How I became an art[scient]ist: a tale of paradisciplinarity

François-Joseph Lapointe, Full Professor

Département de sciences biologiques, Université de Montréal

Abstract – In 1992, I earned a PhD in evolutionary biology. In 2012, I obtained a PhD in dance. In the process of becoming an art[scient]ist, I have encountered many pitfalls and roadblocks, but also greatly benefited from remarkable opportunities. In this paper, I reflect on my own experience to present an insider’s view of artscience, the rare tale of a scientist venturing in the field of art. I propose a roadmap for achieving paradisciplinarity; the parallel and symmetric practice of scientific and artistic activities. Namely, I present a list of sufficient and necessary conditions for the making of a true paradisciplinary art[scient]ist. This paper is not about collaborative artscience projects involving scientists and artists working on a common subject/object, it precisely concerns individuals who want to become successful art[scient]ists with dual careers, both as working scientists and performance/exhibiting artists.



The literature on artscience (including SEAD white papers) is filled with examples of collaborations among scientists and artists working towards a common objective. Success stories abound to demonstrate the power of transdisciplinary projects, and to promote interactions between disciplines in the arts, the sciences and the humanities. In the field of bioart alone, several books are presenting and discussing the tools of the trade – the conditions for a successful integration of art and biotechnology (Hauser, 2003; Anker & Nelkin, 2004; Bulatov, 2004; Poissant & Daubner, 2005; Kac, 2007; Pandilovski, 2008; Reichle, 2009; Poissant & Daubner, 2012). Based on the shear number of publications on the subject, it looks easy to make bioart. Yet, the vast majority of bioartists have no formal training in cell and molecular biology, genetics, or genomics. If artists have a genuine desire to make art with the tools of science, they must be willing to collaborate with researchers in the field. The first risk of such artscience projects is for the artists to think that they are doing science when they are participating in the process of science (Bunt, 2008).  The second risk of this interaction is to use the biologist as a technician, with no formal recognition of the scientific contribution to the creative process. This paper proposes one solution to this collaborative dilemma – paradisciplinarity. I am not concerned here with interdisciplinary projects involving several persons (scientists, engineers, artists, designers). I want to provide suggested actions for training single individuals as artists and scientists. Based on my own experience as a bioartist with two PhDs, in biology and dance, I believe to be qualified to present an insider’s view of paradisciplinarity.

Paradisciplinarity: what’s in a word?

Unlike inter-, multi-, cross- and transdisciplinary collaborations, which define various types of interactions among a group of (at least two) individuals working together on a common project (e.g. an artist and a scientist), paradisciplinarity applies to a single individual practicing two disciplines at the same time.

Two conditions are thus required for any given practice to be defined as paradisciplinary:

i) Parallelism – the two disciplines must be performed in parallel by the same individual, in a synchronous fashion (a neurobiologist who is also choreographer clearly meets this criterion; a choreographer who changed career to become a neurobiologist does not)

ii) Symmetry – the importance (involvement) of each disciplinary practice must be relatively symmetrical in the individual’s curriculum (a composer who publishes scientific papers in acoustics and also performs musical pieces in concert halls meets this second criterion; a physicist who publishes in scientific journal and also enjoys playing the piano at home does not)

Artscience provides a specific type of paradisciplinary research and creation. Strictly speaking, an art[scient]ist is an artist and a scientist at the same time. It corresponds to what Roger Malina (2010) defines as Type IV in his typology of artscience collaborations: individuals with dual careers both as working scientists and exhibiting artists (i.e. the classic/romantic model of the individual genius).

How to become an art[scient]ist?

The secret of artscience is in the making. The becoming of an art[scient]ist thus requires both formal training in scientific methods and artistic practices The process is painstaking, a difficult path paved with many pitfalls (too numerous to be listed here). It took me ten years to become an art[scient]ist. Or so I think. The paradisciplinary training of an individual in the arts and the sciences is just the first step. The true becoming of an art[scient]ist requires not only to master the technical tools and epistemological discourses of two trades at once, but ultimately to make significant contributions to both science and art. Short of this reciprocal relationship, one’s contributions will remain that of an artist doing “trivial science”, or that of a scientist making “trivial art” (Bunt 2008).

