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Creating your own opportunities

A case study at the intersection of art and science

Visit the Museum of Science, Boston this week. Proceed to the Blue wing up the escalators and to the left of the butterfly exhibit. There you will find Ocean Stories, an exhibit housed in the Art Science Gallery, a 2000-square-foot gallery twenty feet tall. By exploring Ocean Stories, you will discover oceanography translated through the prism of artwork.

In the center is a complex sculpture in the form of an amusement park. It consists of intricately woven reeds and rope laced with colored wood and paper. But the primary medium used here is actual data. Each component of the sculpture is based on real physical, chemical, and biological data collected in the Gulf of Maine. The Labrador Current is represented by a roller coaster curving over a hand crafted bathymetric map of Georges Bank and nearby coastal features. The merry-go-round shows how krill abundance relates to seasonal variations of air and water temperature, salinity, currents, wave height, and solar azimuth. The Ferris wheel shows the cycle of krill moving up and down in the water column in concert with the rise and fall of the sun. The Swing ride shows the tidal patterns of the Bay of Fundy. Artist Nathalie Miebach has essentially plotted data in a new grid space, creating a sculpture that affords the viewers with a new appreciation for the patterns found in the complexity of nature — the cycles and mechanisms that drive natural processes in the Gulf of Maine. This piece offers insight into how scientists and artists — both of which are researchers and careful observers in their own right — make sense of the complex world before them.

As you proceed from this sculpture to the abstract video art, etchings, poetry, photography, paintings, and wall sculptures throughout the gallery, you will encounter the physics of salty swirling whirlpools, the impacts of changing ocean chemistry, the mysteries of the deep ocean, and the rhythmic light patterns in Cape Cod eel grass beds. Also present in the artwork are various meditations on the process and practice of both art and science.

This exhibition sprang from collaborations between fine artists and MIT graduate students and is the first of several collaborative art science exhibits to be produced by Synergy, a new program that I founded last year with the help of MIT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the Museum of Science, Brown University, and my co-producers Lizzie Kripke and Michael MacMahon.

I founded Synergy because I believe that art is a tremendously powerful platform for communicating complex and expansive ideas in meaningful ways. Not being an artist myself, I felt limited in my ability to communicate through art. I became interested in what would happen if fine artists were partnered with scientists. However, it was not clear exactly how I could get involved in the emerging art-science field. There are few opportunities for gaining professional experience at the intersection of art and science because the field is young in some respects. Instead, a colleague working at this intersection encouraged me to bypass the well-trodden internship model and boldly curate my own exhibition.

I submitted a proposal to the Council for the Arts at MIT and a second proposal to the Graduate Student Life Grants. With seed funding in hand, I worked with my co-producers to put out a call for artists using a variety of connections we made while networking in art-science circles. This resulted in a substantial applicant pool, from which we selected eight artists who we then matched with MIT and WHOI scientists through a mutually selective process much like speed dating. I set this collective of artists and scientists to the task of recasting and translating oceanographic research in artistic form.

The next step was to find a gallery for the show. I considered many options from a weekend show on campus, to a month-long show in a local art association. And then, through the terrific network of MIT, an opportunity arose to pitch the idea to the Museum of Science! Indeed, the rich array of resources, networks, and opportunities available at MIT are poised to support your most ambitious and unconventional ideas.

From that point onward the entire project took on a life of its own. As a result, I felt I was sometimes in over my head. But everyone rose to the occasion and the resources at MIT and WHOI continued to be tremendously supportive, providing us with a second round of funding. Lizzie and I knitted together the diverse contributions from the participating artists and scientists and from the exhibit team at the Museum of Science and realized our shared vision for the exhibit.

I suspect that at no other time in my life will I have so many terrific resources at my fingertips. MIT is a wonderful playing field for resourceful self-starters. I am inspired by my ambitious and proactive peers and feel supported by the institution. By identifying key resources and combining them in a creative way, I was able to create the opportunity and experience that I sought at the intersection of art and science.