Fine Art Photography

The Rise of Science-Focused Artist Residencies—And How to Take Part

October 4, 2017

By Conor Risch

© Shaun O’Boyle

While a participant in the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers program in 2015, Shaun O’Boyle photographed a grounded iceberg in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. The series he made on the trip was shown recently at the Berkshire Museum. Program director Valentine Kass says NSF offers “a way to increase the public understanding and appreciation of the Antarctic and the importance of the scientific work going on there.”

You’ve probably heard of the push to emphasize Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) education for today’s youth. There’s also an effort to add an A for art to the acronym (STEAM) as more educators realize that art and design can be a catalyst for innovation in the sciences. In a related development, a growing number of science labs, schools and other research facilities around the world are opening their doors to artists through artist residencies. The goal is to inform the public about scientific work, inspire private and institutional donors to support scientific research, and introduce students and researchers to interdisciplinary collaboration that can change how they understand and communicate about their work.

For the artists, residency programs expose them to subjects and research facilities in corners of the world few people have an opportunity to visit. They can also lead to artist-scientist collaborations that continue long after residencies end.

PDN recently spoke with representatives of several science-related artist residencies to find out more about these programs that connect art and science. They explained what’s to be gained from residency programs, and offered tips for artists who are thinking about applying. Here’s what they told us.

© Leslie Reed/Courtesy of Schmidt Ocean Institute

While a resident at the Schmidt Ocean Institute Artist-At-Sea program, Leslie Reed soaked her film in seawater as a way to visualize rising ocean acidity. For the program, artists spend between two weeks and a month at sea, working alongside scientists. © Leslie Reed/Courtesy of Schmidt Ocean Institute

Why scientists welcome residents

Labs, universities, field stations and other research facilities host artists for a number of reasons. Communication is chief among these. Valentine Kass runs the Antarctic Artists and Writers program, a residency created by the National Science Foundation in the 1970s that enables artists to work for a season at McMurdo Station, the U.S. research center in Antarctica. “Most people will never experience the seventh continent, so the Antarctic Artists and Writers is a way to increase the public understanding and appreciation of the Antarctic and the importance of the scientific work going on there,” Kass says.

Sharon Mallman, who heads Artist at Pine Needles, a long-running residency at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station in Minnesota, says that their residents help the local community around the research station understand what the scientists are doing and why it matters. “Much of the work that our scientists do is very technical,” Mallman says. People often think scientific research just “ends up in a report on a shelf in a library somewhere.” But the scientific work at Pine Needles influences land management and shapes public policy. Through public talks and other outreach events, artists help the local community understand “that this research is important and has daily applications to their lives.”

Complexity and highly specialized language are a couple of the reasons scientists may struggle to communicate about their work, and artists can play a role in making science accessible to general audiences. “Communication in the cultural realm provides an alternative for scientists to engage with the public and the public to learn from each other, so it’s really about opening up our very specialized areas of thinking and communicating to broader audiences,” notes Emer O’Boyle, an artist who runs the UCD Parity Studios Artists in Residence program at University College Dublin’s College of Science. Georgia Schwender, who leads the artist residency at Fermilab, a particle physics laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, points out that people may not be able to understand what a neutrino is by looking at a scientist’s “workbook of mathematical calculations.” Yet when one of their residents, Ellen Sandor, created a VR about neutrinos, the particles that are smaller in size than atoms, viewers were able to put on an Occulus Rift VR headset and “see [a visualization of] the neutrinos and…get what neutrinos are about.”

Artists not only help the general public understand scientific research; their work can also help institutions fundraise. Fermilab is on a year-to-year budget, Schwender adds, so finding more ways “to get out what we’re doing is good for everybody,” she notes. Mary Skopec is the Executive Director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, a facility owned by the State of Iowa where university students learn and conduct research. She notes that many members of Friends of Lakeside, a local organization that helps fund the facility, “support the arts as well, and I think they saw a natural connection of the two at our facilities.” The St. Croix Watershed Research Station is also supported by a “friends” organization, and Mallman says “they have come to absolutely love” the outreach events that feature the resident artists. “People who may not know much about the research station in other ways will say, ‘Oh you people have that artist program.’”

© Keith Ellenbogen

As a resident in the MIT Visiting Artist program, Keith Ellenbogen collaborated with MIT theoretical physicist Allan Adams and Jim Bales from the MIT Edgerton Center for High-Speed Imaging. Capturing sparks from a Van de Graaff generator required a camera that could take 10 million frames per second. © Keith Ellenbogen

Artist residencies encourage new perspectives

Collaborations between artists and scientists enabled by artist residencies offer opportunities for dialogue, which can lead to new ways of thinking about a particular topic. “It’s no longer adequate to be looking at any one issue from a singular perspective,” O’Boyle says. “We need to draw from multiple perspectives, and developing this ability to collaborate is incredibly important now.”

The UCD residency is principally funded by the College of Science. O’Boyle points out that the dean of the college, Professor Joe Carthy, has said that the traditional lack of exposure that science students have to the arts has created “a deficit culturally and scientifically.” UCD’s College of Science emphasizes dialogue between students of the arts and students of the sciences, and the residency brings in professional artists to collaborate with students and researchers. “It really is a mutual exchange,” O’Boyle says, “whereby working with each other and alongside each other we deepen our understanding of each other’s processes and [gain] respect for the limits of our own disciplines. Working alongside people from other disciplines throws new light on the nature of how we’re asking our questions and how we’re developing our understanding as well.”

