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Conrad Shawcross, ‘Loop System Quintet’, 2005

In 1969, Conrad Waddington, professor of animal genetics at the University of Edinburgh, published a seminal study of the relation between painting and science (Behind Appearance, EUP ). He argued that science is no Cyclops, looking out at the world from a single eye, but is instead more like an Argus, with a hundred eyes. There is as much diversity to be found in science as in art, he argued, so any account of their relationship is far from straightforward.

Waddington’s story began with the influence of Einstein’s relativity theory on the cubists. He continues by examining the view held by futurists and constructivists, that science and technology were a force that would sweep away the constraints of tradition, revolutionising art and society. Around the same time, expressionists and surrealists were adopting a very different attitude to science and technology, opposing the rationalism of science to the irrationalism of art. They saw in art a gateway to the mythic and the subconscious. In 2006, where does art stand in relation to science? Art practice and scientific research are clearly very different, but is there a place where the two might meet?

Nicola Broadfoot, 'Spine', 2004, mixed media on board
Nicola Broadfoot, ‘Spine’, 2004, mixed media on board

A great deal of excitement has been generated in recent years over the prospect of finding such a meeting point. In 1999 the Wellcome Trust, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Arts Council of England, the Scottish Arts Council and the British Council all joined forces to form the Sciart consortium. Their objective was to foster collaboration between artists and scientists, so as to enhance the public’s understanding of science. Artists were invited to employ their creative skills in making scientific ideas comprehensible to a wider audience; ideas which would otherwise remain accessible only to a select few experts. Now funded and administered solely by the Wellcome Trust, Sciart projects set out to reveal science’s hidden secrets. Scotland-based artists who have been awarded funding by the scheme include Lucy Skaer, Jackie Donachie, and Dalziel + Scullion.

Sciart projects raise questions about how a visual artist might translate scientific ideas into a visual language we can all grasp. The visual artist starts out with the scientist’s work and attempts to translate this work into his or her own terms. The key will be to find metaphors whereby the scientific ideas the artist wishes to communicate are related to something the layperson already understands. The challenge for the artist is to construct such metaphors.

Nicola Broadfoot, 'Blue Crystal', 2005, mixed media on board 
Nicola Broadfoot, ‘Blue Crystal’, 2005, mixed media on board

Paul Liam Harrison, an artist based in the Visual Research Centre at the University of Dundee, is concerned with this process. He is interested in how visual images can be used in the transmission of knowledge. Harrison is currently working on a collaborative project, The Designs for Life, which brings together scientists working in Dundee’s Biocentre with a group of artists based in the university’s visual research centre. Biologists working in the areas of cell function and gene research produce a rich array of images. In the past, Harrison has used these images as the subject-matter in his print-making. Here he has something in common with the Edinburgh-based artist Nicola Broadfoot, whose strikingly colourful paintings take as their starting point images of cellular and genetic structure found in biological and medical textbooks. The Designs for Life will also use images of this kind. However this project is not solely about making visual art using images from biological science. Its real concern is with the process by which images that begin their life in a scientific context can subsequently be transformed into works of art.

The work of London-based sculptor Conrad Shawcross is also located at the boundary between science and art. His sculptures, on show at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool until 26 Feb, are inspired by cosmology, quantum mechanics and musical theory. Perhaps the most striking piece in the exhibition is ‘Loop System Quintet’, an oak construction which draws paths of light in the air.

Nicola Broadfoot, 'Silver Cells', 2005, mixed media on board 
Nicola Broadfoot, ‘Silver Cells’, 2005, mixed media on board

This work is more than a visually captivating piece of sculpture. The ratio of the movement of its parts neatly maps onto a formal theory of musical harmony, so that the patterns of light are quite literally visual transcriptions of musical chords. The knots of light from each of the five lamps represent the vibrating strings of energy from which, string theory tells us, matter is composed. If we put these two ideas together, we can understand ‘Loop System Quintet’ as a rather beautiful representation of the ancient Pythagorean idea of an intimate connection between the mathematical order in the universe and musical harmony.

Fascinating though Sciart initiatives are, I don’t think they provide the best model of the relation between science and art. The idea of using art to educate public about science is laudable; but there is an assumption implied here which we ought to challenge. Whatever success Sciart may have in undermining the boundaries between disciplines, it is achieved at the expense of instituting a hierarchy, in which the artist serves as a proselytiser for science. The value of art is a question open to debate, but it certainly doesn’t lie in its utility for the sciences.

Indeed, one might well question the very description of Sciart projects as ‘collaborative’. The meaning of ‘collaboration’ is among other things ‘the sharing of the labour involved in a given task’. Do scientists genuinely ‘share in the labour’, or does the artist do the real work of finding ways of dressing the scientific ideas in visual clothing? At first glance, this relationship seems weighted heavily in the scientist’s favour.

Nicola Broadfoot, 'Mast Cell', 2004, mixed media on board 
Nicola Broadfoot, ‘Mast Cell’, 2004, mixed media on board

There is an additional danger that Sciart may inadvertently contribute to a cultural climate in which art is valued only insofar as it has some wider social benefit. Art can and should play an educational role, but do we want a culture in which art is valued only for the social benefits it deliver? These reservations aside, Sciart-funded projects can be celebrated for making the boundary between art and science fuzzy. This runs against the increasing specialisation and fragmentation of disciplines sadly a prominent feature of contemporary academic life.

It wasn’t always this way. Scotland once prided itself on a generalist approach to education. The St Andrews classicist John Burnet wrote at the turn of the 20th century, ‘the most important side of any department of knowledge is the side on which it comes into contact with every other department.’ Contained in this generalist approach to education is a very different model of the relation between art and science from the hierarchical model instituted by Sciart projects. It positively promotes the differences between science and art, while nevertheless recommending a dialogue between them.

Murdo MacDonald, professor of history of Scottish art at the University of Dundee, explains: ‘Artists and scientists offer us innumerably many different views of reality. Each is a different way of seeing the world, and each can illuminate the blind-spots in the other. How does this process of illumination happen? This is hard to pin down but it has something to do with a dissatisfaction that one feels without the other area of knowledge.’

Alan Johnston, Wittgenstein Haus Installation', 1994 
Alan Johnston, Wittgenstein Haus Installation’, 1994

Professor MacDonald’s model of the relation between art and science finds an echo in CH Waddington’s study. For Waddington, artists and scientists both explore the fundamental structures of the material world in their own different but complementary ways. Together they yield overlapping insights about reality. Our task is to find ways of accepting all these insights in their variety and richness. The flow of ideas between science and art is two-way: artists’ view of the world cannot help but be affected by scientific discoveries, but the traffic of ideas can also travel in the other direction. A large part of scientific activity is taken up with experimentation and the recording of measurements, but we should not be misled by this fact into overlooking the role of imagination and creativity in science.

‘Looking at paintings,’ wrote Waddington, ‘or experiencing other kinds of art, especially kinds which are not immediately transparent but which demand some attempt by the spectator to enter into the experience of the artist’s creative processes, is one of the best ways for the scientist to loosen the joints of his psyche, to roll the bones of his ideas’.

Scientists solve puzzles, often by means of leaps of imagination. James D Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA was one of the many scientific discoveries to have resulted from a creative leap of this kind. For Alan Johnston, painter and teacher, the role of imagination in both science and art indicates a profound continuity between the two fields of endeavour. He understands ‘The Two Cultures‘, the famous 1959 lecture by the English novelist and physicist CP Snow as a prescient warning of the dangers of specialisation, which results in a suspension of communication and dialogue across disciplines. This is of course the very opposite of the situation sought by the generalist tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Alan Johnston, 'Akiyoshidai angle', 1999
Alan Johnston, ‘Akiyoshidai angle’, 1999

In 2002 Johnston co-founded an MFA course at Edinburgh College of Art with landscape architect Eelco Hooftman, titled Art, Space and Nature . The course aims to explore opportunities for collaboration between artists, architects and scientists. Johnston sees architecture as a meeting between science and art. The architect employs imagination to arrive at different ideas of form and space and makes use of science, specifically engineering, to make those ideas concrete. Johnston’s own work comprises finely detailed wall-drawings and architectural constructions which interact with the space that surrounds them. His aim is to create a tangible space, a living geometry, which he contrasts with the abstract geometry of pure mathematics.

Johnston draws his concept of geometry from Japan, where it is considered the point at which people and nature meet, where nature (light, wind, water) can enter into a dialogue with architecture and its inhabitants. For him, the meeting of science and art in architecture is also an encounter between the East and the West.

Another such encounter took place in January 2006 in Singapore, where a delegation from the University of Dundee signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’, cementing a collaboration with Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research. An accompanying exhibition at Singapore’s Biopolis, Art Meets Science: Inspiration and Discovery included artworks by Dalziel + Scullion, Lorraine Anderson, Paul Andrews and John McGee.

However, the extraordinary growth in scientific knowledge, not least in the biological sciences, is accompanied by potentially horrific consequences for human beings. The history of science is filled with examples of good science being used for bad effects: nuclear weapons and eugenics are two of the more obvious examples.

Christine Borland, 'The Dead Teach the Living', 1997, ABS plastic, wood, text 
Christine Borland, ‘The Dead Teach the Living’, 1997, ABS plastic, wood, text

Christine Borland is one artist who has repeatedly explored the ethical and political implications of science. In her recent work, she is concerned with advances in genetics and the possibilities these advances open up for humankind. In the future, genetics may allow us to identify and eradicate abnormalities, but Borland invites us to ask who decides what is considered abnormal.

In her 1997 work, ‘The Dead Teach the Living’, Borland reclaimed seven representations of human heads found in the University of Münster’s Anatomy Institute. The institute had a decidedly unpleasant history: in the 1920s and 30s it was a centre for so-called ‘racial hygiene’. Borland had the heads re-made in white plaster using up-to-date technologies, and presented them on plinths outside the institute. Borland is inviting us to challenge the alleged neutrality of science. In their original setting, the heads had probably been used to illustrate the physiognomy of different ethnicities. Borland attempts to restore humanity to them, but also invites us to ask what constitutes normality. The work suggests that in some cases scientists, far from attaining neutrality, may embrace extremely problematic standards.

So where does art stand in relation to science today? Scientists and artists are still just as much like Waddington’s 100-eyed Argus as they were in 1969. One important difference is an increasing willingness on the part of artists to enter into a dialogue with scientists, and this can only help break down artificial boundaries between disciplines. Artists like Borland are bringing to our attention the ethical blind-spots in science, increasing our awareness of what scientists do, but also alerting us to the potential dangers inherent in scientific progress.

Julian Kiverstein teaches philosophy at the University of Edinburgh