Inside an Art-Science Collaboration

03/12/2013 in Art, Artifact, Collaborations, Imperial College, Science

This week we hear from Andy Roast, an ex-science communication student from Imperial College London who shares with us a condensed version of his dissertation that explores how metaphor is used extensively in art & science collaborations.

Different stages of chromosome segregation in mitosis: cell in metaphase. DNA (blue), the axes of sister chromatids stained with topoisomerase II antibodies (red), the mitotic spindle stained with tubulin antibodies (green). Courtesy of J.-F. Giménez-Abián. via

Last year I was lucky enough to meet some real-life, art-science facilitators. The MitoSys project aims to observe the interactions between 600 proteins involved in cell division, with the goal of uncovering how individual protein molecules contribute to cell division as a whole.

This is an interesting scientific project. But even more interesting from an art-science perspective is that the multimillion Euro’s worth of funding provided by the European Commission came with a condition: that there must be a public exhibition of the results.

Enter Marina Wallace, Professor of Curating at University of the Arts London: Central Saint Martins and Director of the art-science organisation, Artakt. Marina is well known in art-science circles, having successfully curated many exhibitions including one about the pioneering geneticist Gregor Mendel at the Abbey of St Thomas in Brno: the very place in which he worked.

My role with this group was to observe how curators and art communicators facilitated a discussion between scientists and artists.

C P Snow is well known for noting that discussion between the ‘two cultures’ of art and science is rare. Perhaps this is due to the different purposes of each subject: science, through method and reason, attempts a precise description of natural occurrences, whereas art can convey an idea, feeling or emotion.


After hearing the members of the MitoSys group talk, I spotted that artists and scientists don’t even speak the same language. A biologist might use ‘structure’ to mean the distinct arrangement of atoms in a protein. Whereas a contemporary choreographer might use the word ‘structure’ to explain how a number of disparate elements combine to produce an entire work of art. I decided to explore how important the construction of shared language and metaphor is when creating a piece of art-science.

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff argues that metaphors allow us to understand experiences and concepts in terms of understandable objects. Lakoff argues that this allows us to quantify, compare and even understand complex concepts by understanding them in terms of something more recognisable. Lakoff writes, “Human purposes typically require us to impose artificial boundaries that make physical phenomena discrete just as we are: entities bounded by a surface.”

It was my idea that because artists and scientists occupy different worlds and use different vocabularies in these worlds, they must first collaboratively construct a shared metaphor which allows both sides to comprehend an art-science project.

I asked Marina Wallace about the importance of metaphors in art and science. “Scientists use metaphors with each other,” she replied. “And they use metaphors, to explain to a general public what they are up to. Artists also use metaphors, both in the way they work, but also in the way they relate to reality outside. They use metaphors to explain an inner-world, if you like. And the scientists use metaphors to explain the outer-world.”

In other words, Marina agrees that scientists and artists both use metaphors (although for different reasons). Perhaps someone involved with art-science must help artists and scientists to use the same metaphor.
But why should artists and scientists even bother to construct these shared metaphors? It seems like an awful lot of work for two groups of people who are already very busy with other important tasks.
Many writers have suggested that the divergence of science and the arts might negatively impact society as a whole. (These include Sir Howard Newby, Paul Feyerabend and of course C P Snow, but this list is by no means exhaustive).

C P Snow wrote that the division of society into ‘two cultures’ is a “sheer loss to us all” practically, intellectually and creatively. By not listening to their opposite number, scientists become less imaginative and less able to think laterally around a problem, while non-scientists make themselves ‘tone-deaf’ to “the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man”.

An art-science collaboration can be an effective way of engaging a public with novel scientific research. Artists are able to ask questions of a piece of research which scientists cannot. And by asking these questions, scientists might even be provided with a different perspective of their work.

By sharing a new metaphor with the public, new questions of the scientific research can be asked. But the reverse can also happen – the public can come to understand contemporary art through its comparison with science. About this, Marina says:

“Ken Arnold, from the Wellcome Trust [one of the founders of Sciart] said to me once, “We think we are doing [Sciart] to help the general public understand science. But, actually, we are helping the general public understand contemporary art through science because they are closer to science than they are to contemporary art.” And that’s something I can get behind, a project which engages a large number of different people to think differently.

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