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Art and Science: Opposites Attract

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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Created by artist and scientist Rita Blaik

The Art | Sci Center, whose motto is "artists in labs, scientists in studios," also houses a small gallery for exhibition of the products of art/science collaborations.

In one exhibit last year, Exposure, biology postdoc Christina Agapakis grew colonies of microbes in a petri dish and used them as "ink" to stamp other petri dishes, creating 25 distinct "reproductions" of the original. "This made visible the often feared, but absolutely essential, microbe ecologies that make up our world," says Agapakis, who in January was named by Forbes magazine as one of its "30 Under 30: Science and Healthcare" for the second time.

Another past exhibitor is artist Rita Blaik M.S. '10, a doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering. Inspired by her work with recently discovered material properties on the nano/micro scale versus the familiar macro (or large) scale, Blaik's recent photographs play on the idea of deconstructing iconic items, such as a cross, using motion and long exposure.

Blaik, who speaks publicly on bridging the gap between science and art, says that when she tells people she is an artist as well as a scientist, their first question is, "Oh, do you do pretty microscopic images?"

"There are definitely preconceived notions of science and art, and trying to break down this stereotype is always a fun challenge," Blaik says.

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Dress by Amisha Gadani

This summer, Blaik and Agapakis will be part of a joint art/science exhibition at Monte Vista Projects in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles. Also part of that show will be Megan Daalder '09, who earned her bachelor's degree from UCLA Design Media Arts, and Amisha Gadani, the artist-in-residence at both the Alfaro Lab at UCLA and at UCLA's Institute for Society and Genetics, where she helps make the work of scientists more accessible to a wider public.

For the show, Gadani will create one of her "defensive dresses," garments of great beauty rigged with hidden defense systems that are activated in the event of a threat. Gadani says she will create a dress inspired by insects like the Io moth, whose coloring, with wings folded, blends into their environment but who, when threatened, spread their wings to expose markings that look like large eye spots — which frightens away some predators by making them think the moth is a much larger animal.

"I like seeing how forms change, depending on the adaptive pressures," Gadani says. "So, over hundreds of thousands of years, environmental pressures or sexual pressures, or the lack of food can alter an animal body shape, evolutionarily speaking."

The Art | Sci Center is just one of the forums for art and science synergy at UCLA. Another of a different kind is REMAP (the Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance), a joint effort of the School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT) and the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science (HSSEAS).

Jeff Burke '99, M.S. '01, M.F.A. '10, assistant dean for technology and innovation at TFT, a founder of REMAP and co-director of the center, says the center focuses on the use of new and emerging technology in cultural, artistic and storytelling applications, and how those applications can shape or drive technology development. It differs somewhat from the Art | Sci Center, he says, in that rarely is science the actual subject of REMAP's projects.

Fabian Wagmister M.F.A. '91, REMAP's director and lead creator, says the center's work enables people to evaluate their environment through scientific research and then create art based on their findings. "It's a way of understanding yourself through technology."

One example is the Los Angeles State Historic Park downtown, which is currently under way. There, REMAP and TFT are working with California State Parks to find innovative opportunities to use interactive media and advanced technology to engage the community in the park and the city's history.

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Fabian Wagmister (sixth from left), Jeff Burke (far right) and the rest of the School of Theater, Film and Television’s REMAP team.

"We are exploring how the park can become a place where neighborhoods can tell their stories and people can explore the connection between that and the history of Los Angeles," says Burke, whose background includes both electrical engineering and fine arts. "What is interesting to us is when cross-disciplinary collaborations radically alter the expressive possibilities available to artists and storytellers — whether professional or from the public — and at the same time, open up new areas of exploration for scientists and engineers."

"It's a pioneering partnership," says Wagmister, who is also TFT vice chair of production and directing and principal investigator on the downtown project. "There is nothing else like it in the history of L.A."

In his TFT classes, Burke sometimes uses the example of the Johnny Cash Project, which was conceived by Aaron Koblin M.F.A. '06 (with director Chris Milk); Koblin is now creative director of the Data Arts Team at Google. As Koblin explains in a popular TED Talk, hundreds of participants in the ongoing Cash project created drawings that were woven into an online collective tribute to the singer, set to lyrics of his song "Ain't No Grave." (Visit www.ted.com/talks/aaron_koblin.html and see "Driven by Data: Inventing a New Digital Art," UCLA Magazine, January 2012.)

Burke likes the Cash project "because it shows that you can be an artist or an author and create something that emerges from your own voice. Or now you can — at the same time — use the Internet and digital technologies to invite participation and engagement with an audience in a whole new way.

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Created by artist and scientist Rita Blaik

"Digital technology and computer technology, in particular, are things that, sometimes we forget, can be taken apart and played with and used in new ways," Burke says. "And that's a good thing for artists, the entertainment industry and storytellers in general."

One sign of the exhilarating art-science synergy on campus is the Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) gatherings at UCLA, which bring scientists and artists together monthly during the academic year to talk and share their works in progress.

The "Leonardo" in LASER is, of course, a reference to da Vinci, perhaps the most famous polymath ever to live. But it is also a reference to the Observatoire Leonardo des Arts et des Technosciences, whose president, Roger Malina, is a world leader in the collaboration between science, engineering, art and design and who is a board member of the UCLA Art | Sci Center. (Visit www.leonardo.info/isast/laser.html.)

Malina, a distinguished professor of arts and technology and a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Dallas, says that, while artists and scientists share a passion for making sense and meaning of the world, "they have different ways of knowing." For many of the world's most complex and intractable problems, he says, these approaches combine "in productive and poetic ways."

Since LASER's beginnings several years ago, interest in the program has burgeoned, Vesna says. "We initially started with North-South mixers to help shift the culture, and I was happy to see faculty cross over to the 'other side,' " she says. As interest grew, she opened the gatherings to academics from other institutions, as well as to artists and other creative people in the community.

"Once people meet outside their respective disciplinary boundaries, the possibilities for new ways of thinking and collaborating become very real," she says. "It is an exciting time for students and faculty to imagine what, not so long ago, was deemed impossible."