Reflecting on successful Art-Science collaborations

Art and science: a historical divide


Art and science have always had their differences. Art has historically been perceived as an instrument of beauty. In the words of Kant, art has a “purposiveness without a purpose”. This means that even though the artwork might be done with a purpose, the artwork is the purpose itself. In line with Kant’s view, the famous poet and playwright Oscar Wilde said: “All art is quite useless”. It seems logical to assume that this is only true if a true purpose ought to be external to the agent, if having a purpose means serving an external force.

On the other hand, if we take having a purpose as ‘serving an external force’, science does ‘have a purpose’. Science serves humanity in advancing knowledge by understanding and explaining the world we live in. As I see it, both disciplines have a common goal which involves seeking a better understanding of the world. Art seeks for this understanding by posing questions, and science by providing answers.

Even though art is known to be more subjective and science more analytical, similar conclusions can be reached by both disciplines through different mediums (Wright et al., 2006). Therefore, building a team of artists and scientists that can work on solving problems together and use their experience and skills to complement each other seems to be a logical strategy. Even though art-science collaborations and projects have significantly increased in number and quality over the past years thanks to funding from prestigious institutions such as the Wellcome Trust, many experts agree that science and art still sit at opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum (eg. see Wright et al., 2006).


Art in Science, Science in Art


The beginning of art-science collaborations dates as far as the Paleolithic. Throughout history, art has traditionally served to illustrate science and technology, showing up in science books and lectures as anatomical drawings or plant sketches.

As C.P. Snow famously described in his lecture at Cambridge, the arrival of the 18th century and the industrial and scientific revolutions, technical specialisation and advances in research and machinery required professionals to specialise more and more, enlarging the gap between humanities and sciences. Nevertheless, many experts defend that art science and technology kept influencing each other in many ways.

During the past decades art seems to have taken on a new function. Not only does it have the potential to communicate scientific knowledge but it also has the ability to introduce new topics of research and points of view that contribute to the advancement of contemporary science. The experience and skills of the artist bring a new perspective into research that facilitates innovation and new ideas. The crucial role of the artist has been backed up by many experts in the past decades (eg. see Wilson, 2002). Nevertheless, art has often been challenged as a medium to communicate science and has been neglected as a medium to advance technology and scientific knowledge (eg. see Ede, 2002).

There is however a large body of research that demonstrates that promoting collaborative projects between science, technology and the arts results in new ideas (eg. see Sandin et al. 2006 or Plautz, 2005). In the age of information that we live in, we strive for innovation and new ideas. Promoting interdisciplinary collaboration is therefore a necessity to keep innovation in science and technology, as well as the arts and humanities. We can only achieve this by bringing together experts and breaking the borders between science and art to achieve something greater.


Bridging the gap: Science Gallery London and Spit Crystal


Contrary to the general belief of scientists being stuck in their niche disciplines, many scientists in fact wish to take part in interdisciplinary projects but sometimes there is a contradiction between their wish to take part in this projects and institutional pressure (Rhoten, 2004).

With the rise of interdisciplinary research at the end of the 20th century, came a need for dedicated centres and institutions to support this kind of collaborations. The Science Gallery, which first opened at Trinity College in Dublin in 2008, was one of the first organisations of this kind, providing a space for dialogue between scientists and lay audiences and promote art-science collaborations for the public engagement of science.

Mouthy was the third pre-opening season at the Science Gallery London, taking place from July to December 2016. Its aim was to invite their audience to connect with their mouths in new ways. Spit Crystal. Spit Crystal was a project proposed by Ines Camara Leret, a conceptual artist. She collaborated with scientists at the Dental Institute and Professor Brian Sutton and Alkistis Mitropoulou from the crystallography department at King’s College London.

Spit Crystal had its inaugural exhibition from the 8th to the 11th of November 2016 at the Oral Emporium at Guy’s Campus, London Bridge. The exhibition presented the image of the microscopic crystal produced in collaboration with crystallographers and salivary researchers at King’s. The crystal was formed from the artists’ saliva that was gathered during a month and displayed alongside a large-scale replica.

