Marina McDougall is a curator with a long experience in organizing exhibitions and public programs at the intersection of art, science, nature and culture. The first curator of art and design at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, she has been a visiting curator at the MIT Media Lab, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Oakland Museum of California and is a cofounder of the Studio for Urban Projects. She is currently the director of the Exploratorium‘s new Center for Art and Inquiry in San Francisco and joins the Jury of the VIDA Awards in its sixteenth edition.
As the director of the Exploratorium’s Center for Art and Inquiry (CAI), you develop R&D projects and the artist-in-residence program. From this perspective, how would you describe the role and the needs of artists today?
The artists that are interested in working in the very interdisciplinary Exploratorium context are eager for access to interesting thinkers and doers – from social scientists, to engineers, to marine historians. We like to introduce them to a wide range of people, both inside and outside the museum who can inspire new ideas to further develop their work. The artists that we have engaged overtime have contributed to the creation of a very rich museum culture and extended community of practice.
Most artists today seem to thrive with flexibility and gradually unfolding processes of investigation, so we have designed our Artist-in-Residence program with very open-ended parameters for both research and project development. Artists projects might manifest as a book, film, installation or even a public walk, as one artist did last year.
CAI originated in the conference “Art as a Way of Knowing”, that you organized at the Exploratorium in 2011. In this conference, the starting point was to discover how art can expand our understanding of the natural world and support learning in the domain of science. In this relationship between art and science, to what extent should art be the outcome of a research process? Is its purpose to provide understanding or illustrate scientific concepts?
In the process of developing Art as a Way of Knowing we came to realize that at the Exploratorium art is a process of inquiry, a way of knowing complementary to the approaches developed in other disciplines including science. We have come to see how each artist invents art practice anew as they follow their curiosities, and figure out what knowledge is required to realize a project. An artist’s practice will suggest what they need to research and understand whether it be the perception of color or the physics of infrasound. The kinds of interdisciplinary artists that we work with are often interested in subjects that are normally considered to be within the domain of science or other fields. As a result, they gravitate to experts in other domains and may need to familiarize themselves with urban planning codes, how mushrooms grow mushrooms, or the history of ice coring in Greenland.
The definition of research is different in the domains of art and science since there are different professional expectations in both realms. On the public floor of the Exploratorium there are instances of artworks that might be considered aesthetic presentations of scientific research as well as scientific or technical discoveries made as a result of an artistic process. There are also many artworks that push the possibilities for what art can be. It would be interesting to make an exhibit taxonomy at the Exploratorium based on your question since I think we’d be surprised by the variety of ways artistic and scientific approaches mix and blend. Yet, also at a certain point in such hybrid environments the categories of “art” and “science” kind of melt away.
3. The Exploratorium was a pioneering institution in its fusion of “lab and museum”. Do you think that, nowadays, more institutions (particularly in the art world) should follow this example? What is your opinion about the way “labs” and “project rooms” are usually placed in art institutions?
The Exploratorium in many ways originated between the physics lab and the classroom. Our founder educator and physicist Frank Oppenheimer saw how the projects he was developing with physics students at the University of Colorado formed a “library of experiments” that could become pedagogical tools in a public museum. In our new space at Pier 15 our machine shop is located very centrally and is open to view on our public floor. Since our founding in 1969 we have slowly created other “creative engines” such as our biology lab and our Tinkering Studio that develop projects in the study of how making is a form of thinking. Our current location is also at the edge of the city and the Bay and over the last decade we have expanded our work related to the environment. A colleague and I are currently working on a project called “Museum as Field Station” that pairs artists and scientists in field study contexts. I think that the proliferation of the “labs” and “project rooms” that you mention are a response to a public that is increasingly looking to go beyond more passive experiences and towards more active participation, so I think that this is a good development though it requires that participants and communities are engaged at a depth that is realistic, authentic, and satisfying. We’re in an interesting moment where museum curators and education staff have the opportunity to design public learning experiences that take the forms and types of “engagement” into careful consideration. The field of education has developed a rich body of literature on learning that can richly inform this.
Cities have become the natural habitat of a large part of the world’s population, while technology tends to draw us closer to wifi networks and further away from nature. As a co-founder of the Studio for Urban Projects you have addressed ways of re-thinking the city and our relationship with the natural environment. From this experience, how do you see the future of cities? How can art help us reach a new understanding of our environment?
The Studio for Urban Projects is a good example of a group of artists, curators and designers interested in how interdisciplinary research can advance cultural conversation. Writings from the fields of ecology, landscape architecture and cultural studies over the last decades have furthered the understanding that people – even urban dwellers – live within natural ecologies. I share the hope with many others that in the future cities will be remade so that people are living in a more integrated way with natural systems. Artists and designers are essential in helping us to imagine possible futures.
From your perspective as a curator working in the intersection between art, science and nature, what would you point out as the main contribution of the VIDA Awards over the last 15 years?
The promise of interdisciplinarity between theses various spheres has not been fulfilled though we have long recognized its importance. VIDA plays an important role in recognizing the work of rare cross-pollinators who often remain misunderstood and under-supported.
Last year, VIDA introduced the Telefónica I+D Incentive that offers artists the resources of the company’s R&D lab in the development of their projects. In your opinion, how important is it to provide artists with knowledge and equipment resources, besides the economic incentive?
Many of us still look to the incredible experimentation made possible by projects from the late 1960’s such as Bell Labs, Experiments in Art & Technology, or Art & Technology at LACMA (recently revived). These programs connected artists with scientists and engineers and expanded our vision for how the tools of industry might improve human experience. Though access to equipment and knowledge has proliferated for artists since the advent of the Internet, it is still incredibly important for lab spaces like these to become lively spaces of exchange. It’s promising that a good number of new lab spaces including this one at Telefónica have been popping up over the last five years or so.
VIDA introduces this year the Pioneers Award to give recognition to artists whose careers have opened new paths in the intersection of art, science and technology. This award implies the fact that said recognition has been neglected. Why, in your opinion, has the work of most pioneers been overlooked? Is the fast-paced development of technology related to it?
Yes, I think there can be a tendency to always look towards the new. I think the Pioneers Award is a great idea since there have been some true visionaries who have paved the way for others.
For instance, when I first moved to San Francisco in the early 1990’s there was a new media bohemia who were experimenting with the social possibilities and political implications of the Internet. The first dot com boom overlooked a lot of their amazing discoveries – and we’re just now seeing some of the promise realized. The recognition of history is always important when forging the future.
VIDA awards artistic projects that explore the concept of artificial life. How would you define this concept?
Your question echoes my own as I head into the VIDA jury process. I’m looking forward to understanding how VIDA has defined this notion in the past and how it might be evolving. Does “artificial life” have to do with algorithms and emergent behavior? Critical questions related to bio-engineering? Human emulation of natural systems in medicine, space technology or medicine? What is natural? What is artificial?