By Ipsa Jain
Note: All images shown in the video are by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya. Please do not use them without the artist’s permission.
So far, our #SciArt series explored the different ways in which artistic and scientific practices can be meaningful. In this video conversation, we try to understand the same through the perspective of a designer. Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya is a neuroscientist-turned-designer, based in Brooklyn, USA. Her work spans mediums of graphic design, art, technology, and interactive media. While her work invites the audience to play and evokes curiosity and emotions in response, her ideas and practice push the envelope of #sciart in deeply meaningful ways.
IJ: Hi, I’m Ipsa. I am a member of TheLifeofScience.com, and this video is part of the series on science and art. And today we have a very special guest…
AP: Hi, I am Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya.
IJ: Hi, Amanda, thanks for being here! Amanda is a multidisciplinary artist who uses art and technology to tell stories of science.
You have spoken and written about how you decided to transition from being a practicing scientist to an artist. Who were the kind of people who helped you transition? Who were your mentors and supporters?
AP: I think my transition from science into design was very interesting. I had difficulty with recruiting patients and subjects for my studies. I thought what if we better shared what we’re doing so that people would be more interested? It’s kind of sad, because I was actually really discouraged from pursuing this path. The only person that gave me encouraging words was my old PI. He was like, I never expected you to stay very long because people who stay here forever aren’t innovators. Go out there and put your ideas into the world!
I really admire Olafur Eliasson’s work. It’s beautiful, it’s immersive, it’s interactive. You could say I’m a more fun, more screen and technologically heavy version of what he does.
IJ: So, a lot of your work at your exhibits and your after-school programs are centered around women in STEM. So, have there been personal experiences that motivated you?
AP: Yeah. So, I’d say that growing up: All of my science heroes were women. My mother encouraged me to study women in science. The first woman I learned about was Rita Levi-Montalcini who discovered nerve growth factor, and that was a huge inspiration for me to kind of study neuroscience. I just fell in love with science because I had amazing women science teachers.
But beyond that, I found that when I was doing research, my hopes for having women mentors flew out the window. Because almost everyone in my lab, in a position of leadership, was a man and (that too) a white man. And that really disappointed me.
The other day, I was talking to my collaborator at Yale, and she told me: for astronomy 101 course, she specifically worked with her TA (teaching assistant) to only put imagery of women. One day a student comes in and she says, ‘You know, I didn’t know all astronomers were women’. That anecdote was both so funny, but also incredibly telling about the impact of representation. If that’s what you see, that’s what you assume.
So I’m partnering with a bunch of badass lady scientists to try to conceptualize a series of murals that will go up across the United States that challenge the notion of who science is for. So who science is directed at and who belongs in science and who can lead science!
One day a student comes in and she says, ‘You know, I didn’t know all astronomers were women’. That anecdote was both so funny, but also incredibly telling about the impact of representation. If that’s what you see, that’s what you assume.
IJ: You have done several exhibitions now and have interacted with multiple kinds of audiences. What’s been the response to your work?
AP: I think what continues to inspire me to do the work is the response to my work. And it’s moms sending me pictures of their kids, cutting up the Beyond Curie portraits and making their own posters and collages from it. I love those pictures. Those are really wonderful. And, students will reach out to me and they’ll say, thank you for your work because I was thinking of quitting. But now I see that it’s possible to be in science and being creative as well. And some of them are reminded by my work that the most powerful thing about them is that they are women. And I think that’s amazing and wonderful. It’s even better when you kind of see it in person. So in my exhibition in Vegas, Connective Tissue, I was able to work with the Clark County School District to bus in a bunch of young women from the surrounding kind of rural schools. And to have them tell me in person that they didn’t know that women could be scientists. I’m tearing up now…, my work can change their minds in that way. That’s better than any award or showing in some prestigious gallery or Museum. If I can change that many lives with my work, that’s great. And I’m gonna keep on doing that.
IJ: Love it, that’s so beautiful!
