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Posted on 11/11/2007 by Amy Fung

The unnatural separation of art and science came to a head in various incarnations during the Art & Science symposium held November 9 – 10, 2007.

Kicking off with a keynote by physicist novelist Alan Lightman, the packed Bernard Snell hall in the Health Sciences Bldg, U of A campus was given a lot to disseminate over the nature of practicality in relation to aesthetics.

Broken down as science being the purification and identification of a “thing” in contrast to art’s purpose of reflecting and conjuring a “thing” – the common denominator, according to Lightman, is that both require imagination and compulsion.

It has been a pit between art and science since the very term “science” came into our lexicon during the 19th century, as historically, art does not deny the presence of natural truths and neither can be said of the reverse. Lightman advocates the extremes in his very self, being an accomplished physicists who loves the poetic undulations of language, but through his dual means, he argues for art and science as different tools, to be used in different ways, in our metaphorically toolbox of knowledge. To understand or to even exist as being in the world, we ultimately need to work with both together. Though our minds may prefer one strength over another, as do our economy and social values, he left off with his personal thought that I construe as: arts and culture needs to better translate their inherent value into capitalistic value in our day and age. This is the era we live in, and art as we have known it, must lobby itself as equally important as economic gain.


This thought was referred to throughout the rest of the symposium.


Highlights included Alan Bleakley’s presentation on Peninsula Medical Science’s groundbreaking work with bringing in the ambiguous and abstract to the repressed scientific world. Estrangement, he and others have argued via Shklovsky, jars you from your every day experience into experiencing something richer. [At this point, I can’t help but think of Sheila Heti’s interview with Dave Hickey that blasts this all from inside out in Nov/Dec’s issue of Believer . . . but carrying on]  Bleakley presents that art’s nature for complexity and unpredictability is cause-and-effect tamed by science who tries to control and distill information. Pushing for ambiguity as a resource for exploration rather than a hindrance, the separation of art and science, along with body and mind, is at the crux of our modern civilization.

Also exciting is news that Peninsula is now working with Turner prize nominee Christine Borland where “audiences” may make incisions into faux cadavers and stitch them up again. Though all agreed that there has been an issue over the medical world being easily fetishized by art, the issue also exposes interesting intersects of who is allowed to practice what.


Day 2:


Ellen Dissanayake argues art as an innate biological ritual. Though there’s no denying that every culture and creature in the animal kingdom has a ritual that is construed as artistic or creative, there is a gaping hole between the creation of art and art as life lived. Anthropologically, art was certainly more integrated with our everyday life, and one audience question wondered aloud what had replaced art as ritual in our lives? Technology. Technology has replaced, but that’s not to say technology is not artistic expression, as it holds possibilities many of us can never dream of. Graduating from cave paintings to nanotechnology in how we communicate should be embraced if we are to understand art as a biological trait. Interesting, but perhaps too broad in scope and definition of “art.”


Sid Fels, from west coast Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Center (MAGIC), brought along short videos much to the glee of many audience members. [If you missed, you can perhaps see them here: or] Revered for his human-computer interaction work, biomechanical modeling and intelligent agents, his work is one the most base level: cool. An interactive human sized kaleidoscope that was eventually bought by a centre for autistic children (some of the children, who have never displayed interest in playing before, were found playing in front of the machine); biomechanical gloves that “speak” on motion (I imagine it works similar to the theremin, but more acute and designed to hit the human vocal range instead). On another level, Fels body of work exemplifies the combination, and not opposition of art and science into the creation of an experience that is truly extraordinary to the human body and mind.




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