Aesthetics get Synthetic: Knowledge Link through Art and Science – Alex de Vries

Aesthetics get Synthetic: Knowledge Link through Art and Science (KLAS) is an Artist in Residence program of the Max Planck Society. The innovative artist residency program brought professional artists into high-quality research groups and, by doing so, established a bridge between art, science and society. Knowledge Link through Art & Science (KLAS) fosters ArtSci exchanges and trans/disciplinary innovation and education whilst also creating a link between Synthetic Biology research groups in leading institutions.

Dr Alex de Vries is a Lecturer/Post-doc at Molecular Dynamics Group at University of Groningen. Dr De Vries works with a “Computational Microscope” that is able to visualize the motions of the molecules of life and their interactions with a model for biomolecular simulations.

Interview conducted by Rodrigo Perez-Garcia, a chemist interested in tangential points of the arts and science, especially within Nanotechnology & Renewable Energy, Interfacial phenomena, Music, Art and Literature (Currently working at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces (Germany)). As co-founder of Polyhedra (www.polyhedra.eu), with Caterina Benincasa, Rodrigo coordinates and implements multi-disciplinary events like KLAS, catalysing connections between local realities and global cultures.

During the KLAS Artist in Residence program Dr Alex de Vries collaborated with Agnes Meyer-Brandis.

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Question: Can you name your three favorite works of art of all times? Do you have any favorite artists?

Alex de Vries: My primary interests are modern classical music and English literature, with favorit artists Dmitri Shostakovich and Evelyn Waugh, respectively. I find it very difficult to name my three favorite works of art of all times, but let’s give it a try: Shostakovich’s Fourth symphony, Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, and Gustav Klimt’s painting The Kiss.

Question: What kind of contemporary artistic practices or movements are you interested in?

Alex de Vries: I like the music of many contemporary Finnish composers, in particular Kalevi Aho, Uljas Pulkkis, and Kaija Saariaho. Both Aho and Pulkkis have a broad range of styles. I have learned that Saariaho tapped into electronic music as do some other contemporary Finnish composers, but to be honest, I do not care much about what practice or movements anyone is part of or represents.

Question: In your opinion what is that that makes a work of art to be interesting or simply good?

Alex de Vries: Contrast, dynamics, complexity.

Question: It’s very often said that scientific research has a lot to do with creative thinking or even with finding aesthetically appealing solutions. As a scientist, what do you think about this? Do you feel like an artist sometimes? If so, could you give us an example?

Alex de Vries: In my own work, I need to make sense out of the motion of very many particles. Finding the quantitative measures that capture and summarize the relevant or essential features and then visualizing it in a manner that conveys the understanding I obtained can be called an art, but maybe it is just a skill…

Question: Over the history technology has deeply transformed both artistic practices and scientific research. In fact nowadays it seems almost impossible to think of either one or the other independently form technological advancements. Specifically thinking in terms of technology, do you feel like you could learn anything from certain artists?

Alex de Vries: Before Agnes’ (Meyer-Brandis) visit I would have said ‘no’, and this is simply due to my ignorance of the art world. Now I think there may well be opportunities out there; the question is whether I will take time to explore them.

Question: KLAS’ final aim is to foster a fruitful collaboration between scientists and artists and to create a mutual knowledge exchange that will hopefully point to new procedures and methodologies. But… beyond this mainly practical outcome, do you think art can also serve science in a more discursive, critical or political way?

Alex de Vries: Yes, I think so. During our first day of discussions, we naturally touched upon local and global impact of modern science on society and debated pros and cons of the possibilities science and technology offer.

Question: What are you currently working on?

Alex de Vries: I’ve just completed running a workshop about the Martini model, the claim to fame of the Molecular Dynamics Group in Groningen. I am fortunate to be part of the team that continues to develop this model that is the most popular coarse-grained model. The workshop brought together some 50 modellers from all over the world, ranging from Master student to Principal Investigator, with participation from Industrial Research and Development groups as well. Preparing for the workshop (lectures discussion the background, philosophy, applications, and future of the model and hands-on sessions with tutorials and feedback on participants’ own systems and research problems) took a lot of time but was well worth it. We have seen that sharing ideas boosts our own progress.

