Interaction with the unknown connects scientists and artists

On Sept. 28, the Worlds Within exhibition presented a panel discussion with Rob Kesseler, Worlds Within artist and Steve Tonsor, Director of Science and Research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The accomplished presenters discussed how the relationships between artists and scientists have evolved into partnerships and presented cases of the avenues for the intersections of these two disciplines they have seen, as well as potential avenues of collaboration in the future.

Kesseler began the talk with his story. At the start of his interdisciplinary career, he spent much of his time struggling to get his work published, one of which was a book of photographs of pollen. One primary obstacle is getting scientists to collaborate with him and the interdisciplinary work he was describing. A large focus, he contended, was the benefits that initiatives give to scientists, both tangible and intangible. Through some struggle, he established a book deal with a small publishing firm. His first book, titled Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers, is colorized microscope electron images. This work was only possible because Kessler found a scientist excited to work with him: Madeline Harley, a pollen researcher at Kew Gardens with a background in interior design and a passion for the beauty of the images of pollen she was making for her research practice. That was the start of a series of books he decided to dedicate himself to. Her story, like the others, centers around the idea of giving experimental projects a chance to benefit both artists and scientists. Kesseler later worked with artist exchanges for an institute in Portugal, a hub for contemporary art that embraces creative direction and interdisciplinary minds. He performed assignments that required color additives, such as slicing extremely thin plant stems and colorizing them for various tests. He explored the process by manipulating the colorizing method, applying it at various points throughout the lab that scientists would not otherwise apply, thus showing scientists a way to look at a process like they never have before.

This thinking was put into practice at the Royal Microscopical Society, where programed outreach to kids was created to get children interested in science as more than just lab work. Showing that projects like these are as much art as they are science gets the foot in the door for them to be understood, an important step to allow outside parties to take the work more seriously and allow support for that type of work to be established.

Tonsor presented next, with an interesting take on reasons to think outside traditional parameters. Having worked at the Carnegie Museum of National History, he is not shy in applying science to philosophy. His quest for the sublime, for example, is continuous and significantly affects his personal philosophy of discipline exploration. His anecdotes include a moment where he saw moths flying beautifully in the moonlight. With a fervent enthusiasm to natural sciences, he started experimenting his quest by dissecting things, literally. However, his path into science rendered him trapped in a process of strict discipline. Tonsor talked about Kant and the sublime, the scientific method where a theory is explicable. The traditional method of scientific thinking is an idea or theory that runs through trials, with the individuals attempting to falsify it by testing it with different variables, a rational principle that includes a concrete goal. But the really great theories, he argues, are not rationally created. They are created arational by nature, which scares scientists, but should not consequentially be ignored, he argues. That is why a lot of scientists who make a lot of impact were involved with art in their lives. His own initial experience with artists, he admitted, was at first thought of as ridiculous, but because he felt like he lost the sublime and wanted to get back in touch with it, he expanded his perspectives and started appreciating the practice and the avenues it crosses with science, where it addresses things one cannot explain.

Tonsor encourages people to think arationally and interact with the pool of the unknown instead of strictly sticking to the scientific method since this approach can allow artists and scientists to benefit each other.