On the intersection of art and science

From my first installation in 2009, I have described my work as existing at the intersection of art and science. Precisely what I mean by that phrase, however, has changed quite a bit in the years since. After a recent conversation with a friend on the subject of art and science, I decided to write an explanation of my view on the matter and its evolution over time.

The Beginning

Having majored in physics and economics in college, my background is somewhat unusual for an artist. Even at the University of Chicago, where I was a student, physics and economics was a rather odd combination. There was not a lot of overlap between the two subjects, and each major attracted very different students. To me, though, the two seemed to complement each other very well. Both were in essence subjects that sought to understand the world around us: physics examined the underlying laws and structure of the physical universe, and economics provided a framework to analyze dynamics in society.

In addition to my studies, I also worked in a number of different research labs, and spent a summer as an intern at the Legnaro National Laboratories in Italy, one of the labs of the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (National Institute of Nuclear Physics). Legnaro had four different accelerators, and various research groups would schedule time on each to conduct experiments. As a result, I got to meet scientists from all over the world, and experienced what it was like to do science on an international level.

Working at Legnaro National Laboratories – Summer 2008

Meanwhile, unrelated to my academic interests, I had been involved in the student circus group, Le Vorris & Vox Circus. Initially, I had joined the circus to learn to juggle, but soon found myself performing and organizing shows on campus and around Chicago. In the four years as a student, I always saw science and art as completely separate parts of my life, with no connections between the two. But while my experience in Italy solidified my interest in science, my involvement in the circus was incredibly fulfilling on a creative level. In my senior year, with graduation around the corner, I felt conflicted having to choose one direction over the other.

Merging Science and Art

On a Wednesday afternoon in November 2008, I attended a lecture on campus given by NYC-based architect and artist James Carpenter. At the invitation of physics professor Sidney Nagel, with whom he was collaborating, Carpenter gave a presentation about his work. Using a combination of mirrors and lenses, Carpenter manipulates light from various sources to create beautiful patterns that change throughout the day. Listening to him, it dawned on me that I didn’t need to choose between art and science. It was possible to combine the two fields, and the knowledge I had gained through studying physics could actually be useful in creating something new and interesting.

Inspired by Carpenter’s talk, I began to look for materials to experiment with. I soon realized that through the circus, I had been working with balloons for quite some time. In addition to being an inexpensive medium, balloons offered a large selection of colors, as well as different degrees of opacity. It would be a great medium with which to explore properties of light. From here, I came up with the idea of creating a series of sculptures modeled after bioluminescent creatures, constructed out of balloons and illuminated by LEDs from within. In this first attempt to combine art and science, I drew inspiration from visual images normally found within a scientific context, from bioluminescence to neurons, and reinterpreted them as works of art.

Comb Jelly, Biological Sciences Learning Center, April 2009

We Are Zooids, Studio, August 2009

Detour Into Art

In 2010, I was awarded the Midwestern Voices and Visions Award, and was given the opportunity to participate in an artist residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. For the first time in my life, I was immersed in a community full of people who were passionate about art. Through conversations with the other resident artists and curators, I was encouraged to think critically about my creative process, and in particular how the material I was using affected my work.

During that time, I shifted my focus from science to the visual and aesthetic aspects of my work. One question I struggled with was how to allow the medium itself to guide the final structures that are created. If I can create the same structures and shapes using another material like wood, what was the point of using balloons? In response, I experimented with setting various constraints on the creative process, from limiting the color palette to using only certain shapes. I slowly began to move away from modeling existing objects in nature, and instead focused on designs that emphasized structure and pattern. One of my favorite pieces to emerge from this time was Black and White. The choice of colors, which the work was named after, was not only a direct response to the general perception of balloons being very colorful, but also provided an opportunity for the structure itself to take center stage.

