Post by Jenny Seifert
How can science and art work together to help solve persistent environmental problems and enable resilient communities and ecosystems?
Scientists and artists from three different continents convened in Uruguay last week to wrestle with this question at a workshop organized by the South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies (SARAS). Members from the Yahara 2070 team—myself (writer), Steve Carpenter (scientist), and John Miller (artist)—were there to represent the project, as one example of an art/science collaboration.
For four days, the group sought to understand the meaning and potential of art/science collaborations and how to stimulate more knowledge exchange between the two worlds. With the assumption that both data and imagination—facts and feelings—are necessary to communicate complex issues, such as climate change and sustainability, the group probed for how science changes art, how art changes science, and how art and science together can change people.
While the discussions were rich and multifaceted, interesting themes emerged. I’ll talk about three of these themes here.
First, there was a lingering question about whether the divide between science and art is distinct or fuzzy. While scientists tend to examine and explain pieces of the world, artists are often concerned with totalities. And yet, both scientists and artists are driven by passion, ask questions, take risks, observe, and create.
Second, the broader discussion circled around the interactions between knowledge and emotion in art/science collaborations. Whereas science works with facts, art works with emotions. As a fellow workshop participant pointed out, the root of the word “emotion” is motion. Therein lies the assumption that art/science collaborations can link the mind with the heart, and this linkage could help move people toward a heightened awareness of social and ecological challenges and, possibly, change.
A final theme, a question that we kept returning to and one which sticks with me, was what impacts can come of these collaborations. The artists present often said they learned from the scientists they work with, whereas the scientists often said they were moved by the art. But can the impacts move beyond the collaborators and contribute to broader social change? Can a sculpture or theater piece move its observers to feel more connected to the natural world? And how could we measure this? Or is it the artists and scientists that benefit the most from the collaboration? Are their questions different as a result of working together? Are their answers different? Is their work changed forever?
I have the sense that the workshop participants left with more questions than they came with—at least, I did. In relation to Yahara 2070, the workshop exposed us to a broader array of possibilities for art/science collaborations, which challenged our thinking about the role of art in scenarios projects. In addition to helping to communicate stories about the future, can art’s ability to stimulate the imagination and move people also help expand the boundaries of what seems possible? How can we uplift the roles of art and culture, as potential drivers of change, in scenario development and outreach?
If you are interested in art/science collaborations, it is worth keeping an eye on the work SARAS will generate in the years to come.