Art Works Blog

Making Science Intimate: Translating and Integrating the Arts and Humanities with Biology and Medicine

Making Science Intimate

Earworm (node) by Deborah Aschheim, 2008, speakers, LED's, plastic, copper tubing. This sound sculpture translates the musicians' improvisation on the word "node,"(which brings up associations of connectivity in an information network, or mutation/metastases in the systems of the body) into a physical experience in the gallery. The work is currently on display at the CentralTrak, The University of Texas at Dallas Artists Residency

My body doesn’t care which governmental or private organization funded or provided the source of my body’s health and healing. It doesn’t care from which sub-discipline or branch of the tree of knowledge the expertise was derived. My body lives in an inter-connected web of personal and social relations, biological, physical, and ecological systems. Yet to function, we fragment knowledge and the civic space into organizations with boundaries.

In a recent book Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, Robert Sampson documents how larger social structures such as families, households, neighborhoods, and cities are not simply the aggregate result of rational choices made by individuals. In his review of the book, Douglas Massey emphasizes how location matters on the decisions we make affecting our daily lives. Deep ‘invisible dynamics’---physical, emotional, social---contextualize every decision we make affecting our health and well-being.

Artists have been at the forefront of making sensible these invisible dynamics, translating them into meaning. For instance at the San Francisco Exploratorium Peter Richards and Susan Schwarzenberg have been working with artists and scientists to develop ‘invisible dynamics’ art works  that transform a museum into an observatory of the local. Often when faced with the deluge of data from the expanding technological systems that monitor and examine our bodies, we crave not merely scientific understanding but ownership over the knowledge and the decisions that we make as a result.

One of the projects of Design for America, an organization of students seeking to find engineering and scientific solutions to problems in their communities is Jerry the Teddy Bear. The teddy bear is designed to have the same symptoms of disease as the child who owns the toy. When the parents provide health care to the child, the child treats the teddy bear. Medical knowledge has entered the intimacy of the child’s daily life, and the child learns to own the knowledge.


During a series of workshops organized by the National Science Foundation with the National Endowment of the Arts, one of the discussions that emerged rapidly was the urgent need to find new ways to connect the arts and design with science and engineering. Our well-being and health care is fragmented into disciplines in our academic institutions, parceled among our civic institutions and our health care systems. There is a need both to find new ways to translate between the ways of knowing, but also to integrate medical knowledge in fluid ways into our daily lives.

One of the approaches has been captured by the “STEM to STEAM” movement which seeks to integrate the arts, design, and humanities with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. In congressional testimony organized by John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, a clear case has been articulated for innovative approaches for embedding STEM into the cultural context of young people’s lives through the arts, design, and humanities. Here in Dallas there was a STEAM festival at the Townview Magnet Center high school that drew a large and enthusiastic crowd of students and parents, many of whom would not have been drawn to a science festival. These students discovered that ‘under the hood’ of their passion for music, games, the arts, and social media they need the tool kits of science, technology, and mathematics as their entry into creative activity of the born-digital generations.

Translational Arts and Humanities for Translational Medicine

In recent years there has been concern at the long timescales, and inefficiencies, in translating medical knowledge into medical practice. The National Institutes of Health recently set up the National Center for Advancing Translational  Sciences seeking to accelerate and remove institutional road blocks, as well as fund research that bridges the gap between scientific understanding and medical application. Yet health and well-being are only partly scientific and medical in nature; they are intensely personal, social, and cultural. Location matters and the location is the family, the household, the community, and the city (to echo the work of Robert Sampson cited above). What we need is not only scientific understanding of medical research and knowledge but cultural appropriation and translation.

There are many routes to possible translation. In recent years a new generation of scientifically literate artists has been invading research laboratories and hospitals to create new art forms and art expressions that do not seek to communicate science but to translate it into culturally meaning full forms. Deborah Aschheim, for instance, from a family with a history of dementia, works with researchers and doctors to create work that embodies networks of memories and how these are transformed as patients’ cognitive systems age. Diane Gromala has developed a number of art-driven systems that address the very personal issues of pain.

But we also need institutional translation. The Dublin Science gallery is an art gallery, but it tackles within an art context issues of scientific urgency. In their exhibition Infectious: Stay Away  they captured through art works the issues and anxiety around epidemics in our societies. Recently a consortium led by the Science Gallery, STUDIOLABS, was funded by the European Union to create translational projects between science and cultural institutions. In the same consortium are 13 partners including the Medical Museum in Copenhagen, the art-science group Leonardo/OLATS in Paris, the IPTI research institute in Turin, and the Media Lab in Madrid; one focus is the topic of synthetic biology.

Last year the NEA established a taskforce with the US Department of Health and Human Services and a number of projects bridging these institutions have been instigated. Here in Dallas, the ATEC Program, which I recently joined, is dedicated to work that successfully translates between the arts, sciences, and technology but that also bridges to our local civic institutions and creative communities. Our sound professor of sound design, Frank Dufour, is for instance working with both the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Former DMA Director Bonnie Pittman is currently working with UT Dallas to initiate new ways of connecting the science, art, and health care institutions in our city. I have asked Bonnie Pitman to post a response to this blog with her ideas  about how she sees the problems and opportunities for engaging and translating medical and scientific knowledge across our organizational boundaries, for innovative ways of connection the sciences and engineering to the arts, design, and humanities.


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