Art-Science Collaboration

Ok here is a little break from linear method’s talk!

As you may have guessed from the title of this blog, I identify myself as both a dancer and a scientist. I graduated from professional ballet school at the age of 17, and although I decided to “refocus” on science, my creative and artistic mind really never went to rest.  At first, I saw parallels between dance and some of what I study (the movement of an element through space and time), as well as parallels with regards to the development of a project. Both a choreographer and a scientist first study and learn the vocabulary and techniques of the field, and later on have use what they have learnt to push the boundaries. I was using my dance experience more mentally than physically.

One summer however, in kind of a productivity slump, I stumbled across AAAS Science Dance your PhD contest ( there is also a TED talk about it). I decided to use some of my dance background to explore my research themes and try to explain my work to my friends, and the wider public, physically. I found the experience to be quite fulfilling. On the one hand it allowed me to get over my productivity slump because I was exploring my research ideas in a non-computer and non-linear-thinking manner. On the other hand it allowed me to engage with a lot of people who might not have heard about my research otherwise. Even if every phrase in the choreography might not seem self-evident to every viewer, the short video was a wonderful way to start talking about my research with viewers. I was the runner-up for the social science category in the Science contest the year I entered and I was in Science magazine!

I then got the opportunity to even further explore P sustainability through art because the organizing committee at Arizona State University for the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit conference decided to pair artists and scientists for an exhibit at the closing ceremony of the summit. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Joshua White, a photographer. We did a spin of the “Got Milk?” commercial. Bones are made up of Calcium (which is in milk) but also phosphate (here is the piece). I also worked on a multimedia piece with Edgar Cardenas and Sandra Rodegher using images across the USA to show both the natural and human alteration of the P cycling, dance to represent how P moves in both natural and human dominated systems, and an interview audio track about what kids in the US knew about this essential resource (here is the piece).

I am not the only one to see parallels between the creative process in the arts and science (here), or the benefits of art-science collaborations to better engage with the public (here and here).  In fact, my friend Edgar Cardenas is formally studying the role of art in sustainability for his PhD, and is collaborating with a diversity of scientists along the way. I have used examples with regards to environmental issues, ecology, and sustainability, but such collaborations also arise in biology, neurophysiology, anthropology, and many other fields.

Although there are many mediums for art-science collaborations, I have my particular affinity for dance. If you listen to the first opening words of choreographer Wayne McGregor, you can see how dance is also like creating a paper for academics!  And later in the same little video clip we see parallels with the collaborative process (again a lot of parallels with interdisciplinary collaborations in academia), and to top it off, his piece is called CARBON life!!!! He also gives a great TED talk.

Blue-Green ribbon represents P and dancers can use it to show how we are linked through P cycling and how P flows between different actors in the food system and in ecosystems
Photo credit: Eve-Marie Beauchemin

Since the fall of 2011 I have been working on an even larger project. I have conceptualized a 45-minute piece with a narrator, 6 dancers, 1 composer and 2 pianists to really explore P cycling and sustainability. The longer piece can also be broken down into smaller pieces with altered narration text to be accessible to elementary, secondary, and university class settings. The goal of the P is for Play project is to inform the public about P cycling and management in a way by which they can engage with the information in an intellectual, but also an emotional, visual, and auditory way. This alternative multi-sensorial approach will allow a larger public to become cognizant about the importance of P and will permit a public already familiar with the P problematic to engage with the information in a different way, allowing them to conceptualize problems and solutions in a new way. Considering P is neither static in the environment or immobile in our food system dance is an interesting and appropriate medium to communicate the complex and mulch-scaler dynamics of P. I don’t have funding yet, but the plan exists and I will move forward with the work once the time is right (here is a teaser trailer for the project in English and in French).



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