Looking Closely at the World: Art-Science Collaborations in Two Exhibitions

As the fields of art and science each rely on increasingly specialized bodies of knowledge, effective communication with a wider public grows in both challenge and importance. A collaborative approach, together with exhibitions in art gallery spaces, has the potential to disrupt spaces that the public often has little access to. Such exhibitions invite visitors to a close-looking practice that engages not only the content of each field, but also the core processes that are used to construct an understanding of the world. Additionally, acknowledgement of the viewpoints of different fields also makes space for consideration of Indigenous knowledges as part of the decolonizing work happening around the world. Held at two Canadian art galleries in the Spring-Summer of 2022, Drift: Art and Dark Matter at Art Museum at the University of Toronto and Insect as Idea at the McIntosh Gallery, Western University, demonstrate possible structures and outcomes for these types of cross-disciplinary collaborations.

Each exhibition emerges from a sharing of space between the disciplines, with the artists responding to the knowledge and research that occurs in the sciences. Drift: Art and Dark Matter is a multi-institution collaboration curated by Sunny Kerr, originally at the Agnes Etherington Art Center, in collaboration with SNOLAB in Sudbury. Four artists completed a residency at the SNOLAB site, two kilometers underground, where physicists are conducting research related to dark matter. The resulting artworks are drawn together into the exhibition, which is touring several Canadian art galleries, giving the public a view of the search for dark matter through the eyes of the artists (Art Museum at the University of Toronto, n.d.). Whereas Drift brought artists into the space of science, Insect as Idea at the McIntosh Gallery brings science into the gallery space through the display of lepidoptera specimens alongside the work of artists who also examine the insect world (McIntosh Gallery, 2022). Rather than reflecting the ongoing research of a particular lab or research group, Insect as Idea instead presents the ways that entomology categorizes and understands a particular part of the natural world in parallel to the ways that artists seek to engage that same section of nature. 

The kinds of art-science collaboration that are displayed in these exhibitions do not focus on presenting the specific contents of a scientific study or area of research; rather, the artists respond to the processes and locations of science. In Drift, the artists were invited to take up residency inside of SNOLAB while research was actively ongoing, requiring both a physical descent into an underground laboratory and an intellectual immersion into a search for an invisible part of the universe. In contrast, Insect as Idea brings butterfly specimens into the gallery space, drawing these collections of scientific study into the conventions of display used by art, with its emphasis on reaching a viewing public. These exhibitions model collaboration that brings artists and scientists into each other’s space, disrupting the exclusive and often opaque work that occurs in their respective settings. By sharing space, even if the goal is not to impact the details of the research being conducted, artists and scientists demonstrate a shared concern for examining and making sense of the world that they encounter. For these two shows in particular, the participants are looking at tiny, or even invisible, elements of the natural world or the universe, which exist outside of what visitors to the art gallery recognizably encounter in their everyday lives. When visitors engage in close looking exercises with the art objects on display, they also align themselves with the focused ways of exploring the world that are employed by the artists and scientists whose research is presented in the exhibitions.

Viewing these art-science collaborations through this lens, based more in learning about the processes and practices of these disciplines, is far more reasonable given the vast bodies of specialized knowledge in physics and entomology that could not possibly be conveyed accurately in smaller gallery settings. In Insect as Idea, the vast array of carefully organized butterfly specimens dominates one of the walls in the first room of the gallery. A close looking engagement with this display might begin with the aesthetic pleasure of the preserved insects but could expand to notice the grouping of specimens based on location; or how the butterflies are nestled in cotton to keep them from slipping down in the glass frame (Riker Mounts); or the ways that Latin names of the species are hand-labeled on small paper inserts. The wall label in turn points to the ways in which the display in the gallery relate to the nearly 200,000 specimens in the larger zoological collection at Western University and serve as an important teaching tool in a time of global biodiversity crisis. This type of viewing will not lead to visitors walking away with the ability to identify particular butterflies, but it does give insight into how entomology organizes and categorizes animals and points to the past and future uses of specimen collections. The magnitude of this display, along with the label information from the biology department, can then enter into conversation with the artistic works in the exhibition. The artistic approaches are perhaps less cohesive than the standardized shape of scientific identification, but pieces like Catherine Chalmers’ Leafcutters (2017) demonstrate artistic observation of ants in an attempt to tell stories about the activities of a particular colony, and  Aganetha Dyck and Richad Dyck’s Hive Scans (2001-2003) presents attempts to see the inner workings of beehives without specialist equipment, while preserving the life of the hive that is being imaged. These artistic works exist alongside the scientific collection in the gallery without privileging either approach as superior, suggesting to visitors that an understanding of the natural world can be productively approached in a collaborative way.

