Recently an illustrator & student, Sarah Gomes Munro, contacted me to see if I’d mind answering a few questions, about how my art relates to my scientific work, & also my disability/chronic illnesses. The questions provided a great opportunity to mull over & articulate how I feel on these subjects… & some strong feelings definitely surfaced! So with Sarah's permission, I'm sharing the questions & answers here, because I think it’s good to question ourselves as artists, scientists, or in whatever role(s) we find ourselves dedicating our time to… And to consider; why do I do that?
I'm a scientist as well as an artist. I have a PhD in neuropharmacology. I used to work in a lab as a PDRA alongside being an artist, as well as having been a data analyst working in tech. I don't see art and science as distinctly separate, and I don't see my work as a fusion for that reason. It implies there is a definite distinction between science and art, and to me there is no clear point where one stops and the other begins. Or in a more human sense, it implies that artist-me is separate from scientist-me. I don't believe that separation is real - I've talked about that before here. We share and exchange, and merge in a very natural way. So as an artist and a bioscientist, I emphatically do not see art and science as separated by solid boundaries.
I think both art and science - institutionally speaking, and sometimes culturally too - often exclude people like me. I'm not a man, I’m not well-off, but I am visibly disabled, and I'm from a working class background, I'm chronically ill, etc. When I look at people in positions of authority in both fields, there is still a preponderance of white, male, non-disabled, expensively educated people. I don’t see many people like me, or like many of my friends. Particularly, I think both disciplines are not very fond of the idea that people like me can be polymaths; although having white privilege means I probably don’t get the worst of the criticisms that polymaths who don’t fit the mould get. At any rate, this may be why I feel so strongly on the matters discussed here, along with having a desire to poke holes in the barriers many people still face to participation in art and science.
Questions & answers
1) Do you feel that science has filtered through to your art when it comes to design choices? I cannot help but note how a lot of your arrays or drawings have something cellullar about them and I was wondering if it was a conscious decision.
It has to be that my art coexists with science - I'm a scientist as well as an artist, there is no other way for me. I used to do human neural cell culture & draw while my experiments were incubating; so art & science, in terms of practice, have often very literally cohabited in my life. The nature of my scientific activity in terms of bio-safety has sometimes meant that some drawings couldn't leave the area they were made in; they could only exist within that scientific space. I like the idea that this made those spaces belong to both art and science, in a way that the institutions they were in had never intended. Perhaps I don't consciously decide or choose the cellular aspect you mentioned about my arrays because of that coexistence. Both art & science are native to me (or I am native to them, I don't know which way around that should be.) So it seems natural to me, it's just like breathing. I think this is one reason why the way art and science behave institutionally grates on me so much - and why I find the continued exclusion of certain demographic groups from much of the day-to-day management of art and science institutions to be very painful.
2) When you make interactive large scale work what is your ultimate aim? For there to be a game in which some science is involved or a way to engage with science differently from a textbook?
My aim is usually to tell a particular story. Art and science are both ways of investigating the world around us, and both are playful as well as serious... So there is an element of games, or of play, that is always present. But usually in my interactive large arrays, there is a specific thread that I am trying to lead people to, as well as encouraging them to play with artistic and scientific ideas. Also, I will admit; sometimes I am deliberately trying to poke holes in the idea that art and science exist as wholly separate entities. People express that idea often, and it is a conceptual barrier I want to puncture.
3) How has your art helped you understand your own physical limitations? Maybe it hasn't helped at all? Maybe it's given you some peace? I am sorry if this too private or painful a question, you are of course under no obligation to answer it (or any of them for that matter).
Art has continuously helped me manage and understand my physical illness - and my mental illnesses, for that matter. It helps in myriad ways. There is a very practical, visceral way in which art as work provides a distraction from chronic pain. I draw in hospital - it starts many discussions with clinical staff. Art is also a way to explore my disabled/chronically ill body, and how I navigate in the world in it. (Science provides that too - my chronic pain is neuropathic in origin and my PhD is in neuropharmacology, leading to many more discussions with people providing me with clinical care.)
Art gives me a way to express both the positive and negative aspects of being chronically ill, and it is a means to give something back to the disability community I'm now a part of. As well as sharing artwork, I'm currently investigating new ways to make it - e.g. arrays that are accessible online via being able to drag and drop tiles to rearrange them on a web page. I'm finding ways of providing audio and text description with my work too. Partly that is to facilitate this sharing within my community... But partly also because art in traditional spaces is often not physically accessible to me now. So why would I want to make art solely to be displayed in places that are inaccessible to me? Art and science as formal disciplines do not tolerate disability well, so why should I go along with that? I hope that changes, but in the the meantime I want to make my tiny contribution to puncturing those barriers, too.
4) Out of all your projects, which do you feel has come closest to something personal and true to you that you have tried to express?
That is a very difficult question, since I feel like I haven't tackled any projects that aren't personal to me in some way. Although illustration and commissioned works are rarely deeply personal, there is always some connection to projects, and I think as artists we always pour some of ourselves into projects that involve a lot of time, energy, and output. But projects have to get funded, artists have bills to pay. So I think there is always an element of compromise in project work; of meeting grant criteria, or coming up with end products that fund production of art. No project is 100 percent "me", without additional elements. Perhaps that isn't a bad thing for artists, and definitely for me... It seems reasonable that larger projects aren't only about my own personal expression, probably because art isn't separate from the rest of the world, and I take my inspiration from the world around me; so it seems fair.
Links to more about the specific projects incorporating the arrays Sarah mentioned;
Interview - CLOT art & science magazine, Apr 2016
Interview - PBS Newshour, Mar 2016
Interview - Aspex Gallery, Mar 2016