The Frontal Cortex

Engineering a New Third Culture

I’ve discovered my new favorite example of artists and scientists working together. It features Cecil Balmond, an engineer for Arup, and Anish Kapoor, the Turner-Prize winning sculptor. They collaborated on Marsyas, the spectacular 2003 installation inside the Tate Modern. David Owen describes their collaboration in The New Yorker:

Kapoor came to feel an unusual imaginative harmony with Balmond. “The traditional role of the engineer is to perform, so to speak, the ideas of the architect, or of the artist, or whatever,” Kapoor told me not long ago. “But Cecil and I decided, quite clearly, that we were going to put that aside and invent together.” For five months, the two men spent half the week in an Arup office in London, engaged in a sort of high-level play date. They would sit at a table and sketch, while the Advanced Geometry Unit – a small engineering, architecture, and research practice that Balmond has set up within Arup – used computers to explore the structural ramifications of their ideas. Computer science has revolutionized work at many engineering firms, but Balmond feels that design software is often used lazily, or for mere effect, whereas he hopes that the A.G.U., which he calls “an investigation into a new aesthetic,” can make rational principles the basis for generating designs.

What strikes me about this cross-cultural interaction is that it’s a genuine interaction. The artist and the scientist are engaging in a sincere dialogue, and it’s the dialogue that made their creation possible. So much of what we call “third culture” is facile stuff. It’s artists using the double helix as a pretty design motif, or scientists quoting Shakespeare in their popular books. But collaborations like this, in which the two cultures meld into something entirely new, have real promise.

What are my dream art-science pairings? I’d put Richard Serra in a room with Edward Witten, and have them discuss the possibilities of 10 dimensions and curved space. Richard Powers would talk with Gerald Edelman about the strange nature of the self. Ian McEwan and Richard Axel would discuss scientific descriptions of consciousness. John Updike could talk with Steven Pinker about the uses of language. My list goes on and on. What artists and scientists would you pair together, and what problem would they work on?



  1. #1 robert Krulwich
    June 26, 2007

    How about Andy Goldsworthy and Aristotle?

  2. #2 Lanny Quarles
    August 9, 2007

    i have alot of science related art ideas
    but don’t know any scientists. i wish there were a site where artists and scientists could meet!

    i’d just like to suspend a field of tiny metallic snowflakes
    in a magnetic field

    or make a black iron hand a resistor
    that could turn red hot in a snowstorm
    and create steam

    i have these ideas non-stop!

    micro projection balloons tethered by em fields
    to create

    self-morphing/ or structure modulating ‘video molecules’

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