Always on the lookout for projects that explore the intersection between art + science, I was excited to learn about CUriosity3: a monthly evening series aimed at engaging the public in a conversation about the creativity underlying the process of discovery. The series, run out of Columbia University and funded with the support of the Medical Research Council, partners artists + scientists working around a particular theme to spark discussion within the audience. I had the pleasure of chatting with the series’ creator + director, Rebecca Jones, about her inspiration for the program + how she found art through science.
Congratulations on the series’ launch in September! Could you talk more about the inaugural event and your work at Columbia University?
I’m working for the School of the Arts Office of Community Outreach and Education at Columbia University. They have a real interest in linking their community engagement and arts program with the sciences. They thought, with my science background and my interest in bringing art and science together, I could reach out to the scientists and ask if they would like to be involved in a program run by the School of the Arts.
The first CUriosity3 event—The Cell in Art and Science—featured Oron Catts and Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic. I knew Oron’s work since I had seen him speak before, so I contacted him right when I got here. I thought it would be really good for him to give a talk about his work as an example of what I was interested in, in terms of art and science. Everyone was really enthusiastic about it, and suggested that it would be really great if to have a discussion between him and a scientist from Columbia—Professor Vunjak-Novakovic. So that’s where these events have come from—conversations between artists and scientists on a level playing field. And because I’m working at Columbia University, we always include someone who is Columbia-based to showcase some of the university’s research.
Your background is in science, just having finished up your graduate work in biochemistry at University of Bristol. So how did you come to the art and science intersection?
My interest in art and science came about in the second year of my Ph.D., when I decided to start this competition called the Art of Science. It’s a very simple biomedical arts competition within our faculty at University of Bristol, which is now in its fifth year.
We began by asking for images people had captured during their research with some sort of underlying beauty or impact. Then we branched out from just purely beautiful images to images of science in the lab, expressing science in action—what the day-to-day of a scientist is actually like, including the disappointment. Science is often portrayed to be this very glossy, front-cover, end result, but actually I wanted to express the work-in-progress element to science as well—the real element. We had some great images of people holding up a moldy flask or illustrating something that had gone wrong in their experiment. Then we opened up the competition further, putting movies in as well—films from microscopes mostly.
Having this art competition as my base got my foot in the door. People started contacting me with projects. For instance, I collaborated with sculptors to create glass sculptures related to images that we’d captured from this competition. We also began collaborating with the Wellcome Images at the Wellcome Trust who participated in the judging of our competition and accepted the winning images onto their international acclaimed science image archive. I then ended up taking six months out of my Ph.D. to work as a public engagement officer at the University of Bristol, giving me professional insight into how public engagement with science is run. So with my background doing art and science in my research and with this practical experience in the public engagement office, I was awarded funding from the Medical Research Council to come to Columbia University and get international experience with science communication.
I’m curious, was it your work in the lab and at the bench that brought you towards the art and science intersection?
For my Ph.D. work, I was studying an immune cell disorder called Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome using zebrafish. It involved a lot of live imaging of zebrafish larvae, so I spent hours on the microscope looking at them—fascinated by having this living creature in front of me and capturing the movement of the cells within it. The zebrafish is a completely transparent creature that looks very simple, but yet it has all these amazing organs forming and beating, and you can just watch it with your bare eyes as it’s just lying there.
I was lucky enough to have a Ph.D. that was very image-based—you feel very connected to nature and the animals you’re using. I just wanted to express some of the excitement I had looking down through the microscope. I think that was a great starting point—learning to communicate that awe. My boss was also quite good at getting visitors and undergraduates into the lab, so I could talk to them about my work and show them some of the fish and movies I’d been taking—and they’d just be completely enthralled. That kind of communication I had with them on a very simple level—just showing them my work and talking about my work—made me realize that there is so much potential here. We have such a fantastic wealth of exciting things happening in the lab that people wouldn’t expect, and I wanted to expose that.
CUriosity3 is a public seminar program addressing the intersection between Arts and Science with a view to start interesting discussions and debate around the common ground of creative practice and scientific discovery. For further events in the series, visit the official website // Like on Facebook // Follow on Twitter. Or, to get involved, contact Rebecca Jones.