Roger F. Malina is an astronomer and editor. He is a Distinguished Professor of Art and Technology at the University of Texas, Dallas where he is developing Art-Science R and D and Experimental publishing research. Former Director of the Observatoire Astronomique de Marseille Provence. His specialty is in space instrumentation; he was the Principal Investigator for the NASA Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer Satellite at the University of California, Berkeley. He also has been involved for 25 years with the Leonardo organization whose mission is to promote and make visible work that explores the interaction of the arts and sciences and the arts and new technologies. Malina has joined the VIDA Awards jury in its latest edition, VIDA 16.0. In this interview, he discusses the collaborations between art, science and technology.
For more than 30 years, you have been actively involved in Leonardo and other organizations working in the intersection of art, science and technology. During these decades, the “two cultures” described by C.P. Snow have transformed into a complex and rich network of interdisciplinary collaborations. What has driven this change, and were is it heading to? Can art, science and technology become dependent of each other?
Since WWII we have seen a total transformation of the situation characterized by Snow as ‘the two cultures’ The good news is that the situation has really changed, particularly in the last decade. One reason is the appearance of digital culture –so that artists and scientists are often using the same tools (which leads to common problem solving strategies, vocabularies, metaphors, etc.), and now also the appearance of artists that are very scientifically literate (sometimes I meet artists who have a better general scientific culture than some of the narrow scientists I meet).
At the same time our school systems –both secondary and tertiary– tend to stream students into disciplinary thinking early on –and then at the research level or in corporate Research and Development they are expected to be pluridisciplinary and problem driven (for instance, climate change, or sustainability are a mix of science, cultural and social/political problems). We do need disciplinary experts, but we also need more pluridisciplinary ones than our school systems currently train. Educational systems are going through rapid transformations (especially since much vocational training is now available on line).
It seems nowadays that society is inevitably technology-oriented and, as you have stated, the world changes rapidly, while culture adapts slowly. What is the role of art in this context?
We have entered the anthropocene era –where our civilization is driving rapid change in the environment, and our ecology. In the past, cultures ‘adapted’ to the changes in climate over millions of years, there were losers and winners but cultural change was faster than climate change, except at times of disasters such as asteroid impacts. Now we know that our planetary environment is changing on a time scale of centuries, even decades in some locations (for instance, the droughts in some parts of the USA). This means that culture becomes an active tool for adaptation: some have called this the ‘hard humanities” –so all aspects of the arts and culture become a socio-economic issue. Artists who are early adopters can carry out deep cultural appropriation and recontextualization of science –and of technology. In many cities we now talk of ‘smart cities’, that deploy also the creative industries as part of the strategy to evolve cities to adapt to the changing situation.
You once asked who would be the “Cézanne” of climate change, the “Picasso” of the human genome or the “Leonardo” of nano sciences. Does that mean that artistic projects should serve as cultural bridges towards the latest developments in science and technology, or can art contribute its own form of research?
There is back and forth. On the one hand, young people have their cultural imagination fed by the experiences they have (cinema, video games, sports, etc.). These provide motivational drivers –the cultural imagination precedes young people’s interests in professions– so to the extent that the arts and culture appropriate science and technology, the cultural imagination is enriched. At the same time, science and technology drive in the other direction leading to new forms of artistic creativity. As a result, artists can drive technology, and even science, in new directions. There needs to be translation between the arts and sciences and back again.
Ten years ago you advocated for a “strong case” in the interaction between art and science, that would lead to a different or better science. A decade later, how is this possibility evolving? Are the current initiatives and debates around turning STEM into STEAM a decisive step towards this goal?
Many scientists I meet view the arts as useful to communicate science or to illustrate scientific results. They rarely think that the arts in fact lead to new science –but Robert Root Bernstein has shown that the most successful artists and engineers (compared to the general population) are very engaged in activities that are arts avocations: their own research practice is fed by their arts thinking and avocations. In addition, there have been a number of collaborations between artists and scientists that have resulted in new scientific discoveries (examples are the work ofBrandon Ballangée on frogs, or David Dunn on bio acoustics). The STEM to STEAMmovement looks at the results of Root Bernstein and argues that in primary and secondary school we need to integrate the arts and design into STEM teaching; it is an encouraging development.
You have a long experience with many initiatives in art-science interaction such as festivals, symposia and awards. From this perspective, what would you point out as the main contribution of the VIDA Awards over the last 15 years?
The VIDA Awards have been exceptionally important because they have zoomed in on the way our concepts of life, living things, have evolved so quickly since the 1950s (the two major areas that have this large impact are maybe the computer and genetics). The VIDA Awards have championed the work of artists in the broad area of changing ideas about life –both artificial and biological. The Ars Electronica awards initially did this also in the digital arts. So the VIDA and Ars Electronica competitions have been important vectors in making visible the work of some of the pioneers and younger practitioners.
You have stated that while scientists necessarily work in an international network of experts, artists tend to work in local networks. They also do not usually have access to the equipment or resources of a research lab. Do you think that current initiatives such as artists in labs residencies and medialabs are changing this situation?
We all hoped that the internet would really change our social network structures in our communities –but in fact it is a bit discouraging at seeing how the Internet often results in what is called homophily. Physical places like artists in lab residencies are crucial to opening up unlikely collaborations and connections. There is now a proliferation of such places: the most recent are the Leonardo-Djerassi Art Science residencies at the Djerassi Foundation in Silicon Valley (Djerassi himself is both a medical researcher-inventor of the pill and an experienced theater playright). Mixed groups of scientsts and artists come to these residencies. We also recently started the online Creative Disturbance system to try and work more closely with these hybrid inviduals whose work bridges the arts and sciences.
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. Following with the previous question, which would be, in your opinion, the goals that this particular award should aim for?
XEROX Parc, for many years under Rich Gold, had the PAIR program which gave artists in residencies access to specialized facilities. The CERN in Geneva program is also beginning to do this. An important thing is to provide ‘open time and space’ long enough for exploration to occur. Orange telecom had some successful projects where they viewed artists as ‘early adopters’ and drew conclusions about new directions for art and design schools as well as company R&D labs to provide opportunities for open research (see the work of Emmanuel Mahé, now the director of research at the Paris ENSAD school for art and design).
VIDA awards artistic projects that explore the concept of artificial life. How would you define this concept?
As I argued above- I think one can argue that in the 1950s two important discoveries happened: the digital computer was invented, and Watson and Crick decoded the genetic code. In the 1980s and 90s another development occurred which was the development of the sciences of complexity –which helped us understand how high level behaviors can emerge from low level rules. More recently, synthetic biology –allowing the design of organic matter– has emerged. In a recent e-book (which included juror Nell Tenhaaf) we coined the word ‘meta-life’ to talk about the range of ways in which material that behaves like ‘living’ matter is designed –both in the digital space and the organic space (nano scientists even do this at the atomic level). The VIDA competition, which started focused on the new area of artificial life, has evolved with the artistic community to look at all forms of artistic intervention and appropriation of matter that has behaviors like traditional organic life.