When 2 (Disciplines) Become 1: Reflections on the Convergence of Art and Science, January 2018

Author: Amanda Montañez
Publication: Scientific American
Published: January 10, 2018
Article PDF: When 2 (Disciplines) Become 1: Reflections on the Convergence of Art and Science
Article link: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/sa-visual/when-2-disciplines-become-1

Last month I had the pleasure of attending two separate conferences focused on the intersection of art and science. I had co-organized one of the events, a one-day affair called SciVizNYC, which featured 15 speakers working in various fields involving science visualization. After listening to this diverse series of professionals, including medical illustrators, journalists, fine artists and academics, I headed off to a weekend-long conference called Art & Science: The Two Cultures Converging. As I climbed the steps of the venue, still buzzing with inspiration from SciVizNYC, I wondered what more could be said on a theme I felt I had just explored so thoroughly.

In fact, it turned out there were volumes more to be said. In 12 hours of discussion over three days, surprisingly little of the Art & Science conference felt redundant or even similar to the material covered at SciVizNYC. The distinction arose in part from the format of the event: rather than a series of speakers expounding individually, the conference featured several roundtable discussions, each focused on one of three themes: “Science-Art Collaboration;” “STEAM and the Future of Education” (STEAM being STEM + Art); and “Science, Art and Society.” Moreover, the event felt tonally very different from any other conference I had attended. The discussion often veered into abstract, philosophical, even existential territory, leaving me at once enlightened and a little disoriented.

I am used to thinking of the intersection of art and science in fairly concrete terms. In my work as a graphics editor for Scientific American, art is essentially a tool for communicating science. And much of the science-themed fine art I have seen appears to do something similar, if less tangibly. The neuron-like sculptures of Judith Modrak, for example, are inspired by advances in neuropsychology and read as visual contemplations of this mysterious field of science and its connection to our humanity. Without conveying a clear academic message, Modrak’s work certainly seems to celebrate science and invites viewers to consider how the physical structures of the brain translate into who they are.

Thought Storm, created at E2C, 2017, Judith Modrak. Credit: Image courtesy of the artist

But, as some of the roundtable participants pointed out, art can have other roles with respect to science. As it does with virtually every aspect of society, art can serve as a critic. It can point out science’s shortcomings, or even parody it. And in the face of ethically dubious research practices or the global threat of nuclear technology, art can hold up a mirror and act as a moral compass. The work of visual artist Jordan Eagles provides one example of art in this role: his project Blood Mirror challenges the Food and Drug Administration’s policies regarding blood donation by gay and bisexual men.

Blood Mirror sculpture by Jordan Eagles. Credit: Leo Herrera (photo)

Additionally, practicing an art can enrich scientific thought. The example of Einstein’s dedication to the violin was cited several times at the conference, as was the exquisite draftsmanship of the neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal. In both cases, the scientists’ artistic practice made them better scientific thinkers and observers—and in Cajal’s case, doubled as a tool for communicating his findings.

Albert Einstein playing his violin, 1932. Credit: Getty Images

The Art & Science event also stretched my thinking with respect to different modes of artistic expression. Being a visual artist myself, I reflexively tend to think of art within a gallery setting—paintings, sculptures, installations, and other (usually) static, permanent or semi-permanent media types. But this conception of art leaves out dance, for example, which has yielded fascinating expressions of scientific ideas—such as Elizabeth Streb’s amazing, acrobatic explorations of Newtonian physics. Roundtable participants also made several references to film, including Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and large-scale public installations such as Agnes Denes’ 1982 ecological artwork Wheatfield: A Confrontation. Such works can exert a substantial impact on their audience in part by rejecting the gallery setting in favor of a less aloof, more socially prevalent backdrop.

Looking toward more practice-oriented issues, conference participants discussed challenging the typical hierarchy of roles in science-art collaboration. In such interdisciplinary endeavors, it is easy to view one field as functioning in service of the other. In my role, for example, there is a necessary hierarchy: I create images that communicate science, and while I do enjoy some artistic freedom, the relevant scientific information, above all else, drives the development of each graphic. Yet, this relationship can also exist in reverse. At the School of Visual Art’s Bio Art Lab, for instance, science serves art—or, more precisely, science becomes a medium for creating art. As students sculpt with mushrooms or paint with bacteria, the line between artist and scientist begins to disappear.

