Mysterious metaphors of “art–science”

BLOG: Utopian Pulses

Line drawing of two trees; the tree on the right is organically shaped with leaves, the left is drawn in straight angels representing a digital network
Artwork created in the PhD course: Transformative research for sustainability challenges (by Sina Bohm)

“Switching from one role to the other, I notice that there is some discrepancy in how I experience the world surrounding me… when one embraces the different perspectives, it can come to an enrichment of one’s horizon.”
Sina Bohm, 2021 [1]

How do scientists and artists experience the world differently? I’ve asked this question many times to groups of researchers. For scientists, I often hear things like: “systematic, analytical, knowledge, observation, critical, distance, problem-oriented…”. For artists: “intuitive, emotional, subconscious, personal, interactive, playful, engaged…”. Yet ensuing discussion always tears down these binaries, showing how both art and science are fueled by creativity, curiosity, and experimentation. And how most of these words cannot be confined to art or science alone; for example, art can be systematic, observational, problem-oriented; science can be interactive, engaged, emotional. The rise of “art-science” collaborations seeks a deeper entanglement of these worlds, yet how they come together is not so straightforward. This piece is about the divergent (often hidden) metaphors that guide how artistic and scientific worlds relate and the possibilities they may create.

— by Josie Chambers

I have loved to sing for as long as I can remember. My first performance was of rock n’ roll classic Rock around the Clock—at age six, poodle skirt swinging, (cardboard) guitar in hand. Yet I eventually chose to study biology (instead of music) at university. As my identity as “researcher” began to solidify, my identity as “artist” shrunk to the margins. This changed, however, over the past years. As my researcher identity deepened into the realms of creativity, imagination, futures, and pluralism, it became more inclusive of my artistic self. And my artistic self now inquires in ways that actively call upon my researcher self. I have discovered that these two selves are in fact not separate, and that it is precisely their interaction that is so enriching. As Susan Finley calls it, being “simultaneously artist-as-researcher and researcher-as-artist” [2].

Beyond my own story, we have seen a broad “educational turn in art” and “artistic turn in academic education” [3]. Art-science collaborations are on the rise everywhere. Yet, what these relations constitute in practice is less clear. The very term “art-science” is itself limiting. In fact, I usually avoid it. It can seem to imply that these are two entirely separate fields: scientists generate the knowledge; artists make the art. But many collaborations seek to go beyond this simple binary, exploring the potential that exists at the intersection of artistic and research practices.

Having learned of many such initiatives over the past year, I’ve increasingly noticed distinct assumptions in how artistic and scientific worlds meet. Assumptions that shape what is empowered: art vs. science? knowing vs. feeling? description vs. imagination? truth vs. contradictions? This piece explores the nature of these assumptions through the lens of metaphor. According to Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, it is through metaphors that we map our meaning of the world [4]. For example, climate change can be framed as a “war” to convey urgency and risk. However, this can backfire, such as by neglecting the role of care and collectivity in addressing climate issues [5].

So, what are some of the mysterious metaphors that live within efforts to entangle art and science?

Metaphor 1. Art as a vehicle to circulate scientific imagination

In The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye spots an interesting contradiction in how art and science tend to approach imagination [6]. He claims that in science, imagination is often the end point; the starting point being the world we live in. Methods are employed to gather data, scrutinize it, explain it. Imagination comes into play at the end—in translating results which can never be fully accurate into an imagined construct of the world. In contrast, he claims that art often begins with imagination—starting with the world we actively want to construct (not necessarily the world we see) and connecting this imaginative possibility with our everyday human experience. Frye summarizes: “You can see why we tend to think of the sciences as intellectual and the arts as emotional: one starts with the world as it is, the other with the world we want to have” [6, p. 23].

Of course, it is not so simple. Many artists seek to depict the world as it is, and scientists can surely investigate the world we desire. Furthermore, imagination can be seen as deeply at play in directing what topics scientists deem valuable to study in the first place. For example, in his blog Climate Confessions, Tim Stacey argues that choosing to invest “in technological solutions to climate change [in policy and science] amounts to magical thinking”. That said, when science seeks to study the world as it is and assumes that imagination only enters at the end of the process, this can form the basis for an “art-science” relation where art is turned into a vehicle to circulate scientific imagination.

Here, the role of science is to undergo a rigorous process to define what is worth imagining. Art then steps in to emotionally represent and circulate this imagination. Thus, the role of art is likened to a vehicle which powerfully serves and carries its driver–the imagination of the scientist. This “art-science” relationship is ubiquitous, such as when artists are hired to represent ideas developed by scientists to increase their societal traction—through visual art, theatre, sound and more. Of course, engaging in such interpretive artistic processes can also reshape and deepen the substance and feeling of scientific imagination. For example, Dr. Weliton Menário Costa won the 2024 Dance Your PhD competition by exploring his research on eastern grey kangaroo social dynamics through dance. In 2021, I similarly collaborated with musician Noor Noor to co-create a musical abstract of my paper on how co-productive agility can enable sustainability transformations, which gave space to embody and feel the tensions expressed in the paper.

Yet, this way of understanding “art-science” relations can also hold important limitations. It means that the potential of the artistic process to challenge and transform the (scientific) imagination is inherently stunted. This presumes a lack of imagination on the part of the artist. The politics of such an approach really depends on what (scientific) imagination is circulated, who or what this (dis)empowers in the world, and who has the power to define this? There is a risk that this approach to “art-science” furthers the (hegemonic, capitalist, colonial) imaginations of those with greater power and funds to specify what (scientific) questions and interpretations matter in the first place.

