Dan Weiskopf/ The examples of science-art interactions discussed so far have mostly identified science with basic research and its products (theories, data, images, etc.). But science is heterogeneous, and the emphasis on theory neglects other forms it can take. Beyond the classical division between theorists and experimentalists, we also need to add modelers and simulation-builders, who craft and manipulate computational analogs of real-world systems. Perhaps most significant for thinking about science-art collaborations, though, is the comparatively new field of translational research.
Translational science aims not at creating theories or models, but at concrete making. As the slogan has it, the goal is to move “from bench to bedside”, producing useful products and therapies derived from discoveries in basic science. Synthetic biology is the paradigmatic translational field. Its experiments are not geared towards exploring a domain of phenomena or seeking confirmation of a hypothesis, but towards discovering ways of synthesizing new drugs, organisms, materials, and technologies. To the extent that translational science can be understood as producing knowledge, its most direct product is practical knowledge about designing and creating highly tailored living systems. While it typically centers on biomedical applications, the expanded field of translational science includes wider community applications in addition to clinical ones. Needless to say, it’s also hoped that all of these will have lucrative commercial potential.
As Suzanne mentioned, a paradigm for cooperative creation between translational scientists and artists and designers is the Biodesign Challenge. A few of its highlighted projects include biomorphic architecture, Suzanne Lee’s “biocouture” (bacterially-derived textile products), and cheaply grown water filtration systems. These products of translational science are meant to be lived with: inhabited, used, worn, touched and manipulated, even ingested (as in the case of new synthesized foodstuffs). They need to be not just functional, but also desired. Some aspects of the role that design thinking plays in synthetic biology are explored in the volume “Synthetic Aesthetics” and other work by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.
Artists whose main goal is producing gallery-bound objects of distant contemplation may not see this as involving art at all. In a narrow and somewhat proprietary sense, this is probably right. But so what? The artworld as it exists now is arguably a historical oddity, and one whose continued existence is not guaranteed. As the recent surge of writing on everyday aesthetics has made clear, aesthetic experience overflows the boundaries of art per se. The made world that we inhabit is permeated by aesthetic qualities that are, to most people, more present and relevant than the hothouse flowers of the artworld.
Having said all that, my main objection to this argument is that it sketches a role that isn’t obviously limited to science. All design involves understanding and extending the potential ways that novel materials can be shaped and transformed, hence the artistic contribution here may not involve anything that engages specifically with the project of translational research as opposed to any other way of making things for use. On this general topic, Glenn Parson’s recent book on the philosophy of design is worth a look, as is the site Design Research Failures.