Art Works Blog

Symbiotic Art & Science, Part 5

Troy, New York

In our fifth blog post on the NEA/National Science Foundation conference, Symbiotic Art and Science, artist Kathy High discusses what artists gain from collaborating with scientists on projects. High teaches digital video production, history, and theory, and has been working in the area of documentary and experimental film, video, and photography for more than 20 years. She started the television series Reel New York for WNET/Thirteen and founded FELIX: A Journal of Media Arts & Communication. Most recently, High started the BioArts Initiative, a collaboration between the Arts Department and the Center for Biotechnology & Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer.

Cell Wars from Kathy High on Vimeo.

Cell Wars from Kathy High on Vimeo.

Cell Wars features time-lapse microscopy of white blood cell encounters.

What do artists gain from working with scientists?

Until recently, I had been working in what I would refer to as speculative fictions, producing films/videos critiquing the institutions of science and medicine. Then I began to think this was a cheap shot since I really didn’t know what I was talking about except as a researcher and consumer. So I decided to delve more directly into hands-on biological experiments, and use the materials of biology for my art works. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was taking a materialist position that means I was directly engaging with the physical properties of living material. Working with “living” materials raised ethical and aesthetic questions that I had not considered while working with electronic media that had previously been my primary medium.

These changes brought me into collaborations with many different scientists. For me, it was thrilling entering a totally new field of wet biology, working with an openness that allowed me to ask naïve questions. I received training from scientists to utilize experimental protocols and techniques—practices of repetition and manipulation that also teach observation skills and a new understanding of how systems interact. I quickly learned that I needed to speak a scientific language to be able to keep up with the conversation. As an artist, I have the liberty to propose open-ended experiments, and I am not bound by controls and the necessity to repeat my findings or prove my theories. I can remain in the realm of simply asking questions. With this research, I found myself faced with a new set of ethical dilemmas around the care and use of laboratory animals, the moral status of biological cells from humans and animals, and the way in which these “lifeforms” are terminated and disposed of. As a result, philosophy has become a useful third partner in my attempt to enter the world of life science as an artist.

I asked my colleague Soyo Lee, RPI PhD candidate, about her experiences as an artist working with life scientists:

I share the laborious and meticulous process of handling and manipulating biological materials. I produce data for the scientific research group I work in, but am not expected to investigate a particular hypothesis that might eventually lead to factual knowledge or profit and benefit. As a result, I have been able to engage directly with the technology and ideology of life science practices to think about science as a cultural system. In addition, I have acquired a special sensitivity to handling various types of biological materials, which would not have been possible without the aid of highly specialized techniques, instruments, and regulations of life sciences. Without these inspirations, my creative practice does not exist.

I have learned a deep respect for the labor of science and the attention to life that allows scientists to push their inquiries and advance their research. Artists and scientists need to create a collaborative, open workplace between our fields that promotes visionary practices. Roger Malina refers to this zone as the “hard humanities,” which can develop new networks and methodologies that will address the urgent issues facing us all.


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