The nebula of #sciart and its explorer-artists

In the final piece for our mini-series on sciart, Ipsa Jain, our art director, talks to various sciartists about the key issues pertaining to sciart and its growth as a field in the country.

By Ipsa Jain

So we have come full circle; after months of conversations, we are now at the end of this mini-series on science art. The idea was to understand how different practitioners think of #sciart, a term that encompasses works that range from accurate detailed drawings to representational art, as well as emotive-abstract explorations, conceptual and sequential narratives.

After in-depth conversations with Arghya Manna, Caroline Hu, and Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, I find it hard to define this bracket. But labels, as Amanda put it, both limit and define us. The bright side of having hazy boundaries is that the possibilities are enormous.

So, what is #sciart? To round up this journey I sum up some of my learnings with the help of more diverse voices from the nebula of science art…

1. Sciart means communicating science

Nirja Desai is a graphics editor at Science Magazine. She talks about the role of sciart in sharing information or knowledge.

(Transcript: Along with the content, the art or the graphics are just as important in terms of telling your story and the goal of your research. For education, it can really simplify the content and make it easy for students or the lay public to understand.)

2. Sciart means more accessibility, less heirarchy

Dhara Mehrotra, a visual artist based in Bangalore, brought in the aspect of outreach. She emphasised how sciart takes science outside closed labs and privileged audiences.  It increases accessibility to create better hypotheses and understanding of scientific phenomena for different audiences. This could include storytelling, aesthetics and engagement and interactions, building and changing perceptions.

(Transcript: Science is a prosaic language, which only a few are privileged to understand in its pure form. The stuff that science is capable of doing it, happens in closed labs, with algorithms and other things which are understated. Art can bridge the scientific world to the people in general. Everybody may not be able to understand the language of science, but everybody will be able to understand the language of emotion. The senses, what your eyes see, what you hear, you get to know things. . Emotion can be interpreted by a much larger audience. (With art) The outreach can be a lot more without mentioning the factual substance but science at the core. The beauty in the visual language of aesthetics can bring out the scientific content.)

This idea was further explored by Alexa Garin-Fernandez, a Chilean BIPOC science communicator based in Germany. Alexa feels that sciart has an edge over traditional scicomm in that it is able to tell stories without necessarily teaching the audience ‘a lesson’.

(Transcript: I have been reading up on this idea of sciart and science communication. I feel that science communication has an educational goal. The intention to teach can bring inherent hierarchy. It may be necessary to have that goal, especially to highlight the presence of social minorities in STEM to inspire new generations. Sciart doesn’t who have that goal. It can explore, more friendly way to tell any story that doesn’t need to be a lesson. I think that is going farther than science communication. More artists can explore the sciart side than the science communication side.)

3. Sciart lets you look for answers to big questions

Shashank is a queer multimedia artist based in Bangalore. He sees science+art as an amalgamation that can answer the larger questions like forces of the universe, understanding emotions, beauty, time and more.

(Transcript: For me, the idea of art science is where both art and science have equal footing. Scientists are not the only banner for science. The artistic process is as important as what science has to say because I believe, you know, no amount of science sort of answered the larger mysteries of life or the universe or the multiverse for that matter.)

4. Sciart gives a fresh look into scientific problems 

Working with artists challenges scientists to look at their problems in novel ways, bringing new possibilities to further science. Collaborations between artists and scientists can also lead to innovation and change, believes Onisha Patel, a scientist and artist based in Australia.

(Transcript: One of my favorite examples is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, where basically, you can be an architect, interior designer, a fashion designer, engineer, scientist, every person can be part of that lab. And that’s because it’s just bringing together a bunch of people with different skill sets, to come together, come up with ideas as a group. And that freedom just allows you possibly even more imagination.)

5. Sciart can find you creative solutions

Onisha added that scientists indulging in creative pursuits can bring value to their scientific inquiry. Art and science involve engaging with a creative streak and can augment each other.

