Artists and scientists working together

How can artists collaborate effectively with scientists? Vicki Sowry from the Australian Network for Art and Technology has years of experience working on art and science collaborations. She recently shared some wisdom at the Art & Science Soiree that was held as part of the Ultimo Science Festival. While Vicky’s tips have the artist in mind, they are also of value for the scientific collaborator.

Realise that it’s a two-way process.
It’s not about the artist gaining access to data, equipment and expertise. It’s not about the scientist getting an artistic cover for their Annual Report. Each brings to the collaboration different ways of thinking, of approaching problems, of being creative.

Do the hard work before you set foot in the door.

Identify suitable collaborators.

Be clear about why you are interested in working together.

Identify a field of research and how it may be of value to each partner.
An excellent example can be found in the collaboration between Robin Fox and researchers at the Bionic Ear Institute.

Contracting can be your friend.
It clarifies expectations of all parties at the outset. For example, is the focus of the project on science communication or are you hoping for a deeper collaboration? Who will own any IP arising from the collaboration? Who will pay for materials or additional equipment, etc?

Don’t anticipate outcomes at the outset. Make sure there is the flexibility to follow your nose.
Artist Nola Farman’s residency with Paul Dastoor and his colleagues at the University of Newcastle involved working with organic photovoltaics; Nola suggested using shape memory alloy to provide a solution to a research problem in a way never before considered by the team.

Be open to ‘failure’ – a relatively meaningless concept in creative research

Get buy-in from superiors
Institutions have to prioritise projects that bring in research dollars – in Australia its more common for residencies to be supported through arts funding – for example, financial support is usually provided to the artist, whilst in-kind contributions are expected from the host organisation, which can cause time & project management issues.

Approach a shorter-term residency as a pilot to test the relationship, working styles and the viability of a longer-term research collaboration
If there is willingness to continue the partnership, look for opportunities to support deeper engagement – for example, Australian Research Council Linkage grants.

Be in-situ as much as you can (within reason) to make the most of the water-cooler effect.
That said, be flexible to the needs of the project: short defined research blocks versus field trip blocks versus full-time immersive.

Present the project to the host scientific team sooner than later.
That way they’ll know who you are and what you’re doing and be more able and inclined to contribute.

Don’t expect immediate outcomes.
Sometimes this happens, but more often than not it takes time for the collaboration to trickle down the grey matter, to inform a future research direction or to contribute to an artwork.

Always keep the following Einstein quote front and centre:
“If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?”

Australian Network for Art & Technology is catalyst for experimentation and innovation across art, science and technology.