I am now focusing on a very fundamental issue to do with the model, calculating the phase diagram for our constituent particles. Although we know that in practise the model works as we envisage, we may not understand fully under which conditions this is the case. I now intend to make a very thorough analysis into the thermodynamic properties of the model—with the computing power we have available nowadays, this should be possible in a reasonable amount of time.

Question: Can you talk about your ideas/motives to join KLAS from its inception?

Alex de Vries: General interest and an open mind. I was approached by Rodrigo Perez about this. I was not altogether clear about the project, but gave my support and offered to host a visiting artist. It took a while to come to fruition, and I should say the whole thing was still unclear, but I’ve always thought, let’s give it a try, and see what comes out.

Question: What are your expectations from the artist-residency?

Alex de Vries: I really do not know what to expect, and I want to enter with an open mind. Some time ago, I read through some of the shortlisted proposals and I found it difficult to envisage anything much that I could contribute from my expertise. Often too vague and too macroscopic, and seemingly very far removed from what I thought defines synthetic biology.

Question: The two weeks residency of the artist just finished. Did this have any impact  (…on your ideas, methodologies, preconceptions? Inspirations?)

Alex de Vries: The interaction has impacted on my preconceptions. We managed to come up with a project that fits with the research of Agnes and the molecular simulation methodology I use. It has certainly been inspiring!

Question: What is the best lesson you have learned in KLAS?

Alex de Vries: That there are concepts, themes and ways of perceiving that are shared between fundamental science and art, and that meaningful discussion is possible.

Question: Our call was addressed to all artists but we specified that in first place we would take into consideration those projects that involved contemporary procedures (new media, sonic art, new materials) and contemporary theoretical frameworks (New Materialisms, Object Oriented Ontology, Dark Ecology…). Can you highlight any shared areas of knowledge or parallelisms between the praxis of contemporary scientist, artists and thinkers.

Alex de Vries: Not really. What I liked about the interaction with Agnes is the wide range of science she has been in touch with and how thoroughly she documents her experiences.

Question: What do you hope visitors take away from this project once it is presented?

Alex de Vries: A genuine flavor of what scientists are trying to achieve and a willingness to assess the merits of scientific work

 

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Alex de Vries: Lecturer/Post-doc at Molecular Dynamics Group at University of Groningen.

Dr. de Vries works with a “Computational Microscope” that is able to visualize the motions of the molecules of life and their interactions with a model for biomolecular simulations – the so-called Martini model – using High Performance Computing. The group has contributed to a better understanding of how lipid membranes function, and how small molecules such as alcohols and sugars influence this function. They also study how membrane proteins move and assemble within the membrane, and have recently included DNA in our models. They see this simulation model as an aid to interpret results from experiments we perform in the lab given that the model provides detail well beyond the resolution of these experiments.

Rodrigo Perez-Garcia is a chemist interested in tangential points of the arts and science, especially within Nanotechnology & Renewable Energy, Interfacial phenomena, Music, Art and Literature. Currently working at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces (Germany), he holds a Erasmus Mundus Masters in Theoretical Chemistry and Computational Modelling (The Netherlands -and Italy) and has conducted research residencies in Bristol (UK), Ispra (Italy) and Kyoto (Japan). As co-founder of Polyhedra (www.polyhedra.eu) Rodrigo coordinates and implements multi-disciplinary events like KLAS, catalysing connections between local realities and global cultures.

Caterina Benincasa obtained her degree in Physics and Philosophy (UK) and specialized in Aesthetics & Theory of Contemporary Art (MD), History of Science (MD) and World Heritage Studies (MD). She has been visiting lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari (Italy), researcher in Contemporary Visual Art (France), researcher in Neuroaesthetics at Don Gnocchi Foundation (Italy), and recently worked for the ‘Modern Geometry and the Concept of Space’ research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Germany). Co-founder of Polyhedra.eu, In 2013 she co-founded Innovate Heritage, an acclaimed research platform fostering knowledge exchange between the arts and heritage.

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https://klas.mpikg.mpg.de/

https://polyhedra.eu/

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