March 13, 2017
By Madeline Cass, intern, Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute
How are art and science related? To the untrained eye, they might seem to exist in different universes. I believe these fields have the potential for collaboration in unexpected and powerful ways. As a visual artist and amateur mycologist, I have a personal interest in these intersections. My scientific research and visual research have become inseparable. They inform one another, stimulating growth in unexpected ways.
Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps one of our earliest examples of someone who blurred these lines. The Renaissance was a time of cultural transition — an era of philosophical, scientific and religious rebirth — where the masses no longer accepted beliefs at face value and questioned the reasoning behind given theories. This new mindset gave rise to a curiosity about the origins of science and how art could demonstrate them. Da Vinci believed that “perception is the origin of all knowledge” and that “science is the observation of things possible, whether present or past.”
The invention of photography in the middle of the 19th century entangled art and science even further. Eadweard Muybridge was one of the first to experiment with high speeds and motion in photography, most famously using horses.
“His most famous work began in 1872, when he was hired by Leland Stanford (later the founder of Stanford University) to photograph horses. Stanford reputedly had made a bet that for a moment, all four of a racehorse’s hooves are off the ground simultaneously, and he hired Muybridge to take the pictures to prove him right. He set up a row of cameras with tripwires, each of which would trigger a picture for a split second as the horse ran by. The results settled the debate once and for all: all four hooves do leave the ground at once, as the top middle image in this sequence demonstrates.”
Photography aided scientific discoveries. For example, imagery such as X-ray, photomicrography and experimental high-speed photography exposed and surpassed the limits of the human eye. In doing so, it revealed important possibilities to artists, and spoke to them in clear and articulate terms about our changing relationship to science and technology. For many years after its invention, the camera was thought of as nothing more than a scientific tool. People believed that cameras presented the world with objective accuracy, which we know today is not always the case. Contemporary photographers are keenly aware of how easy it is to manipulate an image.
American landscape photographer Ansel Adams was a master of manipulation in the darkroom, though many people do not realize it by looking at his images. Using his own invention, a photographic tool named the ‘zoning system,’ Adams was able to look at a composition, make the correct exposure, and then using this negative, print an image which was often fabricated. Still, science informed his art. Adams’ rendering of the landscape arguably changed the way that we think about and perceive our natural environments.
One of my favorite contemporary artists, James Turrell, is an engineer of light and space.
“Today, light-and-space artist James Turrell seeks to link the terrestrial and celestial realms in his work at Roden Crater, a natural cinder volcano situated on the southwestern edge of the Painted Desert in northern Arizona. Since 1972, Turrell has been transforming the crater into a large-scale artwork by subtly manipulating and reshaping its form…When Turrell completes his gigantic project, visitors standing in the middle of the crater on the reflective material with which the artist has lined it will feel suspended between the sky and earth.”
Turrell’s other works are immersive spaces that primarily use light as form. The sense of space and use of color in his work is so surreal that it alters the viewer’s perception.
Perhaps works like this can lead us to be more observant in our daily lives and actively ask questions about the limitations of perception.
How does this relate to the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute? For the last six months, DWFI program associate Morgan Spiehs and I have been working on an art-science collaboration that examines the inseparability of science and art in relation to our food and agricultural production systems.
As native Nebraskans, Morgan and I are well versed in the history of the Great Plains, the importance and uniqueness of the Ogallala Aquifer and of the American Dust Bowl era of the 1930s and 40s. In an effort to share this knowledge and explore our mutual interest in the intersections of art and science, we look forward to sharing a multimedia exhibit with the participants at the 2017 Water for Food Global Conference in April. Dreams to Dust will run April 7 to May 31 at the Sheldon Museum of Art on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.
About the exhibit
“Dreams to Dust: A Historical Example of a Midwestern American Natural Catastrophe that Looms Relevant Today” will feature Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs of the Dust Bowl era in the U.S. Commissioned under the New Deal in 1935, FSA photographers were hired and sent all over the country to report and document the plight of struggling farmers. Some of these photographs were taken nearly 80 years ago. The exhibit explores how and why the images remain relevant to our lives today. Photography, in its nature, is meant to preserve a visual idea. These documents reveal to us, even in 2017, how human behavior was and is interwoven into the landscape, especially in terms of agricultural practices.
Linking the historical photographs to contemporary landscape and agricultural photography, work by Amanda Breitbach, a professional artist and alumnus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is featured in a short film as part of the exhibit: “The Idea of a Land Ethic: The Art of Human Connection to the Land.” Amanda’s “Land/People” project is sure to spark conversations about humans’ involvement in agriculture and food production today. Through photographs taken on her family’s eastern Montana farm, she hopes her work reconnects people with their role in food production and land use, considering that less than two percent of people in the U.S. are directly employed in agriculture — a remarkable change from the past.
There are strong connections between Amanda’s photographs and the historical photographs by Farm Security Administration photographers. They both showcase rural life during changing agricultural landscapes and environmental challenges, inspiring curiosity about the intersections of art and science, and our evolving perceptions of the land and people who help feed us.
In my mind, artists are essentially communication specialists. In a rapidly changing world, in terms of technology and the environment, we are at a crux. There are scientific ideas and issues that are important to communicate to understand these changes. It is time for artists and scientists to collaborate, and for us to realize the inherent value of interdisciplinary collaboration.
The Dreams to Dust exhibit is free and open to the public April 7 to May 31 at the Sheldon Museum of Art on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. Learn more.
The 2017 Water for Food Global Conference is April 10-12 at Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. Registration ends April 1. Learn more.
Madeline Cass is an undergraduate student working toward a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in the Hixson-Lied School of Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is an artist who currently utilizes photography, video and biological specimens. Most frequently, the subject of her artwork is ethnobotany and mycology. Her primary goal is to use her visual skills to collaborate with scientists and researchers to better educate the public about the importance of sustainability and ecology.
 For further reading, check out Revelations by Ben Burbridge