Science meets the arts

As the biology department takes on four artists-in-residence, Laura Winterhalder and have a closer look at this new and exciting collaboration

Have you ever thought of the connection between science and art? The two seem to be quite different things.

However, a unique and fascinating project has been exploring this issue at the university. Its research hopes to show how science and the arts can contribute to each other, and also to establish and highlight and similarities in the working methods of the two disciplines. This project, called Sense of Science, is a collaboration between scientists from the biology department research unit, CNAP, and a group of four ‘artists-in-residence’.

Exploring themes and methods of research within science, the artists’ work will develop such ideas to help to make them accessible to a wider audience. The works which the artists produce during the project will be showcased at a variety of both science and arts based events around the Yorkshire region, over the next 12 months.

Professor Diana Bowles, the Director of CNAP and Chair of Biochemistry, said: “We are delighted to welcome four talented artists into CNAP, this will be a fascinating project leading to a greater understanding between the arts and science. The project is of benefit to CNAP providing us with new ways of explaining science to different audiences”.

The four artists come each come from a distinct branch of the arts. Ex-graduate of York, Andrew Cleaton, is a proficient composer and producer based in Leeds. He works across different range of settings including commercial music and disability arts. Lizzie Coombes has been a professional photographer for 13 years. Her commissions include an exhibition on rural issues, projections for Opera North and an exhibition on Leeds for the Millennium Dome. Lucy Cullingford trained at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and now is a freelance choreographer. Recently she has devised several site-specific projects that were performed in various locations, including several nightclubs and train stations. Finally is artist Ruth Ben-Tovim. She uses a range of creative mediums to create site-specific artworks with communities. She was recently artist-in-residence at the Gallery Oldham exploring issues around bio-ethics as part of the national science-art project ‘Clean Rooms’. She is now based in Sheffield.

CNAP is a plant and microbial gene discovery centre in the biology department, dedicated to solving problems for industry, society and the environment through its research. It also aims to increase public involvement with bioscience through various outreach programmes.

Speaking to nouse, Dr. Caroline Calvert of CNAP said that “ the department (of biology) has had a long a history of working with artists”. A statement from the department maintained that “collaboration between artists and scientists is not a new thing. We have an integrated approach to biology, with no barriers between disciplines”.

A statement from the university echoed this, explaining how “four artists from different disciplines all taking part in a single residency is unusual and this multidisciplinary approach to exploring the scientific environment will stimulate some exciting and collaborative thinking”.

It is often considered that science and the arts are at opposite ends of the academic spectrum. However, when nouse met Caroline Calvert and Andrew Cleaton, they were both keen to mark this out as a misconception which can stunt academic progress, not only in student study at university level, but in the broader academic world of research. Dr Calvert added that “(the distinction) is less black and white” than most people consider it to be, and that even in science, which is often conceived as rigidly certain, there are elements of doubt which always prompt further work and ask further questions. For her, science is just like art in that it is open to individual interpretation. For Andrew, artists and scientists are fundamentally similar in that they both attempt to represent the world around them. It should be interesting and intriguing to watch a mix of different and diverse disciplines working together. The collaboration should also be refreshing and invigorating for the academic community. This project will hopefully prompt a revaluation of preconceptions about various academic disciplines, both within and beyond the academic community.

When we spoke to Dr Calvert, the project had only been underway for a few days, and so it was still in the infant stages of formation and development. When we prompted about the aims of the project, Andrew said that the process is about “the journey, and not the destination” and that the “experimental process” is just as important as final products, as the collaboration is focused upon identifying similarities between methods of working between the arts and science. He said that when an artists works, normally you never see any of the drafts, they are kept in the backroom and you only ever see the finished and final product. Likewise, with a scientific theory, it is often only the final theory which you see, the mistakes and inaccurate hypothesises are usually hidden. This project is marked out because not only are the finished products on show, but all the drafts and intermediary steps are laid out on display too. Doing this will enable a comparison to be made between the methods of production engaged in both the sciences and the arts.

The Arts Council England, which is the committee set up to co-ordinate the regional distribution of government and lottery funding for the arts, has pledged £25,000 towards the project. Alison Andrews from the Arts Council said that “we are committed to supporting innovation and we look forward to an exciting year with CNAP discovering just how fruitful partnerships between artists and scientists can be”. It is not clear whether the university itself has pledged any specific financial support for the project.

It isn’t yet known what the final outcome of the Sense of Science initiative will be. However, when we do find out where this unique collaboration leads, the results are bound to be both fascinating and revealing.