During Mouthy I had the privilege to be a mediator for Spit Crystal, and chat with the audience, scientists and artists about the implications of the project. It was through my contact with Professor Sutton that I decided to research the topic, and find out about how they developed Soit Crystal. Throughout my research I learned that the project was not only successful in fulfilling the commission by the Science Gallery but also triggered other research projects with radically different goals. Even though Spit Crystal was only a two-month journey, commissioned by the Science Gallery whose primary focus was to crystallise saliva, the collaboration is still ongoing and other lines of research are being investigated. This article focuses on this project in particular and offers some guidelines to apply in interdisciplinary projects between art and science to promote the advancement of scientific knowledge.

In the past years, it has become more and more popular to use art as a medium to communicate scientific research (Ede, 2015). However, as I’ve mentioned above, art is often challenged due to its complexity and ambiguity as a clear medium to communicate empirical knowledge (eg. see Ede, 2002).

Then why should we use art as a platform to communicate science, if science itself is more likely to get us an audience? I approached Anna Dumitriu, a celebrated bio-artist based in Brighton, with the intention to understand the advantages of using art over other mediums of communication

Anna Dumitriu: “I think in the case of art, it can be multi-layered, it can retain more complexity’’

As Dumitriu explained during our interview, a single artwork can provoke many interpretations and none of them is wrong. The role of art is therefore to ask questions, and encourage the viewers to find answers. Dimitriu proposed a multi-layered model of art interpretation. In this model both the expert viewer and the amateur can grasp the complexity of the artwork at different levels. Keeping the piece accessible to audiences from all backgrounds and engaging for experts promotes a successful model for public engagement of science.

Building upon its inquisitive nature, art facilitates the ‘network model’ of science communication proposed by Lewenstein (Gregory, 1998, p.87). This model actively encourages audiences to engage in conversation about the science they experience. In line with this statement, the ground-breaking opening event for Spit Crystal involved collecting salvia for the audience, which resulted in an excellent strategy to spark curiosity and conversations.

Art-science collaborations are therefore crucial to promote public engagement of science and engage the general audiences which is essential to build a critical and educated society that can have an impact in science policy making.


Challenges of an art-science collaboration


Working across disciplines is no easy task. Finding the time to juggle scientific research with side projects and being able to communicate with your fellow collaborators can sometimes be a challenge.

A recurring topic that often came up as an issue during my interviews and literature reviews was communication:

Ines Camara Leret: “I think the main obstacle is (…) communication. (Scientists) get together and go like ‘oh have you read this paper about thermodynamics…’ and if you listen, unless you have that previous knowledge, there’s no way to understand it.”

In fact, when I asked Professor Sutton about other collaborations, he mentioned that whenever it failed it was because he was not able to communicate his ideas to the artist, nor could the artist communicate them to him.

Professor Sutton: I’ve had another collaboration which worked really well in one project and then sort of failed on the second one and I think that was because we never met in the middle (…) he came from a completely different background and I didn’t really understand the books that he had read or he referred me to, or the terminology he was using.”

Additionally, in interdisciplinary projects like Spit Crystal, it’s not just about finding a common language between science and art but also between different scientific disciplines, which proved to be a challenge for Camara Leret.

Ines Camara Leret: “And when you bring two departments together it's difficult because you have to learn how to speak the language of the scientists or at least understand it. They have to learn how to understand you too. “

The experience of Camara Leret and Professor Sutton was also shared by Joe Sarah, a renowned food photographer that collaborated with the scientists from Future Farm Lab for Somerset House’s Food Utopias.

Joe Sarah: “One of the shortcomings of the shoot was a lack of understanding from Future Farm Lab into how a photo shoot works. All the problems arose from a lack of communications.”

Artists are not only challenged by the language that scientists use in the lab but also their instruments and machines:

Ines Camara Leret: “Technology also plays a very interesting factor in that because some of the equipment that scientists use, you need to have their training to use it.”

Being able to count on someone else's’ experience to develop their project, facilitates the work of the artist but it is important to avoid falling into instrumentalisation of any of the parts:

Ines Camara Leret: “I think the problem is that usually what happens is that either artists are an instrument for the scientists or scientists are instrumental for artists, because they need public engagement. And I'd be very worried calling that collaboration.”

