The Distant Neighbours

The cultural divide between art and science has become a hackneyed truism. Since C.P. Snow’s seminal Two Cultures essay written in 1956, academics, intellectuals, scientists and artists have argued and pondered over the alleged divide ad nauseam. My humble entrance into the fray had much more prosaic and personal origins. After making an agonising choice between the sciences and fine art, I entered Imperial College to study engineering in 2009. Despite having made the supposedly sensible decision to study a ‘hard’ subject, I was determined to retain my interest in art; reputedly a difficult task at the UK’s leading technical college.

To my surprise I found I was in good company. Imperial College boasts a thriving amateur art community. The Fine Art Society—which I went on to chair—was buzzing with people similar to myself, split between two worlds but straight-jacketed by the structure of our education system. There was however, a trace of fatalism that seemed to pervade the Society. What was the point of studying drawing and producing art if those interests would always play second fiddle to our academic studies? I then discovered that Imperial abutted the Royal College of Art (RCA), probably the UK’s premier postgraduate art college. The strangeness of the situation lay in the fact that, despite their proximity, the two institutions seemed to have very little contact, particularly at a student level.

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when I belatedly became aware of the burgeoning SciArt scene in London. Artists, it seemed, were crying out for access to researchers and institutions to work collaboratively in experimental projects to explore scientific subjects through art. At some point in 2010, the stars aligned. A mutual curiosity and enthusiasm amongst the art and science students was tangible, the student unions at Imperial and the RCA saw the value of the opportunity and I was persuaded to start a student-led scheme to encourage and facilitate collaboration between the two institutions.

Artifact was born. We cast our net widely for stakeholders and eventually settled on a format where were could foster partnerships and exhibit their products. We held a ‘speed dating’ night to match up prospective students and staff from the two institutions, with a tremendous response. The follow-through was a little patchier but in the end we managed to host an exhibition with seven artworks of astonishingly high standard. Four years later and I am again taking up the reins, this time of an established project.  We have plans to broaden the activities of Artifact and to raise its profile so that it becomes a regular and anticipated part of the calendar.

However, to my mind, two questions remain: are art-science collaborations a valid mode of science communication and who really benefits from them?

I can tentatively offer some conclusions. The benefits to the artists seem fairly clear. They gain access to knowledge, inspiration and technology and profit from the work they produce. Can it be said that scientists or the public also benefit from the exercise? Personally I believe it is enough that these two groups are drawn to appreciate and contribute to art works and this fundamental drive is the justification.

Art is by nature an act of communication. The value of the artist lies in his or her ability to explore their cultural and social environment and to respond in emotive, aesthetic and imaginative ways. When the artist responds to observations of science, they are engaged in expansive translation. In doing so, they generate cultural artefacts that reveal something about humanity’s complex interaction with science. Whether this process constitutes ‘science communication’ or simply acknowledges that science is a part of culture and a valid subject for artistic investigation is a matter of semantics. Artifact is a small and very local attempt to promote the health of this interaction. We are scratching an itch.

Meredith Thomas is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.

 
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