How can we understand collaborations between Artists and Scientists?

“In this article I will explore some of the tools that exist for understanding interdisciplinary research and how they can be applied to collaborations between artists and scientists.”

Eleanor S. Armstrong researches collaboration between artists and scientists, to understand the working relationships, practices and circumstances that help collaborations succeed. She is currently a PhD candidate at UCL, and previously studied Chemistry at the University of Oxford and Art and Science at Central Saint Martins.

In this article I will explore some of the tools that exist for understanding interdisciplinary research and how they can be applied to collaborations between artists and scientists. This article provides an overview of work I’m undertaking as part of my doctoral research at University College London on collaborations between artists and scientists. For this article (and within this issue of Interalia) art-science collaborations that involve two or more collaborators who are engaged in sustained sharing of information across disciplinary boundaries will be the focus, rather than either an artist or scientist working with touch points within in the other field, to examine collaborative enterprise.


There are pleasing multitudes of art-science collaborations happening in the world at any one time. They take different shapes, they produce different products and they involve different fields. Support and development – funding, hosting exhibitions or talks, giving time and space to the interactions and projects – varies from collaboration to collaboration.

Their initiation is varied. Some come from one practitioner approaching the other (eg. Neus Torres Tamarit approaching Dr Max Reuter, evolutionary biology reader in Genetics, Evolution and Environment at UCL), others come as a result of suggested interaction between the individuals, and some are produced through rapid meeting ‘speed dating’ events (eg. Charles Ogilvie and Daniel Crow’s collaboration discussed in this issue; the Silent Signal project pieces or Creative Reactions, discussed below). It can also be institutionally supported, where one partner is selected through an application and the other found to match their work (eg. Arts@CERN programme, or the Scientist in Residence scheme at Ballet Rambert).

When considering progress in collaboration (both in space and resources and in concept and authorship), and the collaborative work; these can be undertaken in a multitude of manners:

  • Individuals bring their individual projects and aid each other in production and development
  • Co-development and co-production of ideas and projects between the involved parties
  • Residence in the ordinary workplace of one or other party to develop understanding of working methods and ideas
  • Both parties bring ideas to each meeting, and then take finding and ideas from these discussions to apply to their own work individually (what Daniel Glaser describes as interdisciplinary meeting, with each party then returning to their own discipline and developing there)
  • Working on writing or talks that explore and develop the processes of the collaboration

Finally a multiplicity of products are possible – just a glance over the Interalia archive demonstrates much better than any summary in this article could. Taking, for instance, the September 2017 issue ‘The Subjectivity of Others’ that immediately precedes this one; the products of collaborations include (but are not limited to) curated exhibitions, magazines and written articles, conducting interviews, works of contemporary art, physical scientific experimentation, films, music composition and improvisation, workshops, residencies, mathematical theories, and poetry. Here we can sample the sheer diversity of the content that constitutes the art-science field.

Thus, as is exemplified by this diversity of strategies, mechanisms, and modes of research detailed above, the art-science field is broad and covers a vast variety of different collaborative practices.

What could we use to help us understand?

And, just as there are a multiplicity of interdisciplinary collaborations, so too there are a multitude of critical registers we could use to understand them.

Interdisciplinary collaborations, particularly between different traditional scientific fields and within the social sciences, have been well theorised during the latter half of the 20th Century. One way of framing collaboration is to see if through the lens on Interdisciplinarity studies as pioneered by Julie Thompson Klein in the 1980s [1]. Although these theories draw particularly on the development of new science and science-adjacent fields (eg. Science and Technology Studies, BioEthics and Climate Science) they describe how collaborators are able to move and communicate between traditional disciplines. Klein’s work is informed by a number of different methods from fields including Philosophical Studies, Language Studies, Communication Theory, Management, Integration, and Learning perspectives, and synthesises them into an understanding that the responsibility for successful collaboration rests both with the individual and the group in which the individuals reside. The individual should have the confidence “that one has something important to contribute to the collaborative process”, but simultaneously the “understanding that one’s knowledge is always partial and incomplete” and can be developed through the collaboration. Meanwhile the group should participate in “sincere acknowledgement of the work of others” to foster “intellectual risk taking” and remain aware of the “ability to change one’s perspective based on new insights that come from other people” [2]. Whilst consideration of the ‘groups’ is appropriate for the fusion of science-science disciplines (for instance in the case of Climate Science), it is unclear whether asking the same questions is useful or apposite when looking at interdisciplinary collaborations involving artists who don’t have an existing ‘research group’ in the sense of Klein’s research. Perhaps, instead, a better questions would be to consider how to integrate the individual artists within the science group (as it is unlikely that the scientist works alone given the inherently group-based nature of scientific research) to help the “intellectual risk taking” to take place, or questioning what the relationship between the individual and the group in the Art-Science field is all together, or if there is an inherent polarity of individuals of in art-science collaborations that is not seen in science-science collaborations. Each of these might undermine the applicability of Klein’s ideas, and should be thoroughly investigated.

