Wellcome to sci-art

The Wellcome Trust wants more art with its science. Is this a third way for the two cultures debate? Only if it produces masterpieces
December 18, 2004

At the grim north end of London's Gower Street rises the sleek new glass-clad headquarters of the Wellcome Trust. Britain's largest independent research-funding charity, the Wellcome invests over £400m a year in medical research. Among other things, it enabled John Sulston, at the head of the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, to make the single largest contribution to unravelling the human genome. It is a bastion of British science.

Luring you in, however, is a piece of art - an elegant, scintillating coil of glass spheres falling through a 30-metre high vertical void, and suspended on almost one million metres of fine stainless-steel wire. Visitors to the building, which opens officially in early December, usually assume it must illustrate DNA, memorialising Wellcome's role in Crick and Watson's discovery. In fact, Thomas Heatherwick's astonishing sculpture does not refer to science at all. It is called Bleigiessen, the name of a new year tradition in central Europe where molten lead is poured into water, producing peculiar shapes from which you tell your fortune for the coming year. The sculpture is meant to render permanent the split second a drop of metal is let fall. The idea is all poetry, but its accomplishment was all science: the installation alone required the collaboration of architects, designers, art historians, a construction manager, a photographer and a rally driver. The finished structure is an appropriate blessing on the house of Wellcome, but it is also a potent example of the kind of cultural activity that the Wellcome Trust champions: sci-art, the marriage of science and art in the creation of pieces that owe their creation to both.

Wellcome has announced a £20m commitment to its public engagement with science, at the core of which is this crossover. But sci-art is a recent and still controversial phenomenon, seen by some as mere window dressing for an otherwise haughty and inscrutable scientific establishment, by others as a grant-grabbing exercise for artists of no distinction. The genre's most outspoken critic is Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London, who insists that it is wrong-headed in principle to suggest any possible common purpose between professional artists and scientists.

In the last ten years, however, these acts of love-making across borders have grown in popularity. No longer displayed apologetically in a corridor of an alien institution, the art they have inspired is on show at major galleries - think of Marc Quinn's portrait of John Sulston, using his DNA, in the National Portrait Gallery, or Helen Chadwick's exquisite and disturbing work recently on show at the Barbican. Sci-art has also spread into the performing arts. In the Purcell Room in June, the neurophysiologist Mark Lythgoe presented a joint project, "Perception and Realities: the Science of Theatre," with playwright Caryl Churchill and director Katie Mitchell. Since its premier last June, choreographer Wayne McGregor's dazzling new piece, AtaXia, the result of months of work with neuropsychologists and physiologists, has been touring internationally. In November, performance artist Bobby Baker presented the consequences of her quizzical interrogations of dynamic cognitive behavioural therapy at the Barbican theatre. And Paul Broks (neuropsychologist, author and Prospect columnist) is currently working on a play about neuropsychological disorder with the theatre director Mick Gordon, as well as a film with director Ian Knox about the amnesiac jazz musician Pat Martino.

The commonplace notion of an artist in residence has now been matched by the idea of the scientist in residence. Neuroscientists Daniel Glaser and Patrick Haggard have spent time in residence at the ICA and the Royal Opera House respectively. It has got to the point where Sandra Kemp, director of research at the Royal College of Art, finds that "sci-art is no longer a meaningful term." Every student in her institution is involved in sci-art, so inextricable have technology and new media become from all forms of artistic creativity. "Future Face," which Kemp curated and is currently in the Wellcome Trust gallery at the Science Museum, juxtaposes portraits, masks and film stills with forensic facial reconstructions and anatomists' models.

For a long time it was left to maverick polymaths, like Oliver Sacks and Jonathan Miller, to remind us that CP Snow's divided sensibility was a damaging denial of human curiosity. And there were always individual artists - Susan Hiller, Cornelia Parker, Andy Goldsworthy, Damien Hirst - interested in straying across boundaries, and a few institutions, such as the Interalia Centre in Bristol and the Laboratory at the Ruskin school of drawing and fine art in Oxford, that promoted such journeys. But a key moment came in 1993 when Nicola Triscott, a physics-trained arts administrator, and founder of Arts Catalyst, went travelling in southern Africa. There she saw artists engaging with the rapidly changing world around them and she came back to Britain determined to foster a similar energy of engagement between art and the world she knew best - research physics.

Some of Triscott's early projects were funded by Siân Ede at the Calouste Gulbenkian foundation. Ede's background is in the arts, but she had become excited by her reading of popular science. "Scientists were using phrases we thought belonged to us: the 'meaning' of life, 'the nature of the self,'" she says. "And also words that artists had rejected: 'beauty' and 'elegance.'" With the small but - for artists - significant research funds at the foundation's disposal, Ede has become a committed marriage-broker, identifying artists and scientists she wants to get together, offering seed money for research and then helping fledgling projects to find further money to fly.

Ede's long-term ally in this project is Ken Arnold, head of public programmes at the Wellcome Trust. Arnold is himself a polymath, with a first degree in science and a second in history, and his aim is to join artists with scientists to communicate better with the public. "Art can provide unpredictable viewpoints from which to inspect or challenge scientific ideas and assumptions," he explains. The original sci-art award scheme, started in 1997 to search for projects from artists and scientists interested in working together, stimulated 120 applications, and each subsequent award scheme has continued to generate interest. Since then, other funding bodies such as Nesta have joined the game. At first artists took the lead, hungry for an engagement with science's subject matter and methodology, and lured by the urgency of the moral, social and ethical issues it raises. But increasingly scientists have seen the advantage of talking to a suspicious public through a friendly artistic mediator.

Arnold has always been sceptical that these marriages might produce work that is a true hybrid - or a form of creativity that is a "third way" of working between both art and science. In his view, it is crucial to retain the integrity of a discipline - that artists remember they are artists and scientists that they are scientists. Nevertheless, he does acknowledge another possibility - of occasionally finding "a masterpiece, a work that lifts off, that has gained its own spirit."

The question one is left with is what these interactions, apparently so beneficial for those who indulge in them, are worth to anyone else. Philip Campbell, editor of Nature, has described the goal of funding projects for the public appreciation of science as "de-inspiring political correctness." Others are more positive. Daniel Glaser, since his residency at the ICA, has started collaborating with dancers and argues that such work shows that science can be a two-way street - "that public engagement with science is not just public acceptance of science."

It is a robust and well-informed public that Arnold seeks to encourage. Located in the heart of academic London, the new Wellcome Centre aims to encourage appropriately rigorous encounters between science and art - "unelitist but also uncompromised" - where important questions that matter to both communities are addressed: the nature of the self, the significance of genes, what is mental health.

What the audience gets in return is new work, and sometimes serious new work which provides an alternative angle from which to approach both new science and new art.