New Possibilities Blossom When Artists And Scientists Collaborate

Apr 29, 2015

Four scientists and four artists walk into a bar. It sounds like the setup to a joke. And as Wyoming Public Radio’s Micah Schweizer found out, the punch line is that scientists and artists actually can team up to create new and unexpected work.

Jeff Lockwood is a professor at the University of Wyoming. As a creative writer and an entomologist, his own career straddles the arts and the sciences.  So for what he called the Ucross-Pollination Experiment, he mixed up eight of his colleagues for 11 days last summer at the Ucross Foundation, to see what might happen.

“Four scientists and four artists walk into a bar,” he told an audience at Ucross. “The bartender lines up bottles of ecology, geology, physiology, microbiology, dance, sculpture, music, and poetry, along with glasses to shaped to hold playfulness, intimacy, confusion, and urgency. Then he tells them to make themselves a drink.”

But Lockwood says there was no guarantee the ‘drinks’ would actually taste any good. “I thought that with four pairs that we would have a really good chance at one of them working well, two of them working sort of, and one of them maybe not completely blowing up.”

In the end, though, he says all the scientist-artist pairs came up with exciting projects “and something that could not have been done otherwise,” like a ‘rock opera’ (pardon the pun) about Powder River Basin geology.

I feel like I see new things. I'm doing stuff that I wouldn't have otherwise done were it not for this collaboration.

Some projects—like the opera—look more like art, some look more like science, such as a project between a physiological ecologist and a dance choreographer. Michael Dillon studies bees—how they forage in flowers and how pesticides affect them. And if you watch bees closely, you see that they move in very particular ways. But scientists don’t have a good way to notate those movements.

Choreographers, like Rachael Shaw, do. It’s called Laban Movement Analysis. Shaw says it’s like sheet music for motion, instead of sound. “There’s a way to write down movements,” she explains. “And not just the literal, like, physical thing that’s happening, but the qualitative parts of it as well.”

“I could show you two boxes with bees,” says Dillon, “and you could look at one and look at the other, and you could tell me ‘This one’s sick.’ But you may not be able to tell me exactly what it is about the way those bees are moving that makes them seem sick, and this approach allows us to do that.”

Shaw has adapted Laban Movement Analysis to show how the bees in Dillon’s experiments are moving differently. So Shaw—the artist—helps Dillon—the scientist—to discover new data. “I mean, I feel like I see new things,” he says. “I’m doing stuff that I wouldn’t have otherwise done were it not for this collaboration.”

This motif by choreographer Rachael Shaw illustrates the bee's movements on the flower.
Credit Rachael Shaw

They plan to publish a paper about their study—probably the first one ever co-authored by a physiological ecologist and a choreographer—and to create a dance concert to convey the findings to the public.

For another study that germinated at the Ucross-Pollination Experiment, Dillon is working with sculptor Ashley Hope Carlisle to make research about bumblebees accessible to the public through interactive sculptures. And the National Science Foundation is funding that project to the tune of nearly a half million dollars.

Jeff Lockwood says that’s partly because the science is being translated through art. “So by combining the arts with the sciences, they became much more competitive for NSF funding, because science has to be a discourse with the public.”

On the other hand, last year, when Lockwood was looking to fund the Ucross-Pollination Experiment, some potential funders balked at the idea. “Wait a minute, this is vague, it’s uncertain, we don’t know exactly what’s gonna happen, you haven’t described the products. And I said, ‘Well, exactly. That’s exactly it.’”

Because, he says, this kind of work is risky. He knew it going into the experiment—it might not work. And many scientists and artists are stuck in their disciplines, as Rachael Shaw and Michael Dillon have discovered. “My colleagues are like, ‘What is this thing, this is crazy,’” laughs Dillon. “And her colleagues are the same thing: ‘Why are you wasting your time interacting with a scientist?’”

But Jeff Lockwood also points out: no risk, no reward. And Lockwood wants UW to embrace that attitude. He’d like the university to rethink the old divide between the arts and the sciences. Choreographer Rachael Shaw agrees: “And this is, like, a really big statement to make, but I feel like the boxes that we’ve been put in, in our society, it’s served us for a while, but I feel like as a culture, it’s not serving us anymore.”

Now, a new documentary film about the Ucross-Pollination Experiment is showing what can happen when people get out of their boxes. The film will premiere Thursday, April 30 at the Gryphon Theatre in Laramie. It travels to Sheridan on May 29 and on to Jackson on June 18. And through the Ucross-Pollination Experiment, maybe a new vision for the university is blooming.