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The Arts
10.07.09

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Phaedra

Writing Wrongs: The collaboration between chemist Scott Lokey and art professor E.G. Crichton drew on notes from one of Lokey's notebooks.

Art of Science, Science of Art

A new show at the Sesnon Gallery explodes our notions of right brain-left brain divisions of creative labor.

By Christina Waters


PROVOCATIVE and richly improvisational, "Full Disclosure," the new show at UCSC's Sesnon Gallery, was the brain child of chemistry professor Scott Lokey and art professor Melissa Gwyn, who arrived at UCSC in the same year and became interested in each other's work. What light could creative visualization shed on molecular spectroscopy? How is the beauty of a strand of DNA intrinsic to its meaning? And why--especially why--are failures, both in the studio and in the laboratory, productive of the next insight, a better paradigm, a clearer grasp?

Those questions and more began popping up as Gwyn and Lokey looked at each other's work, noticing the uncanny beauty of even the most mundane protein strands and observing how, by artistically reframing their experimental building blocks, scientists might be inclined to expand their assumptions.

"Working on this show was both more intriguing and more complicated than usual," admits Sesnon director Shelby Graham. "The science is going to end up looking like art and the art looking like science--it's exciting." As Graham sees it, "a failure in science can be much like a failure in art. Both make you see things differently."

Asked what might constitute "failure" in his field, Lokey responds that "failure can happen on multiple levels. It can be very mundane, like forgetting to label a sample." Simple human error. But there are other kinds of failure in science, he notes, failures that are essential to scientific progress. And these, Lokey observes, can lead to important paradigm shifts, such as when the failure to show that velocity was an absolute led to the discovery of relativity and its transformative effect upon physics.

Lokey found Gwyn's paintings of molecular compounds, especially her "metaphorical approach" to them, intriguing. "They added a new layer of meaning to my work, a sense of history and of personal history," he says. "Science is used to staying within the objective. The idea of bringing in an aesthetic component was new to me."

Lokey helped Gwyn figure out how to visualize chemical structure. She in turn offered the chemist a new lens through which to observe and think about his field. A conversation was born that soon spread. Biochemist Dave Deamer's photographs of protein structures, specifically nanopores, seemed a perfect cross-reference with Gwyn's paintings. Land photographer Norman Locks began working with environmentalist Brian Petersen. Elliot Anderson of Digital Art/New Media began creative experiments in league with toxicologist Russ Flegal. Art professor Frank Galuszka's large-scale paintings incorporate refractive shards of muscovite, a practice that prompted conversations with mathematician Ralph Abraham.

As the installation artwork by E.G. Crichton demonstrates, many scientists had no idea how their "failures" generated intriguing channels to inner awareness, or that broken test tubes and torn-up conclusions could yield interactive metaphors for their work as life--and art as work. "We started thinking about a larger dialogue," says Lokey, Crichton's collaborator, with a smile. "Something that would help scientists get outside their comfort zone." Crichton worked with a roomful of chemists and "got them talking about their failures. Not just discussing the data, but the process itself, which includes failures, as fundamentally interesting."

Lokey admits the collaborative process was a curiosity at first, "but when people come to the show they might find it eye-opening."


FULL DISCLOSURE is at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, Porter College, UCSC through Nov. 21. Reception Wednesday, Oct. 7, 4:30-6:30pm, followed by a panel discussion with artists and scientists; http://arts.ucsc.edu/sesnon/.


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