Come Together: Julia Buntaine and the SciArt Center

Movements need champions. People engaged in promoting the cause and presenting it to the uninitiated. They articulate a movement’s central ideas, distilling it to the essentials. Most importantly, they foster a sense of community, physical and mental by planning events and spearheading organizations. Sometimes, the task falls to critics and theorists. Other times, the evangelists are artists in their own right. Julia Buntaine is an example of the artist-organizer. Through her inspired efforts at the SciArt Center, she has provided artists and scientists with a venue to explore, question, and discover.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Let’s start all the way at the beginning. What exactly is SciArt?

JULIA BUNTAINE: The definition and boundaries of SciArt are very much dependent on the context – for example, SciArt is the name of my business, but also, it’s the name of a cultural and intellectual movement. SciArt is a mode of thinking, a way of making, and describes the convergence of science and art in the creative and intellectual spheres.

Because of the work that I do, I most often use “SciArt” as shorthand for “science-based art,” or art that is based on and engages science in a deep and meaningful way.

SCINQ: For a lot of people – including some artists and scientists – science and art could not be further apart on the spectrum. Can you explain how they are similar or at least where there are synergies between the two?

JB: The synergy between science and art lies at the very foundation of both disciplines – science and art each ask the fundamental questions of existence: Who are we? Why are we here? Where do we come from? Where are we going? All science, and all art, can be boiled down to these basic, human questions.

Science and art investigate these questions through their own lenses, with their own methodologies and materials, aiming towards revealing the truth in whatever forms it may come. But it is the asking of these questions, along with the willingness to venture into the unknown and boundless creativity, that artists and scientists share.

SCINQ: Can you discuss the SciArt Center? How did it begin and what is its mission?

JB: SciArt Center began, really, in the life of its partner publication SciArt Magazine, which still runs today. SciArt Magazine began when I was in graduate school four years ago, coming into my own as an artist who makes work about the brain. I realized that there was a lot of science-based art out there, but there wasn’t a publication dedicated to this type of work. I had some experience in the world of newspapers and publishing, so I decided to start my own publication as a means to bolster the science-based art community and help spread the word that contemporary artists are taking science seriously, jumping over those disciplinary boundaries, and doing some really cutting-edge, avant garde art.

After a year of running the magazine, the Center part naturally came about through increased demand to expand our activities, which eventually led to hosting events, a membership program, a residency, etc. SciArt Center’s mission is a bit broader than the magazine – the Center aims to bring together scientists and artists for a common cause and to create social, artistic, and intellectual spaces and opportunities for these two groups – who do not normally occupy the same space – to interact, create, and converge. We want to help build the world of the “third culture” C.P. Snow dreamed of, where scientists and artists know each other, contribute to each other’s work, and collaborate – where scientific and artistic knowledge is considered equal, where science and art can be partners in pursuing our fundamental questions.

SciArt Center operates on the local/physical level and the global/virtual level, so our programming is a mix of in-person and online, NYC-based and web-based. Importantly, at SciArt Center when we say “art” we mean all of the creative arts (visual, writing, theater, dance, music, design) and when we say “science” we mean all of the sciences including technology and mathematics.

SCINQ: Do you find that certain mediums or styles lend themselves better to SciArt? For example, abstractions or collages or multimedia installations?

JB: To answer your question simply – no. I see strong, interesting work coming out of every style, every medium. As with all art, the medium is the message, and so the types of works can vary greatly, and the message follows suit. I do, however, see more visual art based on science than music, dance, or theater (while science-fiction writing began in the early 1800s with Frankenstein, if not earlier). But this is only because there is more visual art in the world than other types of art. It’s been really exciting to see scientific ideas become more prevalent in all artistic mediums.

SCINQ: What are some of the more interesting ways science and art have been combined in your experience at the Center?

JB: In many ways our residency program is our flagship. In our program, which is called “The Bridge,” we create pairs of artists and scientists who embark on a four-month long collaboration of their own devising. We take in applications via an open call, so the pairs are created based on fitness –the pairs are always across disciplinary boundaries and rarely live in the same place. The Bridge facilitates a cross-disciplinary collaboration without putting any expectations or rules on the teams – we’re interested primarily in the process, potentials, and experimental nature of collaboration between art and science, and documenting the varied processes of each team. Importantly, it’s a virtual collaboration, so instead of giving people physical space, we give them virtual space to work in. Our residency teams write weekly blog posts sharing their thoughts and conversations, showing their notes and pictures and videos and projects, and we help everyone stay on track with biweekly phone calls, acting in an advisor-like capacity. We have four teams this year spanning the United States, Canada, and the U.K.

For me, this is the most interesting way that the Center has combined science and art, because each combination, each team, is totally different, and each year I have no idea what the teams are going to do. While the results vary greatly – some teams just talk for four months, others produce art exhibitions or present collaborative results at conferences – each resident comes out of our program as an ambassador of SciArt with the knowledge and tools necessary to operate in a manner which considers science and art as complimentary modes of thinking.

SCINQ: What do you look for when putting together a show or approving proposals for shows?

