Ken and I spent our first week getting to know each other better. We purposefully decided to take a more personal approach because we both agree that the most productive collaborations in our respective fields come from finding good collaborators that you trust and enjoy working with. So we decided to spend some time chatting about our lives, and digging into the things that drive and inspire each other’s work. We found we actually have a lot in common -- including that we both like the same book, and the same exact scene from that same book! (FYI it’s The Windup Bird Chronicles, and the scene with the well). It was fun to hear the kind of science that Ken likes to geek out about and inspires him to be super creative. It’s such a different approach from my response to cool science, so it was fun to hear about.
It really struck me both how similar and how different our process is for figuring out what to work on. I was happy to see that we both independently decided that the best way to start the process of our collaboration was basically to become friends. It reiterates to me that even across really different disciplines, we are all humans looking to make connections and enjoy our work. One intense thing I learned about being an artist, is the amount of self-introspection required. Ken described how he comes up with ideas for new art, and how he thinks about pushing the field forward. Because most of his ideas tend to come from personal experience, to move his art forward he really needs to put himself and his history out there for the world to judge. This was really impressive for me to learn about because I often think about how much of my emotional self I put into my science, and how hard it can be to get rejections or criticism. But at least I have a long line of previous research to back up my new ideas!
During our second chat, we spent a lot of time throwing out ideas about possible collaborations. We both agreed that we wanted to do something beyond me explaining my science and Ken making cool visual representations of it. We want to aim for something that is truly collaborative.
We discussed a lot of really interesting ideas, that include thinking about grasslands in different times and space (think space: aboveground vs belowground; think time: the patterns of seeds that disperse throughout the season). We also talked about neat ways to do artistic prairie restorations, and also exploring the concept of random through art.
Before the first conversation with Lauren, I was excited but also unsure how it would go. Trying to begin a project with someone you have only just been introduced was a bit daunting. Happily, after a few minutes of talking with Lauren I realized I got lucky and this was not going to be a problem! Lauren is very positive, relaxed and pretty funny which made the conversation flow and expand. It was amazing to hear about her work with seed dispersal, work in the field, the focused thought process that goes into investigating this. (I particularly liked hearing about a past project where Lauren creating seed prototypes out of other materials, releasing them into the wind of the environment and tracking them at night with black light!!- sounds like a cool performance piece already!)
As our first conversation unfolded, both Lauren and I seemed to equally feel the importance of getting to know each other as a beginning step in collaborating. While the act of figuring out a project that is both science and art is the main purpose, the act of collaboration is also the point. With that in mind we allowed ourselves the space to just become friends and talk about general things of interest. It turns out we both liked a lot of similar things- both big fans of the old TV Show The X-Files and the writer Haruki Murakami with Wind-Up Bird Chronicles being a particular favorite. It was slightly alarming that we both keyed into certain scenes in the book (the well scene in the Murakami for anyone who read the book) and individual scenes in various X-Files episodes. I thought these moments of shared interest allowed us a comfort level/ opening to share more freely. At some point, our conversation came to the origins of our particular investigations- not only how they began but what in our past may have directed us toward that interest. I think artist do this sort of self- reflection fairly regularly as we look for guidance as we explore new territories and I was curious where Lauren’s interests stemmed, what was her ‘bedrock ‘. We talked about memories, types of books you like, things you collect, etc- things that give a window into one’s content. She mentioned reading books with themes of an individual alone in the wild learning to survive in nature (and making friends with animals). She also relayed that she keeps many objects (pictures, notes, etc) as possible from her life, an archive of sorts. Those memories/ practices seem relevant to her direction as a scientist. I also shared a few memories that I thought contributed to the content of my artwork, such as fossil hunting with my family (an interest in deep time, artifacts, ancient animals), sonar testing in Seneca Lake (technology image distortion, and eventually static), visiting pre-columbian ruins (archeology, archaic technology and structures) and even my interest in Science Fiction movies and books.
This wide ranging conversation I felt gave us a better sense of each other, a rounded understanding of each other’s practice, and, importantly, possible commonalities to explore in a collaboration. So maybe in this collaboration, this is Step 1- seeing where you can begin from.
