Art and Science, are they friends or foes? C.P. Snow famously created the idea of ‘two cultures’ in 1959, claiming that these two branches of knowledge had become woefully divided. Since then, historians of science have argued consistently that science is, in fact, not as divorced from society, culture and arts as we habitually think, and certainly wasn’t in the past. Yet, arts subjects are being increasingly marginalised in the school curriculum, in inverse proportion to the sciences, and arts organisations seem increasingly to have to argue solely for their economic, rather than broader cultural, value.
All hail, then, to the many museums and galleries that are bridging the gap this year, with a noticeable trend for exhibitions that mix art and science together. From ‘Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight’ (until 26 May) at the British Library, which explores how scientific data has been understood and represented over time, to ‘Discoveries: Art, Science & Exploration’ (until 27 April) at Two Temple Place, which unites the disparate collections of the University of Cambridge Museums around a common theme of discovery, there seems to be something to this mixing of disciplines. As myself both an art historian and historian of science by training, it’s a mix that’s dear to my heart, so I went to find a kindred spirit to discuss this promising development.
The Arts Catalyst celebrates its 20th birthday this year. Recent exhibitions include the group show ‘Republic of the Moon’ at the Bargehouse, London, ‘Transformism’ at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton (with new commissions by Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen), and HeHe’s ‘Fracking Futures’ at FACT, Liverpool. Director Nicola Triscott first tried to create a means for contemporary artists to work with scientists in 1994. She told me that there’s been excitement around the mixing of art and science a number of times over the years, with the 1990s seeing the growth of interest in arts and technology, often now termed ‘media-‘ and ‘video art’. Set up in the same year as Ars Electronica, the idea behind The Arts Catalyst was to commission artists to consider how science operates in society and culture, and to get people looking outside their disciplines to discuss these cultural questions. By setting up a series of ‘conversations’ between art and science, Nicola wanted to get both disciplines thinking about why anyone should care, culturally, about niche scientific discoveries and their implications.
A lot has changed in the meantime, and a lot hasn’t. That’s why The Arts Catalyst is still here, more than 18 years after Nicola thought it would have had it’s heyday. The key, she told me, is in their interest in ideas and dialogues, commissioning artists with intellectual rigour to engage critically, and in depth, with scientific ideas. In some senses it is a microcosm of the interdisciplinarity currently popular in academic institutions. A lot about that is common to the more historical mixing of art and science that shows like the British Library and Two Temple Place exhibitions are championing. In essence, they are showing that historical collections don’t have an in-built disciplinary divide, but one that’s developed over time, and that science involves as much representation, and art as much data analysis, as its counterpart.
I wondered if this mixing of art and science can be problematic. Does combining the two create overly complex narratives, require too much text, or simply create odd, disparate displays? Discoveries at Two Temple Place has been criticised as a glorified ‘treasures’ show. Equally, as Nicola commented to me, there is an important aesthetic to art, an expectation of a certain style of presentation and a certain type of visitor response. Creating this kind of space in a Science Museum can encourage visitors to stop and look closely, absorb and reflect, rather than reading and pushing buttons. But, it can also lead to a confusing change of pace. The recent ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition at the Royal Academy, for instance, has, I feel, brought an element of the science centre experience into these ‘hallowed halls’ of art, where families are happily scaling some architects’ pieces, and contributing to others, but where the simpler, more contemplative works seem to lose out. How do you give both their place?
The answer for both visitors and staff, Nicola told me, is in careful consideration of questions of momentum, as much about the spaces as the art. Visitors come to certain types of space – science museums, art galleries, festivals, outdoor installations – with different expectations, and different narratives come out of that. The bringing together of art and science is a dialogue, a learning process, out of which you want to engender a conversation. What contemporary art, for The Arts Catalyst, brings to considering science is a richness and diversity of approach, a pooling of ideas and reversal of knowledge fragmentation. In a nutshell artists make you look differently, they see and bring out the aesthetic, the representation and the metaphor in scientific thought.
So, that last thorny question: why now? Why have art and science particularly come together in a glorious synergy of exhibitions in 2014? One answer might be that the internet has changed everything. We are increasingly interested in data, in visual impact and in conversation. Both science and contemporary art are steadily becoming more popular, as wider access to knowledge and discussion about both gives us the confidence to approach these rarefied subjects and feel able to have our own views. We have an ever-increasing interest in technology and in how it both helps and hinders our interaction with the world. Equally, the interaction between questions of materiality and politics have become as key to art as science, with works like Arjun Appadurai’s 1986 book The Social Life of Things influencing contemporary practice in both.
Perhaps we are looking to science for answers, but to art because we have so many questions. Together they simply allow us space to think a little differently.