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The Synergy Project

The Synergy Project

A co-laboratory experiment among scientists and artists


Back in my high school, and maybe yours too, kids naturally separated into cliques—jocks, punks, preppies, hippies, and at the extremes of the mythical left- and right-hemisphere brain spectrum, nerds and the artsy types. The latter two never spoke to each other. The rest of us rarely talked to either of them. Too bad. We all shared more than we realized.

Similar thoughts had simmered for years in Whitney Bernstein, a graduate student in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography. So she initiated cross-clique conversations with Michael MacMahon, an art student, and Lizzie Kripke, who studies neuroscience and painting. Together, they fashioned an experiment called Synergy: Take eight artists, pair them with scientists, and get them talking with each other to create science-inspired works of art that could also spark interest in science in others.

The art that has emerged will be displayed Feb. 16 to June 2, 2013, at the Museum of Science in Boston. Participating artists and scientists will convene at the museum for panel discussions and tours, 1 to 3 p.m., March 3.

That’s the short story. You can read a longer one below. And you can view multimedia profiles of the scientist/artist pairings produced by Ari Daniel and Amanda Kowalski—four presented this week and four more next week. Shapiro earned a Ph.D. in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program studying killer whales and has since become a journalist/artist telling science stories, a living example of how the twain can meet.

Shaping Sound

Jonathan Fincke uses sound to investigate plankton in ocean.
Nathalie Miebach creates sculptures based on scientific data.
Mark McNulty, a sound artist, creates sound pieces based on scientific data.

From Bloom to Book

Sophie Clayton studies how ocean currents shape phytoplankton communities.
Elizabeth Halliday recently earned a Ph.D. in biological oceanography.
Janine Wong is an architect, graphic designer, and book artist.

Immensity in Minuteness

Jill McDermott is an MIT/WHOI graduate student who studies seafloor hydrothermal vents.
Bryan McFarlane is an artist who works on large-scale oil paintings.

Sacred Intersections

Ellie Bors studies deep-sea life.
Laurie Kaplowitz creates mixed-media drawings and paintings.


Synergy: A Collision of Creative Thinkers

Face it—many people still harbor stereotypical images of scientists and artists.

“When I was first introduced to a community of scientists,” said artist Michael MacMahon, “I had the same idea that everyone else has: They hang out in lab coats, put stuff in vials, get results, and everyone applauds. And people have the same views of artists: They just go and paint, and it’s magical, and everyone applauds.

“But it’s really a hard-fought process for scientists and artists to bring their work to completion,” MacMahon said in an interview with WCAI radio journalist Heather Goldstone in January. “You create a hypothesis, try to work at it, and sometimes you fail over and over again, and hopefully at the end of the day, you get something out of it.”

Among the scientists he met was Whitney Bernstein, a Ph.D. student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography. She had been thinking along the same lines.

“The process that artists follow to create their artwork has a lot of parallels with the thought process scientists follow,” she said. “They begin with an idea and then wrestle with that idea. They observe the world, try to make sense of it, interpret what they see, and come up with new insights about it. That takes a lot of creativity.”

The two found that they had been nurturing a similar cross-cultural idea: What would happen if they brought together scientists and artists to immerse themselves in each other’s worlds and create art works based on science? Thus was born a project they called Synergy.

On Feb. 16, the Museum of Science in Boston will open an exhibition of artwork from the project through June 2. On March 3, participating artists and scientists will convene at the museum for panel discussions and tours from 1 to 3 p.m.

Eureka moments in science and art

With seed funding from the Council for the Arts at MIT and an MIT Graduate Student Life Grant, Bernstein and MacMahon put out a call in early 2012 and soon were swamped with more than 100 applications from artists. They selected eight, based not only on their talent but on the artists’ conviction and enthusiasm about working with science and scientists.

“We chose artists who we thought could capture large and intangible ideas,” Bernstein said, recalling a class trip to Tahiti with a geology professor. Atop a mountain, looking at the whole island and the submerged coral reefs surrounding it, the students could visualize the entire concept of volcanic island formation, she said. “By visualizing this one picture in place, we could see a whole process through time.”

That’s what good works of art can do, too, Bernstein said. And that’s what she envisioned the artist/scientist pairs might create: “Something to get people excited, an access point to let people see what kinds of science are being done. Something that stimulates curiosity and conversation in those who will look at it.”

In May, the artists came to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institiution to talk with scientists, mostly graduate students. “We were terribly nervous that everything would blow up in our faces, and nobody would like each other,” MacMahon said.

