Buzzwords: “Art Science” Is the Newest Art-World Trend

The line between art and science melts when it gets wet

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Courtesy Science Gallery

Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

Aside from the similarities between smocks and lab coats, art and science aren’t natural bedfellows. But the idea of “art science”—in which the line between the two (and engineering and design by extension) blurs—is on the cusp of mainstream-ness.

“As a movement in contemporary art, it’s still in an embryonic stage,” says Dmitry Gelfand, a Russian artist who works in the field. “But science is the ultimate tool for fueling the human imagination.”

Gelfand’s work, along with the work of many other such artists, is part of an exhibition that opened this week at the Eyebeam Art+Technology Center in New York City, which was put together by the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. The show, called Surface Tension, looks at global water issues in a variety of ways, from potentially useful design products—like activated-charcoal ice cubes that purify water and a hydrogen fuel cell phone charger—to more conceptual attempts that illustrate the importance of water. And because the show is connected to the 2012 World Science Festival, which runs from May 30 to June 3 in New York, it’s clear that the science world isn’t shunning the gallery-friendly side of the trend.

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“Artists can create something that has a visceral impact,” says Michael John Gorman, the founding director of Science Gallery, which began operations in 2008. “Sometimes these issues can seem really abstract.”

Another artist, Di Mainstone, agrees. “Research sometimes gathers dust in the lab,” she says, and art can get that data to a broader public. It also benefits both artists and scientists to collaborate with someone from a discipline that has a very different way of analyzing the world. Mainstone is an artist in residence at the digital media arts lab at Queen Mary University of London, where she works with electrical engineering students. The project they made for Surface Tension is a “hydrocordion,” a machine that uses water and air to create and alter sound, with the idea that the strength required to move the water—which Mainstone knew about first-hand from the well in her parents’ village—keeps people from taking it for granted.

Surface Tension is not the first project from Science Gallery to make an overseas journey. Other high-profile art science ventures, from Bjork’s Biophilia album—for which she collaborated with the New York Hall of Science on an education program—to an arts residency program recently established at CERN, have made news in the last few months, and signs point to the field’s expansion. To wit, Science Gallery recently received a grant to expand worldwide—so stay tuned for more “art science” to come, and start sprinkling the phrase in cocktail-party conservation.

And, as Dmitry Gelfand sees it, the trend is here to stay: “Science is the ultimate tool for fueling the human imagination.”

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