Art and science – “an unusual match made in heaven”

We speak to the artists and scientists behind the innovative new art exhibition that is creatively exploring the unique relationship between art and science.

As a biomedical discovery institute, the Francis Crick Institute is dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease – so it should seem like a stretch to find out that the Institute will soon be home to a very special art exhibition. From the 1st of February, running through the year to the 1st of December, the Francis Crick Institute will host their very first art exhibition; but as this is a scientific institute, there is a revolutionary twist. 

Appropriately titled Deconstructing Patterns: art and science in conversation, the exhibit features collaborations between Crick scientist and artists who are prominent within sculpture, film and spoken word. Deconstructing patterns will offer a look into the surprising and often beautiful world of microscopic patterns, which can only be revealed using powerful tools and technologies – these patterns are simply too small for the naked eye.

Exploring the different molecular and cellular patters studied at the Crick, the exhibition will take place over three zones, with each area having been worked on by a different artist, in collaboration with a scientist. Showing that artwork can often be the best way to express difficult or complex information, the pieces will offer an alternative – and perhaps more public – way of visualising and describing the forms and functions that the Crick scientists find so fascinating.

© Fiona Hanson

Ahead of the Deconstructing Patterns opening, DesignCurial were given the opportunity to question some of the artists and scientists behind the exhibition, gaining an insight to what must have been quite an interesting work process. Firstly, we heard from Bryony Benge-Abbot, the exhibit’s curator, to find out her thoughts this unique collaboration:

What were the highlights and challenges of bringing together the exhibition?

As with any exhibition, there have been a great number of people involved in developing Deconstructing Patterns, which has been the biggest challenge but also the most exciting and ultimately rewarding aspect. The approach I have taken with this exhibition – bringing in artists to collaborate with our scientists to develop the content – is a bold experiment for such a new institute so I can’t wait to see what exhibition visitors make of it. The day it opens to the public will certainly be a highlight for me!

What was it like, bringing scientists and artists together to work on the same project?

The exhibition was developed in close collaboration with Crick scientists and three very different creative partners: visual artist Helen Pynor, poet Sarah Howe and sound artist Chu-Li Shewring (of the Arts-Council-funded Poet in the City), and a group of young filmmakers taking part in a Children in Need funded project, called 1A Arts. We paired each creative partner with a different group of scientists, providing unique opportunities for them to explore the form and function of specific cellular and molecular patterns studied by their partner labs.

The formats for these exchanges ranged from informal discussions to intensive workshops, with each artist given the brief to develop works of art that would support the visitor journey into the minute world of biological patterns. The resulting commissions are therefore inspired by Crick research but do not explain it; rather, they offer alternative routes into the science, using metaphor, sound, sculpture and film to immerse visitors in the shape, form and intricacies of three very different patterns.

©  Dafni Hadjieconomou

What is your favourite part of the exhibition?

It is very hard to choose… but if I had to, then perhaps I would say the very first installation visitors experience in the gallery:  it sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. It is a sound piece called A New Music: Making Sense of the Noise by Chu-Li Shewring, which incorporates a poem written and recited by Sarah Howe and is inspired by their joint-investigation into the world of genomic patterning. The visitor steps inside suspended ‘sound pods’ to immerse themselves in a wonderful soundscape that repeats, stutters, unfolds and weaves fragments of ideas and discussions around the theme of searching for patterns within patterns.

It explores the form, function and rhythm of the genome, and highlights shared experiences of artist and scientist: the beauty and wonder of the natural world; the unknown as a source of inspiration; and the constant endeavour to find new ways to articulate the abstract with clarity and meaning. It is beautiful, confusing and intriguing all at the same time; upon hearing the piece for the first time, one of the scientists involved in the project said that it sounds like one has just stepped inside the genome.

Do you think that bringing together science and art is important? What can we learn from it?

Whilst the molecular and cellular patterns Crick scientists are studying are fundamental to human health and disease, they are also invisible to the naked eye - so are unfamiliar to most of us. Not only have the artists in this exhibition helped make the invisible visible; they have also captured a sense of awe and wonder at the minute patterns our scientists are studying, in such a way that would have been impossible if we had solely relied on scientific language and imagery. Artists can support researchers engage with those who may think that ‘science isn’t for them’, and can help to emphasise relevance, pique interest, raise new questions and encourage dialogue.

By bringing these two disciplines together, we have started to explore different ways that art and science can help to articulate, visualise and ultimately understand the abstract, minute patterns that are fundamental to our existence. We have also created space within which crossovers between art and science can be explored, such as the role of imagination and creativity, and exhibition visitors can listen in on some of the conversations that took place between the groups of artists and scientists, which reveal the mutual interest in and respect for each other’s work that emerged as the project evolved.

© Helen Pynor

Next, we found out how the artists and scientists felt about the exhibit and working together, starting with Helen Pynor, an Australian visual artist who created the Transforming Connections zone, and the Crick scientist she worked with, Iris Salecker:

(Helen) Did you feel that this was a complicated brief to work on? ?

The most interesting challenge of the brief was how to build a conceptual and aesthetic response to the lab’s research that responded specifically to the scientific content, but didn’t simply reiterate the scientific content in slightly altered language (for example by drawing on the considerable beauty of the microscopy language the lab is using). A core goal of my work was to introduce new conceptual or metaphoric layers - this is one of the core offers of an artistic process - that could extend the dialogue of the scientific content in new directions.

