conVerge: joint ventures

Martin Walch

The 2 day symposium conVerge—where art and science meet was developed to complement the 2002 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art of the same title, part of the Adelaide Festival 2002. In the words of the organisers, “the intention of the symposium [was] to broaden dialogue, generate ideas and raise awareness of the contributions both artists and scientists can make to the larger challenges of our times.” To facilitate this, a series of 6 significant topics were identified, with each headlining a 2 and a half hour session delivered by key speakers and followed by extended discussion. I must declare my vested interest, being both a speaker at the symposium and an artist represented in the 2002 Biennial.

The sessions ran under the banners of Partnerships, Bioeconomics, Genomics, Image and Meaning, Knowledge Systems, and Ecology. The depth and diversity of the material presented generated strong debate and the range of discussion included bio-ethics and representation of the human body; analysis of the relationship between art, language, empirical science and nature; transgenics and gene-environment interactions; social justice as individual responsibility; as well as the impact of GM technologies and the universality of DNA as code. Significantly, a strong grounding was maintained through insights into the ethical responsibilities inherent in indigenous knowledge systems and cultural values, and the importance of recognising and respecting the inseparability of a culture from the environment in which it is embodied.

Running as an under-current to the symposium was an interrogation of the structure, function and results of collaborations between artists and scientists and their industrial and institutional patrons, and an investigation into the ways artists and scientists may contribute to culture through “project-based organisation of multi-disciplinary contributions” (Dr Terry Cutler, Chair, Australia Council for the Arts, “The Art of Collaboration”, conVerge catalogue essay).

In an era when the arts are reforming themselves into an industry which must now “duke it out” with the rest of corporate Australia on a level canvas, much can be learned from the experiences of creative people already working as double-agents in the empirical world. From their insights it appears that in the techno-mad “noughties” there will be new and expanding opportunities for artists and the arts in general, particularly as science works to re-establish its aesthetic kinship with art in order to lift its flagging public profile—and expand its access to funding.

It also appears that in order to survive long term in the new research environment, funding availability will only be maintained if the arts can learn new ways to evaluate their outcomes and provide empirical proof of the value of their cultural research. Such a detailed approach to understanding the ecology of culture would also increase the value of the public perception of the artist and their training, qualifications and experience, and deliver a strong argument for providing realistic budgets for artists and their projects. Artists must now also learn to negotiate contracts which clearly define the role and responsibilities of the artist and co-contributors, and which also adequately protect them and their access to the intellectual property they create. Sadly some artists have lost access to equipment and expertise when a good idea evolved into a good earner.

From experiences recounted it seems that developing face-to-face working relationships with co-contributors is a key element in the long term success of any project, and that strong and open channels of communication are essential to successful art outcomes which avoid the artist functioning simply as a window-dresser for glamorous new science and technology. Australian society faces a number of significant ecological and environmental issues over the next few decades, and artists and scientists are uniquely placed to make major contributions to public awareness through non-linear approaches to the visualisation, analysis and eventual solutions to these issues. I am convinced that opportunities have never been better for real collaborations between artists and scientists that produce great art and great science, and also demonstrate that, just as artistic practice is a mode of research that evolves through experiment, so too science employs processes that may be driven by aesthetic considerations.

Information about the conference and speakers is available through www.adelaidebiennial.com, which will also host an ongoing forum aimed at extending, developing and maintaining the debate.

conVerge Symposium, March 3 -4, Masonic Hall, Adelaide Festival, March 2-3

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 22

© Martin Walch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002