Jennifer Parker, Associate Professor and Chair of the Art Department, co-founder and Executive Director of the OpenLab Network, as well as Affiliate Faculty of Digital Arts & New Media, UCSC

Sudhu Tewari, Ph.D. student in Cultural Musicology and Mechatronics Researcher in the Digital Arts & New Media program, UCSC
James Guillochon, Ph.D. student in Astronomy, UCSC
Laura Cassidy Rogers, Ph.D. student in Modern Thought and Literature, Stanford University.


Obstacle1: When Jennifer Parker, an art professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was trying to help Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, an astrophysics professor, assist a student on an interdisciplinary project, she was reminded (again) that neither professor had permission to share the other department’s studios, labs, or facilities.

Obstacle 2: Amy Boewer, a visual art and art history undergraduate, and Jack O’Neill, a business undergraduate, each with interests in sustainability, had an idea for a convertible sleeping pad for artists, scientists in the field, low-income residents of developing countries, and even for survivors of natural disasters.  But neither had a place to make their prototype or equipment to test their design.

            The solution to these obstacles was the creation of the OpenLab Network, which Parker and Ramirez-Ruiz co-founded in 2010.  OpenLab supports project-based initiatives combining art and science research.  To inaugurate the project, Parker turned her own research lab, in the Digital Arts Research Center, into the interim OpenLab facility for project groups to meet, ideate and prototype.  She advocated for participants to be given access to Art Division resources, including the metal shop, woodshop, prototyping lab, print media facilities and digital media equipment and resources.  To comply with campus health and safety regulations OpenLab members were given formal training in each facility by department staff.


In 2011, OpenLab held its first Summer Institute, with the theme of Art + Astrophysics.  This focus allowed both Parker and Ramirez-Ruiz to support projects with their own faculty research grants, pooling resources from departments.  They created four teams, each a blend of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates across disciplines.  Team members shared space, expertise, creative ideas, and differing modes of discovery on projects with multiple outcomes, researching a variety of concepts related to art + astrophysics.  Parker describes the project groups as working similarly to a film crew with each team member bringing their own particular interest and expertise to a task that produced a joint outcome.  Earth and Planetary Scientists and Astrophysicists proposed the concepts, then worked with artists from a variety backgrounds including sound art, digital art and new media, video, design, photography, and sculpture, in four- to seven-member teams.

            OpenLab debuted their first projects in the Digital Arts Research Center at UCSC and then at an exposition at the Tech Museum of San Jose, CA, where visitors could learn about hard-to-understand concepts through these science/art projects – for instance, playing a game where they step off Earth and hurl a star into the cosmos to learn about black holes.  Sudhu Tewari, a graduate student in music and art, was part of a team that developed a three-dimensional zoetrope to make visual the collision between the moon and a sister moon that orbited Earth.  Working with the interplay across disciplines, artists were challenged to take real-world problems and develop solutions that would engage viewers and participants, while science faculty and students learned how to ask and answer questions that had never occurred to them where the problem existed only on paper or in the lab.  Graduate students in the arts were given a very modest stipend and science graduate student researchers already working with the science faculty were given permission to work part-time or full-time over the summer on OpenLab projects.  Faculty gave funds from faculty grants, office space, lab space, and equipment access, as well as unpaid time, to the OpenLab to develop projects.

            The work had the additional advantage of involving STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds, for whom the unthreatening, “playful” atmosphere of the interdisciplinary collaborations provides both an entrée to science and scientific questioning, and a sense of the range of applications of STEM fields.  Compared to the expense of many scientific undertakings, this new perspective is also replicable across other institutions and internationally, and more cost-effective in the short term.

