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Artists at Work Forum: Studio as Lab

Four artists discuss combining science & art in their practice

Posted Jun 18, 2010

Last night I attended a panel discussion organized by the Artist at Work forum (part of Studio Chicago), entitled "Studio as Lab". I must thank the Chicago Cultural center for hosting the event and the Chicago Artists Resource for promoting it.

The four individuals speaking (profiled below) are each practicing artists - and in different avenues, each has paid their dues as a lab scientist. I really enjoyed hearing their insights on scientific experimentation in art and the nature of viewing science-inspired art work.

Vesna Jovanovic

Vesna Jovanovic promotes accident as an important element in both art and scientific discovery. She illustrated her work chronologically, so that we could see this agreement with nature evolve. In her work, evolution means increasing the risk of chance. Her economy of form can be striking and allows the elements to speak in powerful ways. There is a shamanistic sensibility to her artwork. Her photography combines alternative viewing angles and specialized optics to open a door, expanding the viewer's perception of life. The image below is the record of communication between a home-made pinhole camera and a digital scanner - each documenting the other:

Possibly due to my background in photography, I really connected with Jovanovic's work - at it's best it is simple, powerful and soulful. She sees science as a realm we look to for answers - and art where we ask questions. The image below recreates the same experiment as the one above. This time the pinhole camera is imaging fellow artist/scientist (and panel attendee) Hunter Cole in a long exposure during Cole's shoot with bio-luminescent bacteria (image and process detailed below).

Peter N. Gray

Peter N. Gray had the deepest science background on the panel. Among other achievements, the former head of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine is now a full-time artist. Gray also had some of the deepest insights on the nature of the art/science relationship. It sounds as if he's been trying to balance a passion for science & art most of his life. While studying science in college, Gray was creating (and selling) 4ft x 8ft paintings out of his dorm room.

Life Sliced
Steel & Stainless Steel
42"H x 10"W x 12"D

Point Mutation (2007)
Steel, African Red Granite
9H x 4W x 3D feet

He believes that art should give the thrill of emotional experience to all viewers - regardless of their scientific knowledge. He sees a reflection of reality in an artist's search for beauty - noting that although all of the data was available, scientists could not visualize the double-helix DNA structure until they enlisted a professional artist to illustrate it for them.

The science behind the work can be intriguing to viewers - but Gray warns that if left unchecked, talk of scientific elements and principals can cause confusion with his audience. He is more interested in their emotional response to his work. He believes that the freedom and creativity in art imbues artists with a special insight into the scientific process. Gray cited the growing trend in corporations to hire on 'artists in residence' to inspire their workforce (often scientists and researchers) to think outside their normal frame of reference.

He left us with a quote from David Edwards:

  • "Art and Science may have two distinguishable kinds of creative processes, but we need them to merge to be effective innovators. We have become a world of hybrids: artists as scientists, scientists as artists, and interdependency of the two."

Hunter Cole

Hunter Cole is an artist/professor at Loyola University in Chicago, where she performs genetic research and explores Bio-Art (art that incorporates living organisms). She blends science and art in a course called 'Biology Through Art'. Her students experiment in alternative forms of art, inspired by biology. One medium Cole has pioneered: painting with bioluminescent bacteria. Cole's work is illustrated in her Living Drawing series where the bacteria is applied to petri dishes and then photographed over the course of several days. As the bacteria grow, then die, the painted image degrades into unpredictable patterns - often revealing hidden images:

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    <p>In Cole's <a href="">Living Light</a> series, she expands her canvas, using the bacteria as the a light source - photographing subjects and settings that speak to larger themes of a paradox existing between art and science. Cole maintains that creativity is native to both domains.  She creates interactive environments where her audience can experience the aesthetics that accompany a scientific phenomenon.</p>

Exposing the Pinhole Camera: Portrait of Vesna Jovanovic (2010)
Living Light: Photography by the Light of Bioluminescent Bacteria

Josh Kurutz

It's difficult not to be inspired by Josh Kurutz and his excitement for 'making molecules sing'. While Kurutz works as a research scientist at Northwestern University, he grew up in a family of artists and architects. He's fascinated by themes of synesthesia. As a senior scientist at NW, Kurutz manages a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer. His Audible NMR project breaks down and catalogs molecules into musical notes. As he records the unique audio signature of each molecule, he's creating a new alphabet of sorts - finding patterns that give personalities to formerly sterile entities. Understanding material substances through human emotional factors like gender, strength and tone breathes new life into scientific data. Here's what the Audible NMR of Tryptophan sounds like:

And here's what it looks like:

In another project Kurutz plots NMR data, then exchanges the data points for organic material (flowers). While the data may represent beauty to a scientist (holding the potential for a cure to cancer) by utilizing the flowers, Kurutz elicits an emotional response that that points to a shared experience between artists and scientists.

Josh Kurutz: Cancer (2008)
pressed flowers & paper