Further still, there are more fundamental problems with using this understanding interdisciplinary collaborations to know about art-science collaborations. In Klein’s understanding of Interdisciplinarity Collaboration there is a necessity for obviously shared concerns, that are bounded by a subject matter topology, that both parties work on [2]. Whilst art theorists such as Vid Simoniti argue that fields of art-science are clearly topologically defined, vis:

Here, then, emerges one rationale for bio-art as a topologically defined field of research. Any topologically defined field combines various methodologies, and the question then becomes what advantage is conferred by this kind of interdisciplinarity. Here, insofar as bio-art involves methodologies of ‘freakish’ or otherwise culturally significant presentation, which are taken to be alien to bioengineering proper, the advantage is a certain kind of critical purchase. The artists bring ethical scrutiny to the processes involved by inscribing biotechnological progress in a punchy, culturally easily legible code.” [3]

I believe there are concerns about how general this is for the field of art-science. Whilst Simoniti goes on to raise substantial concerns about bio-artists’ “assimilation into bioengineering” and the associated risks of becoming wholly assessable by the standards of that discipline” rather than the the standards of Bio-Art or Art-Science itself, jeopardising the works and collaborations “becoming merely an (unremarkable) exercise within that field” [3], there are other concerns too. Some very interesting and incredibly fruitful art-science collaborations explore more clearly the sociological aspects of scientific life – illuminating the day to day work of science and its methods rather than engaging with its object of study or its results. Such examples, as in the case of George Abram & Isaac Baggaley and Nate Adams, or ‘Loop’ in the Silent Signals project (funded by EPSRC and Wellcome respectively), could not be considered to share the same focus in their research as the work of the scientists they are collaborating with. Does this mean that these pieces sit in a different part of the art-science field?

It might be possible to illuminate these art-science collaborations using the philosophical critiques of Latour & Woolgar and Bourdieu, who consider an essential part of science and the field of scientific research to be the sociological aspects of the laboratory and the scientific hierarchy. Latour & Woolgar posit, in their work Laboratory Life, that “daily activities of working scientists lead to the construction of scientific facts” [4].  The critique draws out the understanding that the isolation of scientific facts or ideas (in theoretical works such as Kuhn, or in more ‘scientifically’ focused works in the case of art-science) is misplaced; and that the facts and discoveries themselves are only important in the context of sociological production of knowledge. Using these ideas as a lens for understanding if the collaboration is part of the art-science field, suggests that they do concern themselves with an important (but different) part of the scientific process to the more obvious case of Bio-art. However even if, using these ideas we can understand these pieces are art-science work, it does not necessarily or clearly follow that this means they are working on the same problems as the scientists they are in collaboration with, and would therefore be easily interrogated by the methods of interdisciplinary collaboration of Klein. Through this exploration of a single lens of collaboration (which itself should – and will during my ongoing research – experience deeper critique) that there are a number of theoretical considerations when moving from one instance of interdisciplinarity to another to consider collaborative processes.

Another angle that that has grown alongside the art-science field is Public Engagement or Science Communication. Many artists don’t see their work as part of an effort to ‘communicate’ their collaborator’s art (Stellarc’s particularly vocal critique of this perspective highlights some of the major concerns), and often heavy-handed application of these ideas by those scientists who encorporated it to their projects. Perhaps a more nuanced understanding of this idea may fit better. Instead of seeing these pieces directly as a the more classical public engagement –  where the products of art-science are instrumentalized to ‘communicate’ the science with a wider audience – I suggest using more recent research by Louise Archer on ‘Science Capital’ [5] to reframe these discussions. Within the framework of Science Capital, one of the pillars of encouraging a more scientifically literate population is to demonstrating that science is part of the culture around us, not just for scientist who do research in their laboratories or work in STEM related work-places. Whilst, as with Klein’s work, there are critiques about the theory itself, the scope for seeing art-science as part of this is clear. Art-science pieces produced and shown in non-science places do extend the scope for seeing science as something that exists in what might more traditionally be called ‘culture’.

It’s understandable that my position could provoke a reactionary stance. Unless one explicitly starts out communicating science (which, it should be noted, some art-science projects do – for instance Claudia Stocker’s Vivid Biology work) it can be surprising to have the collaborative work co-opted in this way.  Additionally, strong critiques of the idea that this art-science work would expand the scope of inclusion of science in culture have been made. Firstly, the audience of the art-science overlap may be even more exclusive than existing art or science cultures that the hybrid knowledge sphere draws on. By seeing science in art institutions (eg. Tate Liverpool, Museum of History of Science Oxford, V&A) the scope of engagement is not widening significantly – those who are most culturally interested and attending to these work are likely to be engaged (even if only at a superficial level) in science too. The use of art is not significantly expanding the audience, rather simply diversifying the locations in which it is seen. Secondly, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that art-science does not produce ‘science’ pieces. We do not see more ‘science’ in culture as a result of art-science, we simply see more art-science work. These two are not directly comparable – nor should they be.

