Cultured Magazine

April/May 2016

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156 ORGANIZED CHAOS MIT's Center for Art, Science & Technology creates hybrids of fact and fancy that are as much science as art. BY TIFFANY LAMBERT W hat does science stand to benefit from artists? And art from scientists? What happens when scientists begin to make artistic contributions and vice versa? These are some of the big questions being raised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Art, Science & Technology, known as CAST, a Mellon-funded initiative founded in 2013 to expand the scope and reach of the arts at MIT. A living laboratory of residencies, events, symposia and cross-disciplinary courses, CAST serves as the connective tissue among artists, scientists and engineers, along with students and faculty. As a platform, CAST provides "the fulcrum to support things that are already going on, to encourage collaboration, to bring in artists, to help make connections," says Evan Ziporyn, Faculty Director of CAST and Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music. "It provides access to tools. I saw what it did with my own work as a musician, having encounters with fields that have nothing to do with music." For many people, the arts may not be the first association with MIT to spring to mind, but the university has long fostered an unorthodox approach to multidisciplinary research. "When you're at a place that invents radar, or has Nobel Prize winners on your faculty, or Noam Chomsky down the hall, those are the things people tend to notice," says Ziporyn. "But there's a long history of arts here." CAST is built upon a legacy dating back at least to the 1960s. Nicholas Negroponte set up the respected MIT Media Lab in 1985. I.M. Pei designed the building for the Media Lab and Fumihiko Maki completed a major expansion of it in 2009. The work of former MIT Press Art Director Muriel Cooper, with its liberating effect on graphic design, blurred the line between what the designer chose to put on the page and what technology could allow. Cooper co-founded the Visible Language Workshop at MIT in 1975 along with physicist Ron MacNeil and produced more than 500 publications as the design director of MIT Press (she also created their logo made of vertical bars in 1963). These are but a few examples of MIT's early emphasis on art and design that influenced CAST. The tradition reflects "almost a geological stratum at MIT that was always there," says CAST Executive Director Leila Kinney. "We're in a natural habitat for this kind of thing." Since its inception, CAST has enlisted dozens of artists with interests as diverse as virtual and augmented reality, microorganisms, instrument making and robotics, and linked them with faculty and students. Anicka Yi, working with Tal Danino, a synthetic biologist who's primarily involved with cancer research, found the artistic expression of bacteria through live cultures mixed with materials such as honey and tempura-fried flowers. Last January, underwater photographer Keith Ellenbogen collaborated with string theorist Allan Adams to take images of hard-to-capture aquatic life by using high- speed cameras common to physicists but not generally available to artists. Through his ongoing residency, Tomás Saraceno advances speculative modes of living using neural networks and spider webs. "At first, the material scientists didn't have any idea of what to do with Saraceno," says Ziporyn. "What does this artist want to do with spider webs? But they were interested in spider webs for other reasons. Why is spider silk so strong and flexible? How do spiders structure their webs? That has implications for self-assembling materials and for design in general." Saraceno, along with other artists-in- residence including Tauba Auerbach, contributed to CAST's inaugural symposium, "Seeing/ Sounding/Sensing," which took place in 2014. Public dissemination of the artists' work is integral to the CAST mission, says Kinney. "We always require a public event. We started the MIT Sounding performance series as one way to present what was going on to the public. We've started publications as another way to do that." A forthcoming book based on the first conference will reproduce artists' projects along with papers from humanists and cognitive scientists. The heat- sensitive cover, by Olafur Eliasson, reveals drawings when touched. There's a work by Carsten Höller that uses scratch-and-sniff pheromones. "It's a hybrid publication," says Kinney. Planning is underway for a second symposium, and last October CAST received a $1 million gift from entrepreneur and philanthropist Dasha Zhukova to support a new sustained two-year residency beginning this fall. Next spring, the MIT Museum will showcase work by the Paris-based photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa, a former war correspondent who is developing an immersive installation. Called "The Enemy," the project incorporates virtual reality to place viewers in conversations between combatants on both sides of common global conflicts to engender empathy. "I have no single vision of what arts should be at MIT or what the relationship between arts and technology should be," says Ziporyn. "For me it's not about just promulgating a high tech approach to art, although that's part of it. It's about any type of thing that's going to encourage artistic behavior. When physicists are starting to think, What do we want to do with an artist?, that's an interesting state of affairs."

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