So, your work tries to engage with the audience. I mean it’s not unidirectional. You ask them to touch and listen and play. There is true engagement in some sense. So, was that a conscious choice that you made during the beginning of your work, or has that evolved with time, and then, how did you arrive at those choices?
AP: That’s a great question. I think at the beginning of my start to this path of connecting science and society, I was more focused on accessibility, which is why a lot of my early work is digital. But then I started to understand that it’s quite powerful to have people experience work in person. And then, I started to explore how I connect the physical and the digital worlds, and how it can act as an ecosystem of learning and discovery and wonder for people. So, the work that I do now, it has certainly shifted from communicating to challenging. It’s important and valuable and really wonderful when people will take scientific concepts and try to share it with a broader audience. It could be through writing or sketching or animation, what have you! What I’m most focused on now is challenging preconceived notions, trying to expand how people think about themselves and their place in the world. So, it could be introducing them to biotechnology in a way that allows them to participate. And I like to build in layers to my work, because I know everyone is at a different place in terms of their belief and their understanding and their acceptance of science. So, if I can just open the door to someone who doesn’t believe in science to say, Oh, this is a beautiful image. I didn’t know that science could be beautiful. That’s good enough! My goal isn’t necessarily to make you a scientist. And for someone who is a scientist, maybe, they didn’t know about this woman scientist at MIT, and now they do and maybe now they can collaborate. And that’s amazing, too.
If I can just open the door to someone who doesn’t believe in science to say, Oh, this is a beautiful image. I didn’t know that science could be beautiful. That’s good enough!
IJ: So, how important is this notion of beauty and aesthetic mean to you especially?
AP: That’s an interesting question. I think early in my career, I was very much thinking about translation, and how do we translate something in a more engaging and as you said, beautiful way, but I think the way I approach my work now is a little bit more broadly. It’s more about creating beautiful metaphors to understand the world around them. So, I’ll give you an example. One of the climate scientists I’m working with right now studies a particular fjord in Greenland as a model to understand other places where the ice sheet meets the ocean. And the way I understood it was very much like the ice sheet and the ocean are forces that we don’t quite understand. And they talk to each other, but we don’t know what they’re saying. So scientists kind of study (and) take measurements around this fjord to understand what their secrets are and what they are understanding, what the conversation is. You see, like this imagery of these forces personified as women talking to each other. And we don’t know what they’re saying, but that’s what we’re trying to find out. And, what we find out is essentially what connects the dots to all these other pieces, like social justice, coastal communities, flora and fauna, (and) eroding coastlines. It’s very expansive. So, I think a part of it is translation, and trying to find the beauty in that; but I think, I would describe it more as storytelling now and have that story inspire folks to not only explore more about the topic, but have a very deep understanding and deep appreciation for the work that scientists do. And, the way science kind of underpins everything.
IJ: So, you identify as a multidisciplinary artist and you have somewhere written that you’re not faithful to any particular medium. So when you have, hence, limitless possibilities of the way you could articulate an idea, how do you decide that for this idea, this is the best medium?
AP: I like to look at the micro and the macro when I’m working on a project. So when I take an expansive view, I want to create work that has a broad impact. So I’m thinking about user experience and accessibility and reach. Also, I’m thinking about, what best medium can kind of inspire a deep understanding of the content. A part of the reason why I love public art so much is because it’s not gated. When things are in museums, it’s like, oh, what if I can’t afford the fee? What if I can’t get there? What if it’s not open when I’m off of work? You know, it’s all of these constraints that people have in their daily lives that public art and public art-enabled-by-technology can kind of fill in the blanks.