For Camara Leret the lines between the role of the artist and the role of the scientist disappeared during the Spit Crystal collaboration, which prevented instrumentalisation. Being part of an interdisciplinary team required them to be equally involved and work in a common ground, which they developed along the way based on respect and mutual interest:

Ines Camara Leret: “There wasn't any ‘this is SCIENCE, this is ART talk’. That wasn't important. We stopped talking about the differences between us and spoke in that common ground we found. And I think that happened because we mutually respected each other and there was a genuine interest.”

Another challenge of interdisciplinary collaborations are timelines. Scientists are normally used to working towards tight deadlines in the longer term, whereas artists are often more flexible with their timing. Both Professor Sutton and Camara Leret mentioned the time pressure they were subjected to during Spit Crystal:

Professor Sutton: “I’m always, amazed, there’s always an exhibition or a deadline. I mean we have deadlines but (…) I am always struck by how fast this has to be done.”

Ines Camara Leret: “And there is also a pressure that you have to produce something that doesn’t really help. In an ideal world, you would do some research, you’re in a residency with the scientist and you have a date in the long, long term for the exhibit, after you’ve processed the collaboration.”

Pushing both scientists and artists to stick to the same deadlines can sometimes cause stress. Finding a common ground between the working dynamics of both groups can be achieved by spending more time working together. During my interview with Joe Sarah, he also highlighted the importance of being exposed to the environment of your team members:

Joe Sarah: “A lot would have changed if they had come along to a shoot before-hand to witness how these things work. That may have made things easier to communicate. In the same way, it would have made a lot of sense for me to have come in with them at some point to see how they work.”

Professor Sutton and Camara Leret also spoke about the need to promote initiatives that encourage residencies to help build a relationship of trust:

Ines Camara Leret: “The one criticism, or maybe feedback that I’d give to institutions is that they foster the creation of these relationships but then there aren’t enough opportunities that help you delve deeper into the relationship that’s already been formed. It would be interesting to have initiatives that foster relationships that have already been started to keep researching into them, because collaboration happens more fluently once you know the person.”

Professor Sutton: “I think a recommendation for the Science Gallery would be that if they can realise that some of their projects are going to have a life after that limited span then if they saw the value of having a Science Gallery that might perpetuate them in other spaces they need to have some funding so that they can assist.”

These interviewees believe that long-term scientific outputs from art-science collaborations are fully dependent on funding. The two-month commission of Spit Crystal was successful in starting a relationship and triggering new lines of research but didn’t provide the team with the opportunity to keep investigating those new research projects due to the lack of funding:

Ines Camara Leret: “In my case you need these researchers and you actually managed to create a crystal which ultimately is Science Gallery commission but then there’s an interest in saying well how many crystals can we get, and will these crystals mean... It’s almost diving past the surface which makes a project really easy to look at the possibilities but securing funding for that is really tough.”

This is partly because currently in the U.K. some of the funding bodies are still defined by disciplinary lines that prevent interdisciplinary projects from getting funded:

Ines Camara Leret: “Arts Council usually shuts you off saying it’s too ‘sciency’.”

My interviews demonstrate that even though many institutions that promote interdisciplinary collaboration are being created and funding bodies such as the Wellcome Trust are increasing their funding for interdisciplinary projects, there is still an urgent need for funding of longer-term collaborations.

Ines Camara Leret: “The gap the Science Gallery fills is very needed but it also needs to be in the long-term.”


Key elements of an art-science collaboration


From my research, I have drawn certain elements that are key in a true art-science collaboration. Being able to communicate across disciplines, setting common goals, being flexible with the outcome of the project and trusting your team among others, are key elements to consider when working in interdisciplinary projects.

I approached Professor Sutton, who has extensive experience of art-science collaborations, to understand what strategies can be implemented to improve communication across disciplines. He described that creating a common language helped him in his collaborations with artists:

Professor Sutton: “We always joked that we speak the same language even before we started working.”

When I spoke to Camara Leret, she mentioned the same common language, which for her was based around ‘drawing diagrams’ and ‘scriptures’.