However, it is sustainable in the long term only with greater institutional support.  The inaugural year of the Summer Institute was supported by existing facilities (with broadened access), with some contribution from NSF, NASA, the Packard Foundation, the UCSC Arts Division, and the UCSC Foundation.  National and international funding bodies can foster these cross-discipline “transfusions,” as Parker calls the benefit researchers receive, by encouraging STEAM projects and tailoring application timelines and requirements to fit.  The ultimate benefit is not only to students, and to the public’s efforts to understand science, but also to science itself. Working with artists has opened new dimensions, says Ramirez-Ruiz, changing the way he thinks.  It changes the way he visualizes scientific phenomena, the ways we arrive at “discovery,” and the ways we visualize the world itself.

STEAM Research Perspective 1.  OpenLab participant Sudhu Tewari, Ph.D. student, Cultural Musicology, and Mechatronics research member, Digital Arts and New Media program, UCSC

In the past I’ve been reticent to collaborate with others, with the exception of a few fellow artists for whom I have great respect, a longstanding relationship, or whose skill set fills a gap in my own ability.  Even these collaborations with artists I admire and get along with have been difficult; the process of collaboration is not easy for me.  Nonetheless, my experience as part of the first OpenLab Summer Institute, working with a team of scientists and artists I had never met before, proved extremely fruitful and not nearly as painful as I had imagined it would be. In fact, I found the experience to be quite inspiring.

            A great deal of the success of our project had to do with the nature of our collaboration.  Our group – Eric Asphaug, an astrophysics professor, Jennifer Parker, art professor, Noar Movshovitz, astrophysics grad student, Leslie Thompson, art undergraduate art student, Kayla Voung, TASC undergrand CS/Engineering, and myself – worked together in a truly collaborative fashion.  Rather than merely looking to one another to fill in gaps in our skill set for a predefined project, we spent a significant amount of time at the beginning of our endeavor discussing our interests and research.  As we discussed various aspects of the science, we came up with many ideas about physical objects and visualizations that could be made to embody the scientists’ research.  Our focus was how such objects or visualizations might allow, or help, these scientists to re-contextualize their research and in doing so, push forward into deeper understanding of their own work or trigger new frameworks/contexts to explore.

            It seemed clear to us, the artists, that our greatest contribution to the scientists would be a physical object that, rather than existing as a 2D simulation on a computer screen, allowed them to hold, or see, their research in true three-dimensional space.  For me as an artist, it was novel, and quite exciting, to be working with “real” information rather than arbitrary, abstract forms.  It seemed clear that our experience, as artists, with physical objects could greatly benefit these scientists, and their understanding of the physical world could greatly inform our practice.

            Since working as part of this team, I’ve become interested in creating meaningful physical forms rather than arbitrarily created “functional” objects.  My interest, as an interactive, kinetic, and sound artist, has been, to this point, focused on the functionality of the devices/artworks that I create.  Since OpenLab, I’ve become interested in the meaning that can be made/embedded in physical forms that represent specific pieces of our universe.

            In the end, we chose a project that demonstrated a theory cooked up by scientists Martin Jutzi and Erik Asphaug, which attempts to explain why our moon has so asymmetrical a surface. Their theory holds that the earth once had two moons.  The smaller moon collided with the moon we know and “splatted” across its surface creating the asymmetrical surface.

               The most rewarding part of our collaboration came in seeing Professor Eric Asphaug’s excitement as he viewed our three-dimensional stroboscopic zoetrope for the first time.  It seemed that he was suddenly able to see parts of the physical equation of the collision he previously couldn’t.  It was fantastic to see that our strange amalgam of research and technologies had a purpose (and use!) beyond simply visualizing a theory.  Our project was successful in that it was a “true” collaboration: the result was the evolution of a project that neither party (none of the parties!) would undertake, or even conceive of, independently.

            In our projects, observations using modern technology resulted in a theory that was tested with a simulation made possible by 21st century software and hardware (additionally, created by scientists working on opposite sides of the globe).  This simulation was rendered physical by the hands of an artist, sculptor Leslie Thompson, and turned into a physical animation using a technology that was popular as entertainment in the Victorian era.  The end result was a unique device that allowed Asphaug to see his theory for the first time in truly three-dimensional space and even to observe multiple perspectives simultaneously.  Our zoetrope also provided a fantastic tool for disseminating Asphaug’s research/theory to the general public in an easily graspable, engaging fashion.

            The value of encouraging creative thought in those who pursue empirically based knowledge and the value in encouraging empirical and rational thought in those who work in primarily creative fields is becoming increasingly clear.  The great leaps forward in both science and art have been made by those who think across the boundaries defined by one discipline and embrace a wide variety of methodologies.

            Universities can play a large role in facilitating such fruitful collaborations by encouraging inter-departmental projects and cross-disciplinary research.  I would have stayed isolated in the Music Department with no concern for the fantastic scientific research happening a stone’s throw from my studio if it weren’t for the OpenLab Summer Institute.  Bringing together artists and scientists, with the express purpose of creating work collaboratively, provides valuable creative insights that enrich the research of all participants and their fields.

STEAM Research Perspective 2.  OpenLab participant James Guillochon, Ph.D. student in Astronomy, University of California Santa Cruz.

My research has focused on what happens when stars come too close to supermassive black holes (SMBHs).  Our intention with OpenLab was to create an exhibit that would depict the delicate interplay that occurs between the stars that cohabitate the center of our galaxy with a SMBH.  SMBHs are infinitely dense concentrations of matter that reside at the centers of galaxies, and can be as much as ten billion times as massive as our own Sun.

Black holes are usually thought of as huge “vacuum cleaners,” absorbing everything and anything.  In fact, the gravitational pull of black holes is no stronger than it is for any other matter.  If the Sun were instantaneously transformed into a black hole of the same mass, the Earth would continue in its orbit undisturbed, and would not pulled into the black hole any more readily than before the transformation.

            The only advantage a black hole has over other kinds of objects is that it has no hard boundary to prevent things from coming arbitrarily close to it.  As the force of gravity is stronger the closer one gets to a massive object, this permits the gravitational force very near black holes to become impressively strong, so strong that the difference in force applied to two sides of an object is strong enough to tear that object apart.

            But despite their reputation, black holes have difficulty tearing apart or absorbing anything aside from the ambient gas that permeates all corners of our universe.  This is because the distance within which this force is strong enough to be damaging is quite small as compared to the typical distance between stars.  The distance between stars is so large that of the 300,000,000,000 stars in our Milky Way today, only around 30,000,000 (0.01%) will be destroyed by the SMBH at its center – or one star destroyed every 10,000 years.  The majority of stars that are destroyed reside very close to the black hole, with their destruction being precipitated by random interactions with other stars in their neighborhood.

            In our OpenLab team project, we wanted to show what the environment around a SMBH looks like, with thousands of stars directly orbiting the SMBH.  We also wanted to show what happens when one of these stars comes too close to the black hole.  However, we wanted to emphasize that while the neighborhood around a black hole can be dangerous, the chances of a destructive outcome for any particular star is quite low.

            To accomplish this, we combined movies generated using scientifically accurate models of the cluster of stars surrounding the black hole, with other movies produced using hydrodynamical simulations that show the disruption of stars that wander too close.  To emphasize the randomness of the process that brings any one star too close to the black hole, we added the ability for users to interact with the cluster directly through the use of a Nintendo Wii gaming system.  Users “pitched” stars towards the black hole at the center of the cluster, and if their aim was good enough to place the star on a deeply-penetrating orbit, the star would be destroyed.  This mechanism actually closely resembles the actual process by which stars are placed on such orbits: they are “tossed” there by interactions with other stars.

            What I learned through this process was the need to compromise between an accurate depiction of reality and the entertainment value of an exhibit.  Changes needed to be made to the physical system to make the exhibit more visually appealing, without sacrificing too much of its scientific accuracy.  These modifications mostly were changes in scale, both in the distances and in the times over which these interactions take place.  Whereas the real system has stars that are one-millionth the size of the complete cluster, the LCD projector we used was only capable of rendering an image with around 1,000 pixels per side.  And while any individual star only has a small chance of being disrupted, the chance that we specified in the game cannot be too small, otherwise the exhibit visitors can get frustrated with being unable to disrupt stars.  To make sure that users of the exhibit did not take the scales used in the demonstration too literally, we decided to include a monitor that was keyed to display factual information alongside the demonstration itself.  This permitted us to have more freedom in our choice of scales, without sacrificing the educational value of the exhibit.

            Overall, the exhibit seemed to be successful: it attracted visitors to explore the dynamical environment around a SMBH, and to become more comfortable with the idea that black holes are not as destructive as they are often portrayed to be.  The key message that we wanted to convey was “encounters with SMBHs are rare, but when they occur the results are spectacular.”  We also wanted to create an exhibit to show that the proper conditions for disrupting stars through their strong gravity are only realized for particular initial conditions (set by the visitors through the Wii controller).  Judging by the exuberance and frustration of visitors when they were/were not successful at disrupting a star, it seems we communicated that difficult-to-understand message in this unique, interactive way.

            In its value to me as a researcher, the project allowed me to visualize the cluster of stars that surround a SMBH in a completely unique and appealing way, especially considering that usual representations of such systems are through obscure mathematical formulations.  The tools I developed to generate the movies for this exhibit will remain useful for talks I give in the future, as I now have a very visually appealing way to share my data and results.

PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT: OpenLab Community Project, Blue Trail

            By leveraging the larger communities around her via art/science initiatives, Professor Parker found she could build support in art and science research on campus that also connected faculty and students directly with the public.  Currently, OpenLab supports a limited number of affiliate art and science research projects led by faculty, post docs, and graduate students who bring their own funding and resource support (managing these collaborations has fallen to Parker, her Mechatronics research cohort, and her interns).

The most elaborate of the current projects is the research initiative entitled Blue Trail, founded by Lisa Zimmerman of 7Story, a non-profit engaged in public place-making.  The project is curated by Laura Cassidy, Ph.D. student in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University, and directed by Parker with support from UCSC marine scientists.

            Blue Trail is a new STEAM initiative that combines art, tech and ocean science for public exhibition.  By expanding to collaborate with other institutions, public and private, international and national, we aim to build bridges for disseminating knowledge to the public and vise versa. These bridges will act as information highways between silos on our own campus, between researchers on other campuses, between professional artists and scientists, between ocean activists and curators, between business associates and public officials, all to create whole-systems thinking that is inclusive of civic engagement for problem solving the issues of our day, such as the health and well-being of our oceans, and other challenges to the environment we live in and depend on.

STEAM Research Perspective 3.  OpenLab collaborator and curator Laura Cassidy Rogers, Ph.D. student in ModernThought and Literature, Stanford University

Of the myriad ways to link art with science, my research explores how experimental media and theory in visual art, design, and technology impact environmental thought.  Stanford’s interdisciplinary graduate program in Modern Thought and Literature (MTL) has supported scholarship at this intersection of theory and practice since its inception in 1971.  More recently, under the direction of Ursula Heise, MTL began to recruit graduate students, such as me, with varying interests in eco-critical research as a means to address complex environmental issues like climate change, water, energy, pollution, biodiversity, and social justice.  Upon Heise’s departure for a new faculty position at UCLA, we have reorganized ourselves under the banner of the Environmental Humanities Project (established by Heise in 2007).

            As well-documented by research, methods for educating and engaging the public about environmental issues are insufficient.  Ecocritical research in environmental humanities is of vital importance to achieving a sustainable future at local and global scales.  In particular, bridging art with science, or culture with nature, spurs innovative thinking and problem-solving for ecosystems that are diminishing in health and stability.  To this end, I am determined to align my academic research with curatorial projects, working directly with artists and scientists.  Some of them are experimenting with new directions in science communication while others challenge the assumptions and conventions of science.  Curating is collaborative, hands-on, and place-based, providing an outlet for research while also inviting input from academic colleagues and the public.

