Meeting of Minds. The Natural Affinity of Art and Science

Irish artist Méadhbh O’Connor talks about Art and Science collaborations and her interest in Ecosystem Services.

In 2014, I had the pleasure of participating in an intensive two-day data lab organised by Julie's Bicycle and Watershed/Pervasive Media Studio. This brought together artists, computer scientists and designers to conjure up imaginative and effective ways in which environmental data might be communicated to the public by cultural organisations. Vibrant, thought-provoking and even difficult, the challenges presented by the data lab in many ways appropriately reflected the complexities surrounding environmental questions of today to which there are no easy answers.

As a visual artist who began as an 'artist in residence' with, and who continues to work in, the University College Dublin (UCD) College of Science, I was delighted to discuss environmental topics with other like-minded individuals working at the intersection of culture, science and technology.

When I commenced my residency with UCD Art In Science, I was introduced to Dr. Tamara Hochstrasser, a plant biologist and lecturer in the School of Biology and Environmental Science at UCD. The ease with which Tamara and I could discuss all kinds of topics, from society to the environment, came as something of a surprise to me at first. I realised with delight that as artist and scientist we are not so different. We both seem to be motivated by curiosity, and an interest in the natural world and society at large. Our conversations enable us to converge at a fruitful and interesting point outside our respective disciplines.

Through this, I was introduced to the very new concept of Ecosystems Services. One of the greatest challenges today facing those working in the environmental sciences is communicating the seriousness of their findings to other sectors in society. With so many competing economic and political forces at play, environmental scientists came up with the concept of Ecosystem Services as a way of communicating the dependence of human wellbeing on a healthy and biodiverse environment, a resource of which we are all stakeholders.

They divided this into four categories:

  • Provisioning services
  • Regulating services
  • Habitat services
  • Cultural services

This means that for basic requirements of human survival, such as the provision of food and clean water, to raw materials, to climate moderation, to absorption of extreme weather impacts, to the water and nutrient cycle, even to psychological wellbeing, we depend inextricably on a healthily functioning environment. What goes for humans, also goes for other species. Many human activities such as pollution, urban sprawl, deforestation, introduction of invasive species, overfishing etc. disrupt and even destroy ecosystems.

From an economic perspective, there are many ways in which those with inventive entrepreneurial spirits might generate an abundant economy out of a circular system of recycling, environmental maintenance, renewable energy, Green urban planning, sustainable methods of food production and so on, with a guaranteed input of and need for, resources. In a short window of the earth's vast age, the human species evolved to suit finely tuned ecological and climatic conditions. A healthy environment is vital to mankind.

It is notable that these scientists who established the concept of Ecosystem Services identified the significance of a healthy natural environment to cultural wellbeing as one of the four most important reasons to protect the environment. With this in mind, we can also consider the reverse – the potential of cultural practitioners and organisations to lead and effect change inventively in public attitudes toward the environment.

Creative people have long been regarded as socially influential, and the data lab I attended organised by Julie's Bicycle and Watershed/Pervasive Media Studio demonstrated the sheer range of imaginative and creative ideas that could remind others of our place in a highly complex biosystem that reaches far beyond the theatre and politics of human affairs.

Méadhbh O’Connor: Unknown Shores, 2014. Sculptural Installation. Steel, copper, laboratory glassware, handcrafted wooden clamps, pvc tubing, salvaged scientific instruments, netting and other parts. Within 6 x 2.5 x 8.2 metres (H x W x D). Presented in UCD O’Brien Centre for Science, April 2014.

The decision by Julie's Bicycle and Watershed to bring artists and computer scientists together on this task was also a microcosm of a shift occurring internationally in many cutting-edge educational institutions and scientific organisations. Increasingly, efforts are being made to encourage and enable creative thinking in STEM [1] workers and students. Some enlightened organisations have taken this so far as to accommodate active engagement and joint projects between artists and scientists.

In Ireland, the UCD Art in Science programme, established by the University College Dublin (UCD) College of Science, is an innovative and experimental scheme. It encompasses annual artists' residencies; an educational strand bringing together Fine Art and Science students; and a public outreach programme of exhibitions, public talks and other activities. The programme was aptly born out of a collaboration between an artist, Emer O Boyle, and an astrophysicist, Prof. Lorraine Hanlon. It is the first scheme of its kind in Ireland to be written officially into the long-term strategic objectives of an educational institution of science. With the backing of leaders such as Prof. Joe Carthy, College Principal and Dean of Science at UCD, and many other committed and open-minded scientists, a liberal forum has been created within which artists and scientists can together explore freely all kinds of subject matter, and challenge and inspire one another, unfettered by preconceived expectations or professional pressures within their own respective disciplines.

The Arts and Sciences have at various points in human history been regarded as part of the same essential, liberal education. Today, recognition of the benefits of, and possibilities enabled by, cooperation between scientific and artistic communities is gradually being reignited internationally. This suggests the onset of a new wave in both scientific and cultural approaches. New avenues are being forged, down which who knows what unexpected insights or revelations might be encountered at these frontiers of human knowledge, and of what benefit these might be to the health of human society and further afield…

Méadhbh O’Connor: Stratocumulus translucidus with evening sun, 2013. From the project Climate-Simulator. Various weather phenomena modelled and photographed on a miniature scale in water. Copyright Méadhbh O’Connor.

Méadhbh O’Connor: Dust Bowl, 2013. From the project Climate-Simulator. Various weather phenomena modelled and photographed on a miniature scale in water. Copyright Méadhbh O’Connor.

Méadhbh O'Connor (b. 1984) is a visual artist and sculptor working at the conjunction of art and science. She lives in Dublin, Ireland.

[1] STEM: an acronym for the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths

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