All of the residency program representatives PDN spoke with also said that artists had, at times, helped scientists understand their work in new ways. There have been “several examples,” O’Boyle says, “where scientists have shifted the focus of their research” through interactions with artists. Carlie Weiner is the communications manager for the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which runs the Artist-at-Sea program, pairing artists and scientists on research voyages. She notes, “A lot of the scientists that have come on board have said having an artist bring a different approach or perspective to the science has made them get more creative with their work.”

Leila W. Kinney, Executive Director of the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology, which was founded in 2012 and has since facilitated more than 150 artist residencies and collaborative projects, says, “Artists often stretch the questions that scientists may typically ask or manipulate materials in provocative ways that would not occur to scientists on their own.” While a visiting artist at MIT in 2013, for instance, Vik Muniz worked with a postdoctoral student, Tal Danino, to create prints using bacteria and cancer cells as paint. Says Kinney: “I have been told that working with artists is not only a welcome relief from the ‘deliverables’ that can sometimes dominate research in the labs, but reminds scientists of the reasons they were attracted to scientific research in the first place—curiosity, wanting to understand how things in the world work, ‘out-there’ ideas that bend current realities into new directions and forms.”

© Siobhan McDonald

Siobhan McDonald was a recent artist-in-residence at University College Dublin’s Parity Studios. In her series “Cyathea australis,” photogenic drawings made with fossilized leaves reflect the changing state of the Earth’s atmosphere. To make them, McDonald recreated the carbon dioxide levels of the air during different epochs. Her interest in early climate change was inspired by the research of a UCD palaeobiology professor. © Siobhan McDonald

What artists can expect

Residency programs vary in length and structure. The MIT Visiting Artist program, for instance, hosts artists for a year and supports them with an honorarium of from $5,000 to $30,000. (A second residency launched in 2016, The Dasha Zhukova Distinguished Visiting Artist Program, provides two years for an artist to develop a project.) Artists are nominated for the program by “faculty or the heads of labs or museums,” Kinney says, and are given a whirlwind tour of “departments, labs and centers that might offer productive connections.”

Fermilab’s year-long residency is “a very individualized program,” Schwender says, with no set rules that all artists have to follow. One resident visited once a month for six months and then did a lot of communicating via Skype, while another artist worked closely with scientists to learn about their work.

Artists who participate in the Schmidt Ocean Institute Artist-at-Sea program may be on the ship for anywhere from two weeks to a month, and they are expected to work alongside the scientists and researchers. Those participating in the Artist at Pine Needles program spend anywhere from two to four weeks at the research station, and after a meet-and-greet where the research station staff tells the artists what they are working on, the artists make connections and pursue their own course. The Pine Needles program provides room and board, but doesn’t cover transportation costs or pay a stipend.

Some residencies expect artists to complete a new body of work within a certain timeframe, or ask that artists host a public talk or open their studios to visitors. Fermilab hosts exhibitions of the work created by residents in the gallery that was established by their first director, while Schmidt Ocean Institute asks that program participants donate one artwork, which becomes part of an ongoing traveling exhibition highlighting the scientific work that’s taken place on their ship.

Submitting a strong application

Photographers may think that they need to have a history of science-related work in order to apply for a residency, but that is frequently not the case. It’s more important that an artist put together a strong proposal that demonstrates an interest in the work of the scientists at a given facility, and makes a case for why that artist needs access to the facility and scientists to make work.

The Antarctic Artist and Writers Program proposals “are judged against two basic questions: What’s the intellectual merit of the proposal? And what’s the broader impact?” Kass says. “Priority is given to projects that focus on understanding and interpreting the scientific activities.” The peer review panel of scientists, artists and writers that evaluates the proposals also wants to know about the audience for the work and how it will be disseminated. If the artist wants to create a book, is there a publisher on board? How will an artist exhibit the work? Artists also need to make a case for why they need to go to Antarctica to do their work.

Those applying for the Artist at Pine Needles program need to have a specific proposal for what they want to do. “We get a lot of people who say they’re passionate about the environment and it just doesn’t quite go far enough,” Mallman says.

Fermilab’s Schwender says the board of review she puts together, which is made up of scientists, artists and others who work at the facility, looks for an applicant who has “a track record of being a stable, hardworking artist that makes work that I could see would fit in,” she says. It’s important for the artist to articulate their intent, “even though it might not be exactly what they want to do because I want you to be flexible with what you see and learn here.”

UCD’s O’Boyle also looks for a specific proposal that “is open enough for other people to enter into. What we avoid is absolutely pre-determined outcomes,” she says. She also looks for artists who have a track record of interacting with other communities to create their work, and wants to see that their interests are relevant to the key areas of interest for the scientists and the university.

Residencies that create dialogue between artists and scientists are part of a growing international recognition that “we are not either creative or scientific,” O’Boyle explains. “Being creative is a fundamental aspect of being human, and rigorous thought and analysis is as familiar to artists as it is to scientists. People are recognizing that we really aren’t going to reach our full potential until we can figure out how to support and encourage both aspects of our being in our work, whether that’s science or art.”