Innovation at the Boundaries

7.2 / Art, Science, and Wonder

Innovation at the Boundaries

By Lynn Scarff October 29, 2015

Prologue: A New Approach to Scientific Encounters

Cat is fifteen, and she is not a scientist. She is absolutely sure of this. She is terrible at math, equations baffle her, and she has no interest in the life cycle of a cabbage butterfly. She is standing in a room with twenty-four other young people she has never met, for a week-long program at Science Gallery Dublin (SGD) at Trinity College, on the theme “Grow Your Own,” an exploration of synthetic biology. In the introductory session, Jane, the group leader, shows them the work E. Chromi (2009) by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King, which uses genetically engineered bacteria to enable one’s feces to act as a personal diagnostic tool; it is beautifully designed and thoughtfully explores the concept. The work’s designers and scientists—students at the Royal College of Art in London and the University of Cambridge—developed it at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, where they won the grand prize. Jane explains the process of E. Chromi’s development: how the designers and scientists collaborated, how they had three days (and nights) at iGEM to get the final demo together. Cat is intrigued; this kind of science is a long way from the life cycle of Pieris brassicae.1

Background of Science Gallery Dublin

In 2008, a parking lot in a forgotten corner of Dublin was transformed into a living experiment that would unleash the creative potential of art and science combined. Through a cutting-edge program that ignites creativity and discovery for a target audience of 15-to-25-year-olds, SGD encourages young people to learn through their interests. Since opening in 2008, two million visitors to the gallery have experienced thirty-four exhibitions on themes ranging from living art experiments to materials science and from the future of the human race to the future of play. The gallery develops an ever-changing program of exhibitions and events fueled by the expertise of scientists, researchers, students, artists, designers, inventors, creative thinkers, and entrepreneurs. The focus is on providing programs and experiences that allow visitors to participate and facilitate social connections—always providing an element of surprise.

Marc Quinn. Legion, 2005; installation view at BLOOD, Science Gallery Dublin. Courtesy of Science Gallery Dublin. 

Curatorial Experimentation

In the past ten years, a number of studios, lab spaces, universities, museums, and galleries have opened their programs to include elements of art-science collaborations. These may be a one-to-one experience between an artist and a scientist, working toward a major exhibition, or ongoing studio work. Spaces like SymbioticA in the University of Western Australia, the Royal College of Art’s Design Interaction masters program, and Le Laboratoire in Cambridge, Massachusetts offer students opportunities to collaborate on postgraduate work. Other spaces like Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana, the Waag Society in Amsterdam, and FutureLab at Ars Electronica in Linz promote opportunities for open collaboration. In addition, these spaces have events, workshops, and programs that reach broader public audiences, piquing the interest of a range of individuals and potential future collaborators.

To varying degrees, all of these projects invite the public into the creative process. In most cases, the public has a role as visitors who explore the results of these collaborations at exhibitions or events. Occasionally, as is the case at SGD, the audience and public are invited in during the creative process instead of at its conclusion.

At SGD, the curatorial process is based on the “Idea Funnel.” By first selecting an overarching theme that can be explored by artists, scientists, designers, engineers, technologists, humanities scholars, medical professionals, and theater producers, we initiate a process that weaves a tapestry of works and projects under one theme, as opposed to a more linear narrative.2 Thus a show called Blood: Not For the Faint-Hearted includes: a project that asks for visitors’ blood samples to contribute to research on multiple sclerosis (MS) at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Biochemistry and Immunology; an exhibit on vampirism (incorporating one of the Twilight novels by Stephenie Meyer); a remote-access research project opening SGD to recovering blood-cancer patients; an artwork titled STAINS™, a humorous riff on the trials of menstruation; and Legion (2005), a recent work by Marc Quinn. Crucially, the exhibition was assembled through an open call that invited works from a range of practitioners connected to or exploring the theme of blood. An expert group of curators then selected from these submissions to produce the show.

"E. Chromi: The Scatalog" by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, James King and the University of Cambridge iGEM 2009 team. Photo: Åsa Johannesson. Courtesy of Science Gallery Dublin.