            In August 2012, I began work with OpenLab, curating a project on ocean sustainability called Blue Trail. Using a two-tiered strategy of offering formal invitations to artists and scientists, and an open-call Design Jam Competition, Blue Trail has assembled a robust cross-institutional network of individuals – artists, designers, techies, scientists, and volunteers – who are passionate about responding locally to the global challenge of sustaining the world’s oceans.  Specifically, it seeks to form a temporary “trail” of 10 interactive installations along the San Francisco waterfront in September 2013.

            Over the course of the coming year, I will work with all these individuals to form teams and develop proposals for installations that combine art, design, technology, and marine science.  These installations will examine topics ranging from the accumulation of plastic marine debris and other byproducts of the global economy such as pesticides and ocean acidification; resource depletion and food systems including agriculture and aquaculture as they affect the oceans; and, variations on marine biodiversity ranging from species extinction to species migration and the ecological effects of sea level rise caused by global warming.

            In the first stage of the project, we received 30 sketch proposals from individuals primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a handful of submissions from the Eastern Seaboard (Boston and New York City) and one from an artist based in Madrid who connected to Blue Trail while in residence at the Montalvo Arts Center near San Jose.  Our next step is to gather a jury of interdisciplinary leaders to help select 10-15 of the sketch proposals to revise as final proposals that address specific sites along the San Francisco waterfront.

            Ultimately, Blue Trail is a project about connectivity.  If successful, it will form a series of temporary, interactive installations to engage the public in ocean sustainability.  It will capture their attention in the moment of interaction – whether physically walking along the San Francisco Bay or virtually surfing Blue Trail on the worldwide web – and it will sustain that attention, moving from engagement to awareness to action.  We are working collaboratively to experiment with tools that allow people to navigate our blue planet, with the water cycling from the mountains to the sea, situating themselves as agents in dynamic earth systems as they unfold. However, given the steep fundraising challenge to realize Blue Trail in its full capacity – it is a non-profit with pro bono staff and volunteers – we are uncertain about the exact outcome in September 2013.  Already, though, Blue Trail has succeeded to inspire and innovate for ocean sustainability by establishing a cross-institutional network and gathering a cross-disciplinary set of proposals.

            Experimentation is needed to boost civic engagement in a sustainable future.  Rather than telling people what to do, Blue Trail installations will ask them, what would you do?  Integrating art with marine science will both deepen and expand the potential for innovative possible solutions to arise, as we work within and across disciplines, and with the public, to achieve a sustainable future.

SUGGESTED ACTIONS – Given the initial success of these projects:

  1. That National Academies, Administrators at Educational Institutions, and Funders prioritize support for Art/Science centers like OpenLab, as interest and demand by faculty and students across campus is increasing and shows enormous potential both for new discoveries and significantly improved public outreach.
  2.  That Universities provide larger permanent spaces on campus to foster STEAM learning opportunities through project-based initiatives that are developed and supported.
  3. That Universities and Funders support creation of Art and Science Studio Research Associate positions to manage facilities and support STEAM research projects
  4. That Universities and Funders support increased administrative and outreach support for art/science collaborations to manage the demand for participation and public engagement.
  5. That these same groups develop professional ways to support cross-disciplinary research, which is currently verbally encouraged but not supported; faculty and graduate students can be penalized if they step too far out of their research foci.  This needs to reworked to support research that includes hybrid practices, co-teaching, and opportunities for migrating and sharing resources with arts and sciences majors that are inclusive, to create meaningful intersections between all the other disciplines on campus.
  6. That Funders prioritize grants for STEAM case studies to better understand, define, and assess the collaborations of artists and scientists, and that permit arts-based researchers to be PI’s alongside their science counterparts.
  7.  That Artists, Scientists, Designers, Scholars, Engineers, and their Professional Associations, as well as Universities, Industry, and Funders develop guidelines to value and prioritize collaborative research as crucial to future innovations.