Other case studies have also identified drawing as a medium to communicate across science and art (eg. see Barnett et al., 2006). However, it is important to avoid generalisations, as different scientific disciplines, and art forms have different relationships with drawing and visual representation. In my opinion, what can be learned from this is that in order to successfully communicate across disciplines, both parts need to speak the same language.

As every discipline is governed by different principles and works towards different goals, establishing a clear set of goals from the beginning helps ensuring that both disciplines play a balanced role in the collaboration.

During my interview with Professor Sutton he remembered how not being able to establish common goals caused issues in one of his previous projects:

Professor Sutton: “The person involved really wanted particular outcomes and it just didn't match the sort of science that I can bring to it.”

In order to facilitate communication and relationships, it’s also important to be flexible with the outcomes established and with the initial idea. Alkistis Mitropoulou, who worked with Professor Sutton and Camara Leret in Spit Crystal, mentioned this necessity during our interviews:

Alkistis Mitropoulou: “what I found similar between an artist and a scientist is that we have an idea and this idea is not what we are going to end up (with). So, you know we probably have an idea of you know crystallising spit but it can change “

In fact, when there is a lack of flexibility from one of the sides, the project can result in failure:

Professor Sutton: “I think I’ve worked this out but never sort of publicly spoken about it, but where it hasn’t worked, well certainly the only case where it hasn't worked (was) because there wasn't that flexibility. (Camara Leret) was far more flexible than we were.”

Professor Sutton’s opinion was confirmed by Joe Sarah, who said that the approach of the scientists he worked with was ‘very box ticking heavy’ which made communications harder.

From my interviews, we can draw that there is a fair amount of work to be done to increase flexibility from the point of view of the scientists and accommodate the needs of the artists. However, the success of Spit Crystal suggests that sometimes this lack of flexibility can be balanced out by the artists’ working dynamics and their flexible personality.

Having an experienced team, not only well-respected in their field but also familiar with the dynamics of interdisciplinary collaboration has proven to be significantly helpful:

Ines Camara Leret: “I’ve been really lucky cause everyone that I’ve met regardless of how long we’ve been researching they’ve been really open to speaking about the work. And I think Professor Sutton is a really good example because he’s collaborated with artists before. So, in that sense, he understands very well how we can push things.”

Joe Sarah’s collaboration with Future Farm Lab was in fact a proof of this. When I spoke to him he recognised that he could have dealt with the issues that raised during the collaboration if he had had more experience in the field:

Joe Sarah: “I think a lot of it comes down on to myself, when I did this shoot I was far less experienced than I am now, and I’ve learned a lot since then.”

During my interview with Anna Dumitriu, she insisted that curiosity is probably the most important factor to facilitate collaborations:

Anna Dumitriu: “A requirement for success is to ask lots of questions, don’t be afraid to learn.”

W. Wilson once said that “we need to use not just the brains we have, but also the brains we can borrow”. To ensure the success of an interdisciplinary collaboration it is essential that the participants are opened to learning and researching new topics and ideas. From my interviews, I learned that the success of Spit Crystal partly resulted from Camara Leret’s curiosity to learn about crystallography:

Ines Camara Leret: “And so a lot of the time the first stage is literally just saying what is that? Can you spell it out for me?  What does this do? “

Alkistis Mitropoulou: “When you said something to her she would go and look it up the same day, and the next time she would come back and refer to this thing that she didn't know.”

In order to ensure a productive collaboration, it is therefore crucial to focus on team building and trust relationships. During our conversation, Joe Sarah emphasised this need:

Joe Sarah: “With a regular client, and in this case with a partner for a project, it’s about instilling trust.”

Camara Leret considers that a key to building successful relationships of trust during Spit Crystal was honesty and respect:

Ines Camara Leret: “So, when I went there I was like ‘oh I've got this prototype’ and it was interesting because they were very respectful but they were saying ‘that’s useless, it’s got no value’. And it was really nice, I thought, honesty (was) common ground.”

Trust and relationships are fully dependent on repeated interactions:

Alkistis Mitropoulou: “Now because I collaborate with her on another project I really don't have any difficulty with her.”

Ines Camara Leret: “So they were with me for a very long time in the beginning and then eventually they just let me pop in and have a chat, we got to each do our own thing. I think they trusted me.”