(Transcript: I just see that both ways, like you can use science and art combination for many different ways. I don’t think so there isn’t any boundary. And I personally think that you need imagination, and then you need knowledge. And art gives you that power of imagination, because there is no right or wrong answer. There is no boundary and you have complete freedom. And then you go to science to pose a hypothesis of those imaginative ideas, and then design your experiments to answer whether it’s possible or not. So that way, I kind of like the imagination power, and then bring the knowledge in.)

6. Sciart can find you new meanings

Shashank talked about how expressions step in, to fill in the gaps where translation loses out. Since science and art speak different languages with a common goal of inquiry, they can supplement and complement each other in knowledge creation.

(Transcript: Art is a very visual medium and science is not. If you compare the outputs of  the practices of artists and scientists, you will find that the academic work that the scientists put out is mostly like, black and white. It has a lot of jargon and is hard to understand. The other extreme is abstract art. it’s all subjective and ambiguous. My role as an educationist is to find this balance between subjectivity and objectivity. I’ve been working and researching about the brain and neuroscience, cognitive science, linguistics and philosophy for at least three years now. And there’s so many insights that I have come to know. I find expressing them is different than to just learn and things are lost in translation. So how can expressions step in, to fill in the gaps where translation loses out?)

7. And sometimes, sciart is just art

It is not surprising that microscopic images like the brainbow have caught the attention of art curators. Artists like Greg Dunn make work that adorns art galleries as well as scientific institutions. With the freedom to be creative, it is possible to create work that is inspired by science but is open to really broad interpretations. It may not have an intended purpose but for the expression of the artist. Such science-inspired art may instill the joy of beauty, the wonder of larger ideas, and curiosity about the subject. The response of the audience would be subjective to their prior knowledge.

Ipsa’s interpretation of stem cell and muscle repair.

So, what do we need in India to promote sciart and sciartists in India?

1. Let there be more artist-in-residence programmes

A funded artist-in-residence program was a common suggestion from multiple artists. Such programmes allow for deeper conservations and engagement between artists and scientists to make rich work. Some structures have supported such work including DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance, Science Gallery and Museum Gallery at NCBS.

Audience interacting with Shashank’s work on neural connections and memory at NCBS, Bangalore.

2. Let there be more associations and guilds

India lacks a formal agency like the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators in the USA. This limits the possibilities of networking, mentorship and collaboration. Tejeswini suggests this is a reflection of the lack of formal courses in scientific illustration and related disciplines. We should build a directory of illustrators with their portfolios and contact details.

One of the resources from the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators

3. Let client-collaborator interactions be more professional 

Mutual-respect is desirable when engaging with freelancers in the service of the scientific community. Many freelancers will attest to the fact that payment is often poor. Some of us bring value in the form of scientific training and pay attention to literature before materialising work. Apart from money, time is needed to make good work. Arghya shared how he spends nearly a month on research for his comix. He summarised “If someone gives only a short time, you can’t create thoughtful work.”

Sciartists are more than just people visually representing science; we are a community that cares about science, aesthetics and stories. We empathise with the audience when we make our work.

Work made for a client by Ipsa

4. Let there be right to creative pursuits

Often the work we are commissioned to do is very limited in scope like poster design. As Arghya puts it, “we can do much more…” We need more funded opportunities to do innovative and creatively enriched projects.

The wood-wide-web and other stories… through Clusters and Networks, The exhibition, Artist-in-residence outreach program NCBS-TIFR 2018-19, Bangalore. Artist: Dhara Mehrotra.

Note: This piece is a part of season 5 of TheLifeofScience.com, which is supported by DBT/Wellcome trust India Alliance. We would like to thank the DBT/Wellcome trust India Alliance for their support. Description of the featured image: Composite of pioneer work by Maria Sybilla Merian | Thanks to Biswajith Manimaran for help with editing the videos!

By TLoS Team | Published on Nov 4, 2020 in Arts