'Are we working for the corals,' asks artist Sonia Levy,' or with them?' Levy – whose previous projects have included collaborating with a whale researcher in Iceland and recreating 20th century crystallization experiments – is currently working in the basement of the Horniman Museum in south London, where, for the very first time, marine biologists have successfully induced corals to spawn within a captive environment.
That alone makes 'Project Coral' noteworthy. Launched under the umbrella of the Horniman's so-called 'Living Collections', the research involves a range of international partners and has seen nine corals transplanted from Australia's Great Barrier Reef to an aquarium laboratory deep in the bowels of the museum. By their very existence, corals complicate convenient categorizations – between animal, plant and mineral or between individual and community or even between the living and dead. Corals, notes Levy, collaborate (with algae). Their exoskeletons form landscapes that shelter other forms of life. Corals provide rich metaphors but they are also real beings – out there in the world, and now inside the museum laboratory.
But, for me, it is the presence of the artists, and the questions they ask, that makes this project truly fascinating. Levy's work challenges the old modernist approach, which saw nonhumans as mere objects. 'The old 'Nature' – this plane of muted realities, outside the human realm – is gone,' she says. 'How do we interact with nonhumans now that there is no "Nature" anymore? What are the new relations with these rediscovered nonhumans that are emerging?'
There are questions, too, around labour, and the different roles played by the natural history museum (traditionally a place of dead animals not 'living collections'), the scientist, and the artist. One might, in fact, take Levy's question and turn it round. In such contexts, does the artist work with the scientist, in a symmetrical collaboration between equals? Or is the artist working for the scientist, to help disseminate their findings? Or is the scientist in fact working for the artist, who comes to represent the wider social context of the 'public good', and its corollary, public opinion? Or all, or none, of these?
Such questions are worth asking – and attempting to answer – because collaborations between artists and scientists seem to be on the rise. It is not only scientists doing amazing work in the fields of particle physics, space science, synthetic biology, information technology, agriculture, public health or neuroscience. In London alone, current exhibitions include Eloise Hawser's exploration of health, mapping, infrastructure and the body at Somerset House; Mark Dion's exuberant recreations of the world of the 19th-century explorer-collector-hunter at the Whitechapel Gallery; Rachal Bradley's installation of negative ion generators (said to be good for your health) on the outside of Gasworks; and 'Deconstructing Patterns', an exhibition of three different collaborations involving artists, poets, scientists and young people at the Francis Crick Institute. Further afield, entomologist-turned-slide-maker, Carsten Höller, has been working with a plant neurobiologist on a major exhibition exploring plant intelligence this summer at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, while roaming cultural producers TBA21-Academy have been working with artists and scientists aboard the Dardanella research vessel. The resulting exhibition, 'Océans' is currently on show at Le Fresnoy, north-east France, and a new book, Tidalectics, has been published by MIT Press.
Why now? In part, such work reflects a recognition of the limitations of specialization. Professionalization opened up fields of enquiry to new demographics (the worlds that Dion evokes are largely those of privileged white men) but at the same time established new disciplinary boundaries. Artists are also responding to the increasing dominance of science and technology in daily life, and to the growing sense of urgency in the face of climate change and mass species loss. The so-called 'ontological turn' has seen the humanities increasingly expand their scope to include broader questions of being and nonhuman life. The recently emerged discipline of animal studies is ideally suited to an interdisciplinary approach. Jacques Derrida's 2002 essay The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow) remains significant, while current thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers are highly influential. Unorthodox biologist Rupert Sheldrake has suddenly become popular.
This March, London's Wellcome Collection opens 'Somewhere in Between', an exhibition that brings together four very different projects to celebrate the diversity of art-science collaboration, while attempting to trace possible connecting threads. Daria Martin's films explore the experience of mirror-touch synaesthesia; an installation by John Walter rethinks representations of HIV; Maria McKinney's photography links modern genetic cattle breeding with pagan fertility symbols; and a mujlti-screen work by Martina Amati explores the physiology of freediving, in which the question of voluntary versus involuntary breathing proves especially thought-provoking.
