Science research as art

The Ri's Gail Cardew proposes that there are more similarities than there are differences, between science and art.

  • Image of mobile phone hidden among magazines

    'Hiding in Plain Sight' by Simon Robinson, Professor Gail Cardew's favourite submission to the Swansea University Research as Art Award

    Credit: Swansea University

Science and art are often considered to be poles apart – a prized piece of art in a notable gallery is, after all, completely different to a ground-breaking scientific paper in a leading journal. But is the process of ‘doing’ science so different from art? And are there similarities once the end results leave the realm of the experts and enter the public domain?

The relationship between science and art has had a long history at the Royal Institution. Humphry Davy, inventor of the miners’ safety lamp at the Ri, was a distinguished natural philosopher, a gifted lecturer and also a published poet. Michael Faraday, whilst working in the labs of the Ri, allowed himself to be painted by the ‘artist-in-residence’ Harriet Moore. We’ve had other artists-in-residence over the years, such as the super-talented Annie Cattrell, as well as poets-in-residence and, most recently, animators-in-residence such as Andrew Khosravani and Rosanna Wan.

There have been plenty of public discussions about art at the Ri too, reflecting the fact that the Ri wasn’t just founded in 1799 to discuss science, but to provide a forum where the acquisition and application of knowledge was discussed by wider society. This was long before the word ‘scientist’ was coined, and when it was usual to come to the Ri to hear about the latest thinking and discoveries in both the arts or sciences, and in English or even French!

But what is the relationship between the arts and the sciences today?

We are for the most part taught to think of art and science quite differently at school. In Key Stage 1 at primary school, children are encouraged to be curious and ask questions about what they notice. This evolves throughout the rest of primary and secondary school into more structured learning about the process of forming a hypothesis, designing and conducting experiments to test it and drawing conclusions. We learn a huge body of ‘facts’ and carry out practical work to confirm those facts. In contrast, we experience the process of making an artwork as being less structured in its methodology, with more room for individual expression and freedom of thought. And sadly we are often encouraged to specialise in the arts or the sciences.

But I would argue that the two disciplines are actually more similar than we give them credit for. Even though the end product of both endeavours is somewhat different, artists and scientists both need to be ‘trained’. They need to know what’s gone on in their fields before they start their project – there are no gold medals for replicating someone else’s work. They approach their work as a craft, selecting their tools carefully and refining them to suit their needs. I also learned, after having had the opportunity to visit Grayson Perry at his studio a couple of years ago in advance of him giving an Ri talk, that his experience of sitting on a stool and ‘tap tap tapping’ for hours on a piece of work requires patience, a methodological approach and the ability to work long hours on your own; all character traits that are required in science and that I most certainly did not have to be a successful research scientist myself. And finally, what I believe to be the most striking similarities are that artists and scientists both need to be creative, ask the most ambitious of questions and be unafraid of pushing boundaries.

But what about when science and art leave the workshop and enter the public spotlight? Art can be appreciated at different levels. Some might enjoy it simply for its sheer beauty, some people invest in it, and others, like me, also want it to expose us to new thinking; I want to dig deeper to find out the story behind what I'm seeing and I want the overall experience to challenge my perceptions of the world.

When science comes out of the lab and into the limelight it can also be applicable at many levels in our daily lives. One of the reasons I love working at the Ri is because it does all of the things that I want out of an art exhibition. You don't need to be a practising scientist to come to the Ri – just like you don’t need to be an artist to visit a gallery – but you do need to be willing to learn something new, have your thinking challenged, and be encouraged to take part in discussions about how science is affecting all our lives. Because science, like art, is at its best when there are no easy answers, and when the endless possibilities are discussed openly by the public.

So why am I thinking about all of this right now? Because I've just helped judge Swansea University’s Research as Art Award. The entries are all from researchers who are asked to produce a picture and a short written piece to communicate their work to a public audience. The one I have picked as my favourite shows a smartphone ‘chameleon’ camouflaged against a background of magazines. It isn’t necessarily the best picture, but the combination of the picture and the written piece got me thinking about how smartphones have invaded our lives to such an extent that we hardly know they’re there. Do we want them to be literally invisible too? How does it work? How does the phone ‘know’ it’s on a pile of magazines? What else could we engineer to have ‘chameleon-like’ properties? Will this have any bearing on the nature of privacy?

Engaging in discussions like these is one of the most exciting things about both science and art. Neither scientists nor artists have all the answers, though what they do brilliantly is provide us with the raw material for us all to expand our minds and form our own opinions about the world.          

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