Encounters: Contemporary Art-Science Collaborations in the UK

Webster, Stephen (2008). Encounters: Contemporary Art-Science Collaborations in the UK. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000eb14


This thesis is a study of a group of scientists who, in the years after 1995, undertook collaborative work with artists. Although the interface between art and science has many historical aspects, they are not the main concern of this study. Attention is focused instead on what these contemporary scientists may have gained from collaborating with artists.

The recent growth of funding for such collaborations, for example from the Wellcome Trust, is discussed, and four projects are described. In a study of the relevant literature, links are found between contemporary work at the art-science interface and recent attempts to promote the public engagement with science. However the main theoretical drive of the thesis draws its structure from philosophical and sociological sources, principally the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK).

In interview most scientists were explicit in their doubts that their artistic encounter could have any importance in their research life. Tacitly, however, they implied the opposite. The study finds several compelling cases of artists materially assisting scientific work. On a broader front, by examining the scientists' views on their professional culture, the thesis reveals that the scientists use the arts collaboration to explore views on a wide variety of metaphysical and professional issues. I argue that these explorations lead to changes in the way the scientists approach their professional life.

An important theme running through the thesis is the notion of ambivalence. Contradictions are found between the scientists' stated view of the method of science and what they actually do. The scientists were also anxious to describe themselves as people possessing some autonomy. The thesis concludes by considering whether the art-science collaboration should be encouraged both for its creative potential, and for its ability to bring scientists into more reflective relationships with science, and with society.

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