This leaves us with two good options. We can subvert whose imagination wields such a powerful vehicle, exploring how to redirect its power towards radical social and ecological justice. Or we can choose to step away from instrumentalizing the role of art in such relations, and venture towards an alternative metaphor…

Metaphor 2. Art as a lens to explore political imagination

This next metaphor transfers additional powers to the role of art in “art-science” relations, by explicitly recognizing its value as a method to surface and question diverse forms of imagination. This can be understood as a form of “research through art and design”, where art holds a clear investigative purpose [7]. Art can deeply enhance such inquiries, in its openness to more diverse ways of knowing, expressing and being.

For example, in a previous post, Notes on the utopian classroom, I describe bringing artistic methods into the course to enable students to surface and explore their own implicit notions of the future and how they relate to it, both conceptually and emotionally. These are relatively simple exercises in the context of education, yet diverse initiatives spanning research groups, artist collectives and social movements are experimenting with the power of art as a method of social inquiry to (re)articulate political imagination. For example, Empatheatre conducts (archival) research and designs theatrical spaces for solidarity and participatory justice in South Africa. In the Urban Futures Studio, researcher Lisette van Beek and artists Ekaterina Volkova and Julien Thomas (Perception Design Studio) collaboratively used artistic forms of inquiry to explore assumptions in Integrated Assessment modelling. They created A Future Manual for Future Models to provoke new conversations on the meaning and role of modelling.

Engaging with art as a lens to explore political imagination does also come with its challenges. While people have long experimented with the role of artistic methods to surface worldviews, we know less about how artistic-research practices can engender more radical forms of imagination in culturally sensitive ways. Having experimented with methods for surfacing imagination of (im)possible and (un)desirable futures in a variety of contexts, I have found that it is not so easy. It is often challenging for people to dig into their assumptions and navigate the frictions that arise with others. There is also a clear tension between the need to subject any surfaced imaginations to exhaustive social critique, and the need to ultimately empower imaginations if they are to become politically meaningful. An important question is therefore: how to prevent that such imaginative acts serve to entrench dominant forms of political imagination?

Metaphor 3. Artistic research as a turbulence to disrupt politics

We arrive at our third metaphor, which perhaps most deeply intertwines the roles of art and science. As expressed by Frye in The Educated Imagination:

You can’t distinguish the arts from the sciences by the mental processes the people in them use: they both operate on a mixture of hunch and common sense. A highly developed science and a highly developed art are very close together, psychologically and otherwise.[6]

But what does it mean for science and art to be “close together, psychologically and otherwise”? One possible way is for artistic and research practices to embrace a similar, much more open logic. The starting point of science can therefore be not to surface what is, but rather to combine the dual prowess of art and science to imagine how the world could be otherwise, in ways which expose the profound absurdity of the present. It’s a role for artistic research explicitly oriented towards radical imagination, or what Stephen Duncombe calls dreampolitik—politics as the art of the impossible [8].

Dreampolitik can mean so many different artistic-research approaches in practice, and the potential of this form is still relatively underexplored. Those experimenting with it are showing the power of immersion and prefiguration in radical imaginative acts. After all, it is not just about disrupting political imagination, but also disrupting how imagination is socially performed through established choreographies, and ultimately in political spaces. Having experimented with this form of artistic-research (albeit in very modest ways) has made me aware of just how difficult it is. My recent experiments with theatre (Rural Utopias), music (An experiment in musical dreaming), and visualization (Around the future in eighty worlds)—have all sought to in some way explore the disruptive power of the arts to engage with absurdities of the present and possibilities of the future. And numerous artistic/research/activist groups are experimenting in more ambitious ways, such as Framer Framed, The Institute of Radical Imagination, and Climaginaries, to name a few.

This metaphorical approach of relating art and research is also not without its difficulties and risks. Given the open provocative logic and tendency to shy away from seriously defining any specific political project or claim upfront, there can be a risk that such an act becomes politically salient in a harmful way, or otherwise remains disconnected from and thus irrelevant to political decision-making. The potential for artistic research to generate a turbulence to disrupt our dominant politics (and the priorities which often structure scientific work) awaits much further exploration.

Which metaphors are still mysterious?

The title of this piece is perhaps misleading. While we have explored metaphors that are in some sense hidden from us despite living deeply within our ever more common “art-science” relations, what about alternative metaphors? It is easy to quickly see the fuzzy boundaries between the presented metaphorical categories, and the many artistic-research approaches which do not fit within this framing. What about those approaches that extend beyond a vehicle, lens, or turbulence, and may be genuinely mysterious, or unknown to us? And how might those metaphors breathe new life into how we seek to entangle our artistic and research worlds?

[1] Sina Bohm (2021). Transformative Research Narrative, submitted as part of the PhD course Transformative Research for Sustainability Challenges in Wageningen University, Netherlands.

[2] Susan Finley and Gary Knowles (1995). Researcher as Artist/Artist as Researcher, Qualitative Inquiry, 1(1).

[3] Janneke Wesseling (2011). See it again, say it again: the artist as researcher: Introduction (Antennae).

[4] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1981). Metaphors we live by (University of Chicago Press).

[5] Matthew Lazin-Ryder (2021). The ongoing search for the climate change metaphor. (…)

[6] Northrop Frye (1964). The Educated Imagination (Indiana University Press).

[7] Christopher Frayling (1993). Research in art and design, Royal College of Art Research Papers, 1(1).

[8] Stephen Duncombe (2019). Dream or nightmare: reimagining politics in an age of fantasy (OR Books) (First published in 2007 as Dream: re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy by The New Press).