Aesthetics get Synthetic: Knowledge Link through Art and Science – Charles Cotton

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. Charles Cotton is a biochemist working on synthetic metabolism in bacteria. In his current position at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology (Germany) he is designing and implementing new pathways for the assimilation of one-carbon units in E. coli, with the aim of developing hybrid electrochemical-biological solutions to carbon dioxide capture and energy storage.

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 (, 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 Charles Cotton collaborated with  Otavio Schipper and Sergio Krakowski.


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

Charles Cotton: I would say they’re always changing and as soon as they have I tend to be embarrassed about my former taste. I cried a little bit when I saw Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne last year and I’ve just finished a book of poems by Luke Kennard which was nice.

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

Charles Cotton: Since I moved to Berlin I’ve become more interested in sound and acousmatic performance because they put a lot of effort into the set-up here. I think also the Turing tests for the creative arts – while very immature – are something specific to our generation and could be interesting in the future. I think to work in this age requires engaging with technology in some meaningful way.

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

Charles Cotton: I guess for me it boils down to truth and a shared recognition of truth between people. I think a good work of art gives you a slight push to unlock something you already knew was true.

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?

Charles Cotton: There are two parts to life as a scientist that are fundamentally creative, designing experiments and fishing for new ideas. The first can be beautiful. I have said out loud “That’s an elegant experiment”, already this subjective judgement suggests there are more aesthetically pleasing ways of testing a hypothesis, often closing all logical “circuits” cleanly, leading you (hopefully) to what must be the correct answer. It’s sort of a beauty in clarity of thought. This, I suppose, is more to do with creativity in “craft” than inspiration.

The second form of creativity is you have a bunch of ideas floating around in your head from the literature, you have your own islands of knowledge about how things work and how they might work, and out of that mess bubbles something you couldn’t know was coming. I think this is probably when you feel the most creative. Thinking about it more carefully, there’s also a third form of playful creativity which is an everyday, DIY kind of creativity, the same kind children use when they’re playing assembling pieces, to solve every day technical problems (creative use of masking tape, makeshift devices etc.). This can also be satisfying.

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?

Charles Cotton: I think one of the biggest temptations facing scientists today is the use of high-end technology instead of reason. In some ways, a lack of resource can force you to design better, more “elegant” experiments, which are fully hypothesis-driven and are less “exploratory”. I don’t say all science needs to be done one way or another but I think that the word temptation is apt because it highlights that it is sometimes really difficult to think about an experiment and improve it, and if we are given a “technological” solve we would rather just throw everything in a machine and see what comes back. A lot of artists have noticed this back and forth with technology, while a new technology can help us see something differently, it can also obscure or distract from the original intention. Probably some parallels can be drawn to graphic design and animation where you now have access to super realistic CGI – but can better convey the reality of a situation with a few well drawn lines. To be honest, I don’t think it even requires a specific kind of artist, I think most artists understand this relationship better than scientists.

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?

Charles Cotton: Yes, definitely. I think discourse around science is in a bit of a funny place at the moment. I think there are communities that give no respect at all to science, and obviously this is a problem. I think science, like art, has a place in a healthy society. On the other hand, I think in those communities that do support scientific research there can be an overemphasis. I’ve seen this particularly on the internet, and particularly in younger students of the sciences. It’s a kind of unfounded arrogance. I remember seeing a circular diagram at the Bauhaus in Dessau where science was a part of a larger wheel meant to inform design and society as a whole. This is somehow how I see science, integrated, informing and learning from other disciplines. I, in no way, think scientists should go it alone, even if it would be faster for some definition of progress. Basic research, without discrete applicable goals, is very important and maybe should be shielded from a certain amount of societal criticism, but particularly for applied research, there needs to be an ongoing discussion.

Question: What are you currently working on?

Charles Cotton: My research at the moment is focused on altering core metabolism in bacteria to encourage them to eat sustainable chemical feedstocks – particularly a molecule known as formate – which can be made efficiently from only CO2 and electricity. I genetically engineer bacteria and rewire their metabolism to allow for efficient growth on this input. Bacteria can comfortably produce a range of desirable chemicals – from jetfuel to renewable plastics – the difficult thing is getting them to eat something we can sustainably produce.

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

Charles Cotton: I was very excited to join KLAS. I think one of the things I appreciated most is that it is going to be taken seriously, where a professional artist will be well-paid and given the appropriate time to explore the material. I think science and art collaborations I have been involved with in the past have been more explorative, “let’s see what happens” kind of things with developing artists – which is nice, but often disorganised and the end product, if any, can be uninspiring.

Beyond the fact that I feel KLAS is a high-level program which may put together something of value, I feel also that sometimes I lack the time to frame my work appropriately in the societal sphere. You forget that the work you do is strange, because it’s what you know from on a day to day basis. The chance to work with an international artist – someone who specialises in understanding human perspective and emotion – gives you a chance to explore your work not just through someone else’s lens, but through someone who regularly works with many lenses.

Finally, there is a lot to learn for a scientist from an artist from just sharing work experience. An artist is in a lot of ways the head of his/her own lab and takes projects from inception to completion. This is similar to the scientific workflow of make/find a problem yourself where there was none before, work hard until you fix the problem, and move on. Often because the pursuit of knowledge for an artist is so solitary – they have a similar but slightly more extreme experience of this style of work.

Question: What are your thoughts around artists joining a scientific team? How can we guarantee the quality of the interactions between artists and scientists? Which are the keys to a successful interaction?

Charles Cotton: Artists in my experience work extremely hard, but may find the confines and daily grind of a lab unhelpful for understanding the ultimate goals of our research. So in a strange way, for the quality of the interactions to be high, we need to make sure we are giving each other enough space and time for concepts to sink in – to have focussed sessions, after the initial impressions are made, rather than thousands of new stimuli on a daily basis. Discussing some of these concepts and their fallout takes emotional energy. Beyond this, I think the most obvious piece of advice is that we have to start with an atmosphere of mutual respect and humility and drop as many technical terms and field-specific references as we can.

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

Charles Cotton: I hope the residency gives us both an opportunity to explore the intellectual world around this research a bit more thoroughly, perhaps even generating new avenues for work, either for the artist or myself. When you start a project in a research environment you are aware of research around your own, but are essentially focussed on the fine details of making your one small piece of the picture work. This opportunity to discuss with an artist allows you to start with a blank canvas, remind yourself why your work is interesting in the first place, and open this huge brainstorming process in the areas around your work.

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

Charles Cotton: I had a fantastic experience during the two week residency. I think there was a lot of fruitful discussion and frankly generating hundreds of ideas and sharing some knowledge from obscure corners of academia was fun. I always enjoyed the idea generation part of science, but the truth is, once you’re stuck into a project, it takes years to make progress. So you have to choose your projects carefully. The feeling of brainstorming for a completely new kind of project was very exciting for me.

I wouldn’t say it will directly affect my methodologies. In some ways it opened me up again more widely to Biochemistry. Fundamental questions were asked which made me look back at things like viruses or protein structures, not just as tools that I use on an everyday basis, but as whole areas of research with extant interesting questions.

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

Charles Cotton: I don’t know if it’s the best but I like the idea that the experience of being involved in the genesis of the artwork and the process of viewing the artwork itself will be two entirely different and possibly unlinked experiences.

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.

Charles Cotton: I think one of the nice things about our discussions was the lack of terminology required. It is fantastic that this was deliberately filtered at the judging stage but I think once we get into collaborations, neither of us want to think about these things. The major benefit of working with someone so skilled is that our own specialities and frameworks are now partially engrained in who we are as people, and how we see and interpret the world. I think one of the nice things was that I learned a lot from the artist about areas of science that I wasn’t a specialist in, things from quantum physics to material design that he’d picked up through what he was interested in. In terms of parallels between us, both scientists and artists are consistently asked to evaluate their biases and perspectives before and during research. There was a definite parallel in the way we approached concepts without judgement, trying to get to the core of something without jumping too many assumptions, trying to be cautious at every step in a logical chain. As to specific frameworks, I think ideas like object oriented ontology and dark ecology are more shocking to those rooted in artistic or philosophical traditions. For someone who has chosen to spend their life working on microbes, ideas stemming from the assertion that the world is not anthropocentric, or that life is a continuum, while not trivial, certainly aren’t at odds with core values.

Question: How do you see KLAS developing in the future?

Charles Cotton: I guess in an ideal world – long-term connections between the scientific and artistic communities are desirable – i.e. not short internships but the growth of interested communities on both sides. If the project goes well it could be a focal point for this kind of activity. Maybe even eventually an artist can be embedded in an institution and feed off the input of the activity of all groups over time.

Question: One (if any) surprise while working on this project?

Charles Cotton: It was really nice to see how we were excited by the same kind of questions, I had anticipated that we would have different questions about the same topics, but really it was almost exactly the same thing that was interesting, just different tools that may be used to explore it.

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

Charles Cotton: I don’t think I can really say. Maybe some sense that science, like art, is fundamentally explorative.


Dr. Charles Cotton is a biochemist working on synthetic metabolism in bacteria. In his current position at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology (Germany) he is designing and implementing new pathways for the assimilation of one-carbon units in E. coli, with the aim of developing hybrid electrochemical-biological solutions to carbon dioxide capture and energy storage. He holds a Masters in Structural Biology (Imperial College London, UK) and wrote his Doctoral thesis (Imperial College London, UK) on the use of synthetic pathways for the improvement of carbon fixation in photosynthetic organisms.

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 ( 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, In 2013 she co-founded Innovate Heritage, an acclaimed research platform fostering knowledge exchange between the arts and heritage.


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