here is lessons learned on hybrid art science careers from
1- what is your background as a professional scientist? What is your
background in the arts, design or humanities.
I am a Professor of Physiology at Michigan State University having,
many years ago, done my post-doctoral studies with Jonas Salk, M.D.,
at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA. My
doctorate, however, is in the History of Science (from Princeton
University), which I did to correct the overly-narrow training I got
in Biochemistry (at the same institution).
2- when and how did you become involved in a hybrid art/science practice?
I have always been an artist as well as a scientist. I grew up in a
family that made art. My father (one of the first computer
programmers) and my mother (a psychologist and nurse) met in an art
class and were always making art in their spare time. So I grew up
watching my parents make art and emulated them. Both my parents used
their artistic and design talents in their "professional" work, which
also taught me that there were no such thing as disciplinary
boundaries. I was able to pretend that this lack of boundaries existed
through my undergraduate education, but when I reached graduate
school, three events catalyzed my formal need to address whether such
boundaries do, or do not, exist. One was that the President of
Princeton University, William Bowen, gave an address to incoming grad
students in which he asserted that the only way to succeed as a
professional was to put on blinders and do only one thing for the rest
of one's life. "No way!", I thought! Next, my dissertation advisor,
Thomas Kuhn, wrote an essay proclaiming that art and science were, as
C. P. Snow had proclaimed, incommensurable. But then my History of
Science studies immediately contradicted Bowen's and Kuhn's
assertions. Louis Pasteur was a highly talented portraitist, whose
artistic ability had clear influences on how he performed his
scientific research; Darwin was one of the first to utilize
photography for scientific purposes; his colleagues T. H. Huxley and
Ernst Haeckel were excellent visual artists (Haeckel professionally)
who wrote at length on the need for scientists to first be trained as
artists; the physical chemists who I studied for my dissertation on
the origins of physical chemistry (J. H. van't Hoff, Wilhelm Ostwald,
and Svante Arrhenius) – all Nobel Prizewinners – were stunning
examples of polymaths who argued that scientific imagination is
artistic in origin; etc., etc. Given the clear contradictions between
the "experts" and the "practitioners", combined with my own need to be
one of these polymathic practitioners, I set out to try to understand,
formally, what the issues were and why the contradictions exist.
3- what have been the major obstacles to overcome?
To do the kind of research I wanted to do, and to work in the
polymathic manner in which I wanted to work, I had to find
institutions that would support such an odd type of research and its
associated methodology. Although I thought I had succeeded several
times, in each instance something went wrong. Jonas Salk hired me as a
post-doc to help conceive and organize a second Salk Institute to be
focused on Human Cultural Evolution, so I proposed comparing the
evolution of sciences and of arts as the foci of the institute.
Unfortunately, funding was not forthcoming and the enterprise failed.
I moved to UCLA, where Robert Gray was the Dean of Fine Arts. He hired
me to integrate arts programming with biological sciences (and at the
same time hired the programmer who did the animation for the first
Tron movie and an engineer-artist). After eighteen months of
negotiations with the Deans and Chairs of virtually every program at
UCLA, the program was initiated, only to be summarily eliminated by
executive fiat by the Chancellor of the University as part of a
proposed elimination of the entire College of Fine Arts. I ended up at
Michigan State University out of necessity rather than choice, but it
has worked out because the place is so big and unwieldy that no one
knows what anyone else is doing, which means that anything is
possible. It's not a supportive environment, but its possible to hide
what one is doing and work behind the scenes to get things done, so
its better than the outright hostility that I've met when looking for
jobs at most other places. I also became very involved in the Honors
College, which has given me access to really bright undergraduate
students with much the same outlook and desires as myself, and many of
these students have helped me perform art-science research and
projects either as volunteers, or very inexpensively through
University-funded undergraduate research programs.