But quite the opposite occurred. The artists toured laboratories and talked with scientists and were fascinated. Scientists and artists seem to pair up naturally.

Soon after, as MacMahon immersed himself in an MFA program, Lizzie Kripke came aboard as the project’s co-director. Kripke, who had worked as an artist-in-residence in a lab studying dynamic camouflage in cephalopods at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, said she “recognizes the huge potential for cross-illumination of the disciplines of art and science.” (She is currently enrolled in a dual degree program in neuroscience at Brown University and painting at the Rhode Island School of Design).

Then the collaborating began in earnest. Painter Laurie Kaplowitz, paired with graduate student Ellie Bors, who studies life at deep-sea vents, said, “Our initial conversations were just me trying to understand what the essence of her research was.”

Eventually Kaplowitz asked to see Bors’ lab notebooks. The graphs, numbers, and phrases in it inspired Kaplowitz. Using a technique of layering, glazing, and collaging rice paper, she built mixed-media drawings using abstract imagery based on DNA samples, words and phrases from Ellie’s notebooks, and interpretive fauna imagery created from photographs of life found at vents.

“It’s neat to be able to take what I saw as completely mundane and turn it into something that is visually appealing—in a way, like a humanization of what I do in the lab,” Bors said in an interview with science journalist Ari Daniel Shapiro. “I was a little anxious about it, because I was like, ‘Am I supposed to critique these?’ but it was kind of like getting to participate in sort of this sacred act of creating art.”

“Whenever two worlds that might not intersect, intersect, it’s a great thing,” Kaplowitz said.

Seeing the world with new eyes

Anastasia Azure, who combines weaving and metalsmithing to make jewelry and sculpture, worked with WHOI physical oceanographer Larry Pratt, who uses chaos theory to investigate the fluid dynamics of eddies, those spinning parcels of water that whirl off in your bathtub or from the Gulf Stream. Sharing an appreciation of geometric shapes, they first captured the essential motion of eddies with time-lapse photography of moving lights. Based on those images, Azure used hand-dyed fishing line woven on a traditional floor loom to create a sculpture “revealing the inner life of water’s turbulent motion and swirling beauty,” as she put it.

Karen Ristuben coupled with Sophie Chu, a chemical oceanographer who studies how ocean acidification, caused by rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, makes it more difficult for tiny sea snails at the heart of the marine food web to maintain their delicate shells. In her sculpture, Ristuben portrayed the snails’ shell “with an analogous object made of a similar chemical structure: an eggshell,” she said. “The eggshells were soaked in vinegar to reveal what acidification does to calcium carbonate shells, thus transforming chemistry into art and rendering a vivid representation of ocean acidification to the viewer.”

In similar veins, oceanographer Jonathan Fincke, who uses sound waves to identify plankton in the sea, shared his acoustic data with Nathalie Miebach, who fashioned an amusement park-like sculpture based on them—with a roller coaster (representing the Labrador Current), a carousel (symbolizing seasonal patterns in temperature and wave heights), and a ferris wheel (hinting at diurnal patterns in krill distributions). Sound artist Marc McNulty joined in, using Fincke’s data to create a sound piece.

Marine chemist Jill McDermott’s research, which takes her down in the submersible Alvin to explore deep-sea vents, inspired a series of large oil painting by Bryan MacFarlane that explores the beauty and mystery of that dark, alien environment from another perspective.

Oceanographer Tristan Kading gave an underwater tour of seagrass beds to artist Shawn Towne, whose media are video light and sound. Towne created his work, inspired by the sunlight filtering through the grass blades and the rhythmic movement of the grass in the currents.

Artist Joseph Ingoldsby used images of coral reefs collected by scientists Katie Shamberger, Hannah Barkley, and Alice Alpert to create a collage that captures what he called the “almost Shakespearian” story of corals “depicting the life, death, and resurrection of coral reefs in an age of extinction.”

Janine Wong, an architect, graphic designer, and book artist, collaborated with physical oceanographer Sophie Clayton and marine biologist Elizabeth Halliday. Using traditional printmaking techniques, Wong combined images of phytoplankton and poetry written by Halliday to create a handbound lithographic book that tells the ageless story of how marine plants bloom seasonally in the oceans.

“The dialogue between other disciplines opens up your ways of thinking and seeing,” Wong said.

And that, too, was a goal of the Synergy Project, Bernstein said. “It’s not just the end products that you might see in a gallery. It’s also the process of collaboration, a creative collision of thinkers, who learn from one another.”

The Synergy Project also received support from the Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE), the MIT Community Service Fund, the Brown University Creative Arts Council, the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography, and Sandra Mays.