There has always been a relationship between art and science, but recently it has become fashionable to try combining the two in a single project. The Wellcome Trust has now published a volume reporting on several such collaborations carried out in the last few years.
The first problem confronting a reviewer is determining the criteria to use in assessing the work. It is a strange volume, neither fish nor fowl. The high production values are those of an art book, while at times it adopts the style and conventions of a scientific paper. Unfortunately the format is difficult for both art and science. Many of the artistic contributions need to be appreciated in performance, which exacerbates the problem. It is possible that both the art and the science are better than they come off in this presentation.
The problem of how to assess the contributions doesn’t end there. Can we apply the traditional standards of either art or of science? In an introductory contribution Jeni Walwin claims that in a transdisciplinary world we are ‘working outside boundaries’ and ‘unleashing moments that may be difficult to define or categorise’ by moving ‘freely outside traditional disciplines and into others, engaging with new experiences and improvising unorthodox combinations of knowledge’. So if we are moving past the boring old world of science and art, off into sciart, then what are the rules? How do we tell what’s worthwhile and what’s not?
The postmodern response might be to denounce my obsession with enforcing borders as a repressive police mentality. But we should distinguish between those boundaries that are worth enforcing and those that are not. I have no truck with immigration controls or the old fashioned deference shown to the rich man in his castle by the poor man at his gate. But intellectual disciplinary boundaries are another thing altogether. They allow us to approach new problems in light of previous experience. These boundaries embody knowledge of relations that exist in between the object of study and the rest of the world. They help us understand the most productive ways of grappling with novel experiences. New disciplines can grow over time, but just sweeping away boundaries isn’t a helpful way to proceed.
In his preface Ken Arnold complicates matters further. He writes that the Wellcome Trust has funded art in order ‘to raise awareness of the historical, ethical, social and cultural aspects of biomedical science’. This is a sad formulation. Where great art is waiting to be born it can usually make use of whatever ulterior agenda comes to hand. But it helps if it is asked to work on a worthwhile theme. ‘Awareness’ does not count.
Faced with the twin challenges of Protestantism and a rising scientific worldview in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Roman Catholic church went on the offensive. Despite fierce religious restrictions, the counter reformation produced some truly great art. There is not much ‘raising awareness’ in Pietro da Cortona’s Glorification of the Reign of Urban VII or Andrea Pozzo’s Triumph of St. Ignatius. The ceilings, and the buildings of which they are part, were designed to shock and awe the viewer, a task at which they still succeed. The humble task of ‘raising awareness’ is symptomatic of science on the defensive. In this respect science should take a leaf from the book of its most implacable foe. If today’s patrons raised their horizons they may find themselves receiving some more inspiring art.
The actual results reported in Experiment are mixed. The contributions show a variety of relationships between science and art. Most commonly in the past the relationship has been one-sided: art using science as a tool, for example to represent perspective. That tradition is represented in Experiment by juggler Sean Gandini’s collaboration with mathematician Norihide Tokushige. They were able to develop new patterns of throws and catches, but as Gandini writes ‘our juggling illustrated ideas and concepts; it did not solve or contribute to mathematical hypotheses or conjectures’.
In Navigating Memories the relationship is reversed, with scientists using art. Jennie Pedley, Laura Camfield and Nigel Foreman used art to help teach disabled young people about time and space. Pupils illustrated scenes from their lives that were then used to create a computer simulation showing the order of life events. The educational challenges here are profound, but the art is of little interest outside of its utilitarian function, differing little from the art of other young people.
In Medusae, a collaboration between siblings Dorothy and Tom Cross, the science and art run parallel rather than together. While Tom studied jellyfish his sister produced exhibits on the life of naturalist and jellyfish breeder Maude Delap (1949-1953). But the connection is sustained as much by Dorothy and Tom’s family relationship as a shared subject matter.
Other projects are more successful at integrating art and science. In Viewing the Instruments, Jane Wildgoose, Philip Parr and Peter Isaacs take as their inspiration a 1725 musical composition by Marin Marais which set to music a poem describing the operation of removing a bladder stone. It is unlikely that the project will fulfil Peter Isaacs’ hope of contributing to resolving the problem of stress in NHS staff. But it should help us reflect on the human relationship between doctor and patient through almost 200 years of medical progress.
Sarah Angliss, GéNIA, Ciaran O’Keeffe, Richard Wiseman and Richard Lord also produced a musical collaboration, Soundless Music. They made use of infrasound, low frequencies at the very edge, or just below, the range of human hearing. Such low frequencies are found in the giant pipes of the world’s largest organs, but are usually not regarded as of serious importance to musical effect. Infrasound is found in the natural world, too. Elephants use it communicate over long distances.
Soundless Music best created a genuine synthesis of science and art. On the one hand they made use of science to generate the sounds used in musical performance. On the other hand it attempted a scientific investigation of the effect on the audience. A wide range of effects have been popularly attributed to infrasound. It has been suggested that the power of ancient religious sites or modern ‘hauntings’ might be explained by infrasound resonances. It has also been speculated that governments are building infrasound beams as crowd control devices or lethal weapons. In fact the soundless music team is right that infrasound is not particularly harmful. Their work may yet contribute to an understanding of more its subtle psychological effects.
The most interesting project in Experiment is How To Live, a collaboration between performance artist Bobby Baker and psychotherapist Richard Hallam. How To Live seeks to compare the ‘scientific’ recommendations of therapy – specifically Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – with more conventional etiquette training. Baker arranged an awkward social situation, a tea party at which half the guests were served their choice of dessert and the other half were served dry biscuits. The results for two groups were compared, one of which had been exposed to a video on manners while the other had viewed a video produced by Baker explaining a method of coping with emotions based on CBT.
Although not dismissive of therapy, Baker is keen to question its authority. She is right to question its authority in the matter of how to live, so it is understandable that she seeks to question science, asking why we should listen to the men in the white lab coat over anyone else. But then again, the scientific assessment of her experiment showed there was little to distinguish the technique of CBT from general advice on manners. Perhaps science really can take us closer to the truth.
It is telling that the best Experiment is the most critical of science. This reflects the defensive mood that has given rise to the fashion for sciart. Therapy certainly deserves cultural scrutiny. That is what gives How To Live its interest. But is it art, is it science, or something else altogether?