When manipulating data becomes art

A Scottish project helps artists get inspired by raw scientific findings

By | July 13, 2006

When is data massage and manipulation entirely appropriate? When it's in the hands of an artist participating in enSight, a Scottish project that gives artists access to raw experimental output for inspiration. An initial pilot in April, which has just culminated in the first online exhibition, was so successful that the organizers are already gearing up for the next round. How it works is that the enSight team asks scientists to submit an original electronic image of raw data or figures, then artists create a rough sketch of their initial instinctive response to the image. Next, each scientist-artist pair puts their heads together (by Email) to create a piece of art in any medium, and finally, the three components -- raw data, rough sketch, and final project -- are compiled in a triptych work, and exhibited both live and virtually on the enSight Web site. "We wanted to give researchers an opportunity to step away from the bench and into a forum where they could discuss or debate their work with the general public in non-traditional ways," Pleasantine Mill, a postdoc studying genetics at the MRC Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh and the founder of the project, told The Scientist in an Email. The experiment has certainly produced colorful results. One artist interpreted a dry electronic micrograph of a yew leaf as a muddy, touchable wall piece made out of rubber and moldable clay. Another artist, David Hutchison, transformed a standard ball-and-stick cartoon depicting the evolutionary relatedness among Mexican jays into a playful collection of wire, wood, paint, and plastic objects called "Junk DNA Egg." (To see the image, click here.) Sally Cross, a colleague of Mill, submitted an immunofluorescence image of X-chromosomal inactivation in cells. "It was very interesting for me because three artists chose my image as the starting point for their contributions to the exhibition and they came up with very different pieces," she said in an Email. (To see the three images, click: 1, 2, 3.) Cross said she appreciated the version by established Canadian artist Claire Dufresne, entitled "Woman: a silent mosaic memory of mankind," which was inspired by the underlying science instead of just what the data looked like. The gallery also contains short explanations from both the artist and the scientist, to explain the inspiration behind the images. Dufresne's blurb explains that the floating kimonos in her piece represent messages hidden or lost in the Internet, similar to the informational loss that occurs when the X chromosome is switched off. Other such informational metaphors reoccur in her piece, such as sticky memo notes and pages of books. "I am in the process of creating a new work inspired by Sally's data," Dufresne told The Scientist in an Email. "What was important in our exchanges is the philosophy we were sharing in common in art and science." Mill admitted that not all the participating scientists have been as satisfied as Cross. According to a post-project survey, most scientists said they enjoyed the project, but approximately half said that they were hoping to have "more of a say, influence or input into the final piece, as opposed to it being purely an artist's interpretation of their image." To rectify this, the enSight team plans to try to improve collaborations by facilitating exchanges between scientists and artists. For instance, Mill said she's considering running some workshops and offering tours of labs so that the next round of artists can get a better understanding of how science works, letting them see a chosen image in a "more meaningful context." "Not everyone in a lab wants to be a media-friendly science communicator," Mills added, "but many want some sort of public interaction outside the traditional academic environment, maybe on an individual level, with someone outside their field. That's where the idea for enSight was crystallized for me." Jennifer Rohn jrohn@the-scientist.com Links within this article M. Rossner, "How to guard against image fraud," The Scientist, March 2006, p. 24-25. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/23156/ enSight http://www.ensight.org.uk/ S. Pincock, "No art please, we're scientists," The Scientist, April 11, 2005. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/15389/ H. Cohen, "Bioscience moves into galleries as bioart," The Scientist, November 11, 2002. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13384/ "Stomata," Aimee Lax http://www.ensight.org.uk/2006/triptych.php?artist=lax "Junk DNA egg" - David Hutchison http://www.ensight.org.uk/2006/triptych.php?artist=hutchison Science image, from Sally Cross http://www.ensight.org.uk/2006/science.php?artist=gavin2 "cells/sails," Saskia Gavin http://www.ensight.org.uk/2006/triptych.php?artist=gavin2 "untitled," Sarah Afzal http://www.ensight.org.uk/2006/triptych.php?artist=afzal "Woman - a silent mosaic memory of mankind" - Claire Dufresne http://www.ensight.org.uk/2006/triptych.php?artist=dufresne "Woman - a silent mosaic memory of mankind," artist's initial reaction http://www.ensight.org.uk/2006/initial.php?artist=dufresne

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