Nature India | Indigenus

SciArt Scribbles: Bringing art and science together for greater good

Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?

Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles .

Public engagement of science opens up interesting opportunities for scientists and artists to join hands to impact societal opinions and behaviours. Sarah Iqbal, public engagement officer at the biomedical research funding body Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, finds herself at this exciting crossroad very often. Trained as a biomedical scientist, she says together the disciplines open many more doors than they do in isolation.

Sarah Iqbal

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.” – Albert Einstein.

For as far long as one can go back in history, the sciences and the arts and those engaged in them have informed each other’s practices, shaping societies. But in recent times, active exchange between the two fields has progressively waned. Yet, practitioners of the arts and sciences have more in common than is apparent. Both are curious about the world around them – they might use different tools to explore the magnificent cosmos we inhabit but their processes are strikingly alike.

These were some of my early observations after facilitating the first art and science programme ‘The Undivided Mind’ through the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (or India Alliance) at Delhi-based Khoj International Artists’ Association. The programme had contemporary art practitioners interact with life scientists, technologists, social scientists and the general public to produce art work that reflected on terrestrial (and extra-terrestrial) scientific principles and various human conditions.

An open studio ‘The Undivided Mind’, where artists shared their ideas and science-inspired artwork with the public.

Sarah Iqbal

Having been trained as a scientist, I am aware of the strengths and limitations of the scientific process but what pleasantly surprised me was how I could fundamentally connect to the artist’s process of enquiry and see the world through their creative lens. It left me asking the question – why have artists and scientists and the fields drifted apart?

“Art is born of the observation and investigation of nature.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

 Educationist Ashish Jaiswal observes in his recent book “Fluid” that our inflexibility of learning from other disciplines is a deficiency of our current education system that restricts knowledge within boundaries of disciplines. This reinforces the “two-culture” divide of art and science. Jaiswal gently goads the reader to reflect on whether an artist can only pursue art and a scientist only science – can or should they cross over to other disciplines to enhance their line of questioning?

The answer is an obvious and resounding yes, and the author illustrates this through examples of famous scientists, artists, philosophers and technologists who have straddled multiple disciples with natural ease and a sense of wonder.

Crossing over, blending in

“Objective” science and “subjective” art complement each other naturally. Sci-art projects have become increasingly popular world over, with more scientists opening their labs (and themselves) to the art world, and artists keen to discover the scientific world through their line of reasoning. This has given rise to broadly three types of art and science engagements in the recent times:

  • Artists employing scientific processes to produce art – popularly known as ‘bioart’
  • Scientists/science communicators using art to simplify and communicate science
  • Artists and scientists exchanging ideas, collectively framing questions and exploring the unknown

The first two types of engagement are the most common forms of collaboration. Art is most often used by the scientific community to convey the complexity of their research and to raise the public’s awareness of scientific and health issues. On the other hand, artists have embraced the possibility of experimenting in or outside the laboratory with biological materials and technology that can provide new direction to their work. This cross-disciplinary engagement has benefits for both.

Science empowers, so does art

During a public engagement project in Chandigarh, Punjab, we used traditional Indian truck art to understand and reflect on the agrarian and health crisis in India. A young participating truck artist shared with me, quite emotionally, that she never realised that her art had the power to influence the public and raise awareness on important health matters. Another truck artist researching on the topic said it had encouraged him to think more critically about how their actions impact their health and that of others, and to change behaviours.

Sample of truck art used to spread awareness on the link between agriculture, food and nutrition.

Sarah Iqbal

Similar sentiments were shared by a young girl in Hyderabad, where we encouraged school children to develop stories around the problem of drug-resistant infections in India through comics. “I always thought comics were to tell jokes. I never knew I could develop my own comics and use them to talk about important issues.”

Young school students using comics to talk about drug-resistant infections with their peers.

Sarah Iqbal

An engineer-turned-artist who collaborated with us on a multi-country programme to raise awareness on mental health felt it enabled her to delve deeper into this important subject. The rigour of research and understanding the science behind mental health had transformed their beliefs on the subject. These examples demonstrate that artists don’t merely act as translators of complex science and health issues but get new perspectives on their practice and can act as ambassadors for the scientific community.

Giving back

During the Khoj experiment that brought scientists and artists together, it was interesting to observe how science is shaping contemporary artistic practice. There is an ongoing discussion in the arts and sciences about whether art can also inform science. Can scientists feed this engagement back into their research?

In 2014, India Alliance funded a project to explore this question. “Bodystorm hits Bangalore” was a unique creative collaboration between dancers and scientists, where each of them helped inform the other’s practice – the scientist got three-dimensional insights into their scientific problem through the physicality of dance whereas the dancers improvised on scientific structures to create new art. The wares of this unique collaboration were open to the public.

Dancers from a group called  Black Label Movement present complex scientific concepts to a non-specialist audience at a public event in Bangalore.

Poornima Kartik

The real beneficiaries of this type of engagement are the scientists and artists themselves. A longer and sustained engagement between them is needed to realise the true potential of these exchanges and their impact on society. We need more formal spaces, where scientist can explore open-ended experimentation with arts, and where artists can learn from and shape the culture of science as also participate in scientifically-informed creative activism.

It isn’t essential to define what art and science collaborations should look like – let them unravel, and let each be unique. My experience with such collaborations has made me realise that these dialogues are important, not just to popularise science or to provide new media for artists to convey their ideas but also to help both artists and scientists challenge their own way of thinking. And to imbibe a level of sophistication in their enquiry that can be understood by all.

[Sarah Iqbal can be contacted at sarahiqbal@indiaalliance.org. She tweets from @SarahHyder]

Suggested reading:

SciArt scribbles: The mellifluous gene editor

SciArt scribbles: The molecule painter

SciArt scribbles: Coupling creation and analysis with collages

SciArt scribbles: Technology to aid dance

SciArt scribbles: Music to tackle PhD blues

SciArt scribbles: Playing science out

Artists on science: scientists on art

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