This collaborative project pairs artists from California’s Central Coast and San Francisco Bay Area with scientists from the Santa Cruz-based U.S. Geological Survey's Pacific Marine and Coastal Science Center.
THE ARTISTS work in a variety of media including painting, printmaking, video, textiles, and 3-D materials. Their approaches include scientific illustration, contemporary abstraction, and time-based conceptual work.
THE SCIENTISTS’ research is wide-ranging and includes study of migratory bird patterns; deep water reserves of precious metals; potential effects of natural and anthropogenic hazards; movement of sediment through wind, waves, and currents; and mapping climate change as it impacts human communities and natural environments. The scientists’ areas of specialization include geology, geography, geochemistry, biology and oceanography.
In the beginning science and art were one. The development of knowledge about the preparation and properties of materials went hand-in-hand with the development of the decorative arts of dyeing, painting, pottery and metal-working. During the Renaissance the philosophies of art, architecture, engineering and science were comprehended by all intelligent people. This universal polymathy was the sign of the "renaissance man." In the 19th century the cultured classes were as likely to go to a lecture on the latest scientific discovery as one on art or exploration.
– Jonathan Ashley-Smith, Head of Conservation, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2000
In the fall of 2011, I learned that the former Wrigley chewing gum factory in Santa Cruz, California, was home to both the R. Blitzer Gallery and to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center (USGS PCMSC). The two were not only housed in the same building, they existed on opposite sides of a shared wall. This configuration struck me as an apt metaphor for the commonly assumed divide between arts and sciences. Over centuries, trends towards specialization have increased and exaggerated the separation between the two disciplines. Despite substantive differences in the methods of each—including approaches to framing questions, evaluating information, and communicating results—art and science have much in common: a curiosity about the world, an impulse to explore and probe deeply, and a desire to share provisional answers within traditions of thought and practice. Both search to discover new ways of knowing, and both recognize that knowledge is elusive and always subject to challenge and refinement.
I began to imagine a collaborative project in which invited artists would be paired with USGS scientists. The artists would develop new work based on their scientist’s research and, at the end of a specified period of time, we would publicly exhibit the work. Both art and science would be given equal weight in the exhibit, with each scientist creating a poster that would present the science underlying their artist-partner’s work in language accessible to a lay audience. Questions emerged: What would happen when artists and scientists were invited to spend time “on the other side of the wall”? Would they be interested in working together? What might they learn from each other? What might they teach? What do scientists do when they practice science, and what do artists do when they make art? I wanted to encourage the artists to do as many works, in any media, and at whatever size they wished. The only restriction was that they would need to have something ready to present in a gallery show scheduled for June, 2012.
The idea resonated with many people I spoke to. Gallery owner Rob Blitzer was enthusiastic about the idea and offered to host the show. Jane Reid, Associate Center Director at the USGS PCMSC, was the essential link in establishing contact with the initial sixteen USGS scientists who expressed interest in being part of this project. After confirming the scientists’ participation, I invited sixteen artists to join in, making sure that a range of media and styles were represented. (For logistical reasons, I limited the artists to those based within Santa Cruz and the San Francisco Bay Area.) In January, 2012, at an initial meeting of all participants, each scientist gave a brief presentation about his or her research. Afterwards, the artists submitted the names of the scientists they would most like to be paired with. Based on these preferences, artists were matched with scientists.
From January through May 2012, the artist and scientist pairs met to share information and ideas. Artists were not asked to provide technical explanations of the science, but rather to use their partner’s research as a starting point for their own investigations. The degree of collaboration and the frequency of meetings were determined by each pair. As the artists became acquainted with their scientist’s research, they began new pieces based on aspects of the research they found engaging.
The current show includes a selection of art and posters from the original June 2012 exhibit. In addition to providing insights into both artistic and scientific endeavors, it is my hope that the exhibit will stimulate reflection about human, biological, and geological processes. I also hope viewers will gain insights into the ways that art and science study, interpret, and describe the world.
Five months is a short time for this undertaking. I envision this as the beginning of a longer project that will continue beyond the period of the show, with additional artists and scientists. Please feel free to contact me to share any comments or questions.
Thanks to Robert Blitzer for his support of the project and donating use of the gallery for the initial exhibit; to Jane Reid (USGS), without whose interest and involvement the concept of the show could never have been realized; and to Ow Family Properties for their generous donations to the cover costs of the accompanying catalog. Very special thanks to the artists and scientists who have shared their time, creativity, and knowledge.
— Lisa Hochstein, artist / curator