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Science, Aesthetics, And Activism - January 2002

The Networker
I. Editor's Note: Science, Aesthetics, And Activism Nancy Myers
II. Science And Art: Enlarging The Context Joanna Myers and Nancy Myers
III. Examples Of How Art And Science Can Be Linked

  1. Finding Art In Science
  2. Science, Art, And Restoration
  3. Grim Science And The Language Of Art
Joanna Myers, Nancy Myers and Sandra Steingraber
  I. Editor's Note - Science, Aesthetics, And Activism TOP
By Nancy Myers SEHN's mission, to help science serve the public interest, has led us to make more than the usual intellectual leaps and bounds where science is concerned. We do pay close attention to science per se--what scientists are up to and the effects and applications of scientific knowledge. But we are also exploring connections between science and practically everything else people do--activism, spirituality, values, democracy, money--to name a few of the "science and..." links you will find in Networkers and in our organization's work.We believe that if science is to serve the greater good, it must be put in the context of these connections. By looking at them, we hope to reveal and develop a healthy ecology of human endeavor that gives science fair and proper place. So, this month, we look at science and art.

We bring to this issue a number of questions. How is science communicated through art? Conversely, What is the nature of the aesthetic in the work of science? What, if anything, do these connections suggest about how humans view the world and how we live and work in it? Can science be improved--that is, assume a healthier place in the ecology of human endeavor--if it is linked explicitly with aesthetics?

The connections, once we started exploring them, seemed to reverberate. A year ago we drafted a statement of values essential to survival, noting that to consider science apart from values and ethics was to put the Earth in peril. That statement did not name beauty as a value, but we found that we could not talk about ethics without edging awfully close to aesthetics.

Even democracy is involved. Democratizing science and technology--valuing the observations and responses of non-experts--means trusting people's senses. If something like a hog-waste lagoon smells bad to the neighbors, it probably is bad. Just so, our sense of beauty in the natural world can be a touchstone for what is good and right and healthy.

No doubt, connecting science to the public good is enhanced by the soft stuff of values and aesthetics. Hence, another detailed exploration of connections.

SEHN researcher Joanna Myers, who is also a musician and designer, took the lead on this issue. The short introductions and website links that follow the introductory essay are examples of science and art working in tandem for the public good. Enjoy!



  II. Science And Art: Enlarging The Context TOP
By Joanna Myers and Nancy Myers

The trendy thing in hotels these days is a little note on the pillow requesting guests to "help the environment" by choosing not to have their towels and sheets washed every day. This request seems despairing and hopelessly token in a place that has no bearing on the particular locality in which it is built. The building is likely generic, the color schemes well researched, but unrelenting in their sameness. The plants in the lobby are exuberant in their artificiality. They do not perform the functions of real plants, exchanging gasses in the air, growing, dying, needing attention. Their placement in this setting and others like it (malls, airports, homes) hammers in the idea that living plants are a bother.This is just a small example of how good intentions can be overwhelmed by the pervasive messages embodied in the way we do things. There is a persistent disconnect between humans and their environment, and it has to do with how we use or ignore our aesthetic sense--and between what we know and what we do.

Knowing and doing are what science and art are about, and where they intersect. We can start with Wendell Berry's skeletal notion that science is knowing and art, doing. (Life is a Miracle.) All professions, Berry points out, contain elements of both. Doing and knowing follow on each other's heels. The integration of the two is necessary for learning, whether this is to take place on an individual or community level. But Berry goes further. He says that to recognize the connection between knowing and doing is an act of empowerment. He writes: "Freedom in both science and art probably depends upon enlarging the context of our work, increasing the number of considerations we allow to bear upon it. "(84)

In other words, separating science and art is not a good idea. At the very least, bringing them together will do good for both.

"Enlarging the context" means making relevant, seeking meaning. Seeking relevance and meaning has become important for many people since September 11. Trauma challenges people in diverse disciplines to consider their work in a larger context--one that considers the public welfare. This is a healthy response to crisis. Environmentalists know about relevance and meaning. We need to harness people's new willingness to consider relevance and meaning as a response to the environment in crisis.

Knowing and Doing There are multiple challenges in communicating environmental issues--our particular corner of science-- to the public. For example, there is the problem of information asymmetry: an expert few having power to affect the commons because of their exclusive hold on knowledge. The public should have access to information affecting their health and the health and well-being of the environment. Environmental organizations have served the public well in this way, as channels for knowledge, a corrective to the asymmetry of information.

