So you’re putting together a scientific conference. You’ve chosen your topic, location and date. You’ve booked a venue and lined up sources for coffee, lunch and cocktails. You have all your podiums in a row. You’re scouring the planet for the top experts in the field, hoping that you can get enough of them in one room at one time to spark a great conversation, launch a new initiative, maybe even shift a paradigm or two. Here’s something that might help you accomplish that: invite an artist.
Why should conferences invite artists? What do they bring to the table? I asked Regina Holliday, who has been live-painting at health care conferences for three years. “I disrupt them,” says Holliday. “I give them a different worldview,” adding that her “very visual” take on the proceedings of large meetings can cut through the massive pileup of verbal information that most conferences provide.
That outsider perspective is key, says Ben Lillie of TED, noting that “inviting people who engage with culture is crucial if a field wants to be relevant.” Some conferences have already figured this out. One of the most innovative meetings in the science field, TEDMED, an offshoot of TED that focuses on the future of health and medicine, featured not only top researchers, but a songwriter, a poet, and a dancer at its 2013 conference. Students and faculty from the Rhode Island School of Design painted portraits of all the speakers, which were used in printed materials and on-site.
The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) took the theme “The Beauty and Benefits of Science” for its 2013 meeting, which featured panels such as Art as a Way of Knowing and Integrating Art and Design into STEM Education. ScienceOnline 2013, a major gathering of science communicators, featured a broad range of panels on science-related art ranging from cartooning to video to rap. But these are exceptions. Most scientific conferences follow a predictable format: presentations by researchers, panel discussions and poster sessions. Breaking the mold requires a leap of imagination.
Regina Holliday was already painting murals about her own and others’ bruising experiences with the medical system, when Kevin Kruse of ePatient Connections asked her to speak at a meeting in 2010, and suggested she live-paint her interpretations of other speakers’ messages and auction off the finished paintings for charity. She hasn’t stopped since, attending dozens of meetings and conferences, including TEDMED, and generally producing a canvas a day based on the proceedings. At many such meetings, “the people on stage get to speak, but the people in the audience don’t. But I’m in the audience painting, so people talk to me,” says Holliday. She says that her role enables her to express the content of the people in the crowd as well as those on stage.
Of course, not every artist can whip up a masterpiece on-site. What works for Holliday, who paints with acrylics, would clearly not be practical for an artist working in clay, glass or fiber. However, less portable types of art can easily be incorporated into conferences in other ways, via projections or video, for example. If the venue allows, large-scale art can be installed ahead of time or exhibits coordinated at nearby spaces which could then host lunches or cocktail receptions for conference-goers.
Biology professor and frequent conference attendee Jonathan Eisen notes, “Art added to talks can be very powerful and allow or force people to think differently about the topic.” Instead of (or in addition to) text-based slides, presenters can show artwork relevant to their topics. For example, biologist Jack Gilbert of Argonne Labs often shows this piece that I painted based on his microbiome work when he speaks at meetings, and Eisen suggests that artwork could also be shown alongside research posters.
Certainly, there are areas of science in which art is directly relevant to the research. Visual and auditory processing, for example, are fields that practically demand art and music as an integral part of presentations of the science. But artists are working on many topics that would also fit easily into conference programs. I could see Jessica Beels’ sculpted paper neurons and viruses at SfN or ASM. Rebecca Kamen’s Elemental Garden, based on the periodic table, at ACS. Laura Moriarty’s geologic strata in encaustic at AGU. And imagine Angela Mele’s gorgeous paintings of slime molds presented to a room full of mycologists. Bliss!
Which brings up another point: Inviting artists to scientific conferences is not only good for scientists, it’s good for artists. Major scientific meetings like AAAS, ASM and ACS are attended by around 10,000 people every year. The mammoth SfN annual meeting brings in nearly 30,000. Meanwhile, an artist might work for years on a gallery show that only attracts a few hundred. Online exposure can expand the audience, certainly. But scientists continue to travel and pay to attend conferences in person, even when they can stream them live on their laptops for free. Why? Because the experience of being there – the conversations, the introductions, the total immersion in their chosen field – is worth the time and effort. This is true for artists too.
Artists at scientific conferences can do far more than show and discuss their work. They can talk about the science that inspires them, or in some cases the science they have developed to carry out their work. Some examples might be Franziska Schenk’s work on iridescent paint chemistry or Charlotte Jarvis’ development of a bio-engineered bacterium for an art project. They can explore ways that artwork can be used to communicate science to new audiences or to evoke a sense of wonder.
“Scientists desperately need to interact with artists more,” says Jonathan Eisen, who attends up to 10 scientific conferences a year. “One good way to do that is to have an artist invited to the meetings.”
Need some more suggestions for artists to invite? Start here