My name is Lauren, and I am a postdoctoral researcher in the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior department at the University of Minnesota. I am really interested in understanding how plants move (this is called dispersal), and how plant movement can naturally aid in restoring native grassland ecosystems. I love analyzing data, and thus I am constantly using statistical (think programming) and mathematical (think equations) tools to understand plant dispersal. I am currently doing field work in NW Minnesota, but will be moving to St. Louis, Missouri in October and working remotely. I am currently trying to understand how far pollinators are able to carry the pollen of native grassland plants. If you want to learn more about my research, you can go to my website here. While I have always loved science because it involves constant learning and problem solving, I also enjoy expressing science through art. In college, as part of an arts-in-public-spaces class, I painted part of a mural on evolution for the new science building at the University of Michigan. You can see me working on my piece here! After that experience I become really interested in using art to help people understand science in new and exciting ways. As part of my PhD dissertation, I helped create a prairie restoration experiment in the middle of town in Ames, Iowa with the help of undergraduate English 101 students. We restored a 4-acre prairie in a design that allowed us to understand how animals on the prairie were influencing the movement of seeds that could help increase the diversity (or number of native species) in restored prairies, which you can read about here. You can read the paper I wrote about our experiment here. What was fun about this project was that we set it up using the help of so many non-biology students. Working with students who had a humanities background was exciting because not only did they learn a lot about native lands restoration, but they also brought a creative perspective to the project. They wrote their final English essays on how the restored prairie could be used from many different perspectives (e.g. agriculturalist, conservationist, recreationist, etc). After this experiment was set up, we continued to involve other arts and humanities students by working with a graduate student in the painting program, and with a landscape design class. These students help us take our experiment and come up with artistic ways to represent the importance of native grassland habitat beyond scientific writing and graphs.
I am really looking forward to working with Ken on this SciArt residency because it will be an opportunity for me to engage with artists again. And this time I am hoping to do some art of my own. Not only do I want to figure out how to express science with art, but I am also hoping that some of Ken’s art can inspire me to think of ways my science can connect with his work, creating a truly unique feedback.
Beginning this collaboration, it is good to share a little about myself, my artwork, and how I came to be interested in this opportunity of working with a scientist. My name is Kenneth Millington and am originally from Geneva NY, located on the north end of Seneca Lake. I attended the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence RI (Bachelor of Fine Arts) and the School of Visual Arts, New York, NY (Master of Fine Arts). In between, I received several grants to travel and live abroad- La Paz Bolivia and London UK. After several years painting large scale murals in Philadelphia and around the Northeast, I settled into Brooklyn NY and began teaching at Parsons, School of Design. I currently teach in the First Year Program- Drawing & Imaging, Time, and various painting, digital and 3-D design courses. Teaching has emerged as a strong pursuit that runs parallel to my artwork.
While my artwork may be categorized as multi-media at this point, it has always explored concepts of place. As society advances, the concept of place evolves. Technology opens new corridors both spatially and temporally. The intersection of physical space and digital space are known as informational territories (a term coined by André Lemos.) With new places being ‘made’ some of these older territories fall into abandon as technology moves beyond them. One such space is the vacant signal frequencies accessed by the antenna of CRT TVs. My work explores this portion of the Electromagnetic Spectrum particularly the radio and microwave frequencies and the subsequent ambient information found there.
My practice involves media archeology-using dated technology, or an object in obsolescence, refashioned to create art. For me, a television set and its antenna can be used as a medium, not to watch narrative episodes, but rather as an amplifier of the electromagnetic environment. Much like a landscape being defined by its geology, flora, and climate, its electromagnetic signature is equally distinct. The visual data collected through the television is edited into video or reproduced as large scale painting. The videos and paintings I produce reconsider our views on interference/ disruption and our perceptions of place. Documenting television static and amplifying features allows this long consider interference to be re contextualized from a disruption to a moment of contemplation. Through this convergence of science, technology and art a modern landscape can be presented and a new index for place can be achieved.
This current work, with its blurring of science and art, led me to confront scientific themes, explore nontraditional art mediums and opened new ways of thinking about artmaking. I realize there is great potential in going beyond what is familiar to an artist (traditional mediums, art history, etc.) and engaging with different kinds of information and other methods of investigation. Collaborating across disciplines allows this to happen. It offers another avenue to interact with and understand the world around us. Equally important this collaboration offers two people from different fields the chance to get to know each other, learn from each other and explore a way to work together.
My website: https://www.kenmillington.com/