September 21, 2010
by Roger Malina
Digital DNA by Adriana Varella and Nilton Maltz. The seven-foot egg, which is quilted from circuit boards, was a commission by the Palo Alto Public Art Commission. Photo by Wonderlane via Flickr
A recent National Science Foundation (NSF)-National Endowment for the Arts workshop sought to re-think the ways that the arts and sciences are being linked today and how the agencies might jointly promote new emerging areas of research and cultural development. Participants included artists, scientists, and research engineers, but also university deans and directors of alternative art-science spaces.
This first workshop focused on computer science and information technology; a forthcoming NSF-NEA workshop will look at the arts and the biological sciences. Next year the NSF Informal Education Division is sponsoring an art-science workshop ?Art as a Way of Knowing? at the San Francisco Exploratorium, one of the pioneering institutions that has coupled creative artists with scientists and engineers for more than forty years.
So why this new attention to the coupling of the arts and sciences? The topic has been hotly debated for several hundred years at least, ever science the scientific revolution led to separate science institutions decoupled from the arts and humanities. The 19th century saw prominent figures such as Goethe active in both the arts and sciences. Samuel Morse, the inventor of the Morse code, was a painter. In the 1920s and 1930s the Bauhaus movement recoupled the creative arts with science and industry. In the 1950s C.P. Snow?s “two cultures” debate rekindled initiatives to bridge the arts and sciences. In the 1960s, Experiments in Art and Technology led to the coupling of artists such as Rauschenberg with engineers such as Billy Kluver. So what?s new?
At Home on the Range, the ?Digital? Range
The first thing is that the ?born digital? generation artists find themselves at home in the landscape of information technologies. The NSF Creative IT program recognized this burgeoning area of research. The NEA’s Audience 2.0 How Technology Influences Arts Participation highlighted the new ways, and growing audiences, for art that is being created and distributed through the digital electronic media. The born digital generation is innovating new ways of personal expression within the information technologies landscape; it has become second nature for artists of all types to use computers and to push the development of computers in new directions to address artistic needs. New “creative” and entertainment industries have resulted.
Art-Science Creativity by Whom?
Perhaps ironically, creativity was almost a dirty word by the end of the NSF-NEA workshop because it is overused and often not clearly defined. Creativity by whom and for what? What was clear was that there is a new dynamic and rapidly evolving group of artists, scientists, and engineers working together, a networked ?community of practice? that also comes together through a variety of “communities of interest.? Most of these creative individuals or teams work in informal settings from nonprofit groups to the hacker, ?make?, community and alternative arts centers, and citizens and peoples science movements. An important issue is how to network and cross feed these hacker, ?make,? and community groups with the more formal institutional programs in universities, and art and design schools.
Art-Science Creativity for What?
?Creativity for What? was another leitmotif reflecting a concern that technology-driven innovation needs to be contextualized first by social and cultural needs, with examples from community-based organizations faced with urban renewal, societal issues such as climate change and energy sustainability, or the technological transformation of health issues. Our Town,the proposed NEA program for the arts and urban redevelopment perhaps provides one example context that could motivate new art-science agendas. There are many burning issues in our lives and communities that give us no choice but to link the arts and sciences.
Art-Science Creativity: Innovation in Innovation
Another thread was the idea that we need to innovate in creativity thinking itself. We need to innovate in innovation when faced with the big data flood, distributed networked knowledge, and the impact of digital culture on how the arts and sciences are embedded in society. The recent Macarthur report on Learning Institutions in the Digital Age as well as the National Research Council’s Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity report provide good starting points. As we evolve toward networked culture and knowledge, the ?partitions and divisions? within funding institutions and universities seem mal-adapted to the rapidly changing locus of multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary artistic practice, and more particularly the rapidly changing landscape of art-science collaboration.
The phrase ?Alt-Art-Sci? emerged a number of times during the discussions as a way of capturing the sense of unease that “business as usual” approaches will miss the mark. We need to “innovate in innovation” and find other approaches to work in the new emerging networked culture. We need to look at where the most exciting creativity is occurring, and we need to look at the burning issues in our communities and how harnessing new couplings of science, engineering, and cultural approaches can be part of creating a sustainable society.
Roger Malina is an astronomer and editor. For more than 25 years, he has been involved with the Leonardo Organization, whose mission is to promote and make visible work that explores the interaction of the arts and sciences and the arts and new technologies.
Stay tuned for more from conference participants…