Art Works Blog

Symbiotic Art & Science

Washington, DC

The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange performing The Matter of Origins. Photo by Jaclyn Borowski

At the National Science Foundation building in Arlington, Virginia, an exciting conference has been taking place over the last two days on the intersection of life sciences and arts: Symbiotic Art and Science. Bringing together scientists and artists (and some who wear both hats), the conference looked at innovative collaborations that have taken place between the arts and sciences, and asked some important questions, like What motivated you to cross disciplines and how did you do it? Or, What do artists gain from working with scientists, and what do scientists gain from working with artists?

We have asked some of the participants to talk about their experiences in these types of collaborations, their experience with the conference, and their thoughts on some of these questions. We will run the guest blogs each week over the next month; to start us off is choreographer and dancer Liz Lerman, founding artistic director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. Lerman has had plenty of experience in art/science collaborations: her piece Ferocious Beauty: Genome explored genetic research through modern dance and her new piece, The Matter of Origins, looks at physics inspired by her visit to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. Here's what she had to say:

Introductions at the Symbiotic Art and Science meeting took an interesting turn as one person after another acknowledged their split personality or hybrid research tactics. I found myself remembering my own mantra as a young choreographer moving from a residency at Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC, to a rehearsal of the company, to teaching at a local university, and saying to myself, “I am not fragmented. It is just that the world is so compartmentalized that in order for me to be whole, I have to cross many borders.” I have continued that journey and now describe those borders as membranes. For example, we can respect the creative act of making distinctions knowing at the same time that there are real differences between art and science even as we seek and discover with delight their common properties.

This meeting---convened by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Science Foundation---was conceived by Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, the president of Marlboro College and a longtime advocate for the power of art on its own terms and in relationship to contemporary issues, and by her longtime friend and colleague Chris Comer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Montana who runs a summer program in Ireland called “Brain, Mind, and the Artistic Imagination.” Everyone seated around the table seems to be immersed in a variety of projects that bring together very curious forms of experimentation in which the arc of observation-research-testing-sharing-questioning cycles around and around.

Many of the participants have been at this for years. We could have taken just one of the projects put forward and spent a week coming to terms with its implications. For myself, listening to those morning introductions, I was moved by the passion and caring that seems to be motivating so much of the exploration. The artist Mel Chin, describing his work in the dirt of New Orleans, made me almost feel the air in the room fill with the same lead that is now in the bodies of so many young people living in certain parts of that city. When Nalini Nadkarni, a biologist from Evergreen State College described her compelling relationship to trees from an unconventional form of climbing to view the canopy I was completely intrigued. And then she went on to explain how she has measured the movement of a single twig and calculated how far that twig would have walked if given mobility and in that moment, I at least, felt myself in a new relationship to the forest. Speaking of forests, Fred Swanson from the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State University showed an image from what might be described as a “neutral laboratory” in the woods as part of his Long-Term Ecological Research network. Here he brings together scientists and artists to observe and then describe/express and share in their process of noticing. He says in a quiet voice that the whole enterprise might teach patience and hope.

I am looking forward to what day two brings.

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