As a result, an eighteen-year-old undergraduate of fine art from the local design college can potentially see her work or his friend’s work beside that of a world-renowned artist or that of a leading research scientist. Or a visiting high-school student (like Cat) can work on the same theme and topic that is explored by internationally recognized artists like Mark Quinn and by surgeons and immunologists at the forefront of their professions. Crucially, public engagement enters the process at the midpoint of the Idea Funnel and not at the endpoint. Visitors’ questions and explorations are critical elements in the innovation process; visitors may give direct feedback through mechanisms incorporated into the works, such as whispering worries into a recording device in Semi-Living Worry Dolls (1996) by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, leaving behind their bacteria in Kiss Culture (2009) by Maria Phelan, participating in open Community BioLab spaces in Grow Your Own… (2013), or bringing materials to Source (Dublin): Field of Water by Mary Coble. In addition, visitors can take part in a research experiment, in the annual “Lab in the Gallery” series, which revolves around such themes as attention, love, memory, happiness, fat, and life-logging. Each lab has up to ten experiments, to which visitors over the past seven years have donated their saliva, DNA, blood, and visual and motor skills.

The Importance of A New Model

With their specialized language and pedagogies, both science and art can be elusive and remain inaccessible to the casual browser or bystander. The silo mentality of disciplines tends to begin in the early high-school years, with young people self-identifying with either the arts or the sciences. These identities can remain hardwired as young people enter the adult years, influencing the choices they make. Interdisciplinary approaches can make science and art more accessible to a wider array of people, including those who do not already affiliate themselves with either discipline. This approach has the effect of increasing the “science capital” of visitors and appears to be especially important for low-income and less-advantaged youth who attend under-resourced schools that provide only rote- and text-based learning experiences.3 The work at Science Gallery Dublin and other settings has shown that science, when developed in compelling interdisciplinary ways, appeals to the aesthetic, social, and emotional lives of young people and thus encourages participation from youths who may not identify themselves as scientists or science learners but rather as artists, builders, poets, designers, or hackers. SGD art and science programs provide young people simultaneous experiences—of being an artist and a scientist, a designer and an entrepreneur—allowing them to try on identities and develop the creative, flexible thinking needed for twenty-first-century workplaces. For example, working in groups, young people may develop a product based on synthetic biology, an emerging field that imagines the types of products we may consume in the future. This kind of program intends to undo the pigeonholing of young people that occurs in the later adolescent years within schools and families.4

Maria Phelan. My Type, 2014; installation view at BLOOD, Science Gallery Dublin. Courtesy of Science Gallery Dublin.

However, all of this is meaningless if the visitor’s experience is not a compelling one. At its core, Science Gallery Dublin aims to create captivating experiences that connect with the audiences’ lives, offer them opportunities for genuine participation, and surprise visitors with content they would not expect to experience in a cultural space. The gallery’s agile and networked model of exhibition development works against the exclusivity often associated with the arts and sciences; it results in strong work united by a culturally resonant theme.

Many other institutions are incorporating a crowd-sourced exhibition model into their programs. Medialab-Prado in Madrid has an open call not just for works but also for teams to conceive and construct the themes of workshops, and public exhibitions welcome audiences to witness the works in progress. A variety of projects are united under a strong theme, which provides an anchor for the different aspects of the program. Similarly, Ars Electronica has experimented with a variety of art-science programs. Many of these are documented in Studiolab, a three-year project funded by the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme, involving a number of emerging art-science spaces throughout Europe.

Conclusion: What Have We Learned?

This open exhibition-development model has its limitations. Exhibitions are often works in progress, and their touring capabilities need serious consideration. The model works best for institutions with free entry, which is not always feasible. Some scientists think this model lacks rigor and would prefer more didactic exhibits. This model, which involves minimal signage and at times complex ideas, also relies on the ability of institutional mediators and explainers to engage visitors in conversation.

But most importantly, this model is very effective at engaging a young, tech-savvy audience. And it increases their science capital. By nurturing adaptive, transdisciplinary youths who are fluent in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM), it provides a meeting place for the creative, flexible thinkers of the future.


  1. The Latin name for the cabbage butterfly.
  2. Science Gallery Dublin has some examples of these themes.
  3. “Families Need Broader View of Science,” Science Council,
  4. A.C. Barton and K. Yang, “The Culture of Power and Science Education: Learning from Miguel,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 37, no. 8 (2000): 871–89. The authors refer to Paul Willis’s 1977 study, Learning To Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs.

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