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Expert Analysis
June 2, 2023

Is Art Getting Closer to Science?

With digital technology increasingly fundamental to both art and science, two leading thinkers discuss the evolving relationship with Alex Estorick
Credit: Alex Cagan, Corona Chronicles (detail), 2020. Courtesy of the artist
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Is Art Getting Closer to Science?
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

In Web3, a new incarnation of the artist has emerged somewhere between a traditional creator, a coder, and a collector. This hybridity reflects a wider expansion of the field of art to encompass practices that were previously regarded less as art than variations on digital craft. In short, the art and tech industries seem to be merging. But digital technologies are also central to contemporary scientific inquiry, which relies on data collection as well as artificial intelligence to draw new conclusions. 

As Curator and Head of Arts at CERN, few individuals are better placed than Mónica Bello to address the relationship between art and science today. While Alex Cagan is an evolutionary geneticist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge as well as a digital illustrator renowned for his live illustrations of scientific demonstrations. Here, Alex Estorick hosts them in a speculative conversation about the changing relationship between art and science.

Alex Cagan, Flight of the Scientists, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

Mónica Bello: I’m a curator and have been working on hybrid projects across art, science, technology, and society for the past 20 years. Regardless of the institution involved, all my projects examine the nature of art and science, asking: what are we trying to achieve and what is the framework we are trying to identify? I’m interested in the old philosophical question of how we engage with something we cannot yet predict, and art and science are both good tools for that. 

CERN, where I’ve been working since 2015, is the best place on earth to ask the fundamental questions. When you work with artists in this environment — which is a particle physics lab — there is more technology than you can ever imagine: from computing to civil engineering, hardware and software. The fundamental question is: what is all the stuff around us in the universe and at the end of the universe? 

What is interesting is when artists ask themselves the big questions without adopting the same utilitarian approach as the discipline right next to them. That is where society comes into play. 
Alex Cagan, Illustration of Jian Carrot-Zhang,  “Genetic Ancestry and its Somatic Conclusions in Cancer” at MSK Computational Oncology, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Alex Cagan: I originally trained as an anthropologist, before moving into genetics and science. The Wellcome Sanger Institute is similar to CERN, but it deals in genomics, generating huge data sets to try and address fundamental questions about biology, human genetics, and health. I research mutations and how we accumulate mutations as we age. But I also do artwork that seeks to establish new ways to communicate science.

I’m very interested in the relationship between science and art because, on a day-to-day basis, visuals are used to communicate science but I think there’s a bigger role for art in its own right. There are also different ways in which art and science can relate to one another. 

I work in various ways, primarily visualizing science through illustration, developing projects that try to connect scientists and non-scientists. Art is a way of bridging that gap and disarming science.  
Alex Cagan, Cover illustration for Nature, April 21, 2022. Alex was also lead author for a research article on the relationships between mutations and aging. Courtesy of the artist

Alex Estorick: Art since the Enlightenment has been often regarded as a world of elite activity set apart from science as well as popular culture. Even today, art’s functionlessness underpins the market for contemporary art. Yet utility is often baked into works of digital creativity, while NFTs have blurred the markets for fine and commercial art to the point where it feels like we are now living in one big world of artists. How does functionality change the nature of art from your perspective?

MB: I think Heidegger talked about the dominance of technology in our society. He was right that pure thought could be put toward production-driven activity. A century later, we are in that very place. I don’t believe in art for art’s sake, whereby art and technology serve simply as a way of making money. 

I believe that art involves an ethical sensitivity that one also finds in science — a collective effort of conveying messages to society and producing engagement with society. 

Through the residencies we hold at CERN, we support scientists in working together with artists as researchers. We cover the costs, while also providing money for production and a framework for exploring possibilities in art and science, without specific guidelines. Some artists find it useful to be better informed about computing, data, or indeed particle physics. Others go deep into the ethical issues relating to society and civilization. I think that technology is less vulnerable than art and science because it is a big industry with its own logics. However, art and science are two human activities that are always losing space in society, struggling to preserve their arguments. 

Alex Cagan, Illustration of Sanju Sinha, “Single Cell Precision Oncology: a Proof of Principle” at MSK Computational Oncology, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AC: The dichotomy issue continues today — whether it is art and science or art versus science, and how different they are. I feel that over the course of the last century, there’s been a clear distinction in the way that science has evolved that is very technological and data-driven. 

