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Get to know the scientists behind the Roots of Curiosity

  1. 16.2.2015

    Beginning with a performance at CCB, and continuing with a conference dedicated to the symbiosis between art and science – The scientists behind The Roots of Curiosity, reflect on the outcome of this art-science project.

    This joint project between the CNP and the Cultural Centre of Belem (CCB), resulted in a performance held at the CCB in November, 2014, where artistic-scientific objects created by five pairs of scientists – artists were presented. Then, in January 2015, a conference was held, where the connection between art and science was explored in different angles, which included neuroesthetics and the current work done by other institutions such as the Wellcome Trust.

    Roots of Curiosity Conference. On the left: Semir Zeki. On the right, the 5 scientist-artist pairs.

    To find out about the personal prespective of the scientist involved in this project, we’ve interviewed the three mentors – Ana Rita Fonseca, Patricia Correia and Samuel Viana, and the five scientists of the pairs – Ana Pereira, Gil Costa, Maria Inês Vicente, Alex Gomez-Marin and Thiago Gouvea.

    Find out the answers in the Q&A below.

    Part 1. The three mentors.

    From the top: Ana Rita Fonseca, Samuel Viana Meyler, Patricia Correia

    From the top: Ana Rita Fonseca, Samuel Viana Meyler and Patricia Correia.

    The last time we spoke (link) you said that you were hoping to learn about the roots of curiosity by watching the pairs of scientists and artists work together. Did that happen? What did you learn?

    We think one of the take home messages for us was that before being labeled as an “artist” or as a “scientist”, we are simply animals that share a natural curiosity for the world we co-inhabit. How we decide to explore that curiosity and in what context are perhaps things we define later through experience, but the natural drive is there from the beginning and that was an amazing thing to witness and be reminded of.

    The work of the pairs resulted in the creation of objects that were displayed in the performance in November. Do you feel as though these objects reflect a symbiosis of art and science? Or do they lean more towards one field or the other? If so, why would that be?

    We think that as with everything, turning a conceptual idea into practice is very difficult!

    We see the performance as akin to trying to track a moving target – there were moments of very clear symbiosis between art and science, and then at times art or science took the “lead” momentarily, only for the relationship to invert again. Why is difficult to say – the creative process was an emergent one that had many unseen components. Perhaps context was also a factor: ultimately this was a performance in an artistic institute and this was influential in deciding what the eventual output would be.

    The conference had a good turnout. Were you surprised that so many people were interested in this topic?

    The conference was really rewarding for us. It was surprising to see a good amount of people in the auditorium in both days and even more to have many people interested in knowing more about our project and exploring future collaborations!

    Do you intend to continue to pursue this question further? Do you have any ideas how you would go about doing it?

    Someone suggested to do a Roots of Curiosity edition every year, with different pairs of artists-scientists. As appealing as it might seem to pursue it further, at the moment the project is anything but finished – we are still focusing our energy in writing a scientific paper on the idea and a book, together with the Roots of Curiosity team, to be published this fall. After that, we will see!

    Part 2. The five scientists.

    From the left: Thiago Gouvea, Ana Pereira, Gil Costa, Maria Inês Vicente and Alex Gomez-Marin.

    From the left: Thiago Gouvea, Ana Pereira, Gil Costa, Maria Inês Vicente and Alex Gomez-Marin.

    Why were you interested in being a part this project?

    Gil: First of all, for friendship and believing in Patricia, Rita and Sam´s project. Then, also, I thought it was a great opportunity to get back on stage, joining two parts of me which never actually merged in a single project. And it was also nice to have the chance to do research involving different skills with a theme close to my art. Because, yes, it was research, intense research.

    Thiago: I wanted to get a glimpse on how does the art world work. What motivates them; what are their criteria for progress and success (by which I do not mean fame); how do they interact and make it happen. I was also curious to know how all I gathered on my way till here would fit in.

    Maria: For me, science gains an important dimension by extending beyond the walls and the controlled environment of a lab, by working with society and learning with its complexity and multidimensionality. Therefore, a project that prioritises this aspect gains in advance a positive score in my decision. Moreover, the connection with art, and the opportunity of travelling to a ‘strange’ world, that would place me in a discomfort zone of surprise and inquietude, seemed liked a good path to walk.

    Alex: Because switching from physics to biology was not enough for me. True interdisciplinary means to be able to speak with, act like, and think as a scientist, an artist, a therapist, or a philosopher. In fact, all these labels just screw up reality. For instance, have you noticed that the second thing (the first is usually your name) that one asks you in a scientific encounter is what is “your position” (whether you are a postdoc, a PhD student, or a PI)? I am more and more tempted to let them know about “my momentum”...

    Did this project change the way you think about science?

    Alex: Not the way I think about science, but the way I do science. According to current standards, I am a worse scientist after this project because there are no figures of merit that take into consideration the experience I had with those wonderful people (perhaps the a-index…). According to my standards, I am not only a better scientist but also a more complete human being after that. Art (in particular working with a dancer) has taught me that I can dare to ask myself and answer myself the questions I pose to a rat or a fly in the lab. But it is more comfortable let the animal do it…

    Maria: It was quite surprising to observe that each of us (scientists) brought a different perspective, approach, concerns and ways of looking at science, which for me was simultaneously bewildering and revealing, leading me to question and reformulate what I had naively thought I considered the fundamental aspects and roles of science.