(Helen) What were the highlights of the project??

Collaborating with Group Leader Iris Salecker, and PhD student Emma Powell - both inspired scientists who convey the fascination of their scientific question - and immersing myself in the science story that the lab is devoted to deciphering, and devising an artistic response to this material. I was given privileged access to the lab’s research process and spent many fascinating hours in conversation with Iris and Emma, observing techniques being used in the lab, and handling living fly larva and preserved fly brains, which I used as the basis for different aspects of my creative response. 

© Fiona Hanson

(Iris) How much input did you have once Helen started her project?

Helen joined our lab for several months in 2017 to work on the project. She set up her desk in our office area, which at times served as her studio. During her stay with us, Helen got a hands-on experience on how to work with flies and prepare samples for confocal imaging. We had continuous discussions to help her to better understand our research and also interacted a lot during joint experiments and recordings. However, while steadily providing answers to Helen’s questions as they arose and gradually learning about Helen’s ideas and plans, we stepped back to not influence how she would represent our favourite model (the developing visual system of Drosophila), research and topics with the eyes and mind of an artist. 

(Iris) Do you think that bringing together science and art is important? 

Absolutely, it is done too rarely. I believe that the worlds of artists and scientists are not so far apart as people might think. Both worlds require a great deal of creativity and dedication of those in it. As scientists and artists, we have the freedom to work on what we love doing every day, exploring the new. I believe that bringing both worlds together is very powerful to find true answers, communicate our ideas and for mutual inspiration.

© Helen Pynor

Crick scientist Nate Goehring had the unique opportunity to work not only with an artist, but a group of students from 1A Arts – an annual summer film making project for 14-18 year olds - who worked together to create a cinematic-quality short film for the exhibition, called Selection.

(Nate) What was your role whilst working with the students?

Primarily, to provide inspiration for the young people, to get them thinking about how animals develop and expose them to some key concepts - things like symmetry and asymmetry, the importance of breaking symmetry to generate different types of cells and specifying geometric axes, the need to assign different cell identities, and how simple spatial rules can give rise to complex form.  We also dedicated some time to exposing them to the actual science we do.  For this project, it helped that there is a strong visual aspect in our work - we spend a lot of time using microscopes, looking at what cells do and how patterns form and even making movies of all these processes.  So we made sure the young people all got to spend time using the same microscopes we use in the lab and took the opportunity to show off our own ‘movies’.

After that, they went off and made the film and we waited to see what they came up with.   Some thought they might make a documentary on the science we are doing, but it was great to see them take advantage of their artistic freedom to come up with something entirely their own.  At the same time, I think they clearly internalised the core concepts, which you can see in the film - the importance of disrupting uniformity, defining identity, rules. They even incorporated the colour scheme we use to visualise patterns in cells, so I definitely see aspects of the lab in the film.

(Nate) What are the benefits of showing scientific findings in an artistic way?

A lot of people think the key to success in scientific research is just the experiments - but science is as much about communicating, sharing and engaging ideas.  It is important not to underestimate this aspect of our jobs, as it is these conversations that drive the questions we ask in the lab.  We are constantly talking about our research to different audiences, be that specialists in our own fields; scientists in other fields; students; public officials; members of the public; and donors.  Each audience is different, forcing you to think carefully about the types of jargon, assumptions, and conceptual frameworks you can use to communicate.  In the case of Selection we had to break down our science into its most basic concepts and think about what really defines the essence of our work...  and in the process, I think we developed new ways of talking and thinking about the science we do.

Nathan Goehring and A1 Arts young filmmakers 

(Raza, 1A Arts student) Did you feel that this was a complicated brief to work on?

I think at first, we saw the brief and panicked - none of us had ever worked on a brief, and I think most of us are used to working to our own creative limitations. At first, it almost felt like a rude awakening to our ‘independent creative minds’, but I think it was actually much more beneficial than we thought it would be in the beginning. 

After having a taster day with the scientists, we already had ideas of what we wanted to do and there were certain things that we wanted to interpret in a more open way so that a lot of people could understand it. However, when we first read [the brief], we thought it sounded like they wanted something very specific to what the scientists were doing, rather than a easy to understand general metaphor.  After talking over it with Bryony we realised that the things that we wanted to do were not that far apart from what they wanted. We just had to think on the same wavelength incorporate what we were good at.

(Raza) Do you think that bringing together science and art is important?

I think science and art are naturally mixing all the time. Especially in this day and age where science-fiction is one of the most popular genres [in fiction, films, etc.], and people’s interests and curiosity in science is so high. People always want to know what the future holds for us, and I think art makes it really digestible and easy to understand. Art is naturally the simplest way to convey the most complex emotions and science itself is often quite complex, so they end up being an unusual match made in heaven.


Offering potentially life-changing scientific insights and immersing visitors into the fascinating world of microscopic patterns, the Deconstructing Patterns: art and science in conversation is on at The Francis Crick Institute from 1st February – 1st December 2018. For more information on the Institute or the exhibition, click here.

Read more:

Marian Goodman Gallery announce ‘Entwined’

The art and science of Ernst Haeckel 

The Music Tunnel that's making sound waves

Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2023, All rights reserved.