IJ: I remember, there was this one image, which sort of reminded me of a neural network, you made an image which looked like neural network to me…
AP: I think, in that one, I was very much trying to give people an idea of how dynamic our brains are–you know, you kind of can’t see what’s going on. And it’s very much like many kinds of science, where we’re just trying to measure around to understand the phenomenon, whether it’s dark matter, or neural processes. It’s like we measure around to find out what’s going on. Actually, we measure what happens after the particles collide, because we can’t measure that moment. I think that ambiguity is something that’s important to share with broader audiences, because people think, “oh! scientists studied it”. So we know everything, and we both know that is not true. You know, trying to share that science is a continuum that can double back on itself and change its mind and continue on in different branches, I think is important.
The way I understood it was very much like the ice sheet and the ocean are forces that we don’t quite understand. And they talk to each other, but we don’t know what they’re saying. So scientists kind of study (and) take measurements around this fjord to understand what their secrets are.
IJ: I also wanted to understand that in the way that you do work by creating experiences, you are building memories and probably also building perceptions. How do you measure the impact that you’ve made on your audience? So…
AP: That’s a great question. Oftentimes, when I’m building experiences that are not in my hometown. I can’t do interviews with people who have gone through it. So, I rely on the museum staff. I more so want to understand what did you (and) how did you feel, you know? What did it make you think of and did it change you at all? So I think that’s how I measure it. And oftentimes, going through the experience with someone it’s really powerful for you as an artist. Not to, like, explain here’s the amazing thing that I did, but to listen.
IJ: Do you think of your work as scicomm (science communication) or sciart?
AP: This work sits at this kind of Venn diagram of one circle being like sci comm, you know, science outreach, scientific research, and the other being pop culture and art design. Public Art. If I can kind of put this project in the overlap.
I think of my work as trying to make the invisible visible. And, that’s very broad by design, it encompasses all kinds of science and encompasses a sense of belonging and community as well–which is also important to me. I’ve explored everything from microscopic universes to familial memories and the subatomic realm. We can also use that to talk about the ties that bind communities together. The forces that come together to create a sense of belonging. I prefer not to label because I think it limits your openness. And my hope is that I can always continue creating this amorphous cloud of different mediums and different collaborators and different ideas, because I think that’s kind of where the most interesting work comes through.
IJ: So, I have been exploring this idea of how we can use visualization to ask new questions in science. And so I just wanted to know if you have had a similar experience like that? Your work, because when you say “making something invisible, visible”, non-tangible things and you’re giving them a sort of a visual language. And you, then, could perhaps coax the scientists themselves to look at it in a different way, which could change the course of how they do their work. So, I mean, just wondering if you have had a similar experience somewhere.
AP: I think one collaboration I did with a woman who studies condensed matter physics and forced chains. I think because we had to have so many visual discussions about how force chains work, questions were opened up in terms that perhaps they didn’t necessarily look a certain way, behave a certain way. And I think, that’s the benefit of having an artist in residence sometimes, which is a long engagement because you can really kind of deep dive into the research and then have more tangible and deeper discussions about it. And science doesn’t happen overnight. It’s similar to art. It has incremental progress, and incremental failure, sometimes. But scientific discoveries are sometimes like pixelated images. And every, every couple days or weeks, you add more pixels. So then the image becomes clear. And then maybe at the end, you’re like, “oh, that image was not what I was expecting”. And, that’s a discovery too. It’s just not what you expected.
I prefer not to label because I think it limits your openness. And my hope is that I can always continue creating this amorphous cloud of different mediums and different collaborators and different ideas
I think working with artists may help scientists access parts of their own creativity that they had not considered or been open to before.
The cloud that we collaborate in, in there is the possibility to kind of think about things a different way because I feel like art and science very much are about ideas first. That’s where I think artists and scientists can co-create and collaborate in ways that impact each other in significant ways. And I think this is where the idea of using metaphors to storytell science is particularly important. Because, if we can agree on that, then we agree on something that we build together.
IJ: Thank you, Amanda, for these honest answers and this delightful conversation, and to our audience, please check out her website. We’ll share the link, and her website is really comprehensive and lucid, and you will really understand what science and art can do together. Until next time, bye-bye!
Note: This article is part of TheLifeofScience.com’s Season 5 series which is being supported by DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance.