U.Va. Science & Art Project Focuses on Collaboration

December 17, 2008

December 18, 2008 — A cold rain did not deter more than 170 people who packed the University of Virginia Art Museum Dec. 11 to learn more about U.Va.'s Science & Art Project, a new initiative to promote alliances among artists, scientists and visionaries.

"The initiative recognizes the commonality of creativity in science and the arts and the intersection of the two disciplines," said Tom Skalak, U.Va.'s vice president for research.

Joining him to launch the initiative were Elizabeth Turner, vice provost for the arts; Ted Coffey, assistant professor of music, and artists from the Charlottesville community: Rosamond Casey, a McGuffey Art Center visual artist and teacher, and sculptor and installation artist Susan Crowder.

The launch event provided opportunities for artists and scientists at the University and in the community to make connections, suggest possibilities for collaborative projects or discover new ways of looking at their current work.

The evening included a networking component modeled on the "speed dating" concept of spending a few minutes with one person to talk about their work and then moving on to the next, with the goal of discovering common interests. The local experiment is expected to spark numerous exhibits and presentations of projects.

An interest in the role of the arts in cognition and the imagination drew U.Va. education professor John Bunch to the event.

Bunch teaches courses in visual communication media and in museums and education. His museum work focuses on studying how people learn in a museum setting, particularly with objects, and how to design educational experiences with material culture. He described his own research as "both science and art" and was looking to interact with others about aesthetics and visual imagery.

Coffey spoke to the gathering about the role of art and science in music composition, his own and that of faculty and student colleagues at the Virginia Center for Computer Music. "We have developed outstanding collaborative relationships between computer science, engineering, architecture, psychology and others," he said.

From Bach to the serial method of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century to electro-acoustic compositions, "music has tended to be a very 'mathy' art," he said. "You probably cannot find a composer who does not make use of the Fibonacci series, [a geometric pattern of numbers that also occurs in the natural world].

"There's a lot of innovation and expansion to be had by mapping the world of one discipline to another."

Physicist Keith Williams shared with the group the important role that his interest in music and photography plays in his scientific research.

"There is a symbiosis based on a couple of cornerstones that you find in both fields — in the sciences and the arts — and that is the importance of originality and creativity, the importance of inspiration, and the importance of flexibility of thought," he said.

"This is about how to think in a different way and think about different approaches and how to think in many different directions."

That approach has been the hallmark of chemistry professor Cassandra Fraser's interdisciplinary approach to teaching.

"I have been fortunate to play at the intersection between the sciences and the arts in the classroom," Fraser said. A class she taught on color led students across academic boundaries to explore the physics of light, the biology of vision, the history of dye chemistry, then through the humanities to the arts before ending in the drama department.

"I love this idea of an artist coming into my lab and messing with the materials we are making, and I love the idea of the scientist going into the studio and breaking down those barriers," she said.

Charlottesville Mayor David Norris told the launch event attendees that the project reflects the City Council's vision statement for the city to be the cultural and creative capital of Virginia. He also expressed hope that on the town-gown level, this partnership could move into the schools.

Crowder, who describes her work as "having a lot of science ideas in it," said the Science & Art Project is an "organic way" for her to get in touch with scientists with like interests. It's an example of "what can happen when a few people have a vision and they get together and they feed on each other's excitement, expertise and ideas," she said.

That kind of organic networking extends to the project's Web site, www.virginia.edu/sciartproject, which will enable artists and scientists to search out others with similar interests in an online directory.

"This is only the beginning," Turner said. "In launching the Web site as a resource, we envision a national and international network connecting and featuring cutting-edge collaboration in science and art."

Since the launch event, 85 people have registered their interests on the Web site. A watercolor painter listed interest in mathematics, cosmology and quantum physics. Another collaboration seeker posted interest in using sculpture to make engineering and science more accessible on an intuitive level. Their current work explores four dimensions by depicting human motion as physical structures that present the full extent of the motion rather than one instance at a time.

The Science and Art Project grew out of a discussion series that Casey organized at Charlottesville's McGuffey Art Center. She invited Skalak, Coffey and James Coan, director of the University's Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, to participate in a discussion titled "How Ideas Emerge in Science and Art."

Coan had worked with a performance artist on "Eye and I," a collaboration that helped create new understanding about autism and exposure for Coan's research in a way that was accessible to the general public

The Science & Art initiative provides an institutional framework to encourage collaboration that is already happening by chance, Skalak said.

Casey noted that artists are increasingly interested in understanding systems beyond their media.

"They are curious about the world and the big questions," she said. Her own work focuses on psychological issues, and she added that she is excited about talking and collaborating with a psychologist for a project.  

Williams, the physicist, said, "Whenever there have been transformative periods in social periods, they have been heralded by great accomplishments in science and the arts. One need not look back to the Renaissance, but just to the turn of the last century for examples."

Renaissance artists explored the science of optics and the development of perspective. Abstract artists such as Robert Irwin explored technologies and materials from the aerospace industries during the 1970s to experiment and blur the lines between sculpture and painting.  

"We are entering a conceptual stage," Skalak said. "Society is in flux, and the initiative is a model for innovation and creation in our society."

— By Jane Ford