    Thiago: It did not. Some people seemed to expect otherwise. This doesn’t frustrate me, though. And it was nice to see artists changing the way they see science.

    Ana: By having to explain our work to people completely unrelated to it, that inquiry why we do the way we do, made me question some things again. An example was a discussion about behaviour boxes that made me think about the way we do behaviour neuroscience. We had to explain what they are, and why do we use them. What are controlled environments and observation. However, the discussion around it made me think more deeply in the fact that what we are actually doing is creating environments for the animal to do what we expect it to do and what we want to study. And if it doesn’t do it, if it behaves in another way, we assume it failed and we rebuilt the task. And most of the times we really don’t care about the “misbehaving”, that in fact is the behaviour of that animal given those conditions. These discussions forced me to be taken out of the behavioural box that is my work, and look at it from the outside.

    Gil: Not really. It did train a lot the way I communicate science to others, scientists but specially non-scientists. It forced me to do it, over and over again, in a way were different people can debate and generate ideas about. It also gave me the chance to talk about the brain and stuff we at the CNP marvel on to young kids and adolescents, which deal with knowledge and curiosity in a interesting fun way.

    Did this project change the way you think about art?

    Thiago: Yes. I understood that quality criteria, subjective as they may sound, are largely shared amongst them. One could say that, if not objectivity, there’s a good amount of intersubjectivity there. I understood they have their 'topics of research’, which they choose freely – arbitrarily, if you want. And that this freedom, this initial lack of constraint, doesn’t stop them from making progress in their investigation. I guess this simply reflects the “think-do-reassess” cycles any creative worker goes through, and that by paraphrasing it as “hypothesize-experiment-synthesize”, in a sort of p?-t??t?/p?-tä?t? mechanism, we scientists are sometimes fooled into thinking its our method. Our method doesn’t make us scientists; our criteria do.

    Maria: Not sure if it changed the way I think about art, but definitely having access to the subjective and humanistic side of the artist, to have the opportunity of understanding the motivations, objectives and concerns along the process had a great impact on my way at looking at an artistic object.

    Gil: More or less. I already had some experience on doing artistic work, on stage, since I spent a lot of time in my university days doing all sort of stuff at a theatre group (spent more time there then at my biology classes I have to confess) . But I guess nothing as creatively intense and time demanding as this one. I guess the research part needed to generate an artistic object was quite surprising, as opposed to the idea of a laid back artists just waiting for a muse to whisper at their ears.

    Ana: It gave me a different perspective on how it is done. I guess the initial part of creating a piece is way more exploratory than I thought, it is really like “I am interested in exploring this idea, let’s do something and see where it take us”. But in contrast, the final part of a piece, in this particular case the show at the CCB, is extremely methodic and organized. All details are thought, things and people have to be in exact places and talk in a precise timing.

    Alex: Yes. And also the way some of the artists produce art, I hope… It changed the way I think about art mainly because now I can base my ideas on concrete experience; they are not floating in the air. I can now ground my theories, biases, and preconceptions about art on a personal perception and memory, rather than on a piece of text or what somebody else might say about art.

    What was the biggest challenge for you in this project?

    Alex: To let the myth of the absolutely creative, brave, and disinterested artist fall. They are just like us (“zoon politikon”): they have to eat, shit, sell their stuff, do things they don’t like, be disciplined, cope with institutional bullshit, etc. After that, if there is some free spacetime, then the true “roots of curiosity” may sprout (but always indifferent to the cultural operating system). Actually, I believe the project really starts now, because now it is self-paced and not instructed anymore.

    Maria: There was a constant feeling of inquietude that accompanied me throughout the whole process about my role as a scientist, and about the role of science, in this project. The line of ‘what is science and what is not (and what does this mean?)’ was very difficult to draw. The feeling of being in a dimension different from a lab as a ‘representative of a scientist (and what does this mean?)’ was disquieting sometimes and the feeling of being lost, frustrated and having the need to question my original objectives and principles was frequent. Regarding the dialogue between artist and scientist the biggest challenge was in defining a path that would fulfill the intentions of both, which not always led to complementary, but to additive, solutions.

    Ana: After the first residency, me and Filipe (the pianist with whom I was working) created an audiovisual piece about a subject that interested both of us. It was related with microsilences, music and communication. This piece was a bit “closed”, full of references and not easy to integrate in the rest of the show. So they asked us to work on a different subject that honestly I was not particularly interested in explore. And finding the motivation for it was a big challenge, because I spend a lot of hours working on it. But I guess in the end was a good exercise, to give up on your particular interests to create something that converges with a bigger thing that is the work of the group.

    Gil: In my work with the actor, no big conceptual challenges, it was piece of cake. Overall, in the entire project, to stick to the original purpose of creating something balanced between neuroscience and art. Something really at the intersection. Looking at more practical terms, I guess mainly time and effort constraints were problematic. While the artists were doing this project almost in full time, we scientists had to keep up with our work, as much as possible, at the CNP. That was problematic, and I really have to thank my PI for allowing it to happen for me.

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