Bio Art Lab at the School of Visual Arts, 2012. Credit: Raul Valverde

At one point during the conference, the discussion leader pointed out that the vast majority of science-art collaborations are initiated by artists. Another participant commented that “artists are not great collaborators” because they don’t want to take instruction. For many artists, I suspect this is true—an artist’s work usually originates from whatever inspires her personally, so for a scientist (or anyone, for that matter) to instigate a collaborative project may prove fruitless.

However, as an artist who has always preferred structured assignments over open-ended ones, I would challenge this notion. I love taking instruction! And in my experience, most people who go into scientific or medical visualization are similarly oriented as artists. We are not necessarily driven by a need to express our own emotions or experiences, or to make statements through our art. Instead, we simply want to draw. Give us something to draw, and we will represent it skillfully, relishing the whole meticulous process. My field of work not only validates this preference, but the “something” I get to draw is invariably fascinating in both substance and form. Moreover, my work serves a concrete purpose—to convey scientific information—which strengthens and sustains my motivation.

This idea may get to the heart of why the Art & Science conference differed so sharply from SciVizNYC, despite appearing so closely aligned thematically. Scientific visualization is just one specific type of science-art collaboration. And while it is crucially important, its reach is limited. Other permutations of the intersection of art and science are incredibly diverse and abundant, and as both fields evolve, surely so will the connections between them.

Recorded discussions from the Art & Science conference are available here. Those in the New York City area can also check out other events from the SciArt Center, which aims to “stimulate and cultivate the growth of partnerships between the arts and sciences on the local scale.”

Is SciArt the New Outsider Art?

Author: Judith Modrak
Publication: Sci Art Magazine
Published: December, 2017
Article link: http://www.sciartmagazine.com/discussion-is-sciart-the-new-outsider-art.html

Is SciArt the new Outsider Art? While these two movements may at first glance seem dissimilar – one is of the self-taught, and one is rooted in science – they have more in common than immediately meets the eye. I would even venture that they are close kin, if not siblings.

PicturePortrait of William Frosch (1993 by Steve Miller). 40” x 61”. Pigment dispersion and silkscreen on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

SciArtists come from all walks of life – from the formally trained, to scientists turned artists, to outliers of both disciplines. What unites this diverse group of practitioners is an unflinching passion for all things organic (people, plants, animals – the universe in total), and a seeming disregard for the norms and vicissitudes of the conventional art world. Their work is typically driven by a specific curiosity and obsessive dedication to particular phenomena, as opposed to a larger “art world” aesthetic or trend of the moment. 

Picture“The Farm” (2000) by Alexis Rockman. 96” x 120”. Oil & acrylic on wood panel. Image courtesy of the artist.
Norman Giradot, comparative religion scholar with a strong interest in outsider art as it relates to religion and other areas, shared the following observations with me – observations I would like to assert apply with equal measure to SciArtists:

“Without attempting any kind of comprehensive inventory of the ever-shifting and often warring nomenclature (triggered by the work of the French maverick “non-cultural” artist and theoretician of Outside Art/Raw Art Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s), it is worth mentioning some of these unwieldy designations: folk, naïve, brut, primitive, self-taught, vernacular, intuitive, traditional, anti-cultural, marginal, contemporary folk, popular, grassroots, mentally ill, psychotic, and so on. These are all terms that have to do with anything non-mainstream – that is, outside the usual or “normal” parameters of elite, urban, academic (“schooled”), or official cultural institutions.”

[Outside Art] is intuitive, not conceptual. Straight from the hand, heart, and gut; not just from the head. Strange, not normal. Sometimes crude; sometimes amazing. It can also be said that there is often a psychologically traumatic, or even visionary event that causes a culturally isolated person to discover their unexpected destiny as an artist compulsively compelled to communicate visual messages concerning the hidden, strange, or secret nature of the human condition. These messages frequently have an eccentric religious, political-social, or sexual messages. There are also a number of important outsider artists who communicate “scientific” visions about a fantastic, fringe, or spiritualistic sense of physical reality. Examples of these artistic visionaries of a strange, esoteric, or cosmic science include UFO artists like Charles Dellschau and Ionel Talpazan, A. G. Rizzoli’s symbolic architecture, and Paul Laffoley’s coded scientific diagrams.” 

