Aesthetics of Discovery

With the increasing popularity of artwork that tackles scientific concepts, Emily Longworth speaks to scientist and photographer Pablo Rojas ahead of his upcoming exhibition in UCDImagery has always been the currency of education; universally understood and immediately accessible, a huge part of our ability to understand a subject comes from visual interpretation. Conveying information through artwork has been done for centuries, but recently, with the exponential growth of visual communication and graphic design technology, the merging of scientific and artistic disciplines has come into a golden age.This month the Conway Institute will host Biophotologia, an exhibition by UCD graduate, microbiologist and photographer Pablo Rojas. From the 23rd to the 30th of November, images of research will be on public display, and the artist hopes they will succeed in engaging as many people as possible in the aesthetics of research. “I am aiming to state how fragile is the thin line that divides arts and science when it comes to images. My idea is to show people that such frontier is very variable and dynamic, and also that the constant friction that results from both sides can generate very interesting pictorial output and discussion,” Rojas says.Biophotologia will exhibit work from several of Rojas’ previous shows and collections. Having done a basic degree in Microbiology in Ecuador, and completing a Masters in Bacterial Epidemiology in UCD, Pablo Rojas is currently working on his PhD in Berlin. All of his studies have given him a good source for artistic material, and his images of Biofilms and microbial growths have been met with great response.His exhibition emphasises the beauty in images that are often discarded in the research process. He describes the scientific perspective as one that has often ‘trained the eye not to see the beautiful’ when only looking for results. When the images are re-examined with different perspective, “the imaginative process shared by both disciplines where the conventional frontiers between them can no longer be traced”.The exhibition will feature photos of microbiology research, which include macro-lens depictions of colony growths in the lab. As well as human portraits created in an aesthetic experiment between volunteers and bacterial biofilm images, and several videos that creatively re-imagine diagnostic imaging.One of Rojas’ former exhibits, Zoonosis, is entitled after the term for infectious diseases that can be transmitted between species, and often from humans to animals or visa versa. “When it comes to things like microbiology or molecular biology, zoonosis is the actual gateway or bridge to when we start thinking about how microbiology links the animals to us,” Rojas says “And this basically relates to 15,000 or 20,000 years ago when we first started domesticating them and we started agriculture.”Many academics have responded to Rojas’ previous exhibits with technical feedback, and he finds that this “dramatically clashes with a more subjective feedback provided by others, where the interaction between aesthetics and science is celebrated.” He hopes that the exhibit will give scientists a different perspective on the subjects they work with. “In some cases I have been asked if I can provide a copy for decoration. Interior designers have also showed interest in acquiring images from the collection.”A talk on the correspondence between scientific and artistic frontiers entitled ‘Progressive synergism between photography and microbiology, an aesthetic approach’ will be given by Rojas at the launch of his exhibit on November 23rd at 4pm in the Conway Institute.Rojas is excited for the exhibition, and explains how he thinks multimedia and photographer enable people to engage more with the research topics he uses in his work. “The microscopy experience still charms grown-ups and kids. Interactive installations where science remains as a vehicle through the cognitive experience can certainly improve the chances of understanding complex concepts.”Another supporter of art and science collaborations is Martin Kemp, author of The Human Animal in Western Art and Science. In fusions of the two disciplines “science becomes more accessible because it is "real" in relation to the art, not about abstract data. At their best, collaborations reunite things that have become radically severed.”Physicist David S. Berman maintains that theoretical physics and art share a common element: “They should provide a new way of seeing the world. Relativity and quantum mechanics are now as much a part of the cultural landscape as Shakespeare and Beethoven”. The revitalisation of science in artwork has become even more widely celebrated by the advent of the internet, although it has been around for as long as the research itself has.In Victorian times, diatoms (a kind of microscopic algae) were used to make miniature artwork. The colourful, geometric organisms were prepared in pretty arrangements on glass slides, and positioned with a single human hair as a pastime for Victorian people. Mathematical principles and geometric design has been a huge part of artwork throughout history since major developments were made during renaissance times. One-point-perspective dramatically changed the realistic appearance of paintings, which had been largely two-dimensional before linear boundaries were applied.Effectively, artwork is the tool of the teacher, who adapts their message to be visually accessible. In the middle ages, religious theory was communicated to the lay person almost solely through imagery, which filled churches and cathedrals via sculpture. This aspect of scientific art has lead to the growing success of international science galleries in recent decades. More and more researchers are looking to merge their work with artists in the hopes of making it more understandable to the greater public.Biophotologia takes place from November 23rd-30th in the main lobby of Conway Institute.