Particle physics art

Art and science must be partners in the face of great challenges

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

It has become increasingly clear that science and technology alone cannot meet major societal challenges. After all, what good are vaccines if people are afraid to take them? What good is atmospheric CO2 data if the corporations responsible for climate change insist on blaming the individual? How can we address not only the social side of these issues, but also the human side – the struggles with climate anxiety, with existential desperation in the face of a global pandemic, with ethics and fairness around new technologies and solutions?

The arts provide a space to interrogate, examine, explore and engage in conversation with science and technology. The visual and performing arts can create new perspectives and windows on the important issues of our time, as well as encourage curiosity and wonder. Society often sees research as sterile and rigid, and fails to celebrate beauty and the ability to explore the unknown. The arts invite engagement, whether as a viewer of an installation, spectator of 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 reflect.

Artists and scientists are often on an equal footing: STEM programs are highly valued, STEAM ones are questioned. In fact, growing up, we were both discouraged from pursuing a career in the arts and repeatedly told that it would be a “waste” of our potential. Yet connection, compassion, and curiosity open avenues for caring about solutions or supporting important initiatives, and the arts serve as an important bridge to understand and open conversation about key issues in science and society.

There are very few science and arts programs in the world where the two disciplines are at the table as equal partners, but we met at one of them – the Arctic Circle Residency program in 2017. We sailed to the edge of the arctic pack ice along the west coast of Svalbard, spending two and a half weeks talking (and wondering). The Arctic Circle program encourages interdisciplinary collaboration and assigns us as roommates: a physicist who likes to dance and a choreographer passionate about physics. Many discussions on the ship focused on climate change and questions of what individual scientists or artists could do to make a difference – what work would inspire action and therefore justify the carbon footprint of the voyage?

Upon her return to California, Deidre hosted a city-sponsored day of climate change talks, held at the newly opened Potocki Art Center, where she also held a photography exhibition of her juxtaposed images of Svalbard. to striking desert landscapes by Ryan Even and Jim Langford. The cold blues and whites of the arctic ice clashed with the dusty and boney tones of the high desert, as the audience listened to talks about invasive species, urban planning and climate migration.

Deidre also directed and choreographed a one-night dance theater production titled ice memory. She explored the environmental impact of single-use plastics, rising seas and the fragility of the sublime Arctic landscapes we 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 valuable part of her work.

Jessamyn returned to Ireland to create a comedy about climate change, using humor as a powerful tool to examine the data and humanize the grim statistics that often dominate climate reporting. Likewise, his work with Bright Club over the years has opened up communication across disciplines and invited scholars to share their work (and a few jokes) with the public.

Since our meeting in the High Arctic in 2017, we have collaborated twice on science-themed dance theater projects. NanoDance in 2018 explored quantum physics and applications of nanotechnology (supported by the Institute of Physics and the Galway Science and Technology Festival). The next Conduct examines electrical connectivity in the brain, memory mapping and negative feedback loops (supported by an Irish Research Council STEAM Engagement grant). Both of these productions were made possible by the enthusiasm and support of NUI Galway’s Drama and Theater Studies discipline, and featured actors who were both performers and curious scholars.

Through our ongoing collaborations, it has become very clear to both of us that art and science should have a symbiotic relationship: encouraging curiosity, creativity, inquiry and inquiry. This is only possible with real partnerships on an equal footing. 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 legitimize the messy creative process. But in reality, both areas need to be valued and woven together, to work towards shared understandings and new ways of living.

These shared understandings are not only relevant to the scientists and artists involved – they reverberate, with greater benefits for disciplines, different audiences and the community as a whole. A recent key example is the Galway STEAM Learning Community, which brought together science and arts practitioners from primary schools, social work, universities and non-profit organizations at the Galway City Museum in June. The work done by this community has not only sparked conversations, but also fueled local learning programs and approaches, while embedding local culture in shared values ​​of openness, creativity and curiosity.

Similarly, in our current Conduit project, curam and Baboro helped us connect with local schools. We ran hour-long workshops for fifth and sixth graders that used movement, writing, and drawing to explore neuroscience concepts.

If we think knowledge exists in disciplinary silos like science and art, separate from each other, then we may never truly be able to solve the big problems facing our world. Humans are natural connectors, building stories and grand architectures of ideas from individual building blocks, and it’s time we recognized 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 building blocks, so that we can bring everyone to the table to work towards a better future.

By Deidre Cavazzi and Dr Jessamyn Fairfield

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

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