When two tribes meet: collaborations between artists and scientists

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Science and art are often considered opposites – so what happens when top practitioners in each field collaborate? The results, finds Stuart Jeffries, can be seismic

From The Guardian: “Yes, Leonardo da Vinci was both artist and inventor. True, Brian Cox was in that band before he gave it all up for the Large Hadron Collider. But in general, art and science seem to eye each other uncomprehendingly. Medical research charity the Wellcome Trust has long tried to make artists and scientists work fruitfully together by funding collaborations. Can the divide ever be breached? I talked to four scientists and four artists who have worked together to find out.

The artist and the geneticist

Just before 9/11, Marc Quinn did a portrait of Sir John Sulston, one of the genetic scientists who decoded the human genome. “At the moment this divisive attack happened, John’s work and this portrait were suggesting that we are all connected – in fact that everything living is connected to everything else,” Quinn says.

It was a radical departure for portraiture. Certainly few sitters contribute, as Sulston did, a sample of DNA from his sperm. That sample was cut into segments and treated so they could be replicated in bacteria. The bacteria was spread on agar jelly and placed under glass, forming a portrait about A4 size. “Some say it’s an abstract portrait, but I say it’s the most realistic portrait in the National Portrait Gallery,” says Quinn. “It carries the instructions that led to John and shows his ancestry back to the beginning of the universe.”

“Well, yes,” says Sulston, “but DNA gives the instructions for making a baby, not an adult. There’s a lot more to me than DNA.”


Image above: Artist Marc Quinn (left) and geneticist Sir John Sulston in Quinn’s studio in east London. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

A decade after their collaboration, Quinn and Sulston are meeting in the artist’s east London studio. Did the collaboration change each man’s attitudes towards the other’s discipline? “I still think science is looking for answers and art is looking for questions,” says Quinn.

“Science simply means finding out about stuff, but in that process science is the greatest driver of culture,” says Sulston. “When you do something like decode the human genome, it changes your whole perspective. In terms of genetic manipulation we’re not just looking for answers but modifying what’s there.”

That is very much the focus of Quinn’s recent work. Last year, his White Cube show featured a sculpture called Catman, depicting Dennis Avner, who has been tattooed to look like a cat, and another of Allanah Starr, a transsexual woman who, according to the blurb, “has changed her body into the idealisation of femininity even though she also has a penis”. Quinn says: “They’re about the fantasy of being someone else – you can be a man or a woman, anything. We’ve always had those fantasies and now science is making them possible.”

Continue reading this story at The Guardian

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