The Wellcome show demonstrates another important factor in the rise in art-science collaboration: funding. Each of the four projects in 'Somewhere in Between' was made with funding granted previously by Wellcome – the second wealthiest charitable foundation in the world which supports numerous arts projects under the umbrella of public engagement. In 2016-17 Wellcome awarded grants worth GBP£72 million in public engagement and education (out of a total grant portfolio of GBP£4.4 billion). With public funding in the arts increasingly scarce, it would not be the first time that those in the arts and humanities look with envy towards the lavish budgets of the scientists.
But credit should also go to a range of pioneering organizations, both large and small. Commissioning agency Arts Catalyst, curatorial producers and artist agents GV Art London, and the Ars Electronica festival have all been vitally important in different ways. Institutions such as Science Gallery Dublin (Science Gallery London is due to open in 2018) and FACT Liverpool have championed this kind of work in the UK. Universities have played an important role too. In Scotland, the University of Dundee runs LifeSpace, a 'science art research gallery', while Edinburgh College of Art recently launched a course called Making Animal Studies with artist Andrea Roe and veterinary scientist Andrew Gardiner. CERN have been running artist residencies in Switzerland since 2012.
Collaborations between artists and scientists are not without their difficulties. The art market has historically overlooked certain forms of interdisciplinary practice. Curating exhibitions for a mixed audience can be tricky too: 'Both worlds are deeply jargonistic,' notes Laurie Britton Newell, curator of 'Somewhere in Between', 'and can be slightly uncomfortable about using each other's languages.' (Having written exhibition reviews for New Scientist, I can agree with that.) When it comes to collaboration, there is a danger that generalizing about scientists (as rational, institutionalized, ends-oriented) versus artists (emotional, free, process-driven) can risk accentuating disciplinary stereotypes. Or, conversely, that trying too hard to find commonalities can lead to simplistic platitudes about 'creativity'. People are more than the discipline they represent.
At the same time, scientific institutions (who may have funded the work in the first place) can find it hard to allow art its autonomy. Artists must be perpetually vigilant to avoid simply representing or illustrating scientific research or having their work instrumentalized in the name of public engagement. Often this means looking at wider questions that scientists cannot address (at least in public). As artist Ionat Zurr, who co-founded the Tissue Culture and Art Project with Oron Catts in 1996, said in a recent talk in Edinburgh: 'The role of the artist is to be somewhat critical, to ask: "How do those things happening in the lab affect philosophical, ontological, and ethical questions in society?"'
Other artists affirm an intuitive approach to knowledge or resist the scientific drive to make sense of the world. Bradley's exhibition at Gasworks includes a bespoke herbal tonic produced by the artist's sister, medical herbalist Lucie Bradley, and embedded – like blooming lichen – in resin across the gallery floor. In addition – bafflingly – is a photograph of a bro-skater taken on 9/11 exhibited inside what looks like an industrial washing machine. Science would have no time for such wilful weirdness.
In the end, every collaboration is different and involves different power relations. Britton Newell speaks of a triangular relationship between artist, scientist and other human actor (farmer, freediver, synaesthete, or person living with HIV), while Sonia Levy, and other artists I've spoken to, see successful collaboration as an 'exchange'. At the Crick, audio recordings foreground the collaborative process alongside the end results. There is a lovely moment when artist Helen Pynor welcomes two scientists into her own studio: 'You have different conversations here,' she says. Pynor has spoken before of how collaborations often fail when they feel asymmetrical. But this sounds like a shared discussion between equals, who nonetheless remain different in their different areas of expertise, skills, and interest. 'You get so caught up in doing your experiments … that you don't necessarily think about the wider picture,' says scientist Emma Powell. Here, as increasingly elsewhere, collaboration becomes a temporary coming together that does not eliminate disciplinary boundaries, but maybe just sets them aside for a brief, productive moment.
Main image: Sonia Levy and 'Project Coral', acropora tenuis releasing egg sperm buddles, 2018. Courtesy: Horniman Museum and Gardens, London; photograph: Jamie Craggs