re: ART influencing SCIENCE

Through my involvement with the ecoartnetwork ( – an international online forum of artists whose work actively engages with environmental issues) a question regarding the influence art practice may have in the field of science was raised by Amy Lipton ( in relation to David Rothenburg’s recent presentation in New York of his latest research and book, “Survival of The Beautiful“. When asked why he had not included any examples of ecoart in his presentation he replied that he was particularly interested in examples of “where the artist collaborates with a scientist and you get a scientific advance, not just an artistic one.

The topic immediately provoked a rich variety of responses amongst members – here is mine…

v-notch weir, nettlecombe court (pward 2010)

Wow! What a fabulous question and what a challenge!

It throws up so many of the pertinent dilemmas facing us regarding the nature of art and science, their applications, the accepted relationships between them and the attitudes and assumptions of their practitioners and audiences.

As an initial response, without any specific examples but based upon my own experiences, the majority of mainstream scientists are unwilling to accept the holistic perceptions sought by art (ecoart) practice as having anything to do with their own societally-acknowledged, (bread-and-butter winning), Cartesian mode of investigation and interpretation – art is something separate, alien even, to their perception of their own craft. This situation demands that through our persistent and evolving practice as cross/inter-disciplinary artists we not only develop and define the nature (its specific uses and value) of what we are doing and trying to achieve, but that we make these qualities obvious and relevant to those more ‘scientifically’ inclined among us (in a language that is accessible to all). To state the obvious, those of us who work as scientists are no less creative or sensitive or appreciative of the artistic in our everyday lives. It is not however considered professional or relevant to our work nor its outcomes (unlike earlier scientists and natural historians who were far more holistic in their methodologies.)

As implied in your question, art is still largely seen as just a way of interpreting and communicating what the scientific community provides us with, rather than as an (at least) equally valid means of research and problem solving in its own right. For me, artistic research is willing and able to encompass a greater variety of sensual and dynamic responses to any given situation – often ones that are difficult or impossible to quantitatively evaluate and therefore considered ‘scientifically’ irrelevant. This is, as we are all aware, utterly ridiculous and accounts for the majority of shortcomings that have brought science and its pervasive dominance into question. From another perspective, it is as if such divisions are completely illusory, fictions of a contemporary imagination, a means by which we may reassess our experience, for the time being, so as not to become too bored. Unfortunately the dangers of such an arrogance are only too evident.

seahore safari (with dr mark ward), appledore arts festival 2010 (video stills)  

However, if we were to enter the realms of science/environmental education we may begin to see and identify where the two (wrongly) divergent but parallel disciplines begin to converge, producing dramatic and astute collaborations towards more engaged investigation and communication. If, for example, as artists, we were to adopt the research methods used by scientists but allow ourselves and other participants to respond to them with, and adapt them towards, a more multi-sensual, more creative, open-ended methodology then the results would evidently broaden the perception of any situation and at the same time highlight and challenge the limitations of the prescribed/established scientific approach (as Aviva Rahmani’s excellent work clearly demonstrates – Such methodology can also allow us to see the poetry inherent in much scientific investigation and representation.

While it may seem this line of argument is somewhat divisive or polarized, it is only through identifying the intrinsic qualities and values within our distinctive disciplines (as well as their similarities) that we may truly work together. In my opinion ecoart has the potential to encompass and perceive, and hence communicate and apply, more of the world in its multi-sensory, multi-dimensional form. Whereas (environmental) science is simply a single and definitive means to provide quantitative evidence of that world. Art has the potential to embody and enact the whole world whereas science may only produce a ‘picture’ of that world. If we are conscious of and able to clearly communicate what service our discipline evidently provides then we are more likely to win over the scientific community towards a more empathic, ecologically sensible and holistic responsibility of their own practice in the world.

 QUADRAT (with katy lee), appledore arts festival 2010 (photo courtesy pete yeo; 2010)

So, as is so often the case, maybe the problem that has been brought to light is simply a tale of ‘power’ and of mutation – of the dominant losing its footing amid the mire of its own shortcomings, being challenged and struggling against, but ultimately being absorbed into the evidently greater, more all-encompassing, more phenomenologically astute force – neither art nor science, but Nature itself. A failing civilization desperately hoping that if ‘we ignore it (Nature), it will just go away’! In my own experience, even as practicing artists we are often far too willing to dismiss our own qualities, the richness and good sense of our own hard-fought-for wisdoms, in favour of the frankly circumspect findings of dominant, empirical science. This may be largely due to the financial imperative that anything ‘scientific’ currently holds, but in time (and after much tongue biting) the truth of the situation will come through. What that will look like, feel like or be like of course we can never know, but if the inkling in my belly serves me right, it will be a whole lot richer than the fragmented disarray of this current earthly delight.

PW 2012

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