Image credits, from the top left: Mary Enda Fraser; Dakota Nanton; Julie Maren; Kerry Koepping, Arctic Arts; Mehmet Berkmen; Kia Neill; Lynn Sanford, Palmer Lab with BioFrontiers
by Malinda Miller (Engl'92; MJour'98)
Filmmaker Tara Knight was in physicist Raymond Simmons' advanced microwave photonics group lab when a bin of objects in a junk pile caught her eye.
“What are those things?” asked Knight, an associate professor in CMCI’s Department of Critical Media Practices.
Simmonds works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and “those things” represented years of prototyping superconducting circuits for quantum computing, a process that requires working at the lowest temperatures in the universe.
This pile of “rejected” scientific artifacts confirmed for Knight something she already knew: Art studios and science labs are more similar than you may think.
“Artists are involved in a process of iteration and failure,” Knight says. “You try out a new idea. And you fail. And you fail, and you fail, and then find a part that succeeds and leads to a whole new process of experimentation. And that’s very much how our colleagues in the sciences work. That iterative testing, testing, failure and then finding things along the way that you didn’t necessarily intend.”
Knight is co-investigator for a new initiative—the Nature, Environment, Science & Technology (NEST) Studio for the Arts—along with Erin Espelie, an assistant professor in critical media practices and cinema studies.
And just as the word “nest” has many dimensions—it can be a noun or verb, and a thing or an action—so does NEST Studio for the Arts, which is an exhibition space and a network of collaborators.
As one of CU Boulder’s Grand Challenge initiatives, NEST is harnessing the symbiosis of artistic and scientific thinking.
The two professors have more than 20 institutional and individual partners who are creating new courses, conducting cross-disciplinary research, exhibiting work and co-hosting exhibits, events and workshops across campus and beyond. In addition to NIST, partnerships include the BioFrontiers Institute, the CU Museum of Natural History and the CU Art Museum.
Models of collaboration between artists and scientists often follow one of two models: artists turn to scientific research as a source of inspiration for creating an artwork, or scientists work with artists to translate their research into a form that is more understandable to the general public. Knight and Espelie would like to see more intersection in scientific research and artistic practice partnerships.
“One of our goals is to try and increase methodological crossover,” Espelie says. “What happens when each of these disciplines learns from and permanently influences another?”
NEST recently awarded graduate student fellowships to nine artist/scientist pairs for a joint project. “The wonderful thing we’re seeing is that they are not just working together; they are experimenting and empirically testing to find shared solutions,” Espelie says.
One of these teams developed a piece of art that will clean the air in toxic indoor environments such as nail salons. Camila Friedman-Gerlicz, an MFA candidate in art and art history, and Aaron Lamplugh, a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, incorporated porous materials such as activated carbon into ceramic surfaces to create air-cleaning art pieces that are simple and elegant.
Their piece, along with Simmonds’ artifacts from NIST, are on display in NEST’s fall exhibition, titled Embryonic. Featuring polymeric “embryos,” an alternative barn swallow habitat, and silk batiks created by a geologist and artist to demonstrate the fragility of the barrier islands, the exhibition is a visual display of the insights and disruptions made possible when scientific research and artistic practice intersect.