Header Art: “Unify” By GeoGlyphiks
I was recently interviewed by my friend Shannon Clay for one of her research projects as an Environmental Studies Masters Student at The Evergreen State College. Her project looked at the importance of art in sharing scientific knowledge with the general public…but our conversation took us deeper than I think she intended:

(For your listening pleasure while you read:)
"Paradigm Shift" - painted live by Michael Garfield at Wakarusa 2011 (Emancipator, Nadis Warriors, Thievery Corporation, STS9, Big Gigantic)
“Paradigm Shift” – painted live by Michael Garfield at Wakarusa Festival 2011

Shannon Clay: How would you define art and science, and when did you start expressing science through art?

Michael Garfield: Science is a formal structure for experimental inquiry, and art is the vehicle of expression…but of course, like most categories, these two terms have been more or less completely deconstructed in the last hundred years. They were really only separate for a few centuries, anyway – we’ve moved from differentiating the two, to recognizing the innumerable ways that the two interpenetrate one another. No act of science is without a creative moment, and no act of art is without its hypotheses and peer review…

I have always been primarily a scientific artist by disposition, drawing dinosaurs since I was two. Before I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Evolutionary Biology I was already working as a scientific illustrator for the Department of Herpetology at the University of Kansas, and doing occasional paleontological reconstructions for various other institutes. Even though I didn’t end up going on to pursue a PhD in evolutionary biology like I expected to, my ongoing studies in self-organization, chaos, complexity, ecology, developmental psychology, and numerous other scientific disciplines deeply affect the work I do – and in some sense, working outside of the traditional academic scaffolding has allowed me to browse a much wider library of literature, and allowed me to find connections between disciplines I’m not sure I could have, had I been totally preoccupied by some hyperspecialized student trajectory. So now I feel like my art is perhaps even more science-inspired than before, because I’m expressing what I understand as deeper truths, rooted in more thorough and comprehensive scientific research, than those I was articulating for scientific papers and academic presentations.

SC: Have you done any collaborative projects?

MG: I’ve done two projects that I’d consider “artist/scientist” collaborations:

1) All paleontological reconstruction is basically science art, because there is so much room for interpretation when you’re dealing with extinct animals. There’s a cultural preference to rein in the flights of fancy, but…I did a reconstruction of the walking and swimming gaits of flying reptiles, based on trackways and the skeleton of an animal comparable to what we think left those tracks.

2) And I’ve done a live painting that was commissioned to capture the essence of, and summarize, the work of the Chromatin Research Lab at Colorado State University. I took a timelapse movie of that painting and narrated it, and put it out in my newsletter to all of the people I’ve met while painting at concerts over the years, so they were all led through their interest in my work straight into a biology lecture. The department links to that movie from their homepage, now.

SC: In what ways is creating and expressing through art important in teaching and understanding the environment? For the general public as well as students, or those involved in the academic world?

MG: My work is largely an exploration of evolutionary processes and patterns – fractals, emergence, and the symbolic language of dreams that offers us clues to the workings of the human mind (and thus the world that mind experiences) – so there’s a strong theme of self-similarity, complementarity, and in general our context as living beings in a complex world. I want people thinking about these dynamic interrelations from which both the “natural” and “human” worlds emerge…I feel like it’s important for people, whether or not they are working within academia, to know where to place themselves in the cosmos and to recognize their lives as the action and experience of the universe.

SC: What are the difficulties of expressing scientific ideas through art? The benefits?

MG: It’s very much about bringing these abstractions home to our own lives and seeing how we fit into these larger patterns. It’s not always expressed directly through my work, but because I always have a public studio, setting up at shows, I get to rope people into conversations about this all the time. Probably the only difficulty I have with expressing scientific ideas through art is getting fellow scientists to recognize that our definitions have been so woefully limited. In fact, it seems to me like most science isn’t even considered science by people who’ve been through the whole process of higher education.

Science isn’t one thing – there is a fringe and a conventional core that don’t recognize each other’s legitimacy, for example, although both are indispensable aspects of the entire endeavor. One focuses on anomaly, and the other on the refinement of understanding through the lens of an established paradigm. And most of what is called science nowadays is definitely NOT – a better word for it would be engineering.

It seems to me like we go down the following road:

We find something we don’t understand, deny its existence for a few decades or centuries because it doesn’t fit the model, finally give in to the overwhelming evidence and have a phenomenon we can’t explain, change the model, and begin to work within the new model. By the time we understand something well enough to engineer with it, it becomes more of an art than a science, because we’re taking what was once mysterious terrain to be explored and are now manipulating it with a clearer sense of the results, and an interest in using that knowledge as a means to some creative end. It’s a completely different motivation.

Science and art, insofar as we can place them on two poles of a co-creative dyad, are respectively aligned with exploration and creation. But of course, work by people like George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on embodied cognition have made it painfully obvious that “exploration” and “creation” are less fixed than we would like to think – we never really know for certain whether we are finding knowledge or making it. So I don’t really regard either of these as eternal, essential categories…science and art are only distinct from one another to the degree that our cultures of science and art maintain distinct identities, and I’m not expecting that to last much longer.

SC: Yes, so…what are the benefits of reconnecting the two and how can we combine them? Talk about how we can do this in the scientific world…a lot of people in academia are very sincere about keeping science and the metaphysical separate.

