Wednesday, April 27, 2016

[Yasmin_discussions] Mercado Central; Lessons learned and advice for hybrid science-art careers

Dear Yasminers,

Thank you for the opportunity to join this fascinating discussion!

I am a conceptual/sound artist with a background in marine biology and scientific illustration. I've spent most of my life in the northeast (NY/New England), but am currently based in the high desert of far West Texas, near the town of Marfa.

With Best Regards,
Alyce Santoro

1- what is your background as a scientist? In the arts, design or humanities?

As a young person fascinated by science and nature but with a penchant for the arts (including music...inspired by Laurie Anderson's tape-bow violin, I had an electric pick-up installed in my flute during my early teens), I decided that my life's mission would be to communicate about the wonders of science and nature through art. Not knowing exactly what this would look like and having no mentor to guide me (in the mid-1980's, a high school student with an interest in what may now be referred to as interdisciplinary education was steered into "liberal arts"...but this did not quite seem to fit the bill for me...I wanted to be a "real" scientist...), formulated a plan: I would gain a formal education in science first, followed by training in scientific illustration.

As an undergraduate I pursued a BS in Biology at Southampton College, part of Long Island University (this campus and its excellent math, chemistry, and physics-heavy marine biology program unfortunately no longer exists). I am so grateful to have received this rigorous education...from it I learned the kind of critical/analytical thinking and experimental design that informs every aspect of my current work.

After Southampton I went directly to Providence, RI where I enrolled in Rhode Island School of Design's Graduate Certificate program in scientific illustration. This too was a rigorous curriculum that, in addition to providing solid training in traditional illustration, allowed me to explore other media, such as sculpture and printmaking. Providence in the early 1990's was a fertile place for artists...lofts in old factory buildings were cheap, and silkscreeners, bands, painters, industrial designers, and other creative practitioners lived and worked in close proximity, willingly sharing studios, skills, and equipment. To support myself while going to school at night, I was fortunate to get a job as a research assistant on a biochemistry and aquaculture project at the University of Rhode Island. I felt like a bit of an impostor in both day, my friends at the lab thought of me as some crazy artist, and by night, my artist-friends saw me as a professional scientist who happened to make art.

Not long after graduating from the RISD program, I got hired as a seagoing oceanographic research assistant on the Global Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics (GLOBEC) project. I spent three months total a year at sea, in increments of three weeks at a time, floating around Georges Bank in the North Atlantic, for over four years. This was a pivotal time for me...which leads to the next question...

2- when and how did you become involved in a hybrid art/science practice?

While at sea, I had lots of time to think, read, draw, write...and converse with my fellow scientists (this was in the mid-1990's, before the internet was available on ships at sea!). Over the course of the years that I worked on the GLOBEC project, it was becoming clearer that things in the North Atlantic were amiss...counts of zooplankton and larval fish were rapidly dropping. I asked the lead scientists whether and how this informations should be communicated to the public. That's not our job, they said. Our job is to collect data, not interpret it, they said. I was given the impression that scientists putting any "spin" whatsoever on data – no matter how dire the results may appear – was bad practice. I felt conflicted...I wanted to be a "real" scientist. If the scientist's job isn't to sound the alarm bells...whose job is it? I believe that because there have historically been so few individuals in the position of "science communicator"...not just a journalist or an illustrator, but someone whose job it is to cross fluidly between those worlds, and understands what it means to be a "good scientist"...this is in part why we are now in the mess we find ourselves in re: climate change. Fear of bias has actually led to extreme bias...the vast majority of media on science comes from the corporate media, the kind of media that has a vested interest in suppressing the reality of what is happening.

Alarmed by this, I started making art about the foibles and hubris of science. I began designing "experiments" and making "laboratory equipment" to study the intangible, the parts of reality and the human experience that are unquantifiable. In other words, I became a kind of philosopher...

3- what have been the major obstacles to overcome?

As others have already mentioned, one persistent obstacle is the prevailing view in our culture of "art" as something "extra", an embellishment, something that exists in a support capacity for science but not as something integral, with equal importance or value. The STEM to STEAM movement has been extremely helpful, and "sci-art" and "eco-art" have become much more common and widely accepted in recent years. But there is still much work to be done to dispel the idea all these neat categories are really anything more than convenient descriptors that, upon closer examination, are not nearly as neat in practice as they are in theory.

In addition, perhaps like many people on this list, I work in a nebulous, sort of "genre-free" zone. Some of my work involves sound and music, some of it is sculptural, much of it is ephemeral or conceptual....I tend to use whatever medium I feel is necessary to convey a particular idea. It's the ideas that are, to me, important...the pieces are just artifacts of a concept....and the concepts are free for the taking. For me the joy – and the point – is that ideas should be freely exchanged, open-source, collaborative...information is power, and everyone should have equal access to it. This leads to a variety of problems: a) the work doesn't fit neatly into any handy category that makes it easy to show, sell/buy, or write about, b) it does not tend to generate a significant amount of income.

4- what have been the greatest opportunities/breakthroughs?

Delighted to read that others have mentioned Goethe here! When I first learned of his concept of "delicate empiricism", it was a breakthrough for me. Confirmation of my hunch that we are not as separate from our experiments as we make ourselves out to be...and that "bias", or intuition based on sustained, earnest reflection might actually be useful...these assurances gave me permission to further develop my own "hypotheses".

5- what would you do differently, knowing then what you know now?

I would have abandoned my role as a "good scientist" and embraced my role as one whose job it is to act as a liaison between scientists and the public sooner...I would have helped sound the alarm bells about climate change in the mid/late-1990's when I could see what was happening and was discouraged from speaking out.

Although my plan to study biology first and scientific illustration later ultimately worked out in its own way, I wish I'd known sooner of other options for someone who wanted to become well-versed in both art and science. I would have liked to pursue a PhD so that I could eventually teach, but I am only just now discovering PhD programs that seem to accommodate interdisciplinary studies.

6- any advices to someone who may want to walk in your footstep?

• People who understand science and can communicate clearly &/or creatively about it are more urgently needed than ever. Thus far, the problems of our time – when conveyed accurately at all – have been presented in cold, detached ways that have not tended to inspire action on the scale necessary. In my view, "the poetics & aesthetics of science communications" could be a course of study unto itself. A young person looking for ways to combine art and science might consider seeking out or self-directing such a program.

• Without creativity, there can be no innovation in art, science, technology, or anywhere in between...and if we are to effectively confront the challenges we currently face, we need to teach, learn, and practice creativity.

• For those whose practices are not well-defined or well-compensated, living simply and staying out of debt are strategies that can result in greater freedom, time, and flexibility.

• A couple of offerings for anyone who may wish to know more about my path in particular:

This is a talk I gave for incoming freshman at the New School in NYC in 2005 on "The Art of Science, The Science of Art":

My book, which was written with a young reader setting out on a path to combine art and science in mind, is available as a free download: (the download button is at the bottom of the page)

7- Add other questions and your responses you think are relevant

Added question: What are you working on now?

• In collaboration with my husband guitarist/composer Julian Mock I am working on developing a means of visualizing the intervals and modes commonly used in the Western 12-tone musical system. This method employs a tertiary color wheel to depict tonal relativity and shapes to depict intervals. As a musician who is constantly seeking to improve my skills and pallet as an improvisor, I developed this method out of frustration for the ways that the modes are taught in most standard music theory books. More on this project here:

• For Issue #25 of Leonard Music Journal, I asked 20 composers of new and experimental music the same single question that SOURCE: Music of the Avant-Garde asked of 20 composers in 1969: "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for political or social ends?" On May 1, I will post all of the new responses on my page...meanwhile, the 1969 responses can be found here and several individual responses from the contemporary composers (including Terry Riley, Frederik Rzewski, Anne LeBaron, and others) can be found on my blog.

• I am one of the co-founders of a group here in the Big Bend region that is resisting against the 42" high-pressure Trans-Pecos Pipeline. I mention this because the fight is putting all of my skills as both an artist and a scientist to the test – I find myself serving in the capacity of environmental journalist and creative direct-action/social media other words, "science communications poetics/aesthetics"! Fascinatingly...local scientists on the ground here whose jobs are funded through the government – including Big Bend National Park employees, UT-funded astronomers, and state funded archeologists – have been silenced by the pipeline company. In other words: the very experts who could comment most authoritatively on threats to this region's plants and wildlife, aquifers, dark skies, etc. have had their jobs threatened by an industry that pours money into the state's coffers. Who is left to fight, and to point out this conflict of interest? The answer is artists, students, self-employed and retired people, and others without affiliations or anything much to lose. This is not just happening here – this is the story of what has been happening on a national and global scale for many, many years. Again, I implore any young person to bear this in mind when choosing a career path: those who can understand the gravity of the issues we are facing and are willing and able to speak out on them eloquently and are urgently needed!

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