Assessing whether any given artscience practice is truly paradisciplinary relies on relevant metrics. When scientific and artistic contributions are analyzed separately, standard performance indices can be used (e.g., scientific papers, artworks, invited conferences, exhibitions, media coverage, grants, patents, etc.). The assessment of hybrid practices, however, may require new metrics to quantify the dual contributions of an art[scient]ist. Based on what factors should we measure the success of paradisciplinarity? Criteria of science, or criteria of art? Is the work having a lasting effect in the field or art, the field of science, or in both fields at once? How to compare the impact factor of a publication in Leonardo (or Nature) with the impact of a solo exhibition in a gallery (or MOMA)? Should qualitative measures be preferred over quantitative metrics?

How to become an art[scient]ist is an interesting question, but when to do it is even more important. Just as a child raised in two different languages will become fluent in both languages, a child exposed to science and art early on is more likely to understand and master the cultural differences of art and science. Yet, it’s never too late to learn a foreign language. Which one should come first? Art or science? I was trained as a scientist before obtaining a second degree in art, but the alternative path is also possible – and much more likely to be followed by bioartists. In practice, art[scient]ists rarely have a bicultural training and practice. Such a symmetrical and synchronous training is extremely unlikely. Which model should thus be promoted for training art[scient]ists? Art, then science? Science, then art? Art and science at once? It would be of great interest to assess the effects of various training scenarios using performance metrics from the fields of science and art.

The art[scient]ist as an experimenter

The modus operandi of artscience is to rely on a single creative process, artists and scientists being the “twin engines” of creativity working together towards the same goals (Wilson, 2010). Assuming that it is actually possible to participate in the research process in a similar way for both the artists and scientists, the question remains – how can a single person do it? As an art[scient]ist, I have encountered several roadblocks in my hybrid research, but I found one major commonality: experimentation is the meeting point of artscience practices. It is very important in the training of an art[scient]ist to enhance this experimental process and not just the product of the experiment (Edwards, 2010). In spite of cultural differences, experimentation is the antidote against the classical art/science dualism (see Snow, 1959). Claude Bernard (1865), the father of experimental medicine, defined scientific experimentation as “the art of obtaining rigorous and well-defined experiments”. For the artist Allan Kaprow (1993), experimentation is “the verification or testing of a principle”. One could easily swap these two definitions, which apply to both science and art. Experimentation represents the transversal dimension to any creative process, artistic of scientific. To become an art[scient]ist is, first and foremost, becoming an experimenter.

The art[scient]ist as a mediator

In theory, there is actually no difference in nature between experimental arts and sciences. The creative process, whatever it is, is part of the same quest – the act of experimenting, to make an experiment. The difficulty lies elsewhere, as to understand one another, artists must not only to master the experimental methodology of science, but the discourse of science (the opposite is also true for scientists venturing in artistic territories). For one, artists could study the scientific literature related to their areas of interest and develop a high level of skills and knowledge that enable them to become active practitioners in research. They would need at least to consider the scientific techniques of experimental design, which improve the clarity of the results (Wilson, 2005, p. 350). In parallel, the scientists would benefit from finding a way to be open to contributions from researchers from artistic disciplines. They would need to find a way to temporarily suspend the rigidity of their expectations regarding methodological protocols to accommodate non-traditional practices, results and technologies from other fields (Wilson, 2005, p. 351). When it will be possible for scientists to understand the work of artists without any prejudice and for artists in turn to appreciate the science at fair value, both areas will benefit from their epistemological differences. Nobody knows if science can progress without art, or if art can progress without science. Their mutual progress does not depend on their interaction, but the interaction governs the progress (Richmond, 1984). To establish a better interaction between researchers from arts and sciences, it is imperative for one to master the language of the other. In this particular context, the individual trained in paradisciplinarity plays a pivotal role; that of a bicultural individual who can speak both languages. To become an art[scient]ist is becoming a mediator, a translator, an interpreter, an intercessor between two cultures.