It feels like people see more of a distinction now between art and science than they used to. However, to me, they are very similar in that they both start with careful observation and curiosity about the world. 

Nowadays, science tends to be very driven by statistics and big data and that can make it seem like the methodology of scientific inquiry diverges from artistic inquiry. You don’t necessarily think of statistics and big data when you think of art. What is interesting is finding ways where they can come together. Personally, I don’t see a clear boundary between art and science. But the question of how technology relates to both remains, in particular how both science and art follow technological developments.

Alex Cagan, Corona Chronicles, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

AE: The role of data collection in scientific inquiry presumably binds science quite closely to the tech industry. I also know that individual scientists sometimes move between academia and the pharmaceutical industry. Monica, do you have any thoughts on the importance of data to both science and art?

MB: Data is something that you can manipulate, but as soon as we understand everything as information, then we have something to work with. That information might relate to life or gravitational waves or something even more rudimentary. Nevertheless, I do think that reflecting on data is a good way of gaining understanding of the world and reality. 

The question of what data is often comes up in my discussions with artists, as well how to manipulate and use it. At CERN, we examine what data is for from a vast number of different perspectives and across multiple dimensions. Other crucial questions include: who is dealing with the data? And is it just noise or raw data, or indeed manipulated data? 

CERN is a portal that opens up many questions. 

AC: Data and information have never been central to art historical discourse, yet today they are at the center of everything. Information can also have artistic value, scientific value, and monetary value. At my Institute, we’re interested in collecting genomic data in order to learn about the world from the perspective of scientists. But there are insurance companies that also want to use that information because it has monetary value to them. Of course, that information can also be used by artists as well. I think a lot about the ways that different people use information or data for different purposes.

MB: How data is recorded is also important as well as the future of that data. One can control many things with technology today, and simulate life in a way that is near to real. But when it comes to real flesh, that is when it becomes more difficult.

Alex Cagan, The Future of Precision Media at BC Cancer Summit, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AE: A number of artists in Web3 are working with DNA, while the blockchain is a curious petri dish of human data that produces a pretty comprehensive map of behavior. Web2 showed us that the datafication of human bodies also involves the exploitation, subjugation, and sale of their data bodies. Does the interweaving of biological and digital life resonate with either of you?

AC: The discovery and sequencing of the genome means that the body itself is a home for data, while we hold different forms of information within our bodies. Nowadays, there are so many different technologies out there to harvest data that we generate, so the way we see ourselves weaves together numerous data sets.

Right now, there is an increasing awareness of the importance of putting ethics at the forefront of genetics research. Certainly, the Wellcome Trust is highly aware of the ethical issues involved, but I’m also conscious that artists often place a great focus on the social and ethical implications of data

In my view, art-science collaboration can help to emphasize the societal and ethical implications of the data we generate. Frankenstein used to be science fiction, but now it’s approaching reality. We need art to reconcile the social implications of that.

MB: Bio artists often raise very important questions around the frontier between living, semi-living, and non-living entities. For example, the Tissue, Culture & Art Project has been exploring tissue engineering as a medium of artistic expression for a number of years now. While at CERN you have the heaviest, fastest, hottest, and coldest environments as well as superconducting materials. When artists come here, the most they can do is work with the computing technologies. However, Erich Berger recently developed his own detector using tupperware with a microchip, alongside Arduino. He received a lot of help to calibrate his detector. 

At CERN, the experiments are massive and highly complex. As a result, many of the resident artists explore ideas relating to the philosophy and sociology of science. For many of us, physics means fundamental physics, quantum physics, or quantum computing. But the artists here gain experience of the space in between, while their language becomes much more complex than they generally expect when they arrive. 

Alex Cagan, Cover illustration for the inaugural issue of Cell Genomics, October 13, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AE: We’ve spoken about the relationship of science to art but I wonder how possible it is to reconcile such vastly different fields of scientific inquiry as genomics and particle physics.

AC: Well, both have been transformed by technology and the tools that now enable highly sensitive detection are similar in genomics. Both physics and biology demand huge computational resources to deal with the volumes of data involved. Part of the reason these large institutes have developed is because you need multiple specialists working together as well as huge infrastructures. 

Both CERN and the Wellcome Sanger Institute reflect a trend for gathering international researchers together on large collaborative projects. You can’t answer the big questions in little labs anymore.

