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Arts & Science Collaboration – Arts Professional, February 2012

Spreading spores – science and art collaboration the ASCUS way.

The academy’s fracturing of the sciences and the arts is under some scrutiny at present.  C.P .Snow sounded the alarm with his attack on the ‘two cultures’ half a century ago and things just seemed to get worse.  We have to choose between the two disciplines early in our school careers and by the time Higher Education beckons the separation is complete.  This in a world where almost the only thing we know about our future with any certainty is that we don’t know enough, and where the scientific project is both enormously complex and shaped by a wide range of external interests and pressures.

So while Universities, Institutes and research councils begin to catch up with the trans-disciplinary zeitgeist many scientists and artists have taken the initiative themselves.  One network that is going from strength to strength is ASCUS, taking its name from the world of lichen where ‘the ascus is the place where spores are produced which then colonise new, barren areas of the world – a structure formed by a symbiosis of organisms from the very different kingdoms of fungi and plants, just as we are a symbiosis of artists and scientists’.

From its beginnings in 2008 ASCUS has grown to a network of over 300 international scientists and artists committed to the practice of collaboration between each discipline.  The early years saw geoscientists from University of Edinburgh organise field trips and exhibitions.  Charles Jenck’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta provided inspiration  developed further in a range of panel discussions, public talks and exhibitions.  In 2011 ASCUS was invited to deliver the Edinburgh Beltane art-science collaboration grants scheme, selecting commissions and working with the commissioned teams.

For some the regular ASCUS evening presentations and talks remain the most important part of the network’s programme.   This is an informal meeting of scientists and artists that makes good use of the back rooms of Edinburgh’s historic hostelries to consider a wide range of presentations, from collaborators researching land use in Africa or quantum mechanics in Scotland.  Participants continue to be astounded by the range and innovation of collaboration developing across the disciplines and discussion is wide ranging, often linking to other fields of research and specific initiatives.

ASCUS is now working to widen the net for art and science collaborations by introducing the results into the public domain.  A pop up gallery in Edinburgh’s main shopping mall, the St James Centre, is exhibiting the results of the Beltane commissions and providing a venue for a range of  associated events. The gallery is staffed by network volunteers providing visitors with the opportunity to meet and find out about the work of ASCUS members.  In April ASCUS is delivering a science and art installation at the City Arts Centre in Edinburgh for the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

All of this has been achieved using the voluntary capacity of network participants and a multi-skilled ‘committee’ of scientists, geographers, artists, architects, and curators. The ASCUS aspiration is to continue to be an open network for collaborative work and research, but to also provide a range of tools and platforms to further support scientists and artists.  A priority is an open online site with interactive features that can support the development of actual collaborations between scientists and artists.

The ‘sciart’ field is characterised by clusters of practice across the world.  There are real pioneers in the field; people like Cynthia Pannucci in the U.S, Gavin Artz in Australia, and Nicola Triscott of the Arts Catalyst in London, but connecting up is difficult and resources to support the embedding of ‘sciart’ in education and research are not always easy to identify.

ASCUS is planning a route that maintains an open network where any scientist or artist interested in collaboration can find something of relevance and value to their ambitions.  There is also a plan  to introduce stronger governance and organisational capacity during 2012 while responding to the increasing demands from potential partners for collaborative working. It’s going to be a busy year.