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Where Art Meets Science

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Toronto based organization Subtle Technologies has been playing a role in breaking down barriers between art and science for the past 16 years. As Director of Programs, I have had the opportunity over these years to meet a number of extremely fascinating, intelligent, and creative people. When my friend Pamela Brown and I started Subtle Technologies in 1998, I assumed artists and scientists were as far apart in terms of thinking as one could imagine. Over time I have grown to appreciate the similarities far more than the differences between the disciplines. Artists and scientists share an intense curiosity and interest in the world around them. I now see both camps as explorers uncovering the hidden, whether it be a concept unspoken in society or an unseen mechanism in a cell or galaxy. Each spring when we bring a roster of artists and scientists together at our annual festival, sparks fly. While artists and scientists may have different tools, language and skills, they share the common bond of curiosity.

It's been far easier to convince artists to participate in a dialogue with scientists than scientists with artists. In fact attracting scientists to participate in our festival is probably one of the most challenging aspects of my job. On the other hand those scientists who do come out of the lab to spend a weekend of creative exchange with artists tend to be extremely generous and open to collaboration with other disciplines. Scientists who may have been skeptical about the event leave transformed by the experience having learned how interested artists and the general public are in their research and what high levels of technical sophistication some artists employ in creating their work.

Each year we have a theme for our festival, one which is applicable to both art and science. Previous years we have investigated light, sustainability, medicine, physics, networks, and more, all through the lens of both artists and scientists. Last year I had just given the festival opening remarks when I received an urgent call. Our soon to be born baby was on her way. It was quite appropriate that the festival theme was biology, and rather than hearing all the wonderful presentations that year I witnessed a most incredible biological event, the birth of our daughter Frida.

One of last year's highlights was a discussion around the story of Henrietta Lacks and the immortal cell line that was unknowingly extracted from a tumor on her cervix in 1951. The story of Henrietta Lacks is a sad and complex one of racial discrimination and systemic abuse. Henrietta's immortal cell line became known in medical and scientific circles as HeLa cells. They are considered immortal because when given the proper nutrients these cells grow and multiply outside the body indefinitely. They have been used around the world since 1951 for important scientific and medical breakthroughs. This year we are taking a deeper look at the concept of immortality and have themed our festival around it. This seemed an appropriate theme in terms of my life experience considering last year I took my own baby steps towards immortality by passing along my genes to Frida.

One of the ways in which our organization strives to introduce artists to scientific techniques, tools and culture is to bring artists into science labs. Keeping in mind the theme of immortality we felt it would be appropriate this year to introduce artists to a tissue engineering lab where not only did they have the opportunity to grow tissues in a petri dish, they would be exposed to working with HeLa cells along with other immortal cell lines. Three weeks ago 16 artists donned lab coats and with the guidance of Australian bioartist Oron Catts learned the intricacies of tissue engineering. Oron is the director of SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, within the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia. Oron puts great emphasis on understanding the ethics behind this work, how the cells are derived, who owns them, and the source of the nutrients that sustain their life. The workshop took place in scientist Andrew Pelling's biophysics lab at the University of Ottawa. Andrew recognizes the value of working with and supporting artists to be involved in science based practices. His own work is pushing forward our knowledge of cells, cell structures, and how they respond to external forces. The artists came away with new skills and insights into how they might incorporate live tissues into their art practice. One of the artists who participated had MRI scans of his spine, printed a section on a 3D printer, and then during the workshop commenced to grow skin cells over the vertebrae.

We are determined to look into some of the distant places and crevices each festival theme can take us. There are numerous other ways to think about immortality and the festival will provide a window into them via workshops, screenings, exhibitions, and presentations. I would never have imagined sixteen years ago that we would still be running a festival today. Sixteen years doesn't make us immortal, but for me, it's all about the baby steps even if they become exponential.

This year's Subtle Technologies Festival will take place June 7 to 9, 2013. It will kick off with the opening of "The Beyond Category" at Beaver Hall Gallery (29 McCaul Street). Presentations will be at Ryerson University LIB 72 (350 Victoria Street) on Saturday and Sunday.
For more information, please visit subtletechnologies.com/festival