Charlotte Warren-Gash is a British Science Association Media Fellow, funded by the Society for Applied Microbiology


Many consider that scientists and artists view the world from opposing perspectives, one reasoned and analytical, the other emotional and expressive. Both have their place in shaping our society and culture, but how can they work together for mutual enrichment? Several events at last week’s British Science Festival brought together scientists and artists to explore what happens when disciplines collide

The ethics of bio-art

Artist Anna Dumitriu is obsessed with the fear and awe inspired by bacteria. She makes artworks from biological materials such as DNA fragments and genetically modified bacteria. Her ‘MRSA quilt’, was created by embedding cotton calico squares into a bacterial growth medium containing a blue dye. Staphylococcus aureus bacteria took up the dye and stained the calico squares with different patterns, depending on their susceptibility to different antibiotics that were added to the mixture.

While they might be provoking and shocking, Anna’s artworks raise awareness of issues such as antimicrobial resistance and can facilitate dialogue between the wider public and scientists.

Now she wants to turn plasmids – fragments of DNA that may contain antimicrobial resistance genes – into a sculpture for public display. There is a small theoretical risk that plasmids from the artwork could be taken up by bacteria from visitors and lead to outbreaks of multi-drug resistant infections.

Art is rarely, if ever, regulated, whereas science projects working with the same biological materials are subject to stringent scrutiny. The event, ‘Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Displaying Resistance’, saw Anna and her scientific collaborator Dr Leena Al-Hassan presenting the art proposal to a research ethics committee more used to assessing scientific proposals.

 “This project attempted to move artists into the arena of ethical regulation, an arena that scientists and clinicians have had to get very used to”, commented Bobby Farsides, Professor of Clinical and Biomedical Ethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

In a lively discussion led by Professor Farsides, the ethics panel recognised the power and purpose of the proposal to address the timely issue of antimicrobial resistance. They felt that more work was needed, though, to quantify the risks and explore options for containing the artwork to make it safe for visitors.

The concept of danger in art is not new – a large sculpture falling on a visitor’s head could be catastrophic – so galleries are used to some level of risk assessment. Nevertheless, in this era of bio-art, the committee agreed that scientists and artists must work closely with galleries to create exciting pieces of art while fully considering their effects on visitors and the wider environment.

Communicating science through comics

For centuries, art has been a tool to enhance the public understanding of science. At the British Science Festival, a panel of writers and illustrators chaired by broadcast journalist Alex Fitch, debated the merits of using a newer creative format – comics – to explain scientific ideas to children.

“Science is practical and useful, but also presents an epic account of what is happening to us and what has happened throughout time”, said panel member Daniel Locke, a graphic illustrator. “We are all pre-programmed to expect a certain type of narrative from comics… grand big-scale dramas… and these are perfectly aligned with science”.

Panel members had used comics to depict diverse topics from the history of space to the human body, and dinosaurs to forensic science. They considered the format of comics, which combine panels of words and pictures, to be effective for engaging both adults and children with science.

Ecologist Chris Sandom, who has worked with Daniel on art-science projects, said: “I appreciate having different panels and different characters. It is a much more powerful way to tell a story about landscape and ecology (than just words or simple images)”.

Comics can also inspire children with the human stories behind scientific discoveries.

Writer and illustrator Sally Kindberg described the case of Tyco Brahe – a sixteenth century astronomer whose nose was cut off in a duel. His wealthy family replaced it with a golden nose. Sally uses a replica of the gold nose for teaching. “It is good to use those props to get kids asking ‘Who was he? What did he do?’“, she said.

Alex Frith, author of non-fiction children’s books at Usborne Publishing, agreed that firing children’s imaginations was more important than conveying all possible information about a topic. “You want to get them to think ‘I want to know about that’ rather than trying to make sure they understand everything”, he said.

The simplicity and clarity of images may also help scientists to hone their message. “With scientific language…you can sometimes hide behind things that you are not sure about. You can’t do that with a picture. You need to really know what you are trying to say”, commented Daniel.

True interdisciplinary working

These events showed science as inspiring works of art, as well as art educating and informing people about science. Scientific practices such as ethical regulation can enhance artists’ ways of working, and artists’ clarity of vision can improve scientists’ understanding of their own work.  

“Having a dialogue with people who think differently is hugely helpful”, said Dr Alex Conner from the University of Birmingham, who has worked with a dance company to incorporate scientific ideas about thought and movement into performances with primary school children. “An unexpected question can inform your research”, he added.

For Nicola Triscott, Artistic Director of the inter-disciplinary organisation Arts Catalyst, it is important that scientific research reflects real peoples’ concerns and that it is practical, not just theoretical.

Talking at the Festival, Nicola described one Arts Catalyst project, ‘Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone’, that used knowledge of local residents together with that of artists and scientists to inform its design.

The project was a series of investigations into the changing ecology, industry and society of the Thames estuary. Stories and memories contributed by members of the public helped to produce outputs such as the artwork ‘Graveyard of Lost Species’ – a wrecked fishing boat dredged from the mud that has been engraved with names of lost local species, occupations, dialects, words and recipes.

Nicola highlighted the spirit of enquiry and the search for knowledge and meaning as two meeting points between art and science. Drawing upon both disciplines to understand the world was a theme echoed by Daniel Locke. “Art helps to convey the scope, drama and majesty of science”, he said.