Artistic Integration in Science

Experimentation is an art form. It is a medium for both artists and scientists to express their interest and desire to learn more about the subject of experimentation. There’s a long-standing relationship between art and science, and their collaboration became most evident in the early 20th century, with the introduction of x-rays by Wilhelm Rontgen. This new invention allowed for a heightened level of insight in the biology of the human system, but this knowledge came at a cost. Repeated exposure to the electromagnetic radiation of the x-ray resulted in detrimental health effects. Seeing deeper into the human anatomy, body structure and functioning came at the cost of damage to the human body. Regardless of whether or not scientists and artists were aware of the adverse effects of the new invention, the trade off between gaining knowledge and sacrificing one’s physical condition formed a lasting concept of the ambiguous relationship between art, science, and nature.

Mel Chin’s reclamation project, “Revival Field” is an example of an artistic work that clearly benefits the agricultural, and by extension, the scientific world. He utilized knowledge of plants and their nutritional needs in order to attempt the detoxification of a barren plot of land. The aesthetic is in the final product. If the land eventually becomes revitalized with nutrients, his plot of land is a successful display of the efforts of his project. I think it’s very difficult to challenge the viability of this kind of experiment.

Similarly, it is difficult to undermine the value of Agnes Dene’s “Tree Mountain–A Living Time Capsule”. Her project required the use of mathematics and planning to allow for the planting of ten thousand trees by ten thousand unique individuals.

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain--A Living Time Capsule
Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain–A Living Time Capsule

Both of these experiments/projects are not at a cost to nature. They are both projects in which humans intervene by adding to the environment in an attempt to improve upon it. They just happen to go about this process in a manner which they hope is visually pleasing. Reclamation projects in general are quite beneficial, in that they collectively seem to oppose industrialization and show an inspired drive to keep in touch with nature. They prove that art and science may have a positive impact on the natural world, while still improving the scope of scientific knowledge and the artistic aesthetic. Lastly, they draw a line between two fields of study that at one point in time seemed to be worlds apart. in the 20th century, art became a less Romanticized topic. These two works show how art and ecology assist and benefit one another.

On the other hand, I believe that the gray area is more so in the fields of genetic modification. Eduardo Kac’s use of GFP genes from jellyfish to create the fluorescent rabbit Alba, is something very controversial among the scientific world for many reasons. One of the problems was that it involved the use of a living form, one that many humans are fond of, as an artistic canvas. It also involves the breaching of a very arbitrarily defined “natural order”. Because glow in the dark rabbits do not naturally exist in nature, many find it difficult to allow its artificial formation. To some it even seems like a scientist’s attempt at playing God.

However, if modifying a living creature is a crime against nature, doesn’t that potentially discount the viability of any animal experimentation ever? Tests on lab animals and rodents were necessary to create the scientific foundation we have today, and disagreeing with the principles of a glowing bunny challenges decades of scientific knowledge gained by taking advantage of other species. Perhaps none of that experimentation was justifiable, but it depends on how you see it.

Is this okay with you?
Is this okay with you?

It ultimately raises the question: to what extent is human intervention in nature justified? Where do we draw the line for how much we are willing to affect natural systems and living creatures?

-Paul Llanura


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