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Essay

Do artists play sports?

The ‘science-art divide’ is a myth of our own making

Andrew Charalambous 2 June 2005

www.lablit.com/article/32

Charalambous (center) with artists visiting the ATLAS detector at CERN

When I was at secondary school I had to make a choice: maths and physics, or history and art...

Editor’s note: Dr. Andrew Charalambous is a freelance chartered mechanical engineer based in London. He is a University College London Honorary Research Fellow and has worked with artists and scientist for over 25 years. He calls his genre ‘EngineeringArt’, which you can read more about by following the link to his website at the end of this article.

"Do artists play sports?"

This question brought a silence to the whole group. It seemed to last for ages. It was then followed by a perfectly synchronised burst of noise as the group of seventeen artists either sniggered or growled at what had been said.

The question was asked by a physicist at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, which is the world's largest particle physics centre and is located in Geneva). The curious scientist was acting as a guide to the group of visiting artists, who were at that moment being driven by bus to the ATLAS experiment area – a detector designed to sniff out exotic beasts such as the Higgs boson and supersymmetric particles, and to probe the potential reality of dark matter and new dimensions beyond normal space and time.

The artists were visiting CERN for a week in January, 2004. Participating in the Young Artists@CERN project, they produced work over the following six months which was exhibited at CERN during the 50th anniversary celebrations in October, 2004. (LabLit.com will feature more on the encounter between these scientists and artists in a future piece.)

So why this strange question? Looking at the artists individually, I am sure that few would have been easily identified as ‘artists’. But by placing them in a group on a bus and labelling them, it seems that otherwise invisible things could suddenly be seen. Do artists eat, drink and sleep differently? I once met a person (an ordinary non-artist person) that was married to an artist. Maybe I should have asked them.

This leads me to ask, do physicists play sports? How do they reproduce? Surely spending all of their time in small rooms piled high with papers, blackboards full of formulae, gathering data and analysing output from computer runs means they can’t do ‘normal’ things like ‘we’ do…what is going on?

I use the phrase ‘interdisciplinary understanding’ in order to discuss bridging the gap that famously lies between the worlds of art and science, in order to bring them closer together. Yet paradoxically, I would argue that they are not actually apart. And by talking about bridges, I create the image of a gulf between them. I am helping to promote the idea they are really different worlds and, as some believe, inhabited by different species. There is a tendency to categorise things as black or white, good or bad. When I was at secondary school I had to make a choice: maths and physics, or history and art. Do physicists really have no need to learn about history? Do artists have no need for numeracy?

In reality, there is no gulf between art and science. These ‘worlds’ are totally entwined with themselves and all the other worlds we choose to create. What does often exist is a lack of knowledge and understanding that has grown from the need to simplify and compartmentalise. When we (as individuals or as groups) allow this to happen, then a gap does appear, but this exists totally in our own perceptions.

Whenever this artificial division happens, both ‘worlds’ lose the opportunity to be richer. Artists have the ability to make statements through their work which allow us to see the world more clearly, or to provide an alternative viewpoint. It may not be a valid statement, or we may not agree with it, but without inspection we will never know. If scientists and engineers confine themselves to their ‘world’ they then deny themselves these views. Without science, the world that artists view is much smaller and less impressive. Without technology, the tools at their disposal are greatly reduced.

A few years ago I saw the Harry Potter films. As I live in the area, I could not miss that the filmmakers shot St. Pancras Station and called it King’s Cross. Every person I have ever asked seems stunned by the appearance of St. Pancras. But does its impressiveness make it function any better as a train station? Go to Gateshead in the Northeast of England and you will see the Angel of the North. This magnificent work by Antony Gormley – a spread-eagled human form towering upwards of 65 feet – dominates the skyline near the A1 motorway. Without engineering technology, though, what could have been created?

Next time you walk through the park and see someone running or kicking a ball, then stop and consider: you may be looking at an artist.

Related links

The Young Artists@CERN website can be found here.

Andrew Charalambous has a personal website which he invites you to visit.

Further reading

Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts, edited by Siân Ede, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Visualisations: the Nature Book of Art and Science, edited by Martin Kemp.