AE: Science has developed historically by critiquing and rejecting prior theories, but art has never been subject to that requirement. On the other hand, criticality is often highly regarded by the art world. Has the involvement of digital technology changed the practice of scientific inquiry and are there any analogies we might draw with current approaches to art, especially digital art?

MB: Science is empirical and models need to be proved through experiments, and a lot of scientific experiments fail. But there is also a lot of experimentation in art. As a curator who works across art and science, my one rule is that artists who talk about science need to engage with scientists in the laboratories. Science fiction doesn’t work if it is incoherent. Accuracy is important to both art and science.

Alex Cagan, Illustration of Heidi Rehm, “Advancing Genomic Medicine Through Collaboration on a Global Scale” at Mount Sinai Genomic Health Thought Leader Series, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AC: To me, it’s clear that science is empirical because, in the end, you’re answering specific questions with hypotheses, while relying on data. Art often addresses different questions that don’t necessarily require an empirical framework. I agree that art should be exploratory, but whether that involves empiricism or not, I’m not so sure. 

Regarding critique, I’d like to see greater interaction between those who adopt different methods of critique. I’m not sure how scientific critique would work on an artistic level, but art can be a way to interrogate ideas emerging out of science. 

Without artists, scientists could just plow ahead with their experiments without reflecting on the wider social impact. Science doesn’t, and mustn’t, happen in a vacuum.
Alex Cagan, The Virus Huntress (Dr Emma Hodcroft), 2020. Courtesy of the artist

AE: There is also something highly capitalist about science, which is put to the service of extracting knowledge in ways that have a long and problematic heritage. There are many non-Western knowledges with which to analyze the world. How do you feel when you see alternative theories or sciences emerge that are less strictly empirical but also less extractive and anthropocentric, which regard humanity on the same level as nature and other species?

MB: I like to refer to Kae Tempest, who talks about the importance of connection through difference. Accepting difference can bring us to a place where we can make a good critique. I think all of us are in the same business of extraction every time we change our mobile phone or buy something on Amazon. There are many ways in which we are guilty, and even art can be extractivist. But what I don’t find fruitful is to create new dichotomies, which only fosters distrust.

For me, it’s a dangerous moment. We are restructuring the planet, that’s for sure. There are many kinds of knowledge that do not use the same method, and which hint at big questions relating to the universe. We need to understand that by connecting different knowledges we can create something positive. 
Alex Cagan, Illustration of Nadine Caron, “Indigenous Communities and Marathon of Hope” at BC Cancer Summit, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

I think it’s good to see how other disciplines operate as that way lies trust. Right now, we really need to embrace the differences between different communities and disciplines, not only art and science, in order to understand each other. What is now quantum physics was once experimental philosophy. 

AC: I’m very mindful of other ways of viewing the world. It’s difficult on a day-to-day basis because the practice of science that we do follows a certain empiricism and a certain way of seeing things. But for a healthy society you want to tolerate and understand different views. Of course, there is another side to the trajectory of increasing science and technology that is reflected in anti-vaccination movements, for example, which adopt an anti-scientific viewpoint based on the misunderstanding of science. 

One can’t take for granted that science will continue developing in a way that scientists might want, which is why it’s key to listen to and respect other ways of viewing the world. To that end, art and science can work together to communicate ideas to society at large, and to help people understand that science isn’t necessarily a threat. One common idea in the field of human health right now is that of one health, whereby humans are not regarded as separate from the planet. We’re all part of one global ecosystem.

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Mónica Bello is a Spanish curator and art historian. In her curatorial research and projects she discusses the way artists instigate new conversations around emergent phenomena in our society and culture, such as the role of science and new knowledge in the perception of reality. She is currently the Head of Arts at CERN at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, where she curates the research-led artistic residencies and the new art commissions that reflect on the conversations and interactions between artists and particle physicists. Prior to her arrival in Geneva she held the position of Artistic Director of VIDA at Fundación Telefónica, Madrid and initiated and ran the Department of Education at Laboral Centro de Arte, Gijón. She is a regular speaker at conferences, participating in selection committees, advisory boards, and mentorship programs.

Alex Cagan is an evolutionary geneticist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. He studies the mutations that animals accumulate in their DNA as they age to better understand cancer, aging, and human impacts on the environment. He believes that studying the secrets of species that have evolved extraordinary lifespans could help humans live healthier lives. He is also passionate about science communication, most notably by live sketching talks from scientists around the world to share their ideas with a wider audience. 

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.