Encounters in Art and Science at Think Corner, Helsinki

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Think Corner (or Tiede Kulma in Finnish*) in Helsinki for the launch of the Encounters Across Art and Science events courtesy of the Finnish Bioart Society. The idea for the series is to discuss transdisciplinary practises across the arts and sciences and to explore how they can translate factual information into experiences to understand new realities, indeed with the end of making a better world to inhabit.

For me ‘encounters’ is an interesting word and one that is cropping up often at the moment (for example, the NCCPE’s Engage conference this year is themed on Exploring Collaboration and has a new section on encounters alongside the poster party).  Defined as a meeting or an experience, for me it suggests an interface between art and science. Speakers across the afternoon described it as a playground where new ideas could happen and the source of exciting partnerships where art-science entanglements could lead to developments beyond those of technology.

Several questions cropped up during the afternoon: Where can art-science interactions happen? What are the hidden costs of art-science partnerships? How is success defined? Why are we doing this? For the first question – it seemed that more often scientists were approached by artists with a particular interest is a field, however there were examples of the reverse, for example in one case study a political science researcher looking for a different viewpoint approached an artist already exploring the balance between the installation of a nuclear power plant and the local community and activists. So really ‘anywhere’ is the answer.

The hidden cost acknowledged by both artists and scientists was time – time to interact with the other partner(s) and to acquire knowledge about the other’s field but also to learn new language to allow for discussion. The use of ‘scientific’ words such as ‘sacrifice’ or ‘artistic’ words such as ‘gesture’ can be explored through dialogue and co-working. One interesting description of the development of art-science partnerships by Bart Vanderput (Bartaku) was that we should “poke our fingers up each other’s noses”. Now I might have said to put fingers in each other’s pies but ‘noses’ is so much more intimate and really describes the openness required to be one side of an art-science partnership.

The definition of success was an interesting conversation tackled during a round table session: the journey and the development of the partners involved were of greater importance than the final outcomes which were likely to be specific to a field. The questioning nature of an inquiring partner can help focus a new lens on a problem, perhaps the development of a new tool or use of one. As to why one might be involved in art-science collaborations: interdisciplinarity. Highlighted as a key interface to the future, it is something emphasized by the burgeoning grant calls from funding bodies. It was agreed that this is where new developments are likely to lie.

By the end of the afternoon we were encouraged to be adventurous and to nourish our interactions. Previous successes had been highlighted by Laura Beloff talking about the history of science and art where both are infused by a mind-set of exploration. The earliest examples can be found way back in 1739 with Jacques de Vaucanson’s digesting duck and the latest include the Lung-on-a-chip which won the Design of the Year 2015 (product category) awarded by London’s Design Museum.

For me, looking to the future, I hope to continue my interactions and collaborations with artists from around the world and to explore new avenues for meaningful scientific endeavour….and of course the occasional ‘Friday afternoon’ experiment that might be a little fanciful but also just pushing the bleeding edge.

Piece written by: Melissa Grant, Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences, School of Dentistry, Institute of Clinical Sciences, University of Birmingham

*Tiede Kulma literally translates to Science Corner and I find it fascinating that the Finnish words for Art (taide) and Science (tiede) appear on the surface to be very similar.

Image credit (of images feat. Mel): Janne Korhonen