Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Cross-Pollination Experiment

Jeff Lockwood
In 2014, 4 artists, 4 scientists and the project coordinator, all from the University of Wyoming, met at the prestigious Ucross Foundation ranch for a 2-week retreat. The results of that collaboration—called the Cross-Pollination Experiment--are astonishing and ongoing. The following is a record of correspondence about the project between me (Faerthen Felix), participant Michael Dillon, and organizer Jeff Lockwood.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood is Professor of Natural Sciences & Humanities at the University of Wyoming. He began his career as an entomologist, then shifted to philosophy.

Michael Dillon
Michael E. Dillon is an Associate Professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology & Program in Ecology at the University of Wyoming. Dillon also serves as Director of the University of Wyoming - National Park Service Research Station.

Brochure, explaining the project and some of its outcomes.


FF: It looks like Ucross facilitated the Cross-Pollination Experiment. How did they find all of you? Was it an open call, or were you recruited? It sounds like there was an "organizer" and Ucross didn't just invite you all out to stay, then leave you alone. Who was that organizer, and how was the experiment structured? Were there structured exercises, specific goals and deliverables?

MD: Jeff [Lockwood] was the mastermind of the initial Cross-Pollination project (which led to all the other good stuff), did the fund raising (from many sources on and off campus), and was the leader. He planned all the activities, the approach, etc. Briefly, we were invited by Jeff and then all lived together for 2 weeks -- we had separate housing but spent most of our meals and lots of free time just hanging out. This was a critical element, in my opinion, because we had the chance to really get to know and trust each other. Jeff ran nightly post-dinner meetings in which we reflected on the day, discussed the positive, negative, difficult, exciting, etc.

Our first day was a "perspective" day, in which we all had the morning to prepare a presentation about the place (Ucross) through our eyes/experience/academic background. We spent the afternoon moving between our studios giving and attending these presentations (8 in all). Jeff then organized a "speed dating" for the next day in which each artist spent 1 hour with each scientist discussing ideas. The goal was to come out of each of those meetings with several concrete ideas for how you could collaborate in a meaningful way. That is, not just artists interpreting the science or scientists trying their hand at art, but rather collaborations that enhanced both disciplines. Jeff paired us up (not sure how he decided as there were so many interesting collaborations possible!) and then we went to work. We had less than a week to make progress on the collaboration as Jeff had already scheduled a "Saturday University" event for the end of the trip in which we would present our "products" to the broader public in the Ucross space. 

JL: Some backstory…I did a residency at Ucross as a writer.  And in the course of that time, I had some lovely chats with Sharon Dynak, the executive director.  She indicated that Ucross was increasingly interested in projects that would integrate natural sciences and arts, particularly as a means of gaining a deeper appreciation of the ranch and surrounding countryside.  I was putting together a pitch for a UW venture in this regard when Shannon Smith (executive director of Wyoming Humanities Council) met up with me and became super-excited about the possibilities.  So Ucross provided enormous in-kind support and WHC provided financial support (especially in terms of the public presentations as UW’s Saturday University program that summer).  I should also note that the UW Biodiversity Institute provided funding.  I’ve also attached one of the original proposals so you can see what approach was being advocated.

FF: I find that, almost universally, people who have engaged in art/sci collaborations find them useful and positive, but it is difficult to measure outcomes clinically, and there is little actual science available on the results. Do you have any publication references that somehow document the effectiveness of the collaboration?

MD: I know what you mean, but don't have references. Our own experiences and all the products that have emerged are the best evidence I can provide.
"This has been an incredibly productive, fruitful venture: 3 exhibitions, a documentary film, an online repository of microbe portraits and artist responses to them, an opera, and Xbox Kinect video game, 3 NSF grants to date totaling over $6 million in funding. The cross pollination website has links to videos and other information about the different projects. We continue to actively develop new projects and collaborations. This venture has been one of the most exciting, invigorating, rewarding, and fun things I've done for quite some time!" -- MD
JL: I’m there with Michael.  Our products speak for the productivity of this venture.  But one of the deliverables is also a sense of morale, excitement, playfulness and fulfillment for academic artists and scientists who may not see much “external” reward and, indeed, have good reason for demoralization.

FF: I found this statement by Jeff Lockwood really interesting: "These synergies have revealed elements of the natural world that would otherwise be overlooked by both artists and scientists." Can you elaborate and provide some examples? This is a big aspect of our push to get more art at field stations: that art is a discovery process that can enhance scientific creativity, and uncover raw material for science. But finding clear and obvious A-to-B examples is challenging.

MD: One example was my collaboration with Rachael Shaw, a dancer/choreographer. We used the notation of dance (Laban notation) to quantify the posture and movements of bees after exposure to sublethal doses of pesticides. A tool from choreography allowed us to better quantify something that was otherwise difficult to describe but visually obvious: bees move differently when exposed to minute quantities of pesticides. Unfortunately, we have not published this work. Rachael moved not long after the initial Ucross trip and we've found it difficult to find time to work together from a distance. Other examples are the microbestiary, and a collaboration between Jeff and Anne Guzzo (a composer): an opera about the disappearance of the Rocky Mountain Locust.