Suggested actions

Given that (i) training an art[scient]ist is long-time process, (ii) that most art[scient]ist will have primary training in one field (art or science) followed by secondary training in the other field, and (iii) that different obstacles are impeding that secondary training and practice, I have established a list of sufficient and necessary (desirable) conditions for the making of an art[scient]ist. This (partial) list requires for any given bona fide art[scient]ist to: give scientific talks at arts conferences; show art/performance works at scientific conferences; obtain grants from scientific and art agencies; obtain joint faculty appointments in science and art departments; teach science to artists and art to scientists; supervise graduate projects in artscience; publish in art, science, and artscience journals. In order to meet these objectives, I have identified a number of actions, which could improve and encourage true paradisciplinarity in artscience practices, and promote the participation and involvement of art[scient]ists in academia, art institutions, funding agencies, etc.



Suggested action # 1: Define novel metrics for artscience contributions

Barriers: The quantitative metrics of scientific research are quite different from the qualitative metric of artistic creativity.

Benefits: Develop objective measures of success for artscience projects (interdisciplinary or paradisciplinary).

Stakeholders: Funding agencies; University administrators.

Actions: Find similarities and differences in the metrics used by different funding agencies to determine the performance of scientists/artists. Develop hybrid measures that take into account significant contributions to both fields at once, not just the sum of scientific and artistic contributions taken separately. This may help funding agencies and university administrators making decisions in the evaluation of artscience projects.

Suggested action #2: Assess the relative performance of artscience curricula

Barriers: Impossible to compare different curricula, and assess when is the best time to learn artscience (high school level, undergraduate level, graduate level).

Benefits: Determine if it is best to learn how to do science before making art, how to make art before doing science, or learning both at the same time.

Stakeholders: University administrators.

Actions: Interdisciplinary curricula already focus on training individuals in the arts and the sciences. It is not clear that learning artscience in a simultaneous fashion is better than learning art and science (or science and art) in a successive (and cumulative) curriculum. Using the metrics defined in action #1, the relative success of art[scient]ists trained using different scenarios will be compared.

Suggested action #3: Advocate the role of mediators in artscience

Barriers: artistic mediators have no formal training in science; scientific mediators have no formal training in art.

Benefits: Create a new type of bicultural mediators for artscience practices.

Stakeholders: Funding agencies; Art institutions: Administrators; Artscience journals.

Actions: The paradisciplinary training of art[scient]ists will produce a new type of mediator for artscience projects. It is suggested to engage such intercessors in every project involving a group of artists and scientists working together. These mediators may also sit on search committees for joint artscience positions, on editorial boards of artscience journals, on the jury of artscience exhibitions, on review committees of funding agencies, as well as on the board of art institutions (galleries, museums).

Suggested action #4: Promote experimentation as a common tool for artscience practice 

Barriers: artists have no (or little) experimental training in scientific methods; scientists have no experimental (or little) training in artistic practices.

Benefits: Enhance the knowledge of artscience experimentation in a large fraction of the population; improve the general public understanding of art and science.

Stakeholders: Instructors of art for scientists; Instructors of science for artists.

Actions: New courses should be added to science (respectively art) curricula to foster paradisciplinary training of art (respectively science). *I personally was interested in dance while taking a contemporary dance class for non-dancers; that lead me to doing a PhD in dance*. Science classes for non-scientists and art classes for non-artists should focus on the experimental process of making science and art, not only the theoretical aspects; that is, train artists to design and make scientific experiments; conversely, train scientist to experiment with some artistic media.

Suggested action #5: Create residence for scientists in art institutions

Barriers: Lack of funding sources; lack of interest.

Benefits: Better understanding of the art world by the scientists; better understanding of science by the art institutions.

Stakeholders: Art institutions; Art funding agencies.

Actions: There are quite a few programs already in place to host artists in scientific labs (e.g. Symbiotica), but fewer options are currently available for scientists. Funding agencies should create specific “scientist-in-residence” programs to promote artscience integration. Art institutions should be more open to hosting scientists for developing long-term relationships between art and science.


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