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|Art|Science: Conundrum or Confluence
|By Siddharth Ramakrishnan
“Why Art|Science?” some people ask. Others just stare with a quizzical look, nod and walk away. To
some the combination is alien, two pieces of a disjointed puzzle that can fit in only in theoretical realms.
For me however, the move into the world of Art|Science has been a simple, inevitable foray – something
pre-determined, predestined perhaps? My father is a surgeon and my mother is an artist – so perhaps
my mingling the two fields is in fact a call of my DNA, a programmed transition that has been imprinted in
me through my core being. It is a bit scary to think of it that way, that working in a transitional, innovative
field is just another dance orchestrated by your parents, your destiny. But in my case, I do not see Art
and Science as a dichotomy but rather as two very creative fields that need to think beyond the existing
definitions; that constantly redefine truth and contemplate ways to understand the world.
I started as a Computer Scientist, but was lured by the world of the living and studied to become a
Neuroscientist. It is exciting to explore the brains of animals – from the polka-dot bikini brains of snails to
the silvery-white snaky neural cords of cockroaches, or looking at the neurons moving within brains of
transparent fish – suddenly the microscope makes the world around us into a larger, richer space. We
have so many creatures around us, each motivated within to live, thrive and survive, controlled by brains
that are uniquely evolved for that animal. It is fascinating to observe different animals that share the same
environment and fathom how their bodies and brains function.
One day in 2008, while working as a scientist at UCLA, I was coming
back from a rather great party with people from various walks of life
and was asked – “So what do you do?” I said, “Oh, I am a scientist. I
work with fish brains.” And immediately was met with the reply, “A
scientist? No way! But we had so much fun with you at the party. You
were laughing with us!” I guess my jeans and T-shirt clad form
spouting acerbic jokes was very different from the lab-coated, beetle-
eyed, Einstein-haired stereotype of a scientist in their heads.
It made me realize that a lot of people are not aware of scientists and more are unaware of all the
beautiful things that are observed within laboratories – secrets of the world that are constantly being
exposed through microscopes and telescopes, in clear liquids and bombastic reactions, in the
stratosphere or down in the deeps.
Around this time, I met Victoria Vesna, professor of design media arts at UCLA and the New School, and
the first question she asked me was “What are you passionate about in Science?” And I said, “Hox
genes” And she asked, “And what are Hox genes?” By now my hands were waving about in excitement,
“They are the genes that define what is your head and what is your tail. And are the same in all animals –
be it a fly, an elephant or humans.” That is how our conversations and collaborations (and friendship)
started and it went on to become an interactive media exhibit in Shanghai and Korea. Audiences in
museums walked into the Hox project and found their body plans being taken over by chicken limbs and
dragon tails (http://artsci.ucla.edu/hox).
Art|Science can be defined how you want. Artists are looking for
scientific methods to create new art – through glowing bacteria,
capturing images from electron microscopes or by studying flows of
lava from volcanoes. Others go into the lab to work with scientists in
visualizing concepts and making them more accessible to the lay-
public. Some artists offer commentary on how science and
technology impact culture, the environment and policy.
Primarily Art|Science is a dialog – between creative individuals that fosters thinking. While artists and
scientists receive very different training (and perhaps because of it), the collaboration between them
results in a unique expression of the logical and the abstract. I believe that with the current trend towards
super specializations, such discussions between artists and scientists are very important. It opens the
mind to different possibilities, differing perspectives and allows innovations to blossom.
Since that initial collaboration, Victoria and I have gone on to produce more projects and teach a class
together on Nanotechnology, Biotechnology and Art (at the New School for Design, Parsons;
www.nanobioart.com). Centers for Art|Science are slowly emerging (www.artsci.ucla.edu) and we have
also organized salons for informal gathering of artists and scientists to discuss their projects and ideas.
The Leonardo community (www.leonardo.info) and the National Academy of Sciences (DASER) are also
making a push towards an Art|Science forum. As a scientist, I feel I can whet my creative appetite while
working with an artist. While teaching media arts students, I find myself looking at science from an
entirely new perspective. I hope more artists and scientists will come together, out of their comfort zones
and explore the exciting possibilities of Art|Science.
Biodata: Siddharth Ramakrishnan is a Neuroscientist currently working in the field of Bioelectronics at
Columbia University in New York. He works on designing microchips to record from brain cells and using
proteins to generate electricity. As a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA (2006-2009) he studied the
development and physiology of reproductive neurons in the zebrafish brain. His PhD dissertation (UIC,
2005) addressed pattern generating networks in snails and how they were modulated to elicit various
behaviors. He co-teaches the Hybrid Worlds: Nano_biotech + Art course with Victoria Vesna and is
interested in relating scientific concepts to the larger public. His collaborations with artists and architects
have led to exhibitions and documentaries that blend the worlds of art and science. He was invited to
speak for DASER at the National Academy of Sciences in 2011. Currently he has been appointed Fellow
of the UCLA Art|Science center. More information can be found at www.siddharthramakrishnan.com