Leiden University: ESOF ‘Art Exploring Science’ session will connect art and science

How can we view societal challenges from a different perspective? At the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), Robert Zwijnenberg, Emeritus Professor of Art and Science Interactions, will call for more collaboration between artists and scientists.

In 2022 Leiden is hosting ESOF: the biggest multidisciplinary science conference in Europe. The tenth edition will be held in Leiden from 13 to 16 July, in close collaboration with EuroScience in Strasbourg. ESOF2022 has seven themes: Sustainable Environment, Cultural Identities and Societal Transformation, Space for Science, Healthy Societies, Freedom and Responsibility of Science, Science and Business, and Sustainable Academic Careers.

Art exploring science
Zwijnenberg is moderating the ‘Art Exploring Science’ session within the ‘Cultural Identities and Societal Transformation’ theme. In this session, independent artists will be talking to professors, the director of Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht and the public. The keynote speaker within the same theme is Jennifer Willet, a Canadian artist, researcher and curator at the University of Windsor. ‘She’s a bioartist,’ says Zwijnenberg. ‘They’re artists who enter the lab to seek out connections with biotechnology from another perspective. Biotechnology is a very radical science, with all sorts of ethical and cultural problems. Genetic modification, for example. Imagine you can make egg cells from my skin cells so I can produce my own child.’ Willet looks at these processes from a different angle. She tries to bring biotechnology into the social and artistic domain. Zwijnenberg: ‘It’s important that she is talking at this conference, which will mainly be attended by natural and medical scientists.’

Zwijnenberg is really enthusiastic about the ESOF programme. ‘The topics focus on science and medicine and it is usually hard to get attention for the Faculty of Humanities. This has been achieved to a certain extent this time: humanities is obviously a broad field that deals with cultural issues, but it also looks at social issues such as ecology and equality in health.’

More than a painting
When researchers from the humanities and natural sciences come together with artists and the public, new perspectives emerge. Zwijnenberg believes it is important that they all step outside their own bubble. If humanities researchers are only concerned with the theory of their discipline and never with the imagination, they’ll never get very far. The same is true for artists – but then the other way round. Each field complements the other. And that is exactly what the ‘Art Exploring Science’ session is about. ‘The idea that art is more than an illustration or a painting on the wall hasn’t yet taken root with lots of people. They don’t always realise that art can engage with science and question theories and ideas. Art can offer a different perspective on how you view science.

The same is true for the debate in society. When you step into the experience of a book, work of art or installation, you experience an issue – scientific or otherwise – in a different way. It’s this aspect of art that Zwijnenberg wants to bring out in the session. The importance of culture and cultural heritage is also covered in the ‘Cultural Identities and Social Transformation’ theme. He hopes that the often lopsided relationship between artists and scientists can be rectified. And that new collaborations will arise.

Art research into biology, ecology and neuroscience
The following artists will speak at the ‘Art Exploring Science’ session:

Jacob van der Beugel will present human cells as a ‘biological landscape’. For Van der Beugel these works of art symbolise an exploration of the human genome (genetic material) and its ability to change. He will invite the audience to think about their own biological future and the process of human degeneration: the death of cells. (Source: Beelden aan Zee)
Marion Laval-Jeantet is an artist, writer and transcultural psychiatrist. She has been conducting research into aesthetics, ecology and transcultural psychiatry since 1991.
Lauryn Mannigel researches the politics of body odour by revealing feelings and assumptions that people have about other experiences of other people’s body odour. She draws on human perceptions of odour in psychology and neuroscience.
Agnieszka Wołodźko is a lecturer, writer and researcher who initiated BIOMATTERs, an artistic research programme that is exploring how to work with living matter. She has been teaching courses on post-humanism at the intersection of art, ethics and biotechnology since 2017.

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