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Wonder and wisdom: When art and science meet

The borders between art and science are blurring as artists collaborate with scientists to bring life to complex concepts such as climate change and ecological damage

Glasshouse Deep, 2021; Single channel video, sound, duration: 14 minutes'. Commissioned by Busan Biennale Organizing Committee, 2021(Credit: Rohini Devasher)

By Nitin Sreedhar

LAST PUBLISHED 23.03.2024  |  11:32 AM IST

Carbon is all around us in multiple forms, but we have come to equate the chemical element with rising emissions and view it as a polluting force. But how do artists view carbon? Is it different from the way scientists see it? Do they see it through a critical and creative lens? It is these thoughts that come to mind when one sees the ongoing exhibition CARBON, at the recently opened Science Gallery Bengaluru. More than 35 works and installations give a distinct view of this ubiquitous chemical element.

Take Cosmic Chiasmus: Crossing The Universe, where British artist Susan Eyre visualises the journey of cosmic rays that turn carbon dioxide into its radioactive form. Using a cloud chamber, high-altitude balloons and filming equipment to capture the collisions that create radioactive carbon dioxide particles, this multi-layered 5-minute film (2021) explores how life on earth is permeated by cosmic rays—the way they interact with the earth’s electromagnetic field, with our skin and with carbon. “The CARBON exhibition-season (on display till June) uses an interdisciplinary lens to interrogate the role of carbon in everyday life. Scholars across the human, social and natural sciences, engineering, design and the arts have studied this fundamental element, its applications in technology and its impact on society," says Jahnavi Phalkey, science historian and founding-director of Science Gallery Bengaluru. “The exhibits and programmes at CARBON are created by artists and scientists working together, inviting the visitors to see how the gap between art and science can be bridged," Phalkey explains. Through this research festival on carbon, the institution hopes to accomplish an appreciation of this element as well as start conversations about destruction of life on the planet.

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Beyond carbon emissions, the world around us is in distress. According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Resources Outlook 2024, released earlier this month, the world is in the middle of a triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution and waste. The global economy is consuming ever more natural resources, while the world is not on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

Earlier this week, the sixth annual World Air Quality report by Swiss technology company IQ Air found that in 2023, only 10 countries and 9% of global cities had air quality that met the World Health Organization guidelines. Bangladesh, Pakistan and India had the world’s worst fine-particle air pollution last year, the report released on 19 March said.

The scale and impact of air pollution or the climate crisis, like many other concepts of science, can be hard to understand. We hear the perspectives of scientists and activists, but what is perhaps lacking is a human touch and breaking it down in simpler terms for the common man to understand. Can artists—by bringing in sensitivity, relatability, and a new point of view—make these complex issues accessible?"

The entry to 'CARBON' at Science Gallery Bengaluru. More than 35 works and installations give a distinct view of this ubiquitous chemical element at the ongoing exhibition. (Courtesy Science Gallery Bengaluru)

I found some answers in a dark exhibition room at Khoj Studios in Delhi’s Saket, where conceptual artist Mithu Sen’s fictional vision of the Brahmaputra river in 2124 stared back at me. What was once a river becomes, in the artist’s imagination, an inferno, caused by chemical explosions. Dark and almost devoid of water, it is a fearful, speculative vision of an impending crisis and ecological destruction.

Sen’s project, titled I Bleed River 2124, was part of the recent exhibition 28° North And Parallel Weathers, described as a collection of weather reports that allow people to imagine artists as peripatetic and affective weather keepers. The works were part of an engagement between Khoj and the World Weather Network, a global weather reporting project involving 28 art agencies around the world.

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Each partner art organisation selected a location—a “weather station"—from where artists and writers explored the weather. The collection of “weather reports", which take on different forms— poetry, fiction, reportage, video diaries, films, photography and more—resulted in the exhibition where artists took on the role of weather reporters, forecasters, geologists and limnologists (the study of all inland waters as ecological systems).

“Contemporary artists over many centuries have always responded to their times, and they will have to respond to climate change because it’s staring us in the face," says Pooja Sood, founding member and director of Khoj International Artists’ Association.

Installation shots of I Bleed River 2124 by Mithu Sen in 28° North and Parallel Weathers, Khoj Studios, 2024. (Credit: Khoj International Artists’ Association)

The world over, we are seeing the rise of the artist-scientist. Art Jameel, for instance, which formed the World Weather Network in June 2022 in response to the climate emergency, has podcasts, which feature writers, artists and scientists, on atmospheric humidity. According to its website, by engaging climate scientists and environmentalists, it brings together different ways of understanding the weather across localities and languages.

In October 2021, Google, as part of the Google Arts & Culture, launched a live, unified hub called “Culture Meets Climate", where scientists and artists tell stories of the planet. A recent collaboration, titled Passage Of Water, 2023, saw South Korean digital media artist Yiyun Kang use historical data from two Nasa satellite missions to create an immersive web experiment that shows how climate change has impacted earth’s water’s cycle and led to a global freshwater crisis.

Earlier this month, the Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program, which funds innovative aerospace concepts, launched a space-technology art challenge, which invites artists and graphic designers to create posters that will help people visualise aerospace concepts that could be used in future Nasa missions.

The meeting of science and art has become a key theme in art practice in India as well. Be it at independent art shows and exhibitions or big public events like the India Art Fair, it is hard to miss how art and science influence each other. “Art allows us to think about things that cannot be measured," says Shuddhabrata Sengupta, artist and co-founder of the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective, which practises across several media—installation, sculpture, video, performance, text, lexica and curation. “It can change how we feel about ourselves and the planet," says Sengupta, who was in conversation with artists Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani of Karachi LaJamia, a Karachi-based organisation seeking to politicise art education, during an event for 28° North And Parallel Weathers.

Raqs has worked on projects around science and climate change, such as rising seas due to global warming (The Waves Are Rising; 2023) or concepts of “thirst" and “deluge" (Na-Bam: Measure Without Measure, 2024). The title of the work, Na-Bam, comes from fishing communities who use the term to describe the sea at a spot where the depth cannot be measured. Their extended bamboo measuring sticks, called “bam", don’t touch the ocean floor.

A visitor interacts with Andrea Rassell and Jacob Martin's work 'Carbon Nanoverse' at 'CARBON'. (Courtesy Science Gallery Bengaluru)

Artist-scientist collabs are a win-win situation for both disciplines. At CARBON, for instance, the work of French visual artist Anais Tondeur, Carbon Black (2017-23), builds on her collaboration with atmospheric scientists Rita van Dingenen and Jean-Philippe Putaud to track the trajectories of carbon black particles and capture them at different locations in Bengaluru and Fair Isle, Scotland. “She then creates ink with these particles to print magnificent portraits of the skies from where the carbon black was captured. The intensity of the black pigment varies as per the levels of carbon black in the atmosphere at that location. Like several other works in the exhibition, this exhibit brings together research across disciplines with artistic practices to pose critical questions on our relationship with carbon," Phalkey explains.

In a study published in the Science Communication journal earlier this week, researchers at Pennsylvania State University said that depicting worst-case climate scenarios, like expanding deserts and dying coral reefs, may better motivate people to support environmental policies when delivered via virtual reality or VR—a medium used extensively in the art world, along with augmented reality.

For their study, the researchers examined responses of more than 100 individuals to climate change messaging when delivered through traditional video and desktop virtual reality—VR programs like Google Earth that can run on a smartphone or computer. According to a news release, researchers found that messages showing loss, or those that transitioned from a positive to negative climate scenario to emphasise what humanity has to lose, were more effective at convincing people to support environmental policies when delivered via VR.

Sci-art in India

The Indian art scene is also brimming with possibilities around sci-art, says Sood, but not without challenges.

Khoj International Artists’ Association has been exploring themes and collaborating with artists around science, ecology, technology and climate change since 1997, including setting up art residencies. Sood explains how it started with artists showing interest in exploring scientific ideas. “There have been several movements. I know the NCBS (National Centre for Biological Sciences) started keeping an artist in residence 15-20 years ago. We started (with an art and science residency) because we had an artist like Rohini (Devasher) who was interested in scientific thinking... We got many incredible applications: from artists who were looking at non-human species. This was 15 years ago. There were also some physicists and scientists who were open to the idea that artists can bring a different worldview... Today, it’s all the rage," Sood adds.

She says artists question, interrogate and critique science. “Over the last decade or two, a lot of art practice has become research-based... In terms of art and science, and where it exists just now, there are many more artists who are interested, maybe not so much in pure science, but definitely in technology," says Sood. “But they don’t have opportunities to unpack it in ways that are not just reading. For instance: where are those makers’ labs? That’s the next thing that Khoj is trying to do, where we are going to work with art and technology, and let artists explore the ethics and materiality of technology."

Despite the challenges, there have been some recent developments in the Indian art sphere that could solidify this intersection of science and art. Earlier this year, Sustaina India, a science and art initiative between Delhi-based artist duo Thukral and Tagra and the think-tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water, held its first public exhibition in Delhi, which showcased the work of several emerging and established artists, including three Sustaina India Fellows—Debasmita Ghosh, Manjot Kaur, and Rachna Toshniwal—for 2023-24.

The broader vision for Sustaina India is to integrate climate awareness and sustainability across India and elsewhere, through annual fellowships, exhibitions and public programmes, while leveraging the power of art. “We are in a time where the scale of climate change can only be addressed when multiple disciplines join forces with their methodologies and resources. Art can become an active conduit to relay diversity of knowledge on sustainable practices from science, indigenous wisdom and public policy," Thukral and Tagra said in an earlier interview with Lounge. “It’s still a long way to go. But these conversations can happen when we have a dedicated platform. Art communicates what other larger reports and essays may not... It can be a catalyst to communication. That can then turn into a larger change," said Tagra.

Sonia Mehra Chawla. Vital to Life, Single channel video projection with surround sound. From the exhibition, 'The Beauty of Early Life. Traces of Early Life' at The ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe. A collaboration with researchers and marine biologists at Marine Scotland, Aberdeen, UK. (Credit: ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe 2022)

Artists who are inspired by science and other broader themes are also reacting to the changing times in their own creative ways. “Ecology is really weird," says contemporary artist Rohini Devasher, who takes inspiration from themes such as science-fiction and eco-horror (especially works by American author Jeff VanderMeer), among others. “For me, the aim is to complicate the act of looking, seeing and perceiving... Art changes your perspective, and it makes you look at things that are discomforting or you may not choose to look at. That’s where my work sits."

Devasher works across a variety of media, including video feedback, prints and site-specific drawings. One of her most fascinating projects is Glasshouse Deep (single channel video with sound, 2021), which explores diatoms and employs video-feedback.

Found in the ocean, these single-celled algae convert sunlight into chemical energy using photosynthesis, just like plants. The diatom specimens for her project were collected from the South China Sea and photographed by Minji Lee and Joonsang Park of the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology. Devasher explains how she works backwards when it comes to video feedback.

“It began with having conversations with the scientists, who work specifically with collecting diatoms and their migration patterns in the South China Sea... They sent me huge amounts of data, including migration pattern charts and incredible images of diatoms under their scanned electron microscope."

Once she had the images, the rest of the process was like a “backward jigsaw puzzle". “When I started working, I realised this was about orbits, trajectories, a sense of movement and telescoping in and out. Diatoms are the most incredible organisms... It’s something I have done before but this was an opportunity to work with datasets that already existed and bring them to life. If you see the film, it feels like it’s built in chapters. Sound is important as well," she says on the phone. “It’s a slow process. Usually, these things take many months."

Sonia Mehra Chawla’s ‘The Universe In Details’, archival prints on Hahnemühle museum etching; 2019. (Courtesy Sonia Mehra Chawla)

A third culture

In his book, Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art (2014), Arthur Miller, emeritus professor of history and philosophy of science at University College London, describes the way people still think of art and science as being at “opposite ends" of the spectrum. Over centuries, Miller writes, the two fields have taken on different roles but are finally coming back together. He also poses a pertinent question: “Are we witnessing the birth not just of a new art movement but of a whole new culture—a third culture, in which art, science and technology will fuse?"

Examples of this new “third culture" can be seen today in niche art practices like bio-art (where artists work with biology, live tissues, bacteria, living organisms, and life processes), scientific data visualisation and the use of machine learning to generate art.

Multidisciplinary artist, photographer and researcher Sonia Mehra Chawla’s projects often entail working closely with scientific institutions, doing extensive field visits and engaging with scientists. In 2014, she received a fellowship and grant in the field of visual arts from Charles Wallace India Trust and British Council, India, to engage with MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai. “This was the first time I worked alongside scientists and had an insight into their research processes and methodologies and had opportunities to make site visits with ecologists... I collaborated with them for five-six years," she recalls.

The bacterial microbes seen in her work The Universe In Details (archival prints on Hahnemühle museum etching; 2019)—part of a series called Critical Membrane—are a result of this collaboration. Mehra collected samples of soil and water from mangrove ecosystems of which microbiological cultures were grown by scientists in the MSSRF laboratories, which have been investigating the role and preservation of mangroves. “The microbes were filmed, shot and documented in the Chennai lab, which was an elaborate setup," Chawla adds.

Chawla believes concepts like climate change, for instance, can be too vast to understand or address for the general audience, which makes the artist’s role key. “The idea is not to pump in a sense of fear in audiences. My approach is one where people look at the ideas of entanglement, smaller details and wonders of science... As artists, it is important for us to understand what kind of role we are playing," she explains. “In India, the practice of looking at science and technology through art is still young."

Miller argues in his book that in the years to come, the border between science and art will “melt away", which will allow for research to be dealt with in a more artistic manner.

It was a feeling I encountered while looking at the works of both Devasher and Chawla at a recently concluded travelling exhibition, Critical Zones: In Search Of A Common Ground, at the Goethe Institut in New Delhi. At one end of the room, you could see photographs of microbes from a mangrove on petri dishes that resembled distant planets (from Chawla’s The Universe In Details), while Devasher’s rendition of diatoms in Glasshouse Deep gave the impression of cosmic creatures you would probably encounter on a journey into deep space.

Will sci-art continue its upward trajectory in India? “I believe art and science is going to grow. It might even be art, science and technology," says Sood, of Khoj. “But it depends on one big factor: the market forces. Everybody wants saleable art. That often limits experimentation. Which is why you need more spaces that support art for art’s sake."

Also read: Art Special 2024: Thukral and Tagra's green mission