I'm three months into my new job. It's an actual job, with an office and appraisals and annual leave and all those invisibly regular things that I find illogical and alarming after a decade as a freelancer. But it's OK because this job also involves a 3D planetarium, adventures in a new city, a workshop with a laser cutter in it, and places where I can pop away from my desk to make a stop frame animation or go and watch the slow beauty of rainbow coloured formations of water freezing. There are also wonderful people - my new colleagues and the so called visitors, who are wriggling with brilliant questions. More on them in another post. But right now, the job involves a small restaurant in Linz and a plate of goulash.
I am at the food and hot chocolate end of three superstuffed days at the Ars Electronica Festival, on a mission to absorb the intersection of media art and science as it exists in 2015. Happily, my new job description as Creative Director of At-Bristol science centre says something like; come up with some fresh ideas and see what happens if we explore more of an arts approach to things in a science centre. Well, this is right up my strasse, after a zig zag path through particle physics, children's animation, screenwriting, classical music and opera cinema, I am relentlessly waving the flag for cross pollination, multi-disciplinary practices and general connecting of ideas.
I intend to try and keep up a few blog posts going forward so I'm not going to write long academic essays where I brilliantly weave arguments with a robust list of footnotes and references. I might just bung a Thing down in a couple of sentences to keep track of ideas or provoke a discussion.
So to cut belatedly to the point - why do I think the combination of art and science is worthwhile?
Because, very simply, it is the picture of a thriving future. It is essential that we become a culture of connected ideas and people to create solutions to our global challenges. And it's not just necessary, it is a natural progression. At some point there will be no art/science to speak of, there will just be Culture2.
So let's stop with the old Two Cultures chat and get on with it. I was a little surprised that at the world's cutting edge sciart gathering, we are not too far along in the discourse and there was some stating of the bleedin obvious. But presumably it's because we still need to. There are scientists (some say the majority?) who would assume an arts collaboration has no value and artists who might not imagine they have access to science. Not to mention a public still hindered by unequal education and opportunity and labouring under misunderstanding and media manipulation of crass scientific stereotypes.
But the sands are ever shifting. Science and art are sparking up together again. The digital revolution means we are connected at our fingertips to almost all of human knowledge amassed to date. And it all lives on top of itself in the Internet. We no longer have to walk from one end of the library to the other to get from the science and technology stack to the fine art stack via grumpy librarian and indecipherable Dewy Decimal system. These fields of endeavour are now separated by just a few twitches of a finger.
The next generation of digital natives draw fuzzier boundaries than subscribers to the print edition of Radio Times magazine. TV watching is no longer confined to set times in front of a fixed location - it is accessed at any time of day or night, wherever there's wifi. Curation of visual fodder belongs to the realm of individual mood and circumstance, not determined by the broadcaster. You might find yourself Google image searching the Joy Division T shirt design you're after, and then it's not far in the time and space of the internet to get from the Unknown Pleasures album cover to stacked plots of radio signals from pulsars and onwards..... Which just goes to show that science has been inspiring art since 1979 - and vice versa, in fact the two have been intertwined since the first humans set out to understand the universe, should you wish to explore the online knowledge emporium further.
Point is, in a few generations time, I hope that it will seem odd to box up fields of knowledge and talk about them intersecting as if this is novel or notable. We are heading for a holistic view, a new Age of Enlightenment and what's exciting is to be at the leading edge of this right now.
So yes, combine science and art and look to a time when the word 'culture' doesn't just bring to mind the art and cuisine and ritual of a society, but its science too. Austrian culture? Yodelling, goulash, wave equation, cyber art!
It needs institutional change and an evolved process of academic research and understanding of creative economies and scientific and artistic literacy at a governmental level - but that's no reason not to go there. After all, the fringe is the interesting place to be. We do it not because it is easy but because it is hard. (Insert your own Kennedy ref and footnote here).
Above all, these few days at Ars Electronica tell me that the confluence of science and art produces a vibe of futuristic optimism, a sniff of what an equitable, connected community on Earth might look and feel like. It's been about conversation with people who are curious and seeking something. That surely has to point to a fine way forward. Ultimately I live for moments of transcendence, for edging a bit closer to The Source, and having flashes of joy and wonder. I got some of that in the performance of Philip Glass' Etudes for piano with live projection of train journeys and clockwork. And in the simplicity of needles in jars that tinkled to the Earth's geomagnetic force, and the water balancing sound installation in an attic room, and the trace of a smile on a robot face generated by a stranger who hugged me from across the room.
So, we have arts centres and we have science centres and there's Ars Electronica and Science Gallery Dublin and Fab Labs and Fun Palaces and Maker Spaces and all those places In between that I'm unaware of. The question occupying me lately is, what does the new breed of cultural space look like in the world where we no longer have to put a / between art and sci?
I think there will be music and experiments and theatre and art and play and possibly goulash.