­­When Art meets Science: First impressions of the ESA-Ars Electronica residency programme

On 27 February, artist-in-residence Aoife van Linden Tol will start a three-week period at ESA's ESTEC technical centre, as part of ESA's art-science initiative in collaboration with Ars Electronica, Futurelab, and the European Digital Art and Science Network. In preparation for the residency, which will be covered via this blog, Ars Electronica Futurelab curator Maria Pfeifer shares her thoughts on the intersection between art and science triggered by her recent visit to ESTEC.

As the curator for artist residencies at Ars Electronica Futurelab, I not only had the opportunity to experience an important milestone for the ExoMars mission live at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany [1], but also to visit the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, The Netherlands.

Aoife van Linden Tol (left) and Maria Pfeifer (right) with scale models of the four spacecraft of ESA's Cluster mission at ESOC, in October 2016. Credit: Martin Hieslmair.

After accompanying Aoife van Linden Tol, the artist awarded the residency at ESA [2], on these two occasions in 2016, I am more convinced than ever that encounters between art and science are beneficial for both disciplines, and that these seemingly “opposite” disciplines have a larger common ground than you might expect.

Of course, it helped that the artist chosen for the first residency at ESA has a predisposition for physics and astronomy. Aoife van Linden Tol is a multi-disciplinary artist working primarily with explosive media. When she talks about her work, she always makes it clear that having to make the choice after leaving school between studying Art or Science was not easy for her. Her work is fused by her interests in nature, cosmology, chemistry, and physics. During our first visit to ESTEC it quickly became clear that she shares common ground with the research fellows and scientists working at ESTEC and naturally communicates with them on a level of mutual understanding.

The project that Aoife wants to realize within her residency is called Star Storm. It tackles the life cycle of stars and the physical processes of stellar formation and evolution across the Universe. The plan at this stage is that Aoife will use research from ESA about the composition, life cycle, magnetic behaviour, and light production within stars, including our Sun, to design a powerful and beautiful explosive performance.

Aoife will also explore and test new ways to produce the electrical charge needed to trigger each performance, using new technologies and potentially audience participation. Developing this part of the project will be the main focus of the second part of her residency, taking place in June 2017 at Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz, Austria.

Maria inside a full-sized replica of ESA's Columbus module attached to the International Space Station, located in ESTEC. Image courtesy A. van Linden Tol.

Looking back on the days spent at ESTEC in November 2016, I remember the warm welcome we received, the immense interest in our work at Ars Electronica and in Aoife’s work as an artist, and the willingness to share insight in a variety of topics of research, ranging from astrophysics to lunar exploration, and including solar physics, star formation, evolution of galaxies, cosmic time, and space weather. I remember discussions about space lawyers arguing over territorial aspects in outer space, and visiting the spacecraft testing facilities, which can simulate the cold of outer space and the exceptional heat that spacecraft encounter when they approach our Sun.

Most of all, I remember experiencing a spirit of open doors and curiosity, a willingness to share and connect, that exceeded my expectations by far, and that is not found so easily in many places. I also remember meeting so many interesting people, like Lucile Turc who has a PhD in astrophysics and also sings opera and heavy metal, and Bernard Foing, a planetary scientist who investigates the feasibility of sending interdisciplinary research teams to the far side of the Moon.

In the middle of this, an artist working with explosives in a creative way, who performs and dances, and studies cosmology from a lay perspective, didn't feel out of place. It seemed as if two branches of knowledge that had once been separated had moved back closer together. Art and science alike need a lot of “what if…?” questioning; a lot of prototyping, experimenting, and researching; a lot of trial and error; and a lot of focus – sometimes close to obsession. This common mindset dares to glance into the future and formulate solutions to problems that might not even have occurred yet.

As residents in scientific institutions, artists can offer an informed outsider's perspective on the research going on there and help to trigger new fields of impact, or effects on society. The need for scientists to communicate their research to “outsiders” also presents another opportunity to reach out to other fields too. The artist, in the role of a transdisciplinary joker, can highlight connections between research topics that usually wouldn’t be linked to one another.

Aoife presenting her research during an informal seminar with ESA space scientists during her visit to ESTEC in November 2016. Images courtesy A. van Linden Tol.

Needless to say, the fields of art and science are immensely heterogeneous – the Artist or the Scientist do not exist in absolute terms. Different interpretations and conclusions may collide even within the same discipline; each scientific branch has several sub-disciplines that often do not even agree on terms or abbreviations in their communication. Nevertheless, while witnessing the encounter between the artist – Aoife – and several ESA scientists, I realised that the label “Scientist” or “Artist” is becoming obsolete, when two people are sharing an interest and are talking to each other about their specific field of work. While communicating on a one-to-one basis, it is not unlikely that the artistic and scientific approaches find a way to mingle through the gaps and cracks of the disciplines, which are not as self-contained as they might seem at first glance.

My perspective after these two visits is that the residency at ESTEC might have all the right ingredients to become an endeavour that not only results in an artwork inspired by scientific facts and theories, but that also leaves an impact on the agency and the people that work there. What kind of impact could this be? I am looking forward to explore the answer to this question in detail after the residency.

Maria introducing Ars Electronica and the European Digital Art and Science Network to ESA space scientists during her visit to ESTEC in November 2016. Image courtesy A. van Linden Tol.

For now, I’d like to share just a few thoughts on that topic. The role of art in Art-and-Science-Collaborations is often seen as that of a communicator and mediator for difficult scientific topics: the artist becomes inspired by the experience and exchange with scientists and creates an artistic output that reaches a broader (or different) target group than other science communication experiences. Art can easily be speculative, it could for example serve as a tool to communicate scientific concepts that are not yet proven. Fair enough.

But to be precise, this would not really be an Art-and-Science-Collaboration, but rather a Science-to-Art-Transfer. Such Science-to-Art-Transfers might end up in a visualisation of scientific facts and figures or a “classic” artistic research project. Let’s say this is the basic or first stage of exchange. It goes mostly one way and the impact on the scientific institution hosting the residency might be – though overall a positive experience – rather modest.

A second or more advanced stage would be a true Art-and-Science-Collaboration, where we no longer focus on art and science as dissimilar disciplines but rather as two different systems of reception and discourse relating to one another. When focusing on the contact points between art and science rather than the differences, we find they emerge out of the same human need to explore and understand the world, to create, experiment, and be curious. They can both open a window to the world – whether it be the world surrounding us or the world we find within ourselves. They both long for searching off the beaten track for something true.

Maria Pfeifer, Ars Electronica Futurelab


[1] More about Aoife's and Maria's visit to ESOC on the Ars Electronica blog.
[2] The residency is realized in the framework of the European Digital Art and Science Network. This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This communication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *