6&6: Art and Science Collaborations in Action

March 28, 2016
Maya L. Kapoor

It’s not unusual for working field biologists to seek out unique or sensitive places. It is unusual for those places to be art galleries. But that’s exactly what Ben Wilder, founding director of the Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers (N-Gen) was doing—via phone—when I stopped by his office at ENR2 on the University of Arizona campus recently. He was planning N-Gen’s first art show.

The individuals and institutes that make up N-Gen focus on research and conservation in the Sonoran Desert. N-Gen began in response to the ecological and cultural fragmentation researchers observed following U.S.-Mexico border fence construction. N-Gen also was a response to the increased specialization that Wilder and others witnessed in their fields of study.

Two men near the ocean look at a notebook together
6&6 Artists Ben Johnson and Tom Baumgartner find inspiration along the Gulf of California. (Photo: Chip Hedgcock)

For earlier generations of researchers, Wilder said, “the Sonoran Desert was this fabric. It was friends. It was people sharing and going out in the field together. Those of us in the beginning of our career looked around and wondered, ‘Where is that? Does that exist anymore? Are people interested in the desert anymore?’”

To answer that question, Wilder, a botanist and desert ecologist, organized the first N-Gen summit at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in 2012 in collaboration with three colleagues from Mexico. Would anyone want to attend? “The answer to the question, ‘Is this still of interest?’ was a resounding yes. Just through the roof,” Wilder recalled. Some 90 researchers, approximately half from Mexico and half from the U.S., took part in the first N-Gen summit.

Today, N-Gen is a professional network of more than 350 Sonoran Desert researchers from Mexico and the United States, led by a rotating board of directors. N-Gen strives, in the face of looming regional challenges, to maintain connections among the robust community of social and biological researchers spanning the Sonoran Desert and Gulf of California. Wilder explained that “Next Generation” refers not to the age of participants but to a new era of holistic research. “It’s really about connecting our heroes and this legacy we attempt to continue with the youngest—the most jovencito—researcher,” he said.

By participating in N-Gen, researchers can avoid focusing too narrowly within their disciplines. Members work together to tackle regional research challenges and conservation issues they would not be able to take on alone: During a recent bio blitz, leading scientific experts from throughout the Sonoran Desert region gathered in southern Baja to survey an area proposed for an open pit gold mine. Their report will paint for policymakers a clear image of what might be at stake ecologically if the mine is dug.

New Understandings of the Sonoran Desert

So why was a desert scientist in Tucson, planning an art show?

In 2014, 6&6—a new N-Gen initiative—paired six artists with six scientists to produce art that explored the biology of the Sonoran Desert and Gulf of California. Following months of fieldwork and discussion, the duos are currently elbows-deep—possibly literally, depending on their media—in environmental art projects. 6&6 plans to present the finished art pieces to the public through a Tucson art show in 2017. “Some of the art pieces are going to be about conservation, others the beauty or science of the desert. Visitors will come out of the show with a broad understanding of what this region is like,” Wilder said.

During a field trip to Punto Cirio, Mexico, the first 6&6 participants find a shady spot to discuss art-environment collaborations. (Photo: Chip Hedgcock)

Wilder believes an artistic approach may accomplish N-Gen’s broader mission—to promote a conservation ethic that matches the grandeur of the Sonoran Desert—better than direct science. When scientists work with local communities, they sometimes disappear with no return for the community, not even in the form of simply sharing research results. “The biggest thing is not having time,” Wilder said. “There are so many demands. You have to write the scientific paper. And then it’s a whole different skill set where you distill that jargon into something that the community can understand. That takes time too.”

But there’s more to 6&6 than communicating science. “Arts and science is a totally underutilized, under-recognized form of powerful collaborations,” Wilder said, noting that scientists and artists interested in the environment often investigate the same things, taking inspiration from similar field experiences and pursuing similar questions—albeit through different approaches. Wilder believes that collaborations such as 6&6—where artists and scientists influence each other’s ideas and work —lead both to improved communication by scientists and to new understandings of the Sonoran Desert.

The Sonoran Desert, Baja California, and Beyond

At first glance, 6&6—with its goal of developing a deeper appreciation of the Sonoran Desert through art and science collaborations—seems uniquely rooted in place. Yet the challenges of 6&6—What is it to really collaborate between arts and sciences? What are the challenges of time, resources, funding? What is it to be an artist or a scientist?—exist for art-science projects everywhere. And that’s exciting, Wilder said, because it means that 6&6 will be a valuable case study—from project planning to gallery events—for anyone interested in similar art and science collaborations.

As interest in 6&6 continues to grow, Wilder and N-Gen hope to form a second 6&6 cohort of artists and researchers. For the time being, the focus is on finding the space and small amount of funding needed to produce, mount, and show the art that the inaugural 6&6 duos are busy creating.

Find out more about 6&6—including the current cohort and projects—here: www.nextgensd6and6.com.

Banner images by Ben Johnson.