But knowledge is not necessarily power. The further challenge is to connect information to behavior. It is a different task altogether to communicate a sense of responsibility and empowerment in the face devastating evidence, and thus bring people, governments, corporations to change their behavior.

Back to Berry's simple notion of science as knowing and art as doing. Environmental "doing" doesn't seem to fall into the category of art. Our advocacy organizations seek practical, dutiful doing. Psychologist James Hillman writes, "We know how to engage in political action: to campaign, to march, to protest, to resist. We know the courage action demands and the risk it entails. But we no longer know that we have other means of action that also require courage: the courage of the heart to stand for its perceptions." (Aesthetic Response as Political Action: A Preface, 1999)

Addressing environmental problems has as much to do with addressing people's despair and indifference as it does with presenting scientific fact. Often the information is there--the possibility or even actuality of harm--and it is not so much a problem of ignorance as the power to correct. Science writer Laurie Garrett expressed this dilemma in a recent interview regarding HIV infection in Russia. Russians are educated, familiar with germ theory, and yet these youth persist in sharing needles. The result is one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. (PBS, Jim Lehrer, Dec. 3, 2001)

The persistence of self-destructive behavior has to do with self-image, that is, with underestimating one's ability to create a better situation. Rachel's Environment and Health News has been running a series on the state of the environmental movement. Editor Peter Montague describes the mainstream environmental movement, as established in the 1970s, as a top-down operation banking on an elite group of professionals, playing an insider's game, to protect the environment. The contrast to this strategy is civic environmentalism, which counts instead on community involvement. In fact, civic environmentalism does not distinguish among the tasks of environmental protection, restoration, and community building. (William Shutkin, The Land that Could Be; Rachel's, Oct. 11, 2001)

Restoration and protection of the environment have a healing effect on communities that practice them. They can help restore a self-image of empowerment. Communities learn what that "something better" could be. The more engaged a community is in this process, the greater the possibility for further restorative action.

Art and Redemption But what does activism have to do with aesthetics? Is it even necessary to talk about art in connection with community projects, or to see them as a form of art, or to emphasize their aesthetic components?

Restoration and public works projects can also be a form of practical, dutiful, doing--and this is how we most often think of them. We are more comfortable with the ethical underpinnings of environmental work than with its aesthetics. We do it because we should, or must, in order to undo something that has gone dreadfully wrong.

What if we became more conscious and deliberate about aesthetics in environmental work? We might find the redemptive quality of our work increasing. Art--as an expression of, and vehicle for, beauty--reunites people with direct experience. It is an antidote to the self-administered anesthesia that keeps people from doing what they should, and must.

Art, of course, is not synonymous with beauty. However, a recent New York Times Magazine article describes a current trend in art to embrace beauty, recognizing the emotional element involved. "There's been a long tradition in modern art to mistrust this response, even deny it." The author writes, however, "The rediscovery of beauty is not a sign that artists are retreating from the world; it is, rather, the evidence of a renewed engagement." ("Beauty is Back," Dec. 9, 2001)

This quality of engagement is what we are looking for. It is not only up to artists to become engaged with the world, but up to all of us to engage each other, warmly and creatively, in participating in the world's beauty.

People have an innate aesthetic response. Our surroundings--what we see, touch, hear, smell, and taste--affect us. A study at Cornell University showed that women and children living in housing surrounded by green space had better mental ability and well-being than those who did not. "The results suggest that the natural environment may play a far more significant role in the well-being of children within a housing environment than has previously been recognized," the study author says. She notes that simple interventions, such as preserving existing trees planting new trees or maintaining grassy areas, would likely have a significant impact on children's welfare.

Practical doers that we are, we need such reminders that beauty is essential.

What we know affects our sense of beauty, of course. Knowledge and ethics are essential components to the experience of beauty. Knowing, for example, that purple loosestrife, the brilliant weed that colors roadside ditches and wetlands in July, is an invasive plant can dramatically alter one's response to it. Spending an afternoon pulling loosestrife out of a wildland will make it heinous to the eye. Similarly, knowing about the pesticides applied in the floral industry can make one cringe at grocery store floral displays.