MG: It’s like having two separate personae and you can’t show your friends one, and you can’t show your parents the other. You know you’re both, but those two lives can’t meet. It’s an awful place to be. Science and art are in the same place right now – they’re interwoven so profoundly that to speak of them as NEEDING to be bridged belies a horrible rift in the modern mind. Just as we grow up to understand that we’re large enough to adopt specific personae for various social environments and how that doesn’t threaten our ability to feel and think as unified beings, so too are we getting to a place where there isn’t “a dialogue between art and science,” but rather both are recognized as specific strategies that we may choose to adopt in order to frame our experience in a particular fashion appropriate to the place and time.

It’s not about building a bridge between art and science, any more than we can build a bridge between your left and right arm. That’s ridiculous. It’s about recognizing the larger context in which both of these methodologies emerge to answer specific needs in human culture and psychology. It’s about moving into an “integral” perspective, within which all of our various methods of inquiry – art and science being only two of many – precipitate as adaptive responses.

I really recommend reading Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, for a clearer understanding of this…as well as Coming Into Being by William Irwin Thompson. The entire program of postmodern philosophy was to prove – and they did – that there is no absolute methodology within which all other methods can be collapsed. Modern cognitive neuroscientists, for example, take brain scans at the same time that they solicit experiential reports. Do they say that the brain state they’re recording EXPLAINS the state of mind they’re having described to them? No! LIKE GOOD SCIENTISTS, they ferret out correlations without making unjustifiable assertions of causal influence. All they can say is that these two things happen together.

SC: This is a very important point you have made…but then there is money…and the scientists NEED money…

MG: Point being, anyone who attempts to reduce the entire world to quantitative data alone is horribly misguided, as is anyone who attempts to ignore it. These are the echoes we get when we shout two different methodologies into the same cavernous mystery. They’re in some sense untranslatable, because they’re both derivations of some larger truth that can only be known by articulating our various methods. Neither quantitative evidence nor qualitative evidence truly strikes at the heart of a phenomenon on its own. Francisco Varela, whose work on autopoeisis was so central to our current understanding of self-organizing systems, spent the better half of his life arguing this point, trying to bring irreducible experience back into the playing field. Not in a way that would erode the rigor of quantitative methods, but as a complement in order to more fully understand what we’re actually dealing with, here.

SC: I suppose I went too philosophical, and I am more exploring the ways to integrate “art” into the system more deeply than by just writing papers, why this is important, and how it can expand the realms of understanding and discovery.

MG: Bringing artists in like circus animals, like some fundamentally different creature, to translate science from on high for the lay audience – that’ll get us no closer to a true integration, which in any case already exists, whether or not the practitioners working within these two cultures actually recognize it. Art and science, interpretation and fact: these are two facets of every human experience from the very first moment. There is no fact without some interpretation that gives it meaning and context, and no interpretation that isn’t leaning on fact. And so art and science exist within one another already, regardless of how they dress when they come to the party.

"River To The Source" - painted live by Michael Garfield at Cervantes & Nelson Ledges Quarry Park
“River To The Source” – painted live by Michael Garfield at Cervantes & Nelson Ledges Quarry Park

SC: So my last question was about documentation of the feedback between the two. Do you have feedback mechanisms that give fact to your art? For example, a restoration ecologist works with a sculpture to celebrate and rehabilitate a wetlands…they are actually collecting data on the health of the water and within the structure of the restoration is the art. In other cases such as purely “art feedback” there are qualitative discoveries that can still be counted and statistically defined.

MG: Well, working in a public studio means my work is constantly subject to review while it’s under construction. Like a lab-grown organism whose genome we can tweak during development, the outcome of each piece is far from certain at its outset and is shaped to a considerable degree by the input of my audiences.

SC: …Or is that even necessary? To have quantifiable, countable feedback.

MG: There are valves through which I get feedback on how resonant a piece is with the zeitgeist – how effectively it captures the mood of the evening as agreed upon by the community in attendance. As far as quantitative data goes…the most I can say on that is that I could certainly capture and trend data on people’s comments if I were so inclined – I could look at patterns of interest and suggest answers to my various hypotheses about what it is that people are feeling resonance with in my work – I could note how various geometries and color schemes and patterns influence the feedback – and I do mind these things casually, although I haven’t found a reason to formalize all of that yet.

My art as a process is very much more in tune with the fringes of science than it is with engineering, in that open-ended attentiveness and intuition, whole-body thinking (“hunches,” etc.), and testimonial clues play a large part in directing my attention and energies. I’m very much about uprooting the unconscious through my work, and it’s really only much later than things get quantified.

SC: In the reverberations…thank you so much for taking your time to comment and discuss on these questions!

MG: Indeed! :)

Shannon Clay, a Masters Student of Environmental Studies at The Evergreen State College, has focused her life on the importance of cultural and ecological communities.  Believing in humanity’s ability to radically change our social structures, she has participated in a wide range of movements away from corporate control & towards a locally-based lifestyle. She embodies her philosophy through permacultural design, practice of the scientific method, and the manifestation of gatherings that promote world health and awareness. She currently works at The Flaming Eggplant Café – a student run, locally sourced, consensus-based grub spot on campus at Evergreen.

If you would like to offer your support, you can donate to Michael’s ongoing efforts via Paypal: