An artist in residency program of the Max Planck Society
by Clara Martinez Perez
Alumna MPI for Marine Microbiology
“We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex. Knowledge is our destiny.”
With these words(1), the mathematician and poet Jacob Bronowksi identifies one of the most powerful drives for society through history: we are compelled to the understanding of the world around us and to transmit this understanding. The effort to represent and reveal more about our world has been shared by artistic creation and scientific research, and there is currently a growing tendency to recognize the linkages between the creative process underpinning arts and science. Words like “transdiciplinarity” and “unconventional thinking” resonate today in many of international programs for innovation and development (e.g. (2), (3), (4), (5))
Modern progress of knowledge necessarily requires high degree of specialization, both in the arts and sciences, and this has for a long time prevented a creative dialogue between disciplines. However, as the physicist and science historian Caterina Benincasa and the chemist Rodrigo Pérez-García (Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces) have recognized, deepening of knowledge does not necessarily require permanent isolation of one discipline from the other. Instead, they have identified the need of a point of reunion beyond boundaries, where encounters between artists and scientists can lead to reciprocal benefit.
With the aim to facilitate a common space for scientist and artists where to emphasize discussion between disciplines, in 2016 they founded the Knowledge Link through Art and Science (KLAS) program, an artist-in-residence program within the Max Planck Society. Under the name “Aesthetics gets Synthetic” the program has initially focused on synthetic biology, a relatively young discipline whose boundaries and applications are still under debate, and where ethics in research innovation is subject to public concern. It is not surprising that an area with such societal controversy, is regarded as one “where collaborations between scientists, artists, and society are not only interesting but needed”, as argued by Frank Raes, from the European Commission.
Through 2017, the KLAS program funded residency of artists Agnes Meyer-Brandis (Germany) and the duo Otavio Schipper and Sergio Krakowski (Brazil) in synthetic biology research groups of the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and of two Max Planck Institutes (Max-Planck Institute of Plant Physiology [MPIMP], and Max-Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces [MPIKG]). During an initial phase, the artists were intensely involved in the life at the research institutions, being able to perform experimental work and use the facilities while interacting with the scientists. The artists could further explore their ideas in a second residency, followed by the development of a piece of artwork. Some of the artistic pieces have been presented in the first workshop of the KLAS program, last November (described below).
The artwork resulting from these residencies is the most immediate outcome of the programme. However the scientists involved in the project also benefit from it, and may experience a more enduring pay-off. Dr. Charles Cotton, researcher at MPIMP, draws attention to the fresh perspective that emerged from an intense experience of a non-specialist in the lab. He describes especially stimulating to “be sitting with someone whose focus and interest is to get something new out of your work, and working with them in the process [by] spurring each other on”. Along this line, for Dr. Tom Robinson, researcher at the MPIKG, the highlight of the residence program was not teaching the artists to do the science, but the actual discussions that took place afterwards, over a cup of coffee.
Artists bring valuable questions which scientists would not generally come up with, and can thus bring scientific research forward. As happens with many topics in cutting edge science, which dwell with uncertainty and improbability, one cannot predict the outcome of these encounters. However, approaching a scientific topic from different perspectives can lead to serendipity and unexpected results. More importantly, it encourages “thinking outside the box”.
The linkage between synthetics biology and artistic research was further explored and discussed in the first KLAS “Aesthetics gets Synthetic” workshop, which took place at the MPIKG in November 2017. It gathered over 200 participants from divergent backgrounds (including young scientists, artists, art-science experts, scholars, curators, and representatives from industry, local government, and private initiatives), all sharing a common interest in the use of transdisciplinarity approaches for research, innovation, and education. As reflected in the range of topics discussed (such as bioethics; public misconceptions about the field of synthetic biology; restructuring education curricula) there is a big potential for such meetings to have wider implications in scientific communication and to provide a basis for societal interactions. In the eyes of the organizers, the large success of the workshop emphasized the need for similar platforms of dialogue, which has motivated the proposal of future workshops in the near future (in 2018 and 2019).
As a model for artist in residence program within research institutions, the KLAS program is also expected to have wider implications. KLAS is often described as “a seed”, whose potential development will help in bringing a fruitful dialogue between research institutions. As its founders describe it, “such interdisciplinary encounters are particularly powerful to bridge the gap between disciplinary fields and provide a new look into scientific tasks and working methodologies”. Strategically framed within the Max Planck Society, this objective is well within reach. In its pursue of broadening horizons, future KLAS residency programs will likely have yearly changing topics including, for instance, an open call for scientists to be paired with artistic-framed institutes, such as the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.
This is a very exciting perspective from many points of view, from the exploitation of a common passion for exploration and discovery to the push of curiosity for the unknown. If you are indeed curious and want to know more about the KLAS program and Polyhedra, the organization from which it stems, check below.
KLAS is organized by Polyhedra, a non-profit cultural association for cross-disciplinary research and activities in art and science. KLAS is supported by the Max Planck Society and the Schering Foundation
(1) Bronowski, Jacob. The ascent of man. Random House, 2011.
Examples of transdisciplinary approaches for innovation
(2) INOVA+ is an European innovation consultancy company
(3) STARTS Initiative from European Commission: Innovation at the nexus of Science, Technology, and the ARTS