Scientists, awake to the aesthetic response, know that organochlorine molecules can be beautiful. Just look at the photographs by Felice Frankel done in collaboration with the scientists at MIT. But expand the context of the chlorine atom by reading "Dying from Dioxin," or "Pandora's Poison," and one knows its beauty is a terrible thing. (link to picture)

Michael Ableman, urban farmer, spoke at a recent conference about the need for good relationships in food-growing as a kind of nourishment. The visceral response from the audience to this statement was a unanimous intake of breath and widening of eyes: Yes! A response to beauty.

Art or propaganda? For another take on art, consider James Joyce's assertion that art arrests, while propaganda says, move. Environmentalists would like to get right to the "move" part, and therefore we tend to have a high tolerance for propaganda. The difference is that art connects one to the truth of experience, while propaganda dictates the response.

Perhaps there is a sliding scale between art and propaganda that can described as degrees of trust and respect. Art relies on unmanipulated response. This may seem like an inefficient way to get things done. Art isn't likely to say what to do about the grizzly bears dying out, or a new class of bioaccumulative toxic chemicals. And then there is the caveat that the aesthetic must be informed by science. An accurate notion of reality is necessary to envisioning a better future for our communities and our world. We must know what we are seeing and what is possible.

Clearly, we continue to need top-town action, expertise, political power, and monetary influence in order to get things done. But art has the power to create genuine, spontaneous motivation. Can activists trust this?


  III. Examples Of How Art And Science Can Be Linked TOP
By Joanna Myers, Nancy Myers and Sandra Steingraber A. Finding Art In Science  Felice Frankel is an artist in residence at MIT and a research scientist in electrical engineering and computer science. "Frankel's emphasis on the beauty inherent in science is calculated," according to an introduction to her photographs and digital images. "She believes that bringing an aesthetic component to scientific documentation is an essential and underutilized method of making science more accessible to the masses." 

Work such as Frankel's, and the exhibits in the San Francisco Exploratorium represent one kind of linkage between science and art: science AS art; a revelation of the awe-inspiring, beautiful complexities in the natural world and human manipulations of it.

A book by Frankel is titled, "On the Surface of Things." In a way, this kind of science-art linkage stays on the surface. It is a form of art for art's sake, art as display, not art as "doing." It is, thus, far removed from propaganda. It does not dictate any particular response except the swift intake of breath, the "ah-h-h" response to beauty and wonder.

These presentations and others (included televised sci-tech programs) that "make science more accessible to the masses" elevate science and, perhaps, scientists. The response--undictated, of course--is perhaps meant to be awe at science itself as much as at what it reveals.

When they stay on the surface of form and process, these exhibits often leave out information on context and consequences. Nevertheless, as Alan Lightman says of Frankel's images, "These spellbinding colors and textures and filigrees . . . remind us that much of our sense of beauty derives from the endless variety of phenomena we find in the natural world."

B. Science, Art, And Restoration Two projects demonstrate the best of what can happen when science and art are linked in the public interest. Both engage science, art, and culture in healing the environment. Leaders of the two projects presented a workshop at the October 2001 Bioneers conference titled "The Ecology of Art and the Aesthetics of Restoration."

Keepers of the Waters, an organization directed by artist Betsy Damon, designs educational and functional water parks for urban areas. The series of pumps, fountains, pools, plants, and flow-forms purify river water to the point of being drinkable. The amount flowing through the park may not be enough to make a difference in the quality of all the river's water, but it demonstrates what is possible. And in doing so, according to Damon, it mandates change upstream and downstream.

The most touching thing about these parks is their incorporation of cultural symbols that redeem people's relation to environment. They express reverence for water. Damon's garden in Chengdu, China, contains at its center, like a holy of holies, a water-drop fountain--a 13-meter granite shape of a drop of water as it appears under a microscope. Sculptural bowls or flow-forms make the water move and pulse like a mountain stream.

The water enters constructed wetlands planted with seven different water-purifying plants. These wetland ponds were also designed to refer to Hang Long, a series of beautiful limestone pools cascading three kilometers down the nearby sacred Mt. Emei.

The entire park is shaped like a fish, symbol of regeneration.

Take a tour.

"Acid Mine Drainage and Art" (AMD&ART) is the brainchild of T Allan Comp, a historian of technology and former Senior Historian with the National Park Service. It took Comp's artistic imagination to see a fountain in the aeration spout of a passive remediation site. It took his historical knowledge to connect the visual blight of acid mine drainage to the particular mix of suffering, provincial loyalty, and work ethic of these Appalachian communities.