Black and White, KANEKO, May 2010

Generative Art

Black and White ushered in what I now consider to be the second phase of my work. Instead of modeling my sculptures after pre-existing objects, I designed each piece based on new arrangements of limited shapes and structures. I refer to these combinations now as “spheres and connectors”, as each work generally consisted of a series of separate “spheres” with long tube like “connectors” that linked them together. In many ways, through the “spheres and connectors” series, I felt I had developed a distinct look that arose directly from the medium I was using. But having moved away from working within a scientific context, the structures started to become repetitive, and I got the sense that the novelty of the medium tended to overshadow the concepts behind my work.

Eye Candy, gh3, March 2011

Ondine, The Happiness Project, October 2011

I then came across a piece of writing from one my favorite artists, Jonathan Harris, in which he recounts a meeting he had with his fourth grade teacher, Baz, who used to be a playwright. Describing a realization he had with regards to his work, Baz said:

“I was trying to make the audience go ‘Wowww!’, but in fact I needed to make the audience go ‘Wowww…’

Reading this, I realized that while I had developed a new aesthetic style, the concepts behind my work couldn’t stand on their own. What was I trying to achieve? And why was it important? Eventually, I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that I didn’t have the answers to these important questions.

I decided to take a break from installations, and began to explore another passion of mine: animation. I first experimented with stop-motion animation in early 2010, and during my time at Bemis, created a one-minute long short that was completely hand-drawn. Eventually, in trying to find ways to do things more efficiently, I started to work with Processing and openFrameworks. My early experiments were simple attempts at making primitive shapes move around the screen, but I soon discovered the field of generative art.

Here, each work begins not with the final image in mind, but a set of initial conditions and rules dictating a procedure, which is then repeated multiple times. Through the repetitions, the final artwork emerges. The process behind each work can be seen as a system, consisting of a multitude of independent elements interacting with one another, and in the process creating something larger than themselves.

Fractal Set 1 – 002, June 2012

The idea of emergence expands far beyond generative art, and is in fact extremely relevant in describing the world around us. For instance, the fluctuations of stock prices and the flocking behavior of birds can both be attributed to emergent systems. Seeing how widespread this concept was, I sought out new mediums to which I can apply the process of emergence. And what could be a more abstract medium than writing?

Traditionally, writers have worked in solitude, and though there have been instances of two or more people working together, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Inspired by a growing trend in crowdsourcing, I wanted to see if the process of storytelling could be made accessible and open; to have a story written by everyone in the world together.

This was the inspiration behind The Collabowriters, a crowdsourced novel which I created in early 2012. The story is written one line at a time, and for each line, participants from all over the world can submit sentences up to 140 characters long. The community then votes on the various submissions, and the one with the highest score becomes a part of the story. On the surface, this project seemed very different from the generative images I was making, but in actuality they were manifestations of the same idea. In both cases, through the repetition of a defined process, something greater than the sum of its parts emerges, attributed not to a single entity but a collective.

Full Circle

After the success of The Collabowriters, it was clear to me that the same process of generative creation can be applied to physical installations as well. By studying specific properties of a particular medium, a set of rules can be developed to guide the organic growth of an installation. In this way, each installation becomes a reflection of the material and the process itself, and because every instance introduces new variations, the final result will always be different.

For example, one of the variables I use to affect the course of an installation is the amount of air inside each balloon. Every once in a while, an overestimation of air results in a protrusion in the structure. In the past, I would remove the protrusion because it was not accounted for in the original design. Now, however, it becomes the indication for a new branch to develop. In addition, because I always work with a large group of individuals to construct each creation, each participant brings to the table their own stylistic elements. As such, random variations which occur naturally as part of the construction process play a significant role in shaping the final outcome of the installation.

A Handful of Stardust, Telus Spark, December 2012

Sunflower, Lawrence Arts Center, June 2012

In nature, a seed does not store within itself the final form of a tree. Instead, it contains the formula for how it will grow in certain conditions, and external factors like soil quality and climate conditions determine its eventual structure. After detours into pure art and programming, I have finally come full circle, once again at the intersection of art and science. Now, instead of drawing inspiration from objects like I once did, I draw inspiration from processes. Instead of looking only at colors and shapes in nature, I try to understand how they developed to become that way. Bringing together art and science thus requires an ongoing curiosity to understand the world, to look beyond the surface visuals, and ask why they are the way they are.