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.