Nature: Telling Stories with Scientists
More to the Story
There may be more that unites artists and scientists than divides them. Practitioners of both search for answers – Truth with a capital T, even – hoping to invent or discover or craft something that shakes up old thinking and makes a lasting impact on the world. They both employ analytic and synthetic approaches, take risks, and engage in sophisticated thinking in uncharted territories. There are a lot of happy accidents. Both art and science can be filled with passion and frustration, setbacks and breakthroughs. But, most importantly, the work is never meant to exist in a vacuum: whether it’s receiving a vaccine or being moved by a painting, it is the audience that completes the picture.
The problems inherent to the conveyance and communication of art and science are not unique, either. The jargon used on gallery and museum walls, for instance, has long induced eye rolls, even as the art establishment still clings to such practices for validation or even as an intentional weeding out of “less sophisticated” audiences. I once saw curator Nick Stillman render a hilarious-because-it’s-true critique by simply reading aloud a selection of current gallery press releases paired with visuals obtained by Googling the term “art.” The Mad Libs-esque results of that, and from applications such as this artist statement generator, underscore the art world’s pretentious, exclusionary tendencies. And yet, as an artist, isn’t the goal to express and engage?
As an artist who works with scientists, I was fascinated to hear an evolutionary biologist share that jargon is strangling communication in the sciences as well, and not just to lay audiences. Conference language, for instance, is often so obscure that even colleagues in the same sub-specialty have no chance of digesting new research in a meaningful way. Are we obfuscating away all the potential synergies and insights? Impenetrable jargon generates solipsism, not engagement. A language of one is a dead language.
Artists and scientists could – and do – argue that their work should speak for itself. Why should we describe the frustrations and turning points in the lab, or all the hours of groundwork and failed images that precede the final outcomes? Because, rarified exceptions aside, our audience is a human one, and humans want to connect. Personal stories can make the complex more tangible, spark associations, and offer entry into things that might otherwise leave one cold. The goal is not to “dumb down,” but rather to give audiences something relatable to sink their teeth into. Whether you’ve discovered a new species or made a new art piece, there is a generosity in inviting your audience to form a personal, substantive relationship with you and your work. Declarations become conversations, and a world of possibility can open up.
I‘m currently working on a book of my nearly decade-long project “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” and am actively engaged in breaking down my own compartmentalized thinking around art, science and the personal. I’m coming to understand they are all part of a fabric of a larger story; a story made all the richer for its idiosyncrasies and interconnections. This does not negate the need for facts and precision. I sometimes remind myself: no one is more of an expert on your own unique experience than you.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with a number of scientists all over the world, all of whom are extremely accomplished. But I wouldn’t have understood a fraction of the richness of their lives and work had I simply read their research papers and left it at that. There are stories of frustration, such as the Pando colony not receiving the respect and protection it deserves, or agencies in Tasmania blocking proper research. Sometimes it’s humor, as with some mycologists calling a colleague a nerd for only studying one aspect of the fungus they themselves study. Best of all, perhaps, are the stories of hunches and chance encounters that resulted in important discoveries. One just need be attuned to the possibilities.
I’ve always thought it is my job as an artist to answer some questions, but to ask many more – something I’ve heard a number of scientists say that as well. What’s more, sometimes breakthroughs come from people far removed from the quandary in question. Approaching a problem without a rote methodology sometimes is a blessing in disguise. A fresh pair of eyes can yield a whole new perspective. Whichever way you slice it, how you tell your story effects how the audience completes the picture. And they are the key to whatever may happen next.
Photo: Marie Regan
This story originally appeared on Nature.com on 19 February 2013 as part of the SpotOn NYC #SoNYC event hosting in association with the American Museum of Natural History. View original post on Nature. →