JL: Yup, LOCUST: THE OPERA is premiering this September (I’ve attached the proposal for that project so you can get a sense of the science/art collaboration)—and I should add that Ashley Carlisle, one of the Ucross participants, will be designing and producing our costumes, scenery, etc.

FF: It's great that UWYO faculty work with Ucross. I think field research stations would really benefit from identifying artist-residencies near them to collaborate with on art/sci linkages.

MD: Ucross was fantastic - very supportive of the whole endeavor. But, although some of our art faculty apply for and are awarded residencies at Ucross, I am not sure that the Art/Science residency is an ongoing element for them.

JL: I think that one of the key features that made our venture successful (in addition to my very carefully selecting participants—there was no open call for people) is that everyone came from one institution, which has allowed the venture to continue for years with all sorts of combinations and recombinations of people based on interests and opportunities.  And such ongoing collaborations would be very difficult to sustain across institutions (heck, they’re hard enough across departments and colleges in a single institution!).

FF: Is there any kind of exportable prescription that either guided the process, or emerged from it? Something like the HJ Andrews Ecological Reflections program that is kind of plug-and-play for any field station that wants to participate, or Best Practices, or anything like that I can direct field stations to? 

MD: I think that, in our case, the key was Jeff's vision -- the combination of prescribed reflection and conversation time, of a deadline for a product, and also of flexibility so the group could go where it wanted to (we often veered from Jeff's original plan - to his consternation and delight, I think). 

JL: If there is anything approximating a set of guidelines/rules, it might be found in this very concise summary on YouTube. I’ve attached the text that I used for this Ignite presentation:

Science & Art: Instructions for Making a Chimera

I have had the joy of orchestrating a three-year project bringing art and science into collaboration. We call ourselves the Ucross Pollinators to honor the institution hosting our gatherings—and to capture the underlying spirit.

The Wyoming Humanities Council has been our principle supporter because they understand that if the arts are the flowers of civilization and the sciences are its stems, then the humanities are the roots.

Our products include: National Science Foundation grants infused with art, a Microbestiary of unicellular life, a choreographic scoring method to encode insect movement, and operatic arias evoking the geology of Wyoming.

I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned as an academic anthropologist, observing artists and scientists working and creating together—as well some thoughts about the institutional framework in which they are embedded.

As for the people, here’s a simple but important consideration.  Scientists are not artists and vice-versa. Each pursues distinct ways of knowing themselves and the world.  To which I say, Viva la difference!

The recipe for a tasty collaboration of artists and scientists is not to blend them into a homogenous smoothie, nor to make a loosely tossed salad.  Instead, simmer them together into a mouthwatering stew.

For our venture, I chose “big dogs”—people at the top of their game, not those needing to yap to establish their dominance in the pack.  I’ve found that little dogs are much more likely to bite.

The sense of wonder among the participants that catalyzed collaboration was akin to watching a spellbinding magician—and then being even more enchanted upon learning how the scientific or artistic trick was done.  

The one quality that is critical to fruitful art-and-science ventures is playfulness—a vulnerable, childlike willingness to ask “why not?”, to wonder “what if?”, and to genuinely share one’s toys.

Scientists and artists need more than a one-night stand to achieve satisfaction.  Fulfillment requires sustained interaction, and fertility is enhanced by proximity.  And so, being colleagues at the same institution is a tremendous asset.

Collaboration does not mean artists making science pretty.  Rather, it requires mutual respect and that means genuine parity of power and prestige.  In this dance, each must be willing to lead—and to follow.

Without constraints, the possibilities at the intersection of science and art are astronomical.  We need boundaries. Or as Robert Frost said of free verse poetry: It’s like playing tennis with the net down.

An interdisciplinary team is often seen as having an ecologist and geologist.  Nobody ever adds a poet or dancer. We sought transdisciplinarity—engagement that was synergistic rather than additive.

I’ve observed that pairs work extremely well.  Having one partner allows intimacy. Academic orgies don’t entail the commitment that sustains relationships.  Maybe science and art collaborations are like American marriage—serial monogamy.

Turning to the institutional context, universities might tolerate, but rarely encourage, science-art collaborations—unless there’s money to be had. So, individuals must find working together to be internally rewarding.

Trying to define science and art is an unhelpful starting point institutionally—much like attempting to define the humanities.  It’s like saying that before dating, one must define beauty, intelligence, and love.

The university has islands of authentic collaboration—such as the Art Museum and the Biodiversity Institute—floating in a sea of institutional ambivalence.  For the most part, we have a College of Arts or Sciences.  

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is a glutton.  Adding the Arts to create STEAM (I prefer MEATS) still leaves artists nibbling crumbs from the table.  But please sir, I want some more.

Art-and-science collaborations subvert institutional norms.  The results don’t add up on a spreadsheet; they defy administrative classification.  These projects are viewed as the icing, not the cake, of a respectable academic career.

In conclusion, art-and-science collaborations are acts of humanistic faith.  The Cross-Pollinators will continue to pursue beautiful, grotesque, and strangely enchanting works that take flight—or not.

Cross-Pollination Experiment documentary. Explains the program in detail as it unfolded.

Saturday University lecture. Explains some of the trouble communicating the project.

More videos.

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