"Art can help us overcome the trauma of this coronavirus crisis"

 Photo: Marta Alonso

Photo: Marta Alonso

Rubn Permuy Iglesias
Mnica Bello, curator, and Andy Gracie, artist, guest editors of the latest issue of Artnodes, a UOC journal, about art and science


Probing connections between art and science, we talked with Mnica Bello, who curates artworks in a highly scientific context, and Andy Gracie, an artist whose work creates interactions with scientific exploration. Bello, who is also an art historian, is head of Arts at CERN at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, one of the world’s foremost research institutions. Arts at CERN fosters an enriching dialogue between art and science by hosting residencies that give artists a close-up look at the how some of the world's leading physicists generate new learning. Gracie, for his part, is an artist whose experimental work has led him into fields such as astronomy, biology and robotics. His art employs scientific theory and practice as a creative medium, exploring issues such as the limitations of our understanding of life. He has held exhibitions in a number of different countries, has worked with the School of Planetary Sciences at the Open University (in the UK), and is currently an artist in residence at the Institute of Cosmos Sciences at the University of Barcelona. The two of them have coedited the most recent issue of Artnodes, a UOC scholarly journal on art, science and technology. Node 25 collates reflections and contributions from artists from around the world under the title Dialogs Between Art and Fundamental Science.


Photo: Andy Gracie

Photo: Andy Gracie

What is the relationship between art and science?

Mnica Bello (MB): There’s nothing novel about the idea that art and science are connected. They have a common tendency to question our existence and both disciplines allow human beings to address their concerns. Moreover, art and science establish frameworks in which methodologies and tools can develop, and which transgress all kinds of frontiers. It’s no coincidence that CERN, the world’s leading centre for research on fundamental science, is also home to an arts programme. The initiative was founded in 2010 by curator Ariane Koek with the support and vision of the centre’s then director-general, Rolf-Dieter Heuer. Although this support was important for a project that represented a milestone in CERN’s history, artists had been coming here for decades. In the 1970s, artists such as James Lee Byars spent their summers here and even appeared on the cover of the CERN Courier, a leading publication on particle physics.

Andy Gracie (AG): As artists we try to seek alternative meanings in knowledge and explore how it complements our human interactions. One way to make the most of our artistic research is through collaborations with scientific processes. It isn’t always smooth sailing, as some scientists see art as a way to communicate their knowledge, while artists tend to strive for a much more complex and critical discourse, perhaps more abstract. So, one of the things I think CERN’s art programme does really well is to make it so guest artists don’t feel pressured to produce tangible results, and instead see it essentially as a programme for experimentations of art in science. It provides an opportunity to interact and research in a scientific environment.

Could you give a specific example of the art moving towards science?

(MB): That’s a tricky one. I’ve been lucky enough to see a huge array of artists and projects, with ideas ranging from those that are more closely aligned to scientific methodology to those that are far removed and aim to show other sides of laboratory life, such as the social discourse around science, or the language that’s created. It’s extremely diverse. From my five years at CERN, I would highlight HALO, by Semiconductor, an artist duo who were in residence with us in 2015 and then again in 2018. They created three pieces, and HALO, a product of the 4th Audemars Piguet Art Commission, is the most complex. They worked with data from CERN’s ATLAS experiments and developed an immersive installation in which they analysed how science offers us a lens to access nature and – importantly – her invisible phenomena. The data gathered from ATLAS was produced by particle collisions taking place on scales of time and space far beyond the human realm of perception. CERN’s huge machines are able to capture this kind of information and the artists used it – before it was processed by scientists – to create an immersive and sensory installation where visitors could actually feel this kind of phenomenon.

(AG): For me, the American artist and scientist Joe Davis is a great example of the relationship between science and art. His decades of professional experience have taken him to MIT and Harvard Medical School, working in fields such as bioinformatics, molecular biology and space art. It’s interesting how his artistic and scientific sides don’t condition one another. I recommend Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis, a documentary on his life and career. He’s a pioneer, a visionary.

If an artist wants their work to explore a scientific field, do they need a proper understanding of it?

(AG): Although artists have a very different language to that of scientists, finding common ground is always an exciting challenge. In any case, artists don’t need in-depth scientific knowledge, and scientists don’t need in-depth artistic knowledge. Besides, each and every case is different. If the artist’s aim is to communicate knowledge, they should know quite a bit about the topic in question, so as not to make mistakes. But in general, artists look for a different response from communicating learning, taking it to other registers. Some have very little scientific knowledge and come up with amazing projects. It’s important to understand that artistic curiosity inspires alternative ways of exploring environments such as the scientific.

