One of the really great things about this fellowship is being able to sit down and talk over Zoom with Kristin. Kristin is a really impressive artist. If you haven’t sat down and really looked at all the videos and documentation of her projects on flamingos, I recommend doing so as soon as you have the chance (This video’s my favorite). It’s a really fun and fascinating project that blends interactivity, science, nature, culture, and a call for action. We’ve had three meetings so far where we’ve been able to meet virtually, and I’m so grateful to be paired with her based on our conversation so far. One thing we’ve stumbled upon is that we both are have committed much of our headspace to similar concepts. Everyone is part of this fellowship because we want to blend science and art meaningfully, but there’s a shared interest in narratives, cultural implications, and the boundaries and limitations people put on science and art.
One thing that’s come up multiple times is the idea of interactivity. I’m a scientist at heart, and even when I am exploring the role of an artist or a designer, I want to communicate my love and awe of the human quest to understand the workings of the universe and the desire to use that understanding to improve our shared existence. To convey that affinity, that wonderment, and that deep appreciation, I find it hard to not be most moved by art that asks those who experience it to take on the role of an experimentalist or theoretician. Art and design have the ability to decontextualize the process by which we learn about what science is. But if we go by the cliché science idiom that, “Science is a process”, then sci-art needs to be allowing people to experience that process in a meaningful, engaging, and impactful way. Why not combine this artistic and philosophical exploration of the world around us with play, with tinkering, with problem solving?
Try as I might to convince friends that Harry Nilsson’s "Think About Your Troubles" is a meaningful discussion of biogeochemical cycling, I’ve yet to meet anyone who interprets the song as an exploration of the hydrological and carbon cycles. Art that asks its patrons to really roll up their sleeves and dig in on exploring concepts, learning them as they move in an unfamiliar landscape with new constraints and laws of existence are pieces that tend to blow me away. It may be why I’m so drawn to Kristin’s pieces I’ve linked above. So let me share a few pieces that I think really typify this power of interactive art.
One of my favorite pieces to share with my students is Heather Barnett’s Being Slime Mold. The piece is essentially asking participants to do a bit of improv, but the role they always are playing is that of a nucleus in a species of slime mold called Physarum polycephalum. P polycephalum has two bizarre abilities: 1) It can fuse many cells so that many nuclei can occupy the inside of a super cell. 2) The slime mold has the ability to learn and to make decisions. It has a sort of intelligence we don’t understand, and one that doesn’t rely on words or images, but instead a type of rhythmic pulsing. In the piece, participants are asked to link hands and navigate collectively as the nuclei within a slime mold do, expanding and contracting as they navigate through space, finding treats and traps along the way. According to Barnett, the experience led participants to engage with what we know about slime mold in a playful and experiential ways and to have insightful conversations on biology and emotions. I love that this is a group experience, and that it highlights learning as a philosophical pursuit. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to think like a slime mold. I’m up for that challenge.
Another project I absolutely love is sponsored by ASM, the American Society for Microbiology. Every year, they have an Agar Art Contest (the deadline for this year is fast approaching!). This may seem simple enough; you use microbes to paint. This is a project I have my bioart student do early in the semester. Bacteria, fungi, and protozoa provide the pigments and artists, often scientists, children, or makers, simply arrange the microbes to create pleasing images and aesthetics. But there’s something delightfully more complex here. When I first do this with my students, I provide 3 strains of bacteria: E. coli that will grow into white blobs (Colonies), E. coli expressing GFP (Making a protein called Green Fluorescent Protein that will make them appear green and glow under a black light) that will grow into green blobs, and E. coli expressing RFP (Red Fluorescent Protein) that will form red blobs. Students who enjoy this and want to explore further have to explore further on their own, learning how to induce novel protein expression from foreign DNA they trick E. coli into absorbing form their environment or growing different bacterial strains and species that will produce different pigments, patterns, or textures when growing. It’s all a trap into learning a lot of basic microbiology techniques, but by means of creating something that doesn’t feel bookish or academic. It’s a form of learning by doing, but learning microbiology by doing painting. Or maybe learning painting by doing microbiology?
The reason I bring this up is also to really articulate a concern I have for the coming months and that will likely have to be addressed and identified in the coming months. If the art I want to create and collaborate on is something that forces the participant to take on new roles, to interact with the science, and to experience living things and life science techniques, how do we do that during the pandemic? How do we interact with the people and the world around us when people are forced to be distant and so much of the world around us feels very far away right now? And so that’s where I am in this fellowship, contemplating how to make interactive experiences while we’re all so socially distant.
Hello Reader. My name is Andy. You could call me Dr. Andrew Scarpelli, but if you did, it would take a few seconds for me to register. I feel more comfortable as Andy. Dr. Scarpelli feels a bit stodgy. I think a lot of scientists feel that way.
