funding in astronomy in the UK in coming years, http://pacrowther.staff.shef.ac.uk/aag_51325.pdf.
Under pressure from UK funding authorities, the RAS commissioned economic analyses which sought to trace back several key contemporary technologies to their original discoveries by astronomers. They gave up after a pilot study and concluded it was impossible to do a meaningful analysis. Not only does the chain of cause and effect between discovery and application take decades, but it occurs through a complex network of collaborative and international relationships that defies probabilistic or quantitative analysis, or cause and effect interpretation.
They sought then to include societal and cultural impact of astronomy, including its role in attracting young people to science. They were unable to find reliable ways to quantify these impacts.
Even in the area of applications, astronomers for instance played key roles in pushing camera CCD technologies that are now in widespread use, it is very difficult to make useful generalizations because these developments were embedded in a complex ecology of research and business that defy straightforward causal analysis. Fewer than one in a thousand patents ever result in any application; and the ‘long tail’ nature of successful patents means that a very small number of cases dominate the analyses. It is easy to find “shining examples”( eg the development of X ray cameras by astronomers now used in security systems) but the RAS was unable to develop meaningful metrics in general. And Fabian points out that often serendipity of various kinds plays predominant roles in selecting winners and losers.
Physicist Sheldon Glashow has recently argued this aspect in his talk “Blind Chance or Intelligent Design?” where he asks “Do you think before you look, or look before you think ?” with the answer that you need to do both, http://motls.blogspot.com/2008/08/glashow-blind-chance-or-intelligent.html.
So: would it be a good idea for our societies to support and encourage more collaboration between artists and scientists?
I recently had my enthusiasm boosted through the involvement of Leonardo/OLATS (www.olats.org) ( the French sister organization to Leonardo/ISAST(www.leonardo.info) in San Francisco) in a project called “Lovely Weather” on Art and Climate Change in Ireland,
The project, led by John Cunningham and Terre Duffe of the Letterkenny Art Center, and Annick Bureaud of Leonardo/OLATS, involved 5 artists in residencies on projects related to the issue of Climate Change in the surrounding area of Donegal county,
Each of the artists projects involved a climate science component in some way and interaction if not always collaboration with climate scientists:
Peter d’Agostino (USA), WorldWide Walks/between earth & sky/Dún na nGall
Seema Goel (Can), Carbon Capture Sweaters
The League of Imaginary Scientists (Lucy Hg & partners, USA), The Irish Rover: Looking for Mars Off the Northern Coast of Ireland
Antony Lyons (UK/IRE), Weather Proof
Softday (Sean Taylor & Mikael Fernstrom, IRE), Marbh Chrios (Dead Zone)
I encourage you to take a look at the projects, as I feel several of them are ‘exemplars’ of the way that art science projects can engage burning societal issues of our time, in ways that engage and dialog with the local communities and result in compelling art work. None of the works would be called science education or science outreach. Their impact is allegorical, metaphorical, philosophical not pedagogic.
The group Softday created public musical performances that encoded and transformed marine scientific data on the ecological ‘dead zones’ in the sea off Ireland, http://www.softday.ie/.
Seema Goel creating new knitting communities that drew on climate change data to create patterns and designs, transforming the idea of ‘carbon footprint”, http://carbonfootprintproject.blogspot.com/.
Anthony Lyons created site specific work from weather data and explored in particular the local uses of peat and its role in carbon capture, http://web.me.com/antonylyons/antony/home.html.
The League of Imaginary Scientists worked with scientists at NASA’s JPL Lab to “twin” an island off the coast with a newly discovered rock on the surface of Mars as an elegy to climate change on our sister planet Mars, http://www.imaginaryscience.org/experiments.html.
I am convinced that we need more art-science work of this kind. I cant describe yet the scientific discoveries that may result from a chain of future networked events, I cant predict what inventions will be made initiated by these projects, there were no long term jobs created in the local community.
It will be important in coming decades to document these ‘socio-economic benefits”. Those benefits exist. I well remember in the 1970s and 1980s the general disbelief that computers could be used for art making; we now have entire industries in the arts and entertainment that have arisen from the work of pioneer artists working with computer scientists. That’s an analogy, but it is part of the success story of the art-science-technology community.
But these Lovely Weather projects do articulate clearly the importance of coupling as closely possible the artistic imagination and the scientific imagination. And that coupling requires intimate contact between artists and scientists, and projects that are culturally meaningful in very local contexts. We know we have built a civilization that is unsustainable with the current cultural values that are enshrined in our economy and institutions.
I am convinced that encouraging art-science projects is part of a cultural survival strategy but it would sure be nice to have some ‘socio-economic impact indicators”: can you suggest some? As a start, Robert Thill has been working on a list of patents filed by artists,