Art and science must stand as partners in the face of great challenges

27 Jun 2022

Image: Conduit

Dr Jessamyn Fairfield and choreographer Deidre Cavazzi reflect on their experience collaborating across science and the arts, and the value that can be extracted from successfully weaving both disciplines together.

It has become increasingly clear that science and technology can’t address societal grand challenges on their own. After all, what use are vaccines if people are afraid to take them? What use is atmospheric CO2 data if the corporations responsible for climate change insist on shunting responsibility back to the individual? How can we address not only the social science side of these issues, but also the human side – the struggles with climate anxiety, with existential despair in the face of a global pandemic, with ethics and equity around new technologies and solutions?

The arts provide a space to interrogate, to examine, to explore and to engage in conversation with science and technology. Visual and performing arts can create new perspectives and windows into the important issues of our time, as well as encourage curiosity and wonder. Society often views research as something sterile and rigid, and forgets to celebrate the beauty and possibility in exploring the unknown. The arts invite engagement, whether that is as a viewer at an installation, audience to a theatrical performance, or participant in an immersive workshop. And with engagement comes ownership and involvement – an opportunity to be part of a process and to reflect.

Artists and scientists are often on uneven footing: STEM programmes are highly prized, STEAM ones are questioned. In fact, growing up, both of us were discouraged from pursuing careers in the arts, and told repeatedly that it would be a “waste” of our potential. Yet connection, compassion and curiosity provide pathways into caring about solutions or supporting important initiatives, and the arts serve as an important bridge for understanding and for opening up conversation on key issues in both science and society.

There are precious few science and arts programmes in the world where both disciplines come to the table as equal partners, but we met at one of them – the Arctic Circle Residency programme in 2017. We sailed to the edge of the Arctic pack ice along the west coast of Svalbard, spending two and a half weeks in dialogue (and in wonder). The Arctic Circle programme encourages interdisciplinary collaboration and assigned us as roommates: a physicist who loves to dance and a choreographer who has a passion for physics. Many of the discussions on the ship centered around climate change, and the questions of what individual scientists or artists could do to make a difference – what work would inspire action, and hence be worth the carbon footprint of the journey?

Upon returning to California, Deidre curated a city-sponsored day of climate change talks, held in the newly opened Potocki Art Center, where she also organised a photography exhibit of her images from Svalbard juxtaposed with striking desert landscapes by Ryan Even and Jim Langford. The cool blues and whites of Arctic ice clashed with the stark dust and bone tones of the high desert, as audiences listened to talks on invasive species, urban planning and climate migration.

Deidre also directed and choreographed an evening-length dance theatre production entitled Ice Memory. She explored the environmental impact of single-use plastics, rising seas and the fragility of the sublime Arctic landscapes we had witnessed on our journey to the far North. As with many of her other thematic projects, she incorporates educational resources and includes student outreach as a valued component of her work.

Jessamyn returned to Ireland to create comedy about climate change, using humour as a powerful tool to examine data and humanise the grim statistics which often headline any climate report. Likewise, her work with Bright Club over the years has opened communication between disciplines and invited academics to share their work (and a few jokes) with audiences.

Since our meeting in the high Arctic in 2017, we have collaborated twice on science-themed dance theatre projects. NanoDance, in 2018, explored quantum physics and applications of nanotechnology (with support from the Institute of Physics and the Galway Science and Technology Festival). The upcoming Conduit examines electrical connectivity in the brain, memory mapping and negative feedback loops (with support from an Irish Research Council STEAM engagement grant). Both of these productions were enabled by the enthusiasm and support of the Discipline of Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway, and have featured casts of both performers and curious researchers.

Through our continued collaborations, it has become abundantly clear to both of us that art and science should have a symbiotic relationship: encouraging curiosity, creativity, questioning, and research. This is only possible with true partnerships on an equal footing. All too often, art is used to promote science as a kind of accessibility tool. And conversely, scientific terms have infiltrated artistic spaces in recent years, perhaps in an attempt to legitimise the messy creative process. But in reality, both fields need to be valued and woven together, to work toward shared understandings and new ways of living.

These shared understandings aren’t just relevant to the scientists and artists involved – they ripple out, with larger benefits to the disciplines, the various audiences, and the community as a whole. A key recent example is the Galway STEAM Learning Community, which brought together science and arts practitioners from primary schools, social work, university and non-profit settings in the Galway City Museum in June. The work done by this community has not only sparked conversations, but fed into local curricula and approaches to learning, while also integrating local culture into shared values of openness, creativity and curiosity.

Similarly, as part of our current Conduit project, Cúram and Baboró helped put us in contact with local schools. We facilitated hour-long workshops for fifth and sixth-class students which used movement, writing and drawing to explore neuroscience concepts.

If we think of knowledge as existing in disciplinary silos like science and art, standing apart from each other, then we may never be able to truly solve the great issues facing our world. Humans are natural connectors, building stories and grand architectures of ideas from individual building blocks, and it’s time we acknowledged that art and science should be partners, not rivals, in this process. An integrative approach will help society more than chopping fields into their smallest constituent parts can, so that we can bring everyone to the table in working toward a better future.

By Deidre Cavazzi and Dr Jessamyn Fairfield

Deidre Cavazzi, dance department chair at Saddleback College, is a multimedia performance artist and choreographer with a keen passion for science communication. Jessamyn Fairfield is an award-winning science communicator, a physics lecturer at NUI Galway and the director of Bright Club Ireland.

Free tickets for the Conduit shows, which take place in Galway on 29 and 30 June, are still available on Eventbrite.