An Art-Science Career is like Piloting Through Chaos

An Art-Science Career is like Piloting Through Chaos

ROGER MALINA answers to the Mercado Central questions for art-science hybrids and lessons learned:

Astrophysicist, Editor and Publisher and Art Science Researcher


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An Art-Science Career is like Piloting Through Chaos

  • 1- What is your background as a scientist? In the arts, design or humanities?

I obtained a BSc in Physics at MIT, followed by a PhD in Astronomy at UC Berkeley. I was lucky enough as an undergraduate to be involved in the beginning of x ray astronomy, and got the bug for the ‘thrill of discovery’. I went on to lead a team that built  the telescopes and instruments for a NASA satellite ( ) and then operated the satellite. I was then head hunted and started a career in research administration leading to my job as Director of an Astronomical Observatory ( ) .

I started a career in the art world when my father died in 1982. I was then a postdoc in space astrophysics. My father had started the art-science journal Leonardo in 1966 ( ). I decided to try and keep it going and started two art-science non profits one in Paris ( ) and one in San Francisco ( ). I was 32. I took a conscious risk at a time I was 200% consumed by my scientific career. Since then I have been very involved in the art science world, through publishing, organized workshops and artists residencies in scientific laboratories.

Lesson learned (see end section) This is piloting through chaos. When your personal life, in this case my father’s death,  intrudes on your professional life- think it through and jump, take the risk if there is a connection essential to one’s personal integrity. Initially my work in art was motivated by the memory of my father and his legacy. 35 years later, that instinctive decision to keep Leonardo going has become a core of my motivation in life. I had never run a publication or a nonprofit, but we had the startup mentality and with a group of friends and colleagues it worked.

2- When and how did you become involved in a hybrid art/science practice? 

I distinguish my career in publishing in art science from my new career as an art-science researcher. The later began in 2015 when I started the ArtSciLab at UT dallas ( ) . I am now collaborating in a fascinating art science project (Data Stethoscope) ( ), to create in a gaming engine new forms of data representation, including immersive, interactive and sonified data. The collaboration includes a neuroscientist, an astrophysicist, three artists and composer, two gaming company entrepreneurs, a computer scientist and a user experience designer. This is the most difficult research project I have been involved in, certainly since I was at Berkeley in a group inventing extreme ultraviolet astronomy. And the thrill of discovery is there again. I was recruited in Dallas in 2014 by a long colleague Tom Linehan with whom I had worked in 1987 on a Leonardo SIGGRAPH issue ( ). I was 63 when I started my new career.

Lesson learned: when someone shares your obsession, they probably will still share it 30 years later: we kept in touch. Keep in touch with partners in crime!.

Lesson Learned; Art Science research is as difficult as any other field. It takes method, discipline and invention,

3- What have been the major obstacles to overcome?

I have basically kept my separate careers separate until recently (I used to maintain a science CV and separately an Arts CV). But I have been extremely lucky that my art career, which never paid me anything until three years ago after 30 years of volunteer work, is now my full time employment.

The hardest thing has been convincing my scientific colleagues that art-science was more than science illustration or science education outreach, and that the interaction would change the way science is done and what it studies. It has been gratifying to see the STEM to STEAM movement in the last few years where the ideas that hybrids have espoused for decades at least are now getting public discussion and attention. The work of Robert Root Bernstein ( )  has helped me understand the sociology of what is going on. A book I enjoyed recently is Randall Collins The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. ( )


Another hard thing was keeping the Leonardo non-profits going (Leonardo Journal is now celebrating its 50th). Running and keeping going an arts nonprofit is really difficult; we have been lucky to have a dedicated collaborators (I think particularly of the late Steve Wilson and the former Leonardo managing editor Pam Grant Ryan.

4- What have been the greatest opportunities/breakthroughs?

It has been exhilarating seeing the success of the art science and art technology creative community. Leonardo has been a witness, a promoter, and a documenter of an international group of pathbreakers that developed so much of the basis for the digital culture that is now emerging.

Some of the proudest moments have been setting up programs and workshops. In the 1990’s Annick Bureaud and I organized a series of space and the arts workshops in Paris ( ). At the beginning this was a dozen people in my living room with professionals in space and astronautics and professional artists. Innumerable collaborations were spawned by this series of ‘convenings. Lesson learned – if you are working in a hybrid field, often the professionals are invisible to each other. Create situations where they meet each other.

Similarly I worked on setting up a number of artists residencies in science settings beginning in the early 1990s ( ) , but notably the art-science residency program at the Mediterranean Institute of Advanced Studies  ( )– such residencies are now flowering internationally.  

Lesson learned: all risky innovations require champions inside the organization you want to work with. Find them.

And right now I am really excited by the work I am involved in in data sonification- I think we are path breaking new interesting research methods and awesome art.

5- What would you do differently, knowing then what you know now?

I have been lucky, each step in my career grew out of the previous step ( I moved from MIT, to Berkeley, to Marseille, to Dallas and next ?). Again it comes down to the piloting through chaos thing. I can think of mistakes I have made ( hmm we jumped on too quickly on CDI technology. ) In terms of doing things differently, I wish I had read David Bohm’s ‘On Dialogue’  ( ) before I was 55.  Figuring out the new context in which one is stepping takes a lot of real exploration and dialogue. I only learned about translation studies after I got to Dallas. It is easy to misread signals from people who are important in the context you are trying to do something a bit unusual in.

6- Any advices to someone who may want to walk in your footstep?

If you are working deeply in a hybrid practice – bring people with shared interest together. This can just be a few people in your home city, or begin on line. Dhru Deb who is also in this discussion and is a cancer researcher and artist is doing just that trying to connect the cancer researchers involved in the arts ( ) . As I said above- people in this hybrid careers are often not visible to each other (our organisations generally marginalize them in the public presentation of their activities).

Document your work and show it to others. This can be podcasts in the Creative Disturbance platform we just started ( ), or articles in publications or papers at relevant conferences or just a good personal web site. It is so much easier now than 50 years ago to reach and connect with people with shared interests.

Develop a reputation management plan. I never did this and wish I had invested the time articulating what I was trying to do and making this visible across my activities. And with your reputation management plan draw attention to your work (as documented above)

Seek out mentors. Often your close environment may not have older professionals who share your double interest. They probably exist within 50 kilometers of you. Find them.

  1. Add other questions and your responses you think are relevant

Much art science practice is collaborative. I believe collaboration can be taught as a skill and practice. The collaboration and management training I received at NASA taught me much – in this case on projects involving scientists, engineers, managers, companies. Art Science collaboration is even more difficult. I don’t think it’s just an implicit skill. I am very impressed with the group working on the Science of Team Science. Check out their best method manuals ( ) .

I like to say ‘interdisciplinarity is not a discipline’. Each art-science collaboration has complications that arise from the very different research and production cultures. And Art Science Career is like piloting through chaos.

For thirty year I have had a friend and colleague Julian Gresser. When I first met him he was working on ‘strategic alliance’ management. Getting companies to collaborate ( eg Japanese, American and European). If you think art-science collaboration is difficult try those! In the last ten years Julian has written a couple of books about “Piloting Through Chaos” ( ). In general I am not a big fan of self-improvement books (and I sometimes find Julian a bit too ‘spiritual’ for me). But his core idea of piloting through chaos using the multiple compasses of ones dividuated self : professional goals and activities, personal, physical and philosophical ( spiritual) structured using the principle of integrity, to re integrate the dividuations seems like common sense when trying to break a path through a world dominated by disciplinary structure and reward systems. 



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