Creative Collisions: Crossing the Art-Science Divide

A partnership between ACT and MIT.nano, the class “Creating Art, Thinking Science” asks what it really takes to cultivate dialogue between disciplines


MIT has a rich history of productive collaboration between the arts and the sciences, anchored by the conviction that these two conventionally opposed ways of thinking can form a deeply generative symbiosis that serves to advance and humanize new technologies. 


This ethos was made tangible when the Bauhaus artist and educator György Kepes established the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) within the Department of Architecture in 1967. CAVS has since evolved into the Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) program, which fosters close links to multiple other programs, centers, and labs at MIT. The class “Creating Art, Thinking Science” (4.373/4.374), open to undergraduates and master’s students of all disciplines as well as certain students from Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), is one of the program’s most innovative offerings, proposing a model for how the relationship between art and science might play out at a time of exponential technological growth. 


Now in its third year, the class is supported by an Interdisciplinary Class Development Grant from the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) and draws upon the unparalleled resources of MIT.nano; an artist’s high-tech toolbox for investigating the hidden structures and beauty of our material universe.

Art science class
“Creating Art, Thinking Science,” credit HErickson/MIT

High ambitions and critical thinking


The class was initiated by Tobias Putrih, lecturer in ACT, and is taught with the assistance of Ardalan SadeghiKivi MArch ’23, and Aubrie James, SMACT ’24. Central to the success of the class has been the collaboration with co-instructor Vladimir Bulović, the founding director of MIT.nano and Fariborz Maseeh Chair in Emerging Technology, who has positioned the facility as an open-access resource for the campus at largeincluding MIT’s community of artists. “Creating Art, Thinking Science” unfolds the 100,000 sq ft of cleanroom and lab space within the Lisa T. Su Building, inviting participating students to take advantage of cutting-edge equipment for nanoscale visualization and fabrication; in the hands of artists, devices for discovering nanostructures and manipulating atoms become tools for rendering the invisible visible and deconstructing the dynamics of perception itself. 


The expansive goals of the class are tempered by an in-built criticality. “ACT has a unique position as an art program nested within a huge scientific instituteand the challenges of that partnership should not be underestimated,” reflects Putrih. “Science and art are wholly different knowledge systems with distinct historical perspectives. So, how do we communicate? How do we locate that middle ground, that third space?”


An evolving answer, tested and developed throughout the partnership between ACT and MIT.nano, involves a combination of attentive mentorship and sharing of artistic ideas, combined with access to advanced technological resources and hands-on practical training. 


“MIT.nano currently accommodates more than  1,200 individuals to do their work, across 250 different research groups,” said Bulović. “The fact that we count artists among those is a matter of pride for us. We’ve found that the work of our scientists and technologists is enhanced by having access to the language of art as a form of expressionequally, the way that artists express themselves can be stretched beyond what could previously be imagined, simply by having access to the tools and instruments at MIT.nano.”

“Creating Art, Thinking Science,” credit HErickson/MIT

A playground for experimentation


True to the spirit of the scientific method and artistic iteration, the class is envisioned as a work in progressa series of propositions and prototypes for how dialogue between scientists and artists might work in practice. The outcomes of those experiments can now be seen installed in the first and second floor galleries at MIT.nano. As part of the facility’s 5-year anniversary celebration, the class premiered an exhibition showcasing works created during previous years of “Creating Art, Thinking Science.” 


Visitors to the exhibition, “zero.zerozerozerozerozeozerozerozeroone” (named for the numerical notation for one nanometer),  will encounter artworks ranging from a minimalist silicon wafer produced with two-photon polymerization (2PP) technology (Obscured Invisibility, 2021, Hyun Woo Park), to traces of an attempt to make vegetable soup in the cleanroom using equipment such as a cryostat, a fluorescing microscope, and a Micro-CT scanner (May I Please Make You Some Soup?, 2022, Simone Lasser). 


These works set a precedent for the artworks produced during the Fall 2023 iteration of the class. For Ryan Yang, in his senior year studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, the chance to engage in open discussion and experimental making has been a rare opportunity to “try something that might not work.” His project explores the possibilities of translating traditional block printing techniques to micron-scale 3D-printing in the MIT.nano labs.


Yang has taken advantage of the arts curriculum at MIT at an early stage in his academic career as an engineer; meanwhile, Ameen Kaleem started out as a filmmaker in New Delhi and is now pursuing a master’s degree in Design Engineering at Harvard GSD, cross-registered at MIT. 


Kaleem’s project models the process of abiogenesis (the evolution of living organisms from inorganic or inanimate substances) by bringing living moss into the MIT.nano cleanroom facilities to be examined at an atomic scale. “I was interested in the idea that, as a human being in the cleanroom, you are both the most sanitized version of yourself and the dirtiest thing in that space,” she reflects. “Drawing attention to the presence of organic life in the cleanroom is comparable to bringing art into spaces where it might not otherwise exist—a way of humanizing scientific and technological endeavors.”

Art science class
“Creating Art, Thinking Science,” credit HErickson/MIT

Consciousness, immersion, and innovation


The students draw upon the legacies of landmark art-science initiativesincluding international exhibitions such as “Cybernetic Serendipity” (London ICA, 1968), the “New Tendencies” series (Zagreb, 1961-1973), and “Laboratorium” (Antwerp, 1999)and take inspiration from the instructors’ own creative investigations of the inner workings of different knowledge systems. “In contemporary life, and at MIT in particular, we’re immersed in technology,” said Putrih. “It’s the nature of art to reveal that to us, so that we might see the implications of what we are producing and its potential impact.”


By fostering a mindset of imagination and criticality, combined with building the technical skills to address practical problems, “Creating Art, Thinking Science” seeks to create the conditions for a more expansive version of technological optimism; a culture of innovation in which social and environmental responsibility are seen as productive parameters for enriched creativity. The ripple effects of the class might be years in the making, but as Bulović observes while navigating the exhibition at MIT.nano, “The joy of the collaboration can be felt in the artworks.”

Editorial direction by Leah Talatinian
Written by Matilda Bathurst, Arts at MIT

Posted on February 20, 2024 by Tim Lemp