Collaboration, Intersection or Hybridisation? Interfacing Art, Science and New Media
by Anna Munster

I do not believe that science and art are, or ever have been, two distinct practices; rather they comprise a range of perennially familiar practices in two largely distinct, but occasionally overlapping spheres…The meeting point – the domain of overlap between styles of ingenuity – is technological inventiveness.
-- Lisa Jardine

Among the current metaphors used to describe the unfolding relations between art and science, the two ascriptions that have held sway most recently have been those of collaboration and/or intersection. As if in acknowledgement of both interdisciplinarity and a strong commitment to institutional and knowledge discipline bases, both art and science have sent out sets of feelers towards each other’s cultures. This has produced an overlapping sphere of cultural and intellectual activity often focussed upon new imaging technologies within the life sciences, scientific visualisation tools, and frameworks for dealing with information accumulation and saturation such as complexity theory. We might tentatively call this arena the ‘art/science intersection’, seeing evidence of this in such topical shows as Intersections of Art and Science at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney in June of this year. Or we might describe the kind of work produced at this intersection as ‘collaborative’, a term frequently conjured by artists working with scientific tools, concepts or frameworks but, interestingly enough, not so readily deployed by scientists who might also be embroiled in some form or another of aesthetic activity.

But the ideas of intersection and collaboration connect art and science to each other in fuzzy and obfuscating ways. They are more than descriptive terms, functioning also as modes for producing cultural conjunction according to a kind of static set theory or Venn Diagram model. Art and science, or so the received wisdom of the twentieth century goes, are two separate cultures. As media technologies converge and diverge and provide enormous resources and databases for artists and scientists to poke around in each others’ backyards, what better way to account for all the recent mergers, crossings over, into and under that have taken place aesthetically and scientifically, than to declare a glorious new age of harmony, unity and productivity between the two?

But what I want to suggest is that the most interesting relations emerging from out of the art /science mélange cannot be circumscribed by collaboration, if by collaboration we are to understand a conception of teamwork dedicated to a spirit of cooperative enterprise, or by intersection, if this can only provide us with a model of territory shared. Instead, and following Lisa Jardine’s argument here, I want to point to two socially distinct ‘spheres’ of aesthetic and scientific production that are supported and validated today in qualitatively different ways. These nevertheless produce ‘flashpoints’ in which the technics of invention in one or other sphere induces a temporary zone of alignment that can highlight a converging conceptual and aesthetic set of preoccupations. I would like to explore just one of these temporary flashing zones as it emerges through the work of several Australian new media artists. Rather than suggesting that this is work that is indicative of some greater merger occurring between art and science, I want to tentatively propose that we think through these connections as a process of hybridisation performed by the work of the technical-aesthetic objects themselves. I am here drawing specifically on the ideas of Bruno Latour who argues that the technical object creates a network of meanings as it meanders across disciplines and boundaries, producing itself as a hybrid of natural, cultural, aesthetic and scientific spheres. In turn, the varying borders between science and art, nature and culture, technical and human, are themselves redrawn through these historical, processual networkings such that they may be variously opposed, or brought into relations of conjunction. Hybridisation can be seen as an ongoing movement that throws up different kinds of alliances and disjunctions via the work of the technical, and I would also argue, aesthetic, object. Art and science are not then two predetermined and already constituted arenas; rather the objects they respectively and concurrently create consistently redraw them.

Nowhere is this question of hybridity posed more urgently than in the sphere of biotechnologies, where the distinctions between life and technology seem everyday to be shifting. It is hardly surprising then that this should have become an area of aesthetic investigation and activity as well. This has certainly been the case for artists such as Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary working on the Tissue Culture Project, Justine Cooper, who is best known for her exploration of medical imaging technologies through pieces such as Rapt and more recently Scynescape, Michele Barker whose recent CD ROM Præternatural has been shown in a number of A-life oriented exhibitions and the ongoing imaging, multimedia and installation work of Patricia Piccinini. What distinguishes the aesthetic objects of these and similar artists from other cases of the art/science amalgamation is that they work to shift the parameters of the relation rather than remaining within one or other discipline or celebrating a universalist principle of underlying commonality between the two.

Thus the “Semi-Living Worry Dolls” produced as one incarnation of the ongoing Tissue Culture and Art Project, are strange grafts of the living onto the inanimate, which both in their shape, production and conceptualisation raise issues about the rapid advance and faith in biotechnological industry. Creating biopolymer figurines (artificial substances that can provide the biological conditions for organic tissue to grow) roughly in the shape of small dolls, the Tissue Culture artists then culture cells onto their surfaces allowing tissue to grow around these. The end result, generally displayed as either documentation or digital images of the tissue culture, resemble the roughly hewn forms of ritualistic voodoo dolls. Although ostensibly designed to raise questions about how we might relate to objects that perhaps because partly alive are not so readily disposable, the worry these dolls actually pose is the extent to which we so readily place our faith in biotechnological advances. Here it is the borderline status of the animistic-technical object produced as a moment of both scientific and aesthetic invention that makes us wonder about the ethical directions in which such art/science endeavours are heading. Perhaps it is worthwhile using the work of Piccinini as a counterpoint here. Her recent SO2 (Synthetic Object 2), series of digital images, seamlessly integrates a 3D modelled creature into various streetscapes. The crisp banality of the scenes she photographs and the jolt that comes from realising her manufactured life form is no longer out of place in everyday life, is a salutatory reminder that organic artificiality is already assumed as part of the ‘natural’ cultural and scientific landscape. Art and science are here conjoined on the plane of technical artifice.

I am not suggesting here that art plays the outsider role of social commentary in these graftings onto scientific practice and endeavour. Indeed one important shift within some new media art works has been the acknowledgement that the production technologies of digital culture are themselves implicated in the same instrumentalsing processes of scientific practice. Præturnatural, Barker’s interactive, is not simply a critical exploration of the current paradoxes and contradictions embedded in the ethics and practices of genetic engineering but also casts a sidelong glance at the state of interactivity as a paradigm of new media art. As Barker herself states:Interactivity is a very ambitious word in relation to CD ROM driven work.

Users are essentially limited to a set of pre-programmed responses to certain options given them. Conceptually, this paralleled my concerns around genetics. Here, the general discourse emphasised choice, a parent’s choice, the choice of the individual, yet all the while being underwritten by a decisive controlling system.

Her work uses the tropes of interactivity such as surveys and viewer polling, devices that also turn up in the realm of science as IQ testing, to underline the commonality of information rhetoric to both contemporary art and science. The question of art and science sharing a common language and methodology through cybernetics is fleshed out as reductive and ultimately monstrous. Præturnatural is a dark and inspired aesthetico-technical hybrid that unfolds along the blurring cultural parameters of art and science’s interfaces.

This kind of interrogation of the shared parameters of new media art and scientific paradigms is also common to the work of John Tonkin. Tonkin’s new work draws on his ongoing interest in Enlightenment science and its projects of classifying, categorising and identifying the self that was evident in such previous work as Personal Eugenics and Elastic Masculinities9. Two of his recent installations, Prototype for a Universal Ideology and Notes for a Collective Memory that aired at Casula Powerhouse in 2000, raised the hotly debated question of memes – ideas that supposedly breed, replicate and survive through processes similar to genetic adaptation and survival10. Providing interactive databases through which users could record short snippets of theory that could then be cut up and reconstituted, Tonkin created the means for translating these theories into visualised sound waves for easy editing. But at the same time he drew attention to the ease with which methods of scientific and statistical visualisation allow for a cloaking of the translation process itself. Ideas become data become code become universally manufactured and manipulated. As interactive users and artistic collaborators we need to be cognisant of our own imbrications in these desires to encode the world through the latest scientific tools.

Tonkin’s work explores science as a system steeped in the production of its own subject positions; as such interactivity seems a particularly pertinent technique for this exploration as it implicates the subject as not only condition for the continued production of the aesthetic object but as an area for investigation itself. Perhaps this inquiry into the position of the user might in part be produced by the kind of changes witnessed within scientific frameworks since the advent of quantum physics and mathematics. The implication of the observer’s position as active producer of the scientific object under investigation could be seen to have its corollary in the media artwork that relies upon the place and actions of its audience to generate aesthetic experience. In Justine Cooper’s immersive environment Scynescape, animated sequences of images of her body’s surface captured through Scanning Electron Microscopy, are projected onto a latex maze and triggered in response to the audience’s passage through the work11. Rather than the usual scenario of virtual escape in which the user enters an imaginary, dematerialised world, Cooper’s installation focuses the feeling of embodied space back onto the user/viewer. The piece also prompts a lived, experiential investigation into terrain that sciences such as neurobiology and psychology are also mapping out for investigation: synesthesia. This phenomenon, where sensation in one sense is triggered by stimulation in a different sense, is medically associated with abnormalities in the sensory apparatus. And yet for Cooper it becomes the condition for moving across media; rather than assimilating the audio, visual and tactile elements of new media work to the flattened landscape of multimedia. In a similar way, the body of the participant that traverses Scynescape must negotiate inverted sensory and proprioceptive experience as internalised bodily sounds constitute an engulfing audioscape and microscopic images are scaled up and projected at macro proportions.

Of course the silent interface between art and science today in all these metaphors of intersection, crossover and hybrid production is commerce. The more technically sophisticated new media art wants to become, the more it will rely on access to the equipped and funded projects of scientific research. And perhaps in the grab for cash, science may see art, specifically art that participates in an aestheticisation of science, as its necessary partner. Is it too naïve to hope that these strange hybrid objects that are now manoeuvring their way along and shifting the art/science borders, do not too readily become asimilated into unifying terrain for a drab, instrumentalised technics that is bereft of any ingenuity?

Anna Munster is a new media artist and writer. Her latest work ‘wundernet’ is an online piece that screened as part of d>art01 at the City Exhibition Space, Customs House, Sydney, June 10 – July 1, 2001. It can be accessed online at She is a lecturer in Digital Media Theory, School of Art History and Theory, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.


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