The biggest challenge is, as it always has been, to maintain a
professional standing as a working scientist (which means grants,
publications, running a lab, training students, etc.) while
simultaneously creating artworks and/or doing research on artscience
interfaces. While many of the very best scientists understand and
appreciate the connections, the typical Dean or Chair or colleague
perceives the art aspects of the work as irrelevant or a waste of time
and one is punished for not conforming to the idealized notion of a
fully committed lab jockey. One strategy is just to be satisfied with
average or mediocre ratings from one's scientific colleagues and take
consolation in the rewards of doing the transdisciplinary work (which
are often very great!). The other strategy (which can be explored in
tandem) is to educate one's superiors and colleagues about why one
does what one does. Some will "get" it; some will not. Work with the
ones who "get" it!
The most important thing is to have clear goals for oneself and to
develop personal metrics for one's success rather than relying on
institutionalized or external ones. I have never received credit for
any of the artscience work I have done at any university I've worked
at – and I've almost certainly been penalized as a scientist! – but I
can take very great satisfaction in seeing research results and ideas
that I have spent decades promoting now quoted by people in editorials
in major media outlets as if everyone knows these things. In answering
the personal questions that bothered me as a graduate student, I've
clearly helped answer similar questions other people have been
grappling with, with the result that society itself is changing its
attitudes towards what the correct relations might be between arts and
sciences. That's a form of success that can't be reflected in a pay
raise or 500 square feet of additional lab space!
4- what have been the greatest opportunities/breakthroughs?
There have been very few opportunities or breakthroughs for me until
very recently that I did not make myself. I organized the first
art-science programming at national meetings of the History of Science
Society back in the 1980s and also at the AAAS and at Sigma Xi, two
major science organizations. Networking and publishing created
connections that led to various other conferences and their
proceedings. Thank heavens for Roger Malina and LEONARDO, without
which there would be no real forum for publishing work in the
artscience area. The rise of artscience galleries and the spread of
the Exploratorium model within science centers has been a great boon.
Recently, my university hired its first "transmedia" artist, Adam W.
Brown, who has become an active collaborator and phenomenal organizer
of artscience programming on campus as well as nationally and
internationally (http://adamwbrown.net). And decades of research and
publishing on the use of arts-related skills, knowledge, structures,
analogies, etc. by scientists has finally begun to pay off in the
STEM-to-STEAM movement with funding becoming available from NSF, NEA,
NEH, the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Education, as
well as many state governments.
5- what would you do differently, knowing then what you know now?
I would do nothing differently. One has to set a goal and then bob and
weave and just keep moving, even if is laterally or back-and-around,
to get where one wants to get to. Nothing new has a direct route. I
can't see how I could have gotten where I am now any faster or more
efficiently because where we are now is a result of simply going out
and doing what needed to be done at the time.
6- any advices to someone who may want to walk in your footstep?
The process of doing the work creates the path that others can follow.
The first pioneers in anything are always alone without a guide and
without anyway to learn but through trial and error. If you can't
accept that, don't start. Don't expect it to be easy. Don't expect to
be rewarded externally. Don't try to conform. Be yourself. Work your
way. Start now. Don't stop no matter what. Find fellow travelers and
7. Add other questions and your responses you think are relevant
Finding collaborators and mentors and like-minded travelers is very
important! For many years, Todd Siler (http://toddsilerart.com), who
is exactly my age, but trained as an artist-inventor-neuroscientist,
was my most important supporter and sounding board. But finding such
people is never easy nor is there any simple way to do so. My
experience is that you need to contact a dozen people to get two or
three to respond to any project you want to undertake; and of those
two or three, you're lucky if one actually gets interested enough to
collaborate or help you move forward in some way. So one of the key
aspects of doing artscience work (or of pioneering any new area of
practice) is spending a lot of time networking and learning to cut
your losses as quickly as possible. Cultivate people! Keep the ones
who appreciate you and who you appreciate! Do what you can, not what
you want because the doing will create new opportunities while the
wanting brings nothing but frustration. And never stop! Do what makes
your heart leap so that the intrinsic reward of doing it is reward
enough. The rest is icing on the cake!
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