Picture“Familial Memory and Family of Memories” (2016) by Judith Modrak. Investigating the nature of memory formation and family dynamics from a neuron’s perspective. 44″x28″x30″, plaster cast and oil; 37”x36”x24”, plaster cast, pigment and oil on plaster base. Image courtesy of the artist.
While not entirely overlapping, the similarities between the two groups are striking, and the phrase “strange, not normal” could be considered the rallying cry of all SciArtists. We are driven by an internal fascination – whether of neurons, algae, bacteria, the Anthropocene, chemical erosion, or even modalities of communication – we are propelled by our excitement and seek to share this vision with others. Yet in the same way Post-Impressionists such as Van Gogh and Seurat followed in the footsteps of the Impressionists Manet and Monet, SciArtists follow in the imprints created by Dubuffet and traditional Outsider Art artists like Finster, Evans, and Traylor. I would even venture to posit that the spiritual mother of Outsider Art is Yayoi Kusama.  While embraced by the larger art establishment and culture, Kusama’s visceral, organic, and obsessive creations reflect the larger ethos of Outsider Art and certainly serve as personal inspiration within my own work. Other artists from the past century whose influence pulsates though the SciArt community would include Bourgeois, Ernst, Klee, Giacometti, Pfaff, von Rydingsvard, and Anatsui, among others.
Picture“Winds. October 27, 2010. Greensboro, North Carolina. Process.2014.12” (2014) by Mark Nystrom. 36” x 36”. Wind data, software, aluminum print. Note: an example of radial timeline combined with wind speed and direction plotting. Image courtesy of the artist.

With more SciArt-based programs within traditional art schools and universities, including STEAM, a new crop of SciArtists is being cultivated. As a result of these programs in conjunction with the heightened visibility of SciArt organizations, such as SciArt Center and ASCI, and exhibitions devoted to art inspired by science, what was a loose collective of trained and untrained artists and scientists is coming into its own as a discipline. As SciArt shakes off the stigma of being a scruffy hillbilly relation to its swanky, mainstream postmodern relatives, it will occupy a new and most probably visionary place in the art world. During this transformative period, it’s fittingly ironic to rename this passionate band of outsiders as the ultimate insiders – the New Outsider Art – strange, raw, and electrifying.

Picture“Implementation of Adaptation” (2013). by Lorrie Fredette. Exhibition location: Garrison Art Center, Garrison, NY. 6’1” x 12’ x 24’, suspended 40” above the floor. Beeswax, tree resin, muslin, brass, nylon line, steel, and wood. Photo credit: Fred Hatt. Image courtesy of the artist.
New York sculptor Judith Modrak is fascinated with scientific advances that increase our understanding of the mechanisms that trigger and regulate thought, action, memory and feelings. Her subjects – the origin of instincts, the location of memories and the cellular anatomy of the brain – are esoteric and often intangible concepts that she seeks to translate in 3-dimensional, painted sculptural form. Modrak’s work has been exhibited in solo and group shows in galleries, museums and fairs throughout the United States including Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, the Trenton Art Museum, Point Park University, the Palm Beach Art Armory, the Woodstock Museum, the Hartnett Gallery, Art Context NY, and Governors Island NY. She has received a chashama/National Endowment for the Arts grant and two gold medals in sculpture from the National Association of Women Artists, among other awards, and is represented in many private collections. Her work has been featured and reviewed in literary, scientific and news publications, including The Seaside Times, The Gothamist, SciArt, Sculpture Magazine, Interalia and The Pittsburgh-Tribune.
For more information about Modrak and her work, visit www.judithmodrak.com and Instagram/Facebook @JudithModrak

Panelist for Women in Biology: “The Intersection of Art and Science”

Date: July 26th, 6-8 p.m.
Location: Pride Globl Flight Deck Graybar Building, 30th Floor
420 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10170
Register: http://womeninbio.org/eventdetails.aspx?EventId=31658
This event is a production of Women in Bio- Metro New York 

The evening will open with Julia Buntaine, Director of SciArt Center, setting the backdrop of how the apparently opposite fields of art and science have begun to merge in the recent years. While science aims to deliver accurate information about the world, art can inspire and present scientific concepts to a broader audience. The introduction will be followed by a panel discussion on SciArt, moderated by artist and WIB member, Yana Zorina.
The panel of artists will include:

Judith Modrak
Lauren Bierly
Julia Buntaine
Cheryl Safren