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What science and the arts can teach each other

Richard Watts

Not everyone can be Leonardo da Vinci, but working collaboratively across disciplines enriches us all.
What science and the arts can teach each other

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Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci is as famous for his art works as for his scientific mind, and though we can’t all be Italian geniuses, we can enrich the world by collaborating across the boundaries which divide the arts from the sciences.

‘Having different people coming from different perspectives and pushing each other to think differently adds a richness to our work,’ said Associate Professor Gene Moyle, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Creative Industries Faculty Head of Discipline – Dance.


‘If I’m sitting in one discipline, we only see it from the way in which we’re trained to see it, versus having two brains that have been trained in slightly different ways to look at the same issue from different perspectives. And I think that combination of building from one person to the next actually ends up with a far more innovative and creative and rich outcome than just solely looking at it from one perspective.’

Moyle is Co-Director of QUT’s DANscienCE Festival 2015, a National Science Week event featuring a range of collaborations between dance and science, including the role of dance in the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease and dementia, dance as a tool for teaching, dance and the brain, space and astronomy, and the prevention of dance injuries.

‘Dance is one of those art forms where you’re using everything, your brain and your body together … and I’m also a sports psychologist so I’m also looking at it from the perspective of, “We know that we need to exercise to stay healthy yet why do we still struggle with that?” So as an art form and also a social exercise, not just a movement exercise, I think it brings a whole range of facets that the neuroscientists are now identifying as critical – there’s so many more functional areas of the brain that are being used when you dance,’ she said.

In Canberra, another art-science collaboration is helping people explore some of life’s most challenging questions.

Presented by science-theatre company Boho Interactive, Best Festival Ever is part performance, part lecture, and part game; an easily digestible exploration of the science of complex systems and how we can manage the world around us.

‘We’re none of us scientists, we’re complete laymen, but we are kind of fascinated by these ideas from science, and the big questions in particular – climate change, global change, all the big issues facing us as a species – things on that scale which are huge and hard to get to grips with, and often a bit disempowering if you try to tackle them. But we find them fascinating. And science is a really good tool to get your head around those things,’ said Boho Interactive’s David Finnigan.

Drawing on skills and exercises developed by scientists exploring complex systems – such as a large river valley where the needs and actions of farmers upstream may be at odds with the needs of eco-tourism operators further downstream – Boho Interactive ensure that people can learn about the universe through the playful application of scientific techniques.

‘When you start talking about things at the planetary scale, seven billion people, water scarcity, greenhouse gases and so on, it’s just too big – it’s too much, it’s too abstract. But once you zoom in a bit and kind of get to something happening at the level of a small town, a beach town, a village, a school, an island or a music festival, things become a bit more tractable and we can start to get our heads around it.’

Learning from one another

So what value do such collaborations between artists and scientists have, and who benefits from them? Everyone, as it turns out.

‘We bring a kind of communication skill – that’s one thing that artists have that scientists don’t, I think – but they bring a kind of rigour. And as artists that’s really exciting,’ said Finnigan.  

‘We’re a bit tired of producing work more or less to satisfy ourselves – and I know that you’re working to satisfy the audience first and foremost – but it was quite a nice prompt for us as a company to have these scientists who could say of our work, “Actually no that’s wrong. It doesn’t matter if it feels good or looks good on stage; it’s incorrect. It doesn’t communicate the ideas fairly and appropriately.” So it’s really exciting for us and we learn so much each time that we do it.’

And while Boho Interactive’s work benefits from the application of scientific rigour, they can teach science something in return.

‘Science has a tool kit for understanding some of these big challenges, as I said before, but scientists aren’t trained communicators. They’ve got a very different set of skills. And in fact, as has become very evident in the last 25 years with the climate debate, the very practice of science as being open-minded and acknowledging uncertainty and so on has been really exploited by special interest groups. And scientists, with their prerogative of being fair and equal and so on, that kind of trips them up in the media-scape.

'So as artists, we can kind of fill in some of the gaps, and we can be as deceitful and manipulative as anyone, and use that on behalf of some of those scientists who maybe can’t advocate for themselves in the same way,’ Finnigan explained.

Gene Moyle agrees; ‘The arts and science, they’re both amazing creative professions. And it’s just that with art forms the focus is on sharing the story, about communicating and connecting with people in a particular way, and I think definitely scientists are really interested in learning from that.

‘I think we can both learn from each other, in that – in art forms and creative industries – we’re so used to a multi-disciplinary perspective; you work with multiple people in different disciplines or across disciplines to actually get to your end product.

‘And I think that scientists do do a lot of collaboration in that way but the ability for the different disciplines and lenses to be looking at the same issue, I think, is the way of the future. So you would have a physics lab or physicists working with a dancer or visual artist or another scientist [from a different field] working on a particular problem or issue for society; and just the ability to look at things through a different lens would be – and is – really helpful,’ she said.

Boho Interactive’s Best Festival Ever
The Street Theatre, Canberra   
12-22 August 2015

DANscienCE Festival 2015
QUT, Brisbane
21-23 August 2015

National Science Week
15-23 August 2015

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is also a member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts