Monday, February 23, 2015

2011 SymBIOtic ART & Science Conference report

Fred Swanson’s rough notes and impressions on the conference:


SymBIOtic ART & Science Conference: an investigation into the intersection of life sciences and the arts. 

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Feb 28-March 1, 2011 NSF, Arlington, VA

An eclectic group of 25 academics, artists, agency folk, private entrepreneurs, and scientists of many ilks plus NEA and NSF observers gathered for two days of discussions of the current status of arts-humanities-sciences interactions and how these collaborations can be advanced in the future.

The represented artistic/humanities media included dance, fiction and non-fiction writing, literary criticism, art history, visual arts of many forms, and a conservator at the National Art Gallery. The science disciplines ranged from physics to neuroscience to ecology (the latter represented by Nalini Nadkarni and me (the only two in the group I knew going in)).

Spatial scales of interest ranged from a bacterium (the medium of an artist) to the universe (an astrophysicist). General vibes/findings of the conference:

  • Interest in this collaborative work has been long and strong. Rare individuals have feet in two worlds and excel in both – e.g., Vladimir Nabokov. Highly collaborative ventures involving two or more people are underway in marriages, labs, studios, field programs, and organizations specifically intended for the purpose, such as Leonardo ( Interest in this work seems to have grown in recent years in part as reaction to recent tendencies toward our present hyper-reductionist, organizationally stove-piped world of scholarship. But maybe we are just in the process of getting back to forms of integrative endeavors more common in the 19th as great expeditions (e.g., voyage of the Beagle). 
  • Participants in the conference personified deep experience with this work: the dancer-activist leading a company for 34 years, the forest canopy scientist with decades of work at the science-performance interface, the scientific photographer from MIT who works in chemistry and biology labs.  
  • This is work of vital importance. It shakes us loose from our comfort zones, awakens creativity, reveals solutions to problems where the solution is to be found in no single discipline, exposes good new questions, presents alternative visions of the future for the unsustainable world we have created for ourselves, ... 
  • Future. Continue this good work with renewed enthusiasm and an expanded network. Possibly meet again. Push NSF and NEA (and other funding agencies) to flex to strengthen support of this interface work. Look into possibilities of foundation support. Some points of resonance within the group viewed from a Long-Term Ecological Reflections perspective (my perspective): century in venues such 
  • Scope of the collaborative effort. The diversity of approaches to arts-humanities- science interaction represented at the conference was quite impressive, if not overwhelming. This reinforced in my mind the value of working within the scope of programs that are characterized as place-based, long-term, and with well-kept and widely-shared records. That gives us a good balance of breadth, yet common ground and it’s helpful having LTEResearch as a stepping off point gives a network of sites and a community committed to these elements. And I’m fully committed to going beyond LTER in network building. 
  • The setting of collaboration (“generative environment for creativity” was used at the conference) is very important. The general attributes include settings that are neutral in the sense of not being home turf for individual disciplines, and yet compelling/powerful places in terms that get us out of ourselves a bit – humbling, inspiring, challenging, even very troubling. Venues mentioned at the conference: old-growth forests, clearcuts, rivers. Refugee camp, cancer ward (narrative oncology), slaughterhouse, prison. These are settings for discussion of how we relate with one another and with the natural world. 
  • Organizational setting is also very important and often challenging. We hear several examples of difficulty of beginning interdisciplinary programs at large universities – too much stove-piped turf at the deans’ level, for example. Small colleges (e.g., 250 students of Marlboro College (VT)) seem to have more flex. On the other hand, environmental humanities programs are springing up at larger campuses (e.g., Univ. of Oregon, Oregon State Univ., Univ. of Utah). Made me appreciate the Reflections program having had so much flexibility with its combination of private endowment funding (to Spring Creek) and Forest Service (end of the year funding). The key is to balance useful stability with the flexibility to evolve. In some ways in our Reflections program we’ve had the luxury of organic growth without a written plan, formal oversight, and a formal process to evaluate impact (as would be required by NEA, for example). But we may choose to tighten the program administration in the future. 
  • Funding remains challenging. What is the place (and process) of peer review for interdisciplinary proposals? Especially when agencies remain compartmentalized (stovepiped internally and relative to one another). Should we engage in discussions with multiple agencies in the room at the same time (as we’ve discussed), so they may see how joint funding of this work might benefit us all? The concept we articulated at the Baraboo meeting sounds appropriate (though the outcome in today’s funding environment is a bit bleak, given the general state of the economy and Congress): going to DC and meet with science (NSF, USFS- Research), arts/humanities (NEA, NEH), and federal lands people still sounds like a good idea. 
  • Communications remain a big challenge, and they are in a huge state of flux globally. A topic that needs group discussion: What are the places of old and new media? 
  • What about education and training in this interdisciplinary arena? And will there be jobs for the trained? Hopefully the LTER-funded May workshop at Andrews Forest will lead directly to network building actions, building off the Tucson and Baraboo events.

NSF BIO Advisory Committee Meeting Notes/Summary Minutes:

SymBIOtic ART & Science Conference – Dr. Nalini Nadkarni

Dr. Nadkarni gave an overview of the logistics of SymBIOtic ART and Science Conference held Feb 28- Mar 1, 2011 and jointly funded by NSF/BIO and National Endowment of the Arts. The focus of the meeting was genetics, ecology, and the environment as perceived through the visual arts, dance, and literature. The participants were asked to examine the nature of the creative processes and practices of joint work and to identify joint benefits and challenges for research, education, and outreach. Dr. Nadkarni presented examples of joint art/science projects (e.g., The Ferocious Beauty Genome, The Emergent Improvisation Project, and the Long-Term Ecological Reflections 200-year Log Decomposition Study) and enumerated both the benefits and challenges of doing art-science work. Dr. Nadkarni also reported on the context of proposed interactions, the types of support needed, the questions that arose and the conclusions of the meeting. A report of this conference is being prepared by the co-PIs.

The committee expressed enthusiasm about the workshop, the ongoing collaborations and interactions and its perception that interaction makes both art and science more accessible to communities. The participation in the workshop and interest of the research based museum community was discussed. The discussion then moved on to the support needed (for the collaborations and education training), the next steps, other collaborations between NSF and NEA, the rigor needed to ensure effective collaborations and the potential impediments to collaborations. It was suggested the inclusion of sciences that are more disposed to work with the arts should be explored.

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