By expanding the viewpoints and approaches that can be presented in parallel, without asserting one to be superior, Drift and Insect as Idea also form important connections between colonial structures of knowledge with traditional forms of knowing that have been upheld by Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island since before colonization. In particular, the use of a close looking methodology in both exhibitions helps to draw both artistic and scientific study of the world back into connection with the land. Maintaining the land as a place of learning and a source of knowledge remains an important part of Indigenous epistemologies. In her book As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes about the land as pedagogy:

 “To me, this is what coming into wisdom within a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg epistemology looks like. It takes place in the context of family, community, and relation. It lacks overt coercion and authority, values so normalized within mainstream, Western pedagogy that they are rarely ever critiqued. The land, Aki, is both context and process” (Simpson, 2017). 

Simpson’s description refuses the kinds of siloed learning that lead to art-science divisions, in line with the approach taken in the exhibitions, but she also places emphasis on keeping relationships to the land centered. This is perhaps a harder criteria to evaluate as a settler viewer of the exhibition, especially given that both exhibitions take place in colonial institutions. However, through a close looking methodology within the exhibitions, visitors can encounter artistic attempts to connect the “context and process” of science to alternate ways of knowing that maintain strong connections with the land.

Art is not claiming that it would be able to find dark matter, nor does the forwarding of Indigenous ways of knowing that are focused on being in relationship to the land disqualify the value of that scientific search. However, the artists assert the importance of considering the histories of the land that scientific research happens on and the ways in which the ongoing work of scientists at SNOLAB erases the trauma and harm done in the area through settler-colonialism. The exhibition cautions that the empirical measurements of the hard sciences cannot be separated from the places and histories that they emerge from. In the first room of Drift, Jol Thomas’s installation n-land: the holographic (principle) (2012) moves between an interpretation of scientific equipment and the many ways in which the land around what is now Sudbury has been mapped. His hanging metal installations spin slowly, their perceived weight at odds with the way they are suspended in the gallery. As visitors engage with the mechanisms that support the sculptures, they might look through the lens at the center of each piece to see a mirrored and distorted view of maps of Sudbury. Thomas offers a more recognizable map but also a geologic survey, a copy of the treaty that pertains to the area, and a map of the many mines that riddle the land, suggesting the many layered histories and activities that are taking place around SNOLAB. While Thomas does not intervene in the process of science, he does challenge the context of science, tying it clearly to extractivist destruction of land.  These images are present in the space of the gallery, but they cannot be seen clearly through the lenses of Thomas’s imagined equipment, suggesting that visitors need to think beyond the search for dark matter to understand the impact of SNOLAB and the histories it emerges from. For viewers of the work, the piece becomes a way both of thinking about the physical infrastructure of science, which is usually out of sight for the public, but also about returning the work of science to a clear relationship with land. Thomas invokes  a consideration of ongoing colonization which might otherwise be absent in conversations about science. 

Similarly, in considering entomology, artists are not attempting to disprove or dismiss the nomenclature of science. Instead, the works in Insect as Idea show a desire to encounter insects in the environment and to consider the ways in which particular insects contribute to human life and to larger ecosystems.  Christi Belcourt’s work This Painting is a Mirror (2012) features stylized birds, insects, and plants in an interconnected design. Whereas the specimen collection is organized to keep types of creatures separate, Belcourt shows the relationships between the many types of life that are needed in an ecosystem. As a Metis artist, Belcourt’s dot painting style mimics the traditional beadwork that is an important part of the Metis creative tradition. Her piece brings the study of the natural world into the context of relations that Simpson writes about, both by representing insects as part of a larger ecosystem and through the painting technique’s relationship with traditional forms of artmaking. Similar to the functioning of Thomas’s work in Drift, Belcourt’s painting expands upon the knowledge developed by science to include more interconnected ways of thinking about the world. Visitors who engage with both the lepidoptera specimen collection and Belcourt’s work can see that neither form of knowledge necessarily invalidates the other and the collaborative display of both forms demonstrates the possibilities for expanded conversation that arises from art-science collaborations.

Despite the fact that Drift: Art and Dark Matter and Insect as Idea present two very different areas of study, clear parallels arise in the ways that these exhibitions build productive art-science collaborations. Whether bringing artists into laboratories or displaying specimens in an art gallery, the specialized spaces of each discipline are disrupted to feature other ways of thinking. Not only that, the blurring of specialized spaces enables a general visitor to either exhibition to think about places of expertise that are not always clearly understood. Through a close looking methodology, the artworks can be viewed as addressing the contents and processes of scientific study through the eyes of non-experts, suggesting to the viewer that similar skills of close observation are used across fields to build an understanding of the world. Importantly, the artists place a high value on alternate ways of knowing, not as a replacement for typical scientific knowledge, but as a way of acknowledging the necessity of ongoing decolonizing work. These collaborative exhibitions offer models to engage the public in the work of scientific study, but also to challenge and contextualize the scientific project through thought-provoking art.

If you enjoyed this post or have ideas you would like to share please feel free to leave a comment and if you really enjoyed this post please consider supporting my work by buying me a coffee here. If you found the ideas in this post interesting you may enjoy some of my other exhibition reviews including my discussion of When Attitudes Become Form, an exhibition that had a major impact on the history of curation and the display of contemporary art, that post can be found here.

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