I believe this thought warrants further interrogation, as it does explore the relationships between art, science, art-science and wider culture. Informed by a Foucauldian understanding that the method and type of knowledge development is more tied to the episteme (or knowledge period) in which it takes place that to the subject matter itself [6], it is also possible to see art-science collaborations as part of a shifting, twenty-first century episteme towards a networked understanding of the world rather than siloed disciplines. In this light, rather than seeing art-science collaborations as an isolated version of knowledge co-production, and co-dissemination, it can be seen as part of a wider rise of novel engagement across previously disparate areas. If it was uncommon in 1969 to have Artists and Engineers work together in E.A.T and the Nine Evenings, it is now common place for large studios, for example Studio Olafur Elliason, to rely on engineers and engineering to produce or co-develop pieces. Similarly, while Cybernetic Serendipity bridged Computing and the Arts in a novel manner in 1968, contemporary dance pieces with or inspired by robots (eg. Wayne McGregor’s Atmos and BR Innovation’s Slave/Master), work with AI and neural networks (eg. Oscar Sharp’s Sunspring and Random House’s Rain Room) or engagement with Virtual Reality (eg. danceroomSpectroscopy or William Latham’s semi-organic species) is now commonplace, but still innovative.  This intellectual movement is part of a larger change in knowledge landscapes and knowledge development across disciplines, seen in the academic shift towards departments such as Digital Humanities, and research training within cross-disciplinary Centers for Doctoral Training which thematically educate new researchers. Perhaps then, it is misleading to suggest that the collaboration between artists and scientists in art-science work is somehow unique in bringing science into culture more generally. Instead, understanding that science is becoming part of culture in many discrete instances as part of larger continuous shift towards a connected world shifts the conversation away from thinking about art-science as a Science Communication and towards it being an instance of a wider cultural change.

Concluding Thoughts

In my research at UCL I am considering these trains of thoughts in greater depth and more expansive scope, as well as exploring other collaborative theories. I am also undertaking long-form interviews with art-science collaborators to interrogate whether these theoretical explorations are corroborated by lived experience. There are almost certainly many more ways of thinking about collaborations than mentioned above, just as there are many more collaborations than noted above. In exploring more of both, I hope to bring these different understandings together and synthesise a new understanding of the art-science collaborative mechanism.

It’s currently unclear how the different circumstances that give rise to collaboration and modes of practice within it shape the diverse and disparate art-science practices, and how these differences would shape the theoretical understanding of them. As this is a relatively new area of research, a helpful piece of new work within art-science might be to layout a topological understanding of the field, both in terms of practice as was explored above, but also in terms of circumstance. I recognise it is difficult to see or apply a single understanding of collaborations across a multitude of different collaborations discussed here or seen elsewhere in Interalia’s archives, but it may be possible to see different patterns and structures within subfields in the art-science interaction.

For instance; there is a subgroup of art-science collaborations that are funded externally to the individuals. It is possible for the funding comes through one or other of the individuals (eg. holding EPSRC funding by a scientists to support an artistic collaboration in the case of Nate Adams with George Abram & Isaac Baggaley, or being a Leverhulme Artist in Residence in a science institution in the case of Anna Dimitriu or Heather Barnett), rather than being jointly held by the pair (eg. Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins’ funding), or operating without funding (seen in some work by students at Central Saint Martins). Comparing and contrasting the relationships between collaborators, and their working practices with different funding arrangements may illuminate a theory about collaborative methods for art-science relationships using funding as an angle for interrogation.

Similarly there may be thematic trends visible when considering collaborations from scientific research areas, artistic practices; duration of collaborations; comparative and absolute statuses of the collaborators, or location of the collaborative interactions. During my ongoing doctoral research I will be bringing some of these themes to the fore and examine them more closely to open a more detailed discourse about what it means to be collaborating between the arts and sciences, and how these projects could be best supported.

[1] See, for instance, Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities Julie Thompson Klein (University of Virginia Press, 1996)

[2] p. 25, Klein, Julie Thompson “Communication and Collaboration in Interdisciplinary Research.” Enhancing Communication & Collaboration in Interdisciplinary Research, SAGE, 2014

[3] p. 125, Simoniti, Vid. ‘Artistic Research at the Edge of Science.’OAR: The Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Platform Issue 1 (2017): 120–30,

[4] p. 40, Latour, Bruno and Woolgar, Steve. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts  Princeton University Press, 2013

[5] See for a more detailed discussion.

[6] Foucault, Michael. The Order of Things Psychology Press, 2002

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