As you can tell from my rarely used honorific, I have spent a lot of time studying and working in microbiology and molecular biology. I identify strongly as a scientist. Science is a lot of different things to different people. Students may have to memorize that it’s a process, but in my mind it’s also a worldview, a conversation, a religion, a coping mechanism, and context for the world around us. But it’s also a bit misleading for me to identify solely as a scientist. While attaining my Ph, one of my thesis committee members complained that my projects seemed to be too much engineering and not enough science. If science is gaining insight into how the world works, engineering is applying that insight to build something novel and utilitarian. Since graduating, I’ve steered far from a traditional research lab, instead focusing on science education as a college professor, and I’ve somehow unbeknownst to me been given the amazing opportunity of working at a prestigious art school teaching about bioart. I love the job and revel in it, but I’ve had students complain that my focus is often too much design and not enough art. If art is creating aesthetics to question, critique, and emote, design is applying those questions, critiques, and emotions to build something novel and utilitarian. Concurrently, I’ve been working with a rag-tag group of science professionals, hobbyists, and biology enthusiasts to build ChiTownBio, a public biology lab in the city of Chicago. ChiTownBio plans to be a space for everyday citizens to try their hand at creating, building, exploring, and experimenting with biotechnology under the supervision of trained professionals. We are creating a community of amateur scientists to try to democratize biology, to empower those outside of the ivory towers have stronger voices in the direction of future biotechnology headed.
So it is with this conglomeration of identities that I enter this residency. I’m an institutionally trained molecular biologist trying to encourage a community of biohackers, biotinkerers, and DIY biologists to forgo the need for rigid institutions. I’m a scientist who is often more excited to be engineering solutions than exploring the unknown. I’m a bioartist and biodesigner with little experience in either art or design and some confusion about the boundary between the two. And I suspect that these qualities are not unique. Over the last few decades, the concept of multidisciplinary collaboration has come in vogue in many academic circles, but it is likely that just as some projects can have multiple, diverse invested parties, I think individual parties often become invested in multiple, diverse projects.
I’m so excited to be working with Kristin as I explore this new space. As can probably be seen in the rambling you’ve nearly finished. I have so many questions and interests to explore. How can we contribute to the expansion of scientific knowledge, engineer useful systems, contribute to the dialog in art and design, participate meaningfully in science communication, and encourage universal participation in shaping biotechnologies? Is there a way to combine traditional science, engineering, art, design, communication, and citizen science in an impactful way?
To end this rant, I want to make sure that I provide some aesthetics from my own work, some organisms I’ve grown and observed for you to look over and contemplate. One is an image of magnified bacterial colonies of two different strains of E. coli expressing different fluorescent proteins. One is the fruiting bodies of lichens seen through a dissecting microscope. The last is a plate of Physarum polycelphalum growing to the size that it attempts to escape the petri dish I just grew it in.
Hello community! I am super excited to kick-off this collaborative residency with Andy Scarpelli!
I am an artist who experiments with new ways of being in a technologized world. No doubt we are all exploring new ways of being together remotely given our current reality.
I make art by finding ways to bring very different ideas and methods together in synergistic, out-of-the-ordinary ways. I intervene in systems to create space for self-expression and agency. I am looking forward to bringing this weird skill I have into play in an experimental collaboration with Andy the biologist!
I live between New York and Austin where I am faculty of Studio Art at University of Texas at Austin. I recently returned to teaching after spending a few semesters traveling to artist residencies located near flamingo populations. Embodied research is a method of my practice, so I immersed myself in a virtual flamingo world. I sponsored and followed 20 wild flamingos online. I amassed books by biologists, scientific research papers, mugs, music and souvenirs—all about flamingos, and wore flamingo-print clothing every day for over a year as a uniform. I arranged meetings with biologists, conservation scientists, and flamingo experts and ultimately brought the public together in immersive, Mixed Reality experience-driven exercises that raised awareness about threats to flamingo habitats and breeding brought on by human activity and climate change. On a philosophical level, the exercises playfully imparted that humans are players within ecosystems and promoted interspecies kinship. Each iteration of Dance with flARmingos and FLARMINGOS included a call to action and fundraiser.
I believe art can be a powerful vehicle for sharing stories from science and can increase public engagement. With science funding diminishing, it is more important than ever to educate the public on science research. One question is, which stories are the more pressing stories to tell?
Another is, how differently do artists and scientists approach storytelling from their research and collected data?
Lately I have been creating stories that intervene in digital spaces like websites and social media. I have used the open source programming language p5.js to create 3d animations and 360 Web XR experiences for browsers. I have used Spark AR to publish participatory and interactive filters on Instagram.
Pick Up Artist (2020), Instagram AR effect for StoriesXFuture Ocean Innovation series,
released on UN World Oceans Day
I am a big fan of both open source and citizen science initiatives and I look forward to hearing more from Andy about his experience as co-founder of ChiTownBio, a public shared biolab in Chicago. I have spent a great deal of time researching how emerging technologies and citizen science are implemented in conservation science, and how citizen science projects within communities can facilitate change. I wonder if there is a way to bring storytelling and citizen science together. I am a member of the New Museum’s cultural incubator NEW INC where I am surrounded by founders, and I have definitely picked up an entrepreneurial itch!