Exposure, time and, ultimately, funding are therefore crucial to build strong interdisciplinary relationships. However, pursuing funding in art-science collaborations can sometimes be very challenging.


Measuring the success of a collaboration


I personally agree with Professor Sutton in that it is undoubtedly challenging to judge the success of an interdisciplinary collaboration:

Professor Sutton: “You’re trying to think of ways of quantifying the success of a collaboration (…) I’d like to take the view that you can’t, you can't in the same way that you can’t quantify success of a scientific project. Cause you never know where its gonna go, or whether someone is going to remember it in 10 years…“

The main challenge is the fact that each discipline has an established set of guidelines and goals to judge the success of their projects. There is a clear need to develop an interdisciplinary evaluation system that can recognise the challenges and successes of the new hybrid discipline created and is able to determine the value of the “hybrid outcomes” that result from it.

Some academics have identified certain guidelines that they consider make an interdisciplinary collaboration successful, such as co-authoring papers or co-experimenting. I don't necessarily agree with this view, as each project has a different purpose. I have tried to identify the key guidelines that my interviewees applied to their projects to determine whether they were successful.

A recurrent measure of success that appeared in my conversations was exposure of the end product of the collaboration and shared knowledge :

Anna Dumitriu: “I guess other measures of success also involve where it gets shown, where it gets taken up. We need as many people to hear about it as possible.”

Professor Sutton: “Follow on activities for sure. I mean the very fact that this lead to the publication of these images, the exhibit his taken forward to Holland, maybe elsewhere in the future…”

Ines Camara Leret: “Maybe through what new knowledge is made”

From a personal point of view, I consider that the success of a collaboration can be judged considering whether it fulfilled the purpose with which it was started. On the Science Gallery website, the purpose of Spit Crystal is said to be “to study the potential of saliva alongside salivary researchers and crystallography experts based at Kings College London”. During my interviews with Camara Leret, Professor Sutton and Alkistis Mitropoulou, I found out that two new projects had appeared from Spit Crystal. One of them involves studying the potential of saliva as a diagnostic tool and is a collaboration between the Dental institute and the crystallography department. From this definition, we can therefore establish that it was in fact a successful collaboration.


Long-term impact of a collaboration


L. Wolpert famously argued that “although science has had a strong influence on certain artists… art has contributed virtually nothing to science”. Professor Sutton’s view was not different:

Professor Sutton: “Whenever I’ve been asked over the years I’ve always hesitated and said it probably offers more for the artist than it does to us. I’ve been pinned down on this a few times, people saying ‘what I’m really asking you is, how has this collaboration with that artist furthered your science?’ And often it doesn’t.”

I agree with Wilson (1998) in that “consilience—the ‘jumping together of knowledge’ across disciplines ‘to create a common groundwork of explanation’—is the most promising path to scientific advancement, intellectual adventure, and human awareness”. My research on Spit Crystal confirmed the view that art sometimes does have an impact in scientific research. During my interview with Camara Leret, she revealed that new science was being developed from their research on Spit Crystal:

Ines Camara Leret: “As a backbone or as a result of Spit Crystal there is actually some science that will come out of it. It's a new project and brings in saliva and crystallography.”

These new projects involve using saliva as a diagnostic tool, and new techniques for researching desalinisation of salt water:

Professor Sutton: “In the case of Spit Crystal you can say there are two avenues, one we talked about diagnosis and one we talked about desalination.”

From my interviews, we can draw that Spit Crystal proved the potential of art-science collaborations in triggering new research topics and building relationships between academics from different faculties within the same discipline.

Professor Sutton: “It’s definitely spawned new science. But that’s an entirely new project, if we ever solve the water crisis with desalination it will all have started with Spit Crystal which would be remarkable.”

Spit Crystal, was undoubtedly a successful collaboration between an artist and a scientist. As a result of the new perspectives introduced by the artist, unconventional scientific research routes were followed leading to the discovery of two new research projects at the crystallography and salivary departments at King’s College London and proving that artistic practice does have an impact in scientific research. There’s many lessons that can be learnt from the Spit Crystal team to promote healthy and successful interdisciplinary collaborations such as finding a common language, working towards common goals, being flexible, curious and experienced and building trust relationships with your fellow collaborators.