Why art & science?

Given the rise in art science collaborations, what are the benefits and pitfalls of this type of approach to investigating the world around us and how we interact with it?

Interdisciplinary collaborations can be exciting and productive because they can make possible the ‘examination’ of subjects from two or more separate specialist points of view. The Wavelength Project (2015-2017), after which our charity is named, is an example of just such a successful collaboration, that saw our CEO, multimedia artist Mark Ware, working in partnership with neuroscientist and psychiatrist Prof Hugo Critchley, co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, University of Sussex. At the centre of their collaboration was a focus on the potential benefits of exposure to the natural environment in terms of wellbeing and health. Some of the outcomes of this collaboration were published in a Nature Scientific Reports paper. Of The Wavelength Project, Prof Critchley said, “The collaboration with Mark Ware gave us the opportunity to take our academic knowledge in neuroscience, behaviour and emotion beyond the laboratory to explore, test and illustrate our questions and insights through engagement with a public audience in real-world settings.  Concurrently, the interdisciplinary discussions, and the exchange of questions and ideas, enabled us to draw from the expertise and intuitions arising from Mark Ware’s technical training, artistic creativity and production, informed in part by his lived experience of his stroke.”

Mark Ware: “One of the first questions that’s often asked about art science collaborations is, ‘Should the art act to illustrate the science, the science act to inform the art, or should there be equality between the two disciplines?’ I would like to suggest a fluid approach should be adopted when answering this question, by accepting the possibility that the relationship between the art and science within collaborations can continually evolve throughout each project, depending on what is required at any given time.”

Mark believes these types of shared projects have their challenges. Collaborators will inevitably have differences in their use of terminology that can lead to specialist language confusion, and will often possess very different knowledge bases and skills to each other. But with an understanding of the challenges and with the right contributors, the outcomes can be truly ground-breaking.

During 2015, The Wavelength Project soon expanded to include an activity called Reflecting Nature, another collaboration, this time between Mark and Dr Nichola Street and Dr Gemma Hurst, psychologists and researchers at Staffordshire University. Reflecting Nature investigated how we respond to images of nature, and how artistic intervention may be able to enhance positive responses to certain types of imagery. This collaboration resulted in an Arts Council England supported Reflecting Nature national touring art science exhibition (2016/17), experienced by over 60,000 people. The exhibition featured 16 digital artworks created by Mark in consultation with the psychologists, that contained two things in particular that have been shown to trigger positive responses in the viewer: Symmetrical patterns and images of nature. As well as being able to enjoy the artworks, those attending the Reflecting Nature exhibition were also invited to contribute data to a scientific project being led by the psychologists that was designed to look at how we respond to the artwork.

Dr Street commented: “Most of my research to date has involved trying to unpick the things that contribute to aesthetic appreciation, with a particular focus on complexity in visual scenes and fractal patterns (self-similar patterns commonly found in the natural environment). Through the collaboration with artist Mark Ware, we have achieved scientific engagement from the public on a topic that influences our everyday life – understanding beauty and visual preference.”