JB: We put on art shows twice a year – we always start with a virtual exhibit, which is a curated webpage, and then turn that into a pop-up exhibit at a local or partnering gallery. This way, whether you’re local or international, the exhibit is equally viewable, making Internet availability the common denominator to art-access rather than geography.

Our shows are open-call style, and always revolve around a theme, which is developed by myself and our curator, Marnie Benney. We plan our shows relatively quickly such that our themes stay very contemporary – our shows have included topics like the digital ether, quantum mechanics, the microbiome, and the Anthropocene.

When choosing artists for the shows, we consider a few variables, but are first and foremost looking for artists who take the science seriously while being aesthetically fantastic and novel. The science of the art and the aesthetics of the art have to be on par with one another, otherwise the piece falls flat in either direction.

SCINQ: How have the shows been received?

JB: All sorts of people come to our shows – the artists, their friends, our science-art network. But we also get people who just wander in because they saw the listing online, or walked by the door, and these are the people whose reactions I’m most interested in, and have been most delighted to hear overwhelmingly positive reactions from. This is because if we can get a person who is not in the science-art world to come in and enjoy what they see, then we’re doing something right. We’re showing them that science and art can exist together and be interesting and fun, and that’s one more person that understands that art and science aren’t that different, and that bringing them together can be very fruitful and meaningful. It’s one more person who will help close the cultural gap between art and science.

SCINQ: What can SciArt achieve that neither science alone nor traditional art alone is able to reach?

JB: I think that SciArt – science-based art and the activities/exhibitions/etc. that result – can repair the multidirectional relationship between art, science, and society. To speak to art and society – there’s been a lot of damage done there. Sure, people still like art, and still buy it, put it on their walls. But art used to have a much higher place in society – a place of respect and cultural authority. Now, art is something many people don’t engage in, don’t know much about, and don’t think is important to life. This is most reflected in the lack-thereof funding for the arts in schools and through governmental programs. Similarly, science used to be very well respected, but we live in a society now where science literacy in the United States is egregiously low, and belief in scientific statements is considered a matter of choice. What happened between science and society, and art and society? Postmodernism is the main culprit here, casting beauty out of art, and authority out of science. But SciArt can, and I firmly believe will, fix this. Science-based art can bring science to the public in meaningful and relatable ways, giving people a whole new avenue to understand science that isn’t as dull as a graph or as incomprehensible as a scientific paper. Similarly, art about science is inherently anti-postmodern, and thus, is as an art movement highly concerned with aesthetics and connecting with the audience. Additionally, when science and art work together to solve problems, such as creating design-inspired but engineer-based solar lamps for those in places without electrical grids like Little Sun did, the usefulness of art and science to society becomes obvious and tangible. Lastly, science-based art, or SciArt, can act as an active bridge between the disciplines of science and art themselves, creating the road for exchange, collaboration, and dialogue where science is the topic and art is the vehicle.Territory

SCINQ: Are there any plans for a more permanent home for the SciArt Center?

JB: As for now SciArt Center is operating in the pop-up style for physical events, and continuing our virtual programming as usual. I can definitely picture a future where we join a university, or a larger entity, as a cross-disciplinary space for work, exchange, events, and the like. We’re always open to exploring such an opportunity.

SCINQ: Finally, who are some artists to look out for who are pushing the SciArt boundaries?

JB: In terms of the North American scene, visual artists who are on my radar right now include Jonathan Feldschuh, Brandon Ballengee, Daniel Hill, Kelly Heaton, Kathy High, Suzanne Anker, Dario Robleto, Mark Dion, Natalie Jeremijenko, Judith Modrak, Courtney Mattison, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Elizabeth Demeray, Julian Voss-Andreae, Steve Miller, Gunes-Helene Istan, Elaine Whittaker, Jonathon Keats, Philip Beesley, Alexis Rockman, Damien Hirst, Mara Haseltine, Rachel Sussman, Scott Draves, Justin Brice Guariglia, Jenny Sabin, Lynn Hershman Lesson, Philip Galanter, Christopher Manzione, Anika Yi, Katja Novitskova, Brittany Ransom, Brian Knep, Pippin Barr, Philip Galanter, Tattfoo Tan… Across the sea I follow Heather Barnett, Anna Dumitriu, Revital Cohen and Turr Van Balen, Tomas Saraceno, Olafur Eliasson, Francois-Joseph Lapointe, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Eduardo Kac, Patirica Piccinini, Andrew Carnie, Raphael Kim, Azuma Makoto, Carsten Holler, Diemut Strebe… both of these lists could go on and on, but that’s a start.

It’s worth mentioning non-visual SciArt that is on the scene right now – including the dance company Jody Oberfelder Projects and the theater company Superhero Clubhouse, who both regularly produce fantastic science-based productions. Never mind movies – Arrival and Ex Machina are two recent favorites. And if I even started to list all of the books, I could write forever, but Shelly’s Frankenstein remains one of the most influential texts in and on the worlds of art and science, and grows more contemporary every day nearly 200 years later.

Under the SurfaceWave(s)

IMAGE CREDITS: Julia Buntaine. (1) Julia Buntaine, (2) Julia Buntaine at the SciArt Center, (3) Territory (4) Under the Surface, (5) Wave(s)

For more information about the SciArt Center, visit their website.

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