Curiosity: The Driving Factor in Art and Science

(February 2nd, 2017) Ever wondered what happens when you put an artist into a lab? The artists-in-labs programme of the Zurich University of the Arts has been facilitating exactly such exchanges for the last 13 years.

The mutual entering into a space of uncertainty gives people the opportunity to develop new perspectives. This is exactly the idea behind the artists-in-labs programme, which offers long-term residencies for artists at research institutes and universities. The 3rd book edition of this programme titled “Recomposing Art and Science” was recently published and we took a sneak peek.

The layout of the book is quite simple: small letters indicate the experiences of the artists, big letters are used for the scientists’ experiences during the residency. This way, both visions can be read in parallel, emphasising the non-hierarchical mutual exchanges in the project. The book also comes with a DVD, containing short documentaries of the eight projects presented, which make the projects and experiences come to life.

One striking documentary was about the residency of the Swiss-Canadian writer of poetry and fiction, Sandra Huber, who embarked on a sleep mission at the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne. She ended up spending nine months in the lab of Paul Franken, who focusses on sleep and energy homeostasis as well as circadian clock genes. By using QTL analysis and EEG activity, they try to unravel the mystery of why we sleep.

Looking at Franken's research from an outsider's perspective, Huber was surprised by the work environment of the scientist. “As I walk in, the objects seem exotic and sterile: syringes, cultures, centrifuges, cylinders. This 'office' is a laboratory”, she explains in the book. “I was lead into a room where the incubator is kept and I’m immediately reminded of those old Frankenstein movies with the bubbling vats of liquid.”

Franken as a scientist, on the other hand, was struck by Huber’s investigation methods. “Sandra educated herself about sleep much in the same way as my other, ‘academic’, lab members. She read the scientific literature, asked me and other sleep experts many questions and built hypotheses on how things might work. It was the inquisitive or logical mindset to tease apart the workings of some aspect of life. Not something that one would automatically associate with a poet,” he told Lab Times.

Huber ended up composing a poem with her own brainwaves, collected during a night in the sleeplab (see image). “What I started to do was to transfer the brainwaves into actual words and thereby to kind of cross the states of waking and sleep. I was surprised by how active sleep was, by the fact that it’s not a state of unconsciousness but an altered state of consciousness. So I wanted to make sleep become awake in a way. Words are always awake. They’re an act of focussed consciousness,” she explains.

Huber chose the sleeplab as she has always been fascinated by sleep. Why did Franken accept an artist in his lab? Sheer curiosity. “I never thought of ‘getting something out of it’. I was just excited or rather curious to be able to see up close where the process would lead - from the raw material to a poem - and whether I could relate to this.”

Where the book focusses on various projects conducted within Switzerland, the most recent residencies take the artists to new continents. Sandra Kühne, for example, is currently on her way back to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology KAUST, Saudi Arabia, for the second part of her stay. Through her drawings, cut-outs, and installations, she wants to illustrate interaction, balance and symbiosis of coral reefs.

“I believe that art and science are related in terms of developing ideas, observation methods, work processes, visualisation, and model-making. I imply methods of cartography in my artistic research and practice. I refer to myself as a cartographer, an oceanographer, a writer, a collector, a discoverer,” Kühne told LT.

It seems as if an experimental collaboration between artists and scientists is only possible when both agree to immerse themselves in the unknown. It is in this space of transformation – from not knowing to knowing – that a hybrid form of art and science can form. Curiosity leads the way.

Hedwig Ens

Picture: Sandra Huber

Last Changes: 02.28.2017