Vintondale, PA, is a town of under 600 bordered by a polluted river, an abandoned coal mine site, and the heavily-used Ghost Town Rail Trail--now and formerly a connection to the outside world. The 35-acre reclaimed area, still under construction, is along the trail and features a vivid demonstration of passive remediation: People traveling west along the trail will round a bend to see a sequence of large pools set within the topography. The water will flow through the series of settling and aerating ponds until it reaches the wetlands, cleansed of its metallic pollutants and higher in pH.

Native plants, selected for their color to reflect the increasing health of the water, transition from deep orange to silver-green alongside the system. "Where black boney now barely supports scrubby grasses and stunted trees, a new marsh environment will soon attract birds and wildlife," the organizers believe. The Vintondale project also features a park and a museum honoring the town's coal-mining history.

Take a tour:

C. Grim Science And The Language Of Art from Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey To Motherhood, by Sandra Steingraber Perseus Publishing, 2001

(Steingraber, a biologist pregnant with her first child, records this conversation with her husband, a sculptor, pp. 106-8:)

"Hey Jeff?"


"I'm trying to figure something out."

"What's that?" He turns down the radio.

"Not a single one of these pregnancy magazines encourages mothers to find out what the Toxics Release Inventory shows for their own communities."

"You did it, though, right?"

"Yeah, I looked it up on the Internet."


"And McLean County is one of the top counties in Illinois for airborne releases of reproductive poisons."

I detail for him the results of my research. The biggest emissions of fetal toxicants are hexane from the soybean processing plant and toluene from the auto plant. My list also includes glycol ethers and xylene. All are solvents.

"Jesus," says Jeff.

"I also found out that the university uses six different pesticides on their grounds and fields. So I looked up their toxicology profiles. Two of them are known to cause birth defects in animals."

"Were these used on the athletic field by my studio? There were always little flags out there."

"I don't know. I'm wondering why our obstetrician never talked with us about these kinds of issues. Or about the problems Bloomington has had with its drinking water. The only thing I can remember him saying was not to eat sushi."

We both laugh. Raw fish is not a common menu item in Illinois diners.

"So what are you trying to figure out?"

"Two things. One, why is there no public conversation about environmental threats to pregnancy?"

"What's the other thing?"

I quote Voltaire: "In ignorance, abstain." "Why does abstinence in the face of uncertainty apply only to individual behavior? Why doesn't it apply equally to industry or agriculture?"

"Okay, let me think for a minute." Jeff turns the radio back on. And then turns it off again. "I think the questions overlap. Pregnancy and motherhood are private. We still act like pregnant women are not part of the public world. Their bodies look strange. They seem vulnerable. You are not supposed to upset them. If something is scary or stressful, you shouldn't talk about it."

"But pregnant women are constantly being told what to do. No coffee. No alcohol. No sushi. Stay away from cat feces."

"That's still private. Industry and agriculture are political, public. They exist outside one's own body, outside one's own house. You can't do something immediately about them within the time period of a pregnancy. So it seems unmanageable."

"It's pregnant women who have to live with the consequences of public decisions. We're the ones who will be raising the damaged children. If we don't talk about these things because it's too upsetting, how will it ever change?"

Jeff throws me a look.

"You're the writer. Can you find a language to manage it? Break the taboo?"

Now I have to think for a while.

"Jeff, how would you do it? In sculpture, I mean. For example, thirty-four million pounds of reproductive toxicants were released from Illinois industries last year. How would you make that number meaningful to people? How would you show it?"

The car slows as we climb a long hill. The grass blowing along the roadside is as long as horses' tails and is already tasseled with seeds. Somehow summer arrived while I wasn't looking.

"I would cast a lot of human figures--each representing a certain number of pounds of toxic chemicals--and I'd place them standing in a field."

Below us, hayfields stretch out, and rain-wet roses bloom in farmhouse yards. I imagine them out there, an army of silent persons, the weight of their bodies pressing downward, their inanimate presence speaking what we are afraid to say.

In HAVING FAITH, Sandra does find the language to express both the beauty of biology and the dangers that threaten it. Read it!

For a visual take on pregnancy, poisons, and politics, see