Art Influencing Science

Stephen Webster considers the role of art-science collaborations within science communication.

A few years ago I was asked to do some writing about “art-science collaborations”. The Wellcome Trust was having a conference on the subject, and would I write something simple? Down the Euston Road I went and settling myself in the Trust’s comfortable conference zone, I made myself ready to watch artists and scientists find common cause.

Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust. Photograph: Flickr/HowardLake

A quick check of the delegates’ list, and an even quicker check of the delegates’ good scarves and coats, made one thing clear. There were artists, curators and punters in the hall, but not scientists. This might be a sci-art conference, but the scientists were nowhere to be seen. The fact could hardly be hidden. During a plenary session someone asked: “Where are the scientists?” An actor I knew, at that point writing a play about stem cell technology, a very amusing person, roared out loud: “They’re all at work!” The bubble was burst, and everyone began to laugh. Yes, that’s the point, we all were thinking. Artists work irregular hours, or not at all. Scientists start work at 9am, and finish at 6pm – every day. Wasn’t it like that at university, with our friends in biology at work every afternoon, hands deep in dogfish entrails? Hard to be friends with.

Back along Euston Road I went, thinking about what to write. Stereotypes, obviously. Scientists are this, this and this. Artists are that, that and that. Yet there were plenty of projects picking up funding for collaborative work between artists and scientists. I knew a neurophysiologist (Nick Davey) who worked with a ballet dancer (Kitsou Dubois). The Imperial College cardiac imager Philip Kilner had a grant to work with composer John Tavener and choreographer Wayne McGregor. Over at Kings College London Mark Miodownik had started a course for undergraduate engineers: EngineeringArt. He was mystifying his colleagues by marching his students off to the Tate Modern, to the fountains of Somerset House, and to the backstage rigs of the National Theatre.

I said to myself: scientists are strategic and busy – they wouldn’t mess around with artists for no purpose, even if it’s fun. There’s no money in it either. Thirty thousand pounds for a collaboration? To a scientist that’s peanuts, you couldn’t even hire a postdoc.

Beautiful Science. Photograph: Flickr/Smithsonian Institute

So why had all these science-art collaborations started up? The quality of the work looked variable, and people like Lewis Wolpert had started being rude. And everyone knows that scientists who don’t show focus are living dangerously. Yet these collaborations were everywhere. Marc Quinn was in the Science Museum; the ICA had a scientist-in-residence (Daniel Glaser); the Natural History Museum appointed an arts curator (Bergit Arends). And the Wellcome Trust, the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA), Arts Council England and even the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) were all pushing cash their way.

I interviewed a lot of the scientists involved in this work. Their artistic colleagues were writing and saying lots, in arts catalogues and books, but the scientists had been fairly mute. I guess if you’ve spent 10 years perfecting yourself in a tiny specialism of molecular medicine, it’s quite hard to explain why you’re in free fall hanging upside down alongside a French dancer inside a military Boeing 737 on a parabolic flight.

These scientists turned out to be quite precise about their involvement with artists. They liked the audience. An artist was a kind of audience, listening more or less reverently to the scientists’ view of things. And the artist always came with a larger audience – an art gallery for example, or a theatre – and this was novel and pleasing to scientists anxious to discuss their work more widely.

There’s a big word in all discussions about art and science. The word is influence. And so you get big questions: How does art influence science? And: How does science influence art? This is tough territory. Now the whole of scholarship is on your reading list. Leonardo, sure; but back then what was art, and what was science? People talk about the question of Einstein and Picasso, relativity theory and cubism. Picasso never met Einstein, but he had a café friend who knew Poincaré. And Niels Bohr had a cubist picture on his wall – and some have said that Bohr’s particle/wave duality linked up to his taste in art.

The scientists I talked to were less grand than this. But some of them could talk of influence. For example, a malarial scientist obsessed with merozoites worked with a photographic artist. Together they went to the clinics in East Africa that provided the blood samples for malarial research. The scientist became the photographer’s assistant, holding tripods not syringes, and seeing the community for the first time through eyes free to look more broadly at the issue of malaria. It made a difference, he said.

Art-science collaborations are difficult to classify or evaluate. They are potent in their ability to call up anxieties about ‘the other culture’, about the desire for other people to acknowledge your work, and for their ability to take scientists out of their home institution. You could argue that these things alone will impact on a scientist’s professional identity. With the public engagement agenda growing, and with scientists facing calls to be more “outward looking”, it looks very likely that our artists will continue to enter the world of science communication.

Dr Stephen Webster is Director of the Imperial College Science Communication group. His research interests include Art-Science relations, especially from the perspective of science institutions and scientists.


  1. Interesting post, and it certainly illustrates that something as mundane as university timetables can create a divide between arts and sciences that needn’t exist!
    I have spoken to scientists with an interest in art who feel that when they do take part in art-science collaborations, they don’t get credited alongside the artists. Might science be more influential behind the scenes than is apparent?

  2. What I love about the plenary session anecdote is the geography. The actor sitting with the rest of the ‘punters’. That’s where actors – or artists – or journalists – or politicians – ultimately sit. With the rest of the punters. Interpreting their lives, and reflecting them back. The actor’s right – he’s not at work! He never is. He’s somewhere much bigger and more cluttered. Somewhere where most things can be an ‘influence’. Where you can take and twist fantastic scientific insights into a public conversation without a neat conclusion. Where precise scientific methods or discoveries can be converted into wider metaphors about humanity. It’s little surprise to me that the ‘other culture’ leaps onto science as a germ for inspiration and communication.

    For science, the ‘influence’ game seems a little less rewarding. Perhaps the insights gained from interfacing with others must necessarily be fed back *inwards* into ones work, and not form part of a larger societal conversation. At the heart of the imbalance between what scientists and artists get from the art-science ‘exchange’ seems to me to be the way that ‘influence’ or ‘communication’ is defined by each camp. A key insight for me was the following:-

    “An artist was a kind of audience, listening more or less reverently to the scientists’ view of things. And the artist always came with a larger audience – an art gallery for example, or a theatre – and this was novel and pleasing to scientists anxious to discuss their work more widely.”

    What scientists are getting from this exchange seems to be what the artists call “publicity”. Widening an “audience” for the work that they were doing. Now artists also like this, and do this all the time – forever seeking to bring their work to the attention of a wider audience. But the key point is that – to an artist – publicity is *not* communication. The communication is what happens *through* the work, it’s not *about* the work. Publicity just influences the number of bums on seats, or eyeballs in the gallery. The work is where the connection is made – or not.

    To science, the words “publicity” and “communication” seem more interchangeable. Science isn’t seeking to communicate through the work, but communicate about the work. The work remains sealed off from wider interpretation until it reaches the interpreters outside the castle walls. This small but crucial difference means that the dominant arbiters of the work’s wider influence will tend to be those punters laughing in the conference hall.

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