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Art and Science: Opposites Attract

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By Claudia Luther

Published Apr 1, 2014 8:00 AM


Art and science may seem like polar opposites, but a closer look reveals an ancient, symbiotic relationship between the two. Today, enhanced by technology, their union is flourishing at UCLA, and the possibilities are endless.

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Dress by Amisha Gadani

To many, science and art are the classic examples of never-the-twain-shall-meet.

One is viewed as hard, one as soft. One as methodically precise, one as creatively unpredictable. If you were taking a flight of fancy, you might say one is the fastidious Felix, the other the free-living Oscar.

At UCLA, there is even a geographical divide: South Campus is home to the university's prestigious institutions for the study of physical sciences, life sciences, engineering, psychology, mathematical sciences and health-related fields, as well as the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. And North Campus, where students walk amid world-class sculptures to classes in the Italianate buildings that first housed the university, is home to the highly respected arts and humanities programs.

A good-natured rivalry has existed between North and South since Bruin time immemorial. A few years ago, the Daily Bruin published a humorous student essay claiming that North Campus students "use our minds to analyze situations, literature, history and so on" while South Campus students "use their minds to compute."

But the boundary between art and science has never been rigid. Think of the study of patterns, for example: Where does the science end and the art begin? This has never been truer than today, when technology has enabled cutting-edge artistic expression and when art increasingly inspires science-related feats of wonder.

Ask the leaders in the science-art synergy now in full swing at UCLA and you might come away believing there never has been so exciting a time as now, when STEM (science, technology, mathematics and engineering) plus art is creating the new STEAM movement. (For more information, visit http://stemtosteam.org.)

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Biology postdoc Christina Agapakis turned microbes in a petri dish into art.

"There's an exciting boom in the integration of science and art," says media artist Victoria Vesna. A professor in the UCLA Department of Design Media Arts, Vesna is director of the Art | Sci Center, a North and South campuses partnership hosted by the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture and the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA. (Visit http://artsci.ucla.edu.)

Vesna says that, during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries, a need for specialization temporarily pulled apart science and art. Instead of crafting a whole shoe in one day, for example, a worker would paste on hundreds of soles a day, then heels, and so on. Today there is a return to a holistic way of looking at the workings of arts and industries.

"What I am trying to do with the Art | Sci Center and my classes, and also with my artwork, is show the very natural marriage of science and art," she says.

Vesna teaches a general education survey course — "Art, Science & Technology" — which went online last year and will be used system-wide by the University of California. In it, students from a wide variety of majors — from economics and English to marine biology and computer science — explore how some technologies drive new forms of art and science. She also teaches an honors course on biotechnology and art, as well as a Fiat Lux Freshman Seminar Program course that brings students into dialogues with artists and scientists. (Visit www.uei.ucla.edu/fiatlux.htm.)

"Scientists describe their moments of discovery in similar terms as do artists with their creative breakthroughs," Vesna says. "It's been marvelous to see how students open their eyes to what's going on and what's possible."

During the summers, the Art | Sci Center — in cooperation with CNSI and the Department of Design Media Arts — offers NanoLab, a two-week program in which high school students explore an artistic approach to nanotechnology that involves the ability to see and control individual atoms for use in other science fields. Nanotechnology has captured the attention of artists as a way to go beyond the visible and audible, so it seems only natural to ask students to dream up projects that incorporate the most far-out science ideas they can imagine.

"We ask them to go wild; it doesn't have to work at all," Vesna says. Then they must imagine how they would scientifically prove it — an endeavor that might take their whole lifetimes.

"Where does that idea go?" Vesna asks. "Into an art work that inspires others, or a movie, or music? Or does it manifest itself as science? Because that's where science and art do separate: in methodology. If you have a vision for a new kind of airplane, you've got to have that plane fly."

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