Science vs Art - Arts in August

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The Arts vs Science Riverside Festival in Lismore - food for thought … on thinking.
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UPDATE: ARTS VS SCIENCE will take place at CITY HALL in Lismore due to wet weather. The same program applies! Be there!


Lismore's Arts in August is throwing up all sorts exhibitions, performances, different types of arts practice, workshops and other events. The Arts vs Science Riverside Festival on the 24th August has us particularly intrigued though. We are perhaps more interested in the resonances than what separates the Sciences and the Arts. "The Arts vs Science Riverside Festival adds some magic to National Science Week by bringing together the arts and science communities to explore the role of arts and science in understanding and managing our natural world for a sustainable future." (Southern Cross University, http://scu.edu.au/space/index.php/84/)

There has been a long history of artistic practice and technique to document scientific discovery, although it probably wasn't called 'science' back in the early Renaissance, just as art was probably not called 'art'. For example, Leonardo da Vinci used beautiful charcoal and ink sketches to record human and animal anatomy. He also used his technical skills as an artist to show the workings and forces at play in his 'contraptions' and inventions. The latter predates the study, theory and laws of physics, however his understanding or conceptualisation of mechanical forces, propulsion and fluid dynamics, albeit rudimentary, are very much rooted in what we would call today mechanical engineering which is based on the science of physics.

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Leonardo Da Vinci, sketch of one of his 'robotic' inventions.

Taxonomic illustration has also long been the realm of those with artistic skill to document nature - plants and animals of different species, families and phyla etc.

Do these forms of 'art' enter into the conceptualisation process of scientific discovery - the questions that frame hypotheses, postulate mechanisms and 'answers', and enter into the development of enquiry as part of what we may understand as scientific method? Did Charles Darwin use such material - artistic depiction and illustration of details of the natural world - to develop his Theory of Evolution? Did Leonardo conceive of his understanding of human physiology (the workings beyond the structural demonstration of anatomy) and his inventions from exploring his documentation and ideas visually?

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Leonardo Da Vinci, sketches of human anatomy.

These questions have always been of interest - plus the bigger ones about the similarities and differences in the thinking of artists and scientists. Five hundred years or so ago, there were no "artists" or "scientists" - or at least, the words were not there to define them. They were just thinkers, but framed within doctrine that was often considered within the teachings of the church. Conversely, sometimes this 'thinking' was considered challenging to religious doctrine and was therefore viewed as heresy.

The interplay between various approaches to 'thinking' as applied in science or in the arts and creative endeavours has always held a personal interest. I trained many moons ago as a scientist and worked for nearly 15 years in scientific research and more mainstream scientific application in diagnostics associated with immunodeficiency and haemopoietic neoplasia (i.e. leukaemias and lymphomas). The thinking was very lateral and objectively-driven, but at a time when molecular biology was in its infancy, the mechanisms, interactions and interplay within complex networks of cytokines, chemical transmitters, cellular receptors etc were almost always interrogated and somehow understood through drawing and visualisation as part of the 'scientific method' - at least, from my own personal experience. Visualisation may have been more diagrammatic in these instances, but it was still a very useful 'language' to understand and communicate complex processes, deconstruct them, as well as indicate or conceive of certain questions, unknowns and avenues to inform further research.

A total career change to Landscape Architecture brought together "science" and "art" in much more concrete ways. The very nature of designing the landscape required the application of scientific knowledge regarding natural systems, soil chemistry and biology and horticulture. The "art" side of things revealed itself in the generation of design - the aesthetic conceptualisation of the 'whole' and its components - the physical experience of 'place', ephemeral qualities, cultural associations, memory (whose memory?), social layers and what may be understood as the 'spirit of place'. One could not generate a design without a fundamental understanding of site and its geomorphology, but also its human meaning and potential.

About 10 years ago, a friend, Landscape Architect, Barbara Steiner completed a Masters by Research entitled, "Planting strategies for toxic sites expressed as environmental art". This work was very much science-driven - the science of phytoremediation (i.e. the use of plants to remove toxins and pollutants from contaminated soil), but the application was very much from her visual arts and design backgrounds, with her 'arts' thinking 'painting' an holistic landscape using planting as her medium to express that artistic thinking. Barbara's design knowledge and skill was incorporated in the addition of layers of function and form - social, cultural and economic layers - and applying a "systems" knowledge that addressed the pragmatics of management, maintenance, disposal and the evolution of landscape, including its detoxification and remediation over time.

Science and art were inextricably linked in the processes of landscape intervention as a biological "machine' to drive sustainable outcomes and site re-creation. In this example, 'art' may be manifested as environmental art with the patterns formed by plantings as an expression of toxicity types and levels over a site or the various processes at play to remediate parts of a site, eg. monocultures, mixed meadows or structured plantings of trees, shrubs and groundcovers. It may also be manifested as interpretive environmental art - again through pattern-related expression of the processes at play or by introducing other elements such as sculptural forms/structures or 'graphic' elements to convey or be a part of underlying processes of rehabilitation.

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Land art and rehabilitation of toxic site - Thames Barrier Park, London. (Design by Allain Provost, Groupe Signes, Paris and Patel Taylor, London).

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Landscape architecture - design and plant selection for phytoremediation & rehabilitation of former industrial site - plus human use and appreciation - Lanschaftspark, Duisburg-Nord. (Design by Latz + Partners, Germany).

This is all a rather limited and simplistic discussion of the relationship between science and art in the context of phytoremediation, and more broadly, landscape rehabilitation, as one example of the application of science and art, but hopefully it indicates some of the inextricable threads of scientific and artistic thinking that may co-exist in managing the man-made world to approach environmental sustainability. This extends through professions such as Landscape Architecture, Environmental Science, Design and Management, Urban Design and Architecture, where theory associated with "green infrastructure" and best practice in design for ecological sustainability, as a scientific foundation, has increasingly become part of the 'art' of design and an informant and generator of design and aesthetic outcomes.

"Creative practices of ecology construct alternative forms of relationship and hybridisation between people, place, material and Earth" (James Corner, Landscape Architect, 1999).

There is so much more to think about here! We can only recommend getting along to the Arts vs Science Riverside Festival to explore relationships between science and art, and the many disciplines of each.

It is particularly important at this time in this country to participate in actively thinking about how we view science and art - their methods and applications. There seems to be so much pressure on both Science and the Arts to find a voice that is 'taken seriously' by both government and certain sections of the mainstream media. I won't get into the politics here, but there seems to be an emerging paradigm where science, the scientific method and what constitutes scientific theory (as opposed to the lay understanding of 'theory') are subject to disproportionately ill-informed and over-blown 'opinion'. The Arts have often been subject to misunderstanding and their value maligned in similar ways, although perhaps their relative subjectivity makes them an easy target. Arts and Humanities still have valid methodologies of research, data collection and analysis, however, with fields of endeavour that have just as much importance as pure science (eg. the social sciences, anthropology etc). Fine arts extends all of these fields by bringing humanity and nature together, expressing, questioning and challenging our relationships with each other and that with our physical world.

It's a fascinating topic and wonderful to see Southern Cross University opening up all sorts of discussion and thinking regarding science vs art.

The Arts vs Science Riverside Festival takes place under the auspices of the Northern Rivers Science Hub, Riverside Park, Lismore on Sunday, 24th August, from 10am to 4pm - as part of National Science Week and Lismore's Arts in August.

UPDATE: ARTS VS SCIENCE will take place at CITY HALL in Lismore due to wet weather. The same program applies! Be there!