(MB): Some artists work with technological and similar processes without attempting to explain what they mean. I believe that understanding the basics of the field you’re working with is useful, as is treating it with respect and care. Understanding scientific jargon empowers you in your artistic creation, even though you know you’ll address issues that seem alien or are in a language you’re not familiar with. Artists such as Semiconductor or Toms Saraceno are good examples. Just because artists don’t understand physics, it doesn’t mean they can’t apply for a residency at CERN, although having some grounding in this field will always be useful.

In your experience, are scientists receptive to artists’ explorations of their field?

(AG): My experiences with the Open University and the University of Barcelona haven’t really conformed to the typical format of artist residencies; they were collaborations that I sought out myself. In both cases, I slowly built up a relationship of trust with the scientists around me so we could work together. Many of the researchers I’ve met hadn’t come into much contact with artistic experimentation. However, many scientists are interested and work openly to help the artist understand their work, thinking about how they can enrich their own processes thanks to this type of exchange.

(MB): Just as some artists aren’t interested in science, some scientists aren’t interested in art. Both science and art explore the limitations of our knowledge. Scientists’ and artists’ understandings of the world converge in a common notion of trying to understand what we cannot perceive, something that goes beyond our physical limitations. In my case, immersing artists in scientific laboratories has yielded very positive experiences for both parties. As a curator, my job is to facilitate the conditions, but an artist’s ability to negotiate their own place in a non-artistic environment is also very important. In any case, scientists are used to proposing and differentiating between ideas in order to make progress, just like artists.

Have you met many scientists who are very artistic?

(MB): All the time. At CERN for example, some physicists are very good musicians. Our director, Fabiola Gianotti is an amazing pianist. I’ve met physicists who have learned to play the piano very well and in less than two years. Scientists sometimes need to express themselves in ways that don’t have anything to do with science, and art can be a fantastic outlet.

(AG): The artist Daniela de Paulis has worked for many years at NASA, where she set up an orchestra with other scientists who were also musicians. You often find researchers who enjoy expressing themselves artistically, for example through music or poetry, because they’re part of a very creative profession that is based on experimentation. Creativity isn’t limited to artists.

You coedited the latest issue of Artnodes, a UOC scholarly journal on art, science and technology. How would you describe the contributions received?

(MB): There are a lot of artists conducting academic research in the field of art. This is time they cannot spend on artistic creation, which is more essential than ever at times of crisis such as the one caused by the current pandemic. This group needs our support. However, scientific papers are a very interesting way to express your ideas and can help us to grasp how this community of people with shared interests feel and how they make themselves understood in an academic context. There has been a lot of collaboration between artists and scientists, but there’s still a long way to go in our search for a way to best capture these ideas. Artnodes has helped us to discover that many ideas still need better grounding. It’s a context that needs stimulation in order to respond to both artistic and scientific concerns.

(AG): Artnodes is a very interesting format for artists who want to write about their work. Some artists feel pressured to give their artistic expression an academic format, and writing for academic journals means doing so under specific and quite strict parameters. In this latest Artnodes I’d highlight Suzanne Treister’s piece, which is very much in keeping with her artistic expression. She wrote it in a format that was probably the only option to ensure the text would work, a format that breaks with the template journals normally use. It was decided that she would be given greater flexibility, which I think was a very significant step in the right direction. In fact, many artists don’t publish in journals simply because they don’t feel comfortable with academic formats, so this kind of flexibility should be repeated and taken further.

How might the coronavirus crisis affect art?

(AG): This is something we’re talking about a lot at the moment: what will happen when we come out on the other side? Many creatives are busy trying to help out and have made protective equipment using 3D printers. Some groups of artists have been meeting regularly online to discuss what they can do to help in this crisis, which is not just a health crisis, but also a crisis for humanity.

(MB): In times of crisis, I look to history. Crises have always inspired incredible contributions to humanity from a host of scientists and thinkers. Throughout different eras in history, knowledge has dictated the solutions available to us, and at the moment the reality of the situation is quite overwhelming. Today, the role of scientists and artists is also to help us overcome individual and collective traumas and to discover our place in the world. We’re going through a cataclysmic, but also very cathartic time. We have to think about the role we can play in making necessary changes, about our commitment and responsibility. There are going to be artists whose work shows science as being unable to give us all the answers, that in fact it is a field of exploration, trial and error. Society has viewed science as the absolute truth and this is a chance for people to rethink those sorts of expectations. I have high hopes that this situation will give rise to vital action that effects change on many levels, which in terms of art will affect cultural policies, museum agendas and new methodologies. We have to be the change we want to see.