My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

Science Is Not the Opposite of Art

A Matter of Softness, Juan M. Castro

Angela McQuillan is a mixed-media artist and curator based in Philadelphia. Her art practice as a whole is a study of various ways that art and science intersect and inform one another. Her ideas involve experiencing the living world with infinite curiosity and appreciation, while coming up with unique solutions to problems through artistic and scientific investigation. Angela is a former member of the Little Berlin collective and currently works as the Curator of the Esther Klein Gallery at The Science Center in University City.

-Jessie Hemmons, curator

BioArt is an avant garde art practice that is emerging and gaining popularity all over the world. By definition, BioArt is a practice where artists work with living organisms and life processes as a medium to create artwork. This work provides commentary and explores the cultural implications of biotechnological advancement, as well as presenting creative applications of technology to come up with unique solutions to problems.

GFP bunny
GFP Bunny, Eduardo Kac

You may be familiar with the work of the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, a very famous pioneer of BioArt who is known for creating a transgenic fluorescent green rabbit named Alba back in the year 2000. Or maybe you’ve heard about the “Victimless Leather” project in 2008, where a group of Australian artists from SymbioticA, directed by Oron Catts, grew a tiny coat made out of immortalized cells that had a leather-like texture. While these are some extreme examples, the world of BioArt is thriving . . . just not in Philadelphia.

Why is this? We have a huge community of artists who are interested in scientific topics. My theory is that we are lacking an entry point. The laboratory is not traditionally considered a place designated for art making, and many artists don’t even realize it is an option. Additionally, the average person cannot just walk into a science lab and start playing around with the equipment, so how are artists supposed to get started when they don’t have any previous experience? Accessibility is a major obstacle, but we are not lacking the scientists or research facilities. Philadelphia has many universities with high quality curriculum in the biological sciences for both undergraduates and graduate students. Our city also has many internationally known research centers that house cutting edge equipment and innovative technologies.

victimless leather
Victimless Leather, SymbioticA

What we need in Philadelphia is more collaboration between artists and scientists. We have all the tools, we just need to form more networks and pathways and learn how to share our resources. We need to make it clear that science is NOT the opposite of art, and in fact they very closely related on the creativity scale. We need to promote the idea that biomedia is an option. Universities need to offer BioArt courses and open up their labs to art students. Scientists who have specialized knowledge and equipment should take up an artist in residence.

We can look to other cities for inspiration. Genspace located in New York City, is a non-profit community lab space where people of all skill levels can learn their way around a science lab and work on their own projects without a science degree. The School of Visual Arts, also in NYC, has its very own BioArt Lab and degree program, along with a summer residency. SymbioticA is an artistic laboratory and research facility located at the University of Western Australia, dedicated to the intersection of art and biology. They offer a Master of Biological Arts degree program as well as artist residencies. The Finnish Society of Bioart located in Helsinki organizes the annual Ars Bioartica Residency Program where they promote the study of the Artic environment.

Bringing the conversation back to Philadelphia, there are plenty of issues in our city that can be addressed through a scientific approach to art. One example is trash pollution. While I love shopping at IKEA, I really hate particleboard. It doesn’t last long and it is also usually made with formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. Vacant lots in Philly are full of discarded particle board furniture. A new technology is exists where particle board is created from mushrooms. More specifically, the toxic binding agent in particle board is replaced with mycelium fungus, and the board literally grows into itself to form a super strong surface. It is also biodegradable. Amsterdam-based designer Erik Klarenbeek creates some amazing furniture using this process. Artists in Philadelphia could embrace this new form of biotechnology to create some interesting sculpture that brings awareness to new ways of sourcing building materials.

A Matter of Softness, Juan M. Castro
A Matter of Softness, Juan M. Castro

We do have a few good assets for artists interested in the sciences. One important space is the Esther Klein Gallery in University City, which exhibits artwork focused on science and technology. As the curator of EKG, I am always on the look-out for artists using biomedia in their work. Most recently, we had a BioArt exhibition featuring work by Juan M. Castro who travelled from Japan to show his work exploring protocells and artificial life. While I love bringing international artist to our city, I would love even more to cultivate a community of artists doing BioArt locally. A message to Philadelphia: we have all the resources, we just need to make the right connections.

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2 Comments on "Science Is Not the Opposite of Art"

2 years 1 month ago

Very interesting! we need more of these exhibitions…..

2 years 1 month ago

Vry interesting. Thanks!