Introducing Proximities, a New Institute of the Environment Blog on Art & Environment

October 12, 2012
by Eric Magrane

What does it mean to engage in collaboration? When we speak of art-science collaboration, what does that really look like? Last fall I discussed this question with Judy Natal, artist in residence at Biosphere 2, and she made a distinction between collaborations and proximities. Judy speaks of collaboration as a process where individual viewpoints merge into one project with shared goals—where no single participant can call the work her/his own. For the purpose of this blog, I imagine proximity as a wider term, open to various close relationships between art and science. Collaboration can be quite difficult and rare. But what happens when we step back and begin by imagining and exploring, instead, the proximities between art and science and the proximities between art and environment? What kind of possibilities open up?

What is science? What is art? In this Proximities blog, I won’t always take the answer for granted. How might different fields of knowledge work together to address the large environmental perils that we are faced with here in the geologic Anthropocene? Is there a way that environmental science and art can work together to address climate change and shrinking biodiversity? Isn’t adaptation itself as much an artistic and creative process as a scientific process?

Nothing Separate by Eric Magrane

If we break down any remaining dualism between nature and culture—an important goal, even a necessity, for addressing an environment in crisis—we might even imagine art and science as different species of thought and method. To extend this metaphor, the proximities between art and science may be considered as forms of symbiotic relationship: mutualism (where both species benefit), commensalism (where one benefits and the other is unaffected) or even, in some cases, parasitism (where one benefits and the other is harmed). It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the hostilities between the cultures of science and the humanities that C.P. Snow decried in his now canonical Two Cultures in 1959 as a type of parasitism, or perhaps even a form of theoretical synnecrosis, in which both species are harmed. On the other hand, just because we want to encourage collaboration doesn’t mean we can always count interdisciplinarity as a de facto good in itself.

To engage with the spaces between disciplines—specifically, art and environmental science—we need a nuanced engagement with how collaboration and proximities can work and what they can do. Scientists and researchers often see artists and writers as a tool to communicate their research to the public. This is a very valuable and important relationship; however, if you’re a scientist, also engage artists as more than a means to translate or communicate your research to the public. In stepping outside of the primacy of your own work, you might find that artists may have novel methods of asking questions or of seeing connections that open up whole new ways of engaging and understanding scientific questions and data.

On the other hand, if you’re an artist, let go of any conception of science as rigid or overly reductionist and approach scientists as intimately engaged with the complex workings of the world and the big questions, and just as creative as artists. The real, physical, and tangible way with which scientists often engage with the world offers much to artists, and not just in materials and topics to use, but in a re-imagination of what the artistic process is and can be.

Here at the University of Arizona and in the larger Tucson community, many exciting proximities are opening up between art and science and art and environment. Recently, the UA’s School of Art hosted a series called "Present as Future: Science, Technology, and the Visual Arts" that brought world-renowned practitioners on the edges of art and science, such as pioneering eco-artists Helen and Newton Harrison. Prior to that, the University of Arizona Poetry Center ran a special series called “‘Oh Earth, Wait for Me’: Conversations about Art and Ecology.” Researchers in the School of Geography and Development are in the midst of a multi-site collaborative study of cutting edge artist-scientist collaborations. Here at the UA’s Institute of the Environment, the annual Eye on the Environment photo contest has been a great success, and future art and environment efforts are in the works.

Two owls make a home out of a plastic tube in a wash (2012 Eye on the Environment Best of Show) by Chris Summitt

In short, the time is ripe for these conversations to continue—in many forms—and these endeavors promise to situate the UA and Tucson as a world-renowned location for cutting-edge art and science and art and environment projects. This means both continuing to bring national and international artists and thinkers who engage with science and environmental themes to Tucson to interact with our University and local community, and continuing to develop structures on campus that encourage and support these proximities.

Barbara Morehouse, who wrote a series of excellent features on art and science for the Institute of the Environment, expressed it this way: “This is not about making scientists out of artists or vice versa; it is perhaps more about rethinking the Renaissance ideal of intellectual versatility in the context of very complicated times. It’s about developing a fully developed understanding of the environments we enjoy and on which we must necessarily depend.”

What I intend for this blog to do is highlight some of the places at the UA and in Tucson where those proximities are opening up and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. The next post, for example, will feature an interview with Paul Mirocha, artist in residence at Tumamoc Hill, which is managed by the UA College of Science and Pima County. My ultimate goal is that these posts will both highlight the excellent work on the edge of art and environment already being done here as well as help to instigate further proximities and collaborations. Please, of course, feel free to send me your ideas and comments: