Emergent dialogues: Science and art in Matoaka Woods

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Six years ago, chemistry professor Carey Bagdassarian took a class in bronze casting that was taught by art professor Elizabeth Mead. “I like to make things,” he explained. Admittedly, many of those things are made in the margins—in the scientific space of unicorns, in the gap between what is possible and what is. As he studied Mead’s process, he realized that is where she worked. An emergent dialogue began.

The language employed was based on that of complex-system theories. This summer, the two professors taught it in their interdisciplinary course Emergent Dialogues: The Intersection of Art and Science (Art 340/Chem. 101D).

The course introduces complex-systems theory, in short a way of explaining how a whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, according to Bagdassarian. Students create their own computer models, focusing on fish schooling or birds flocking. They take those concepts onto Lake Matoaka, where from canoes they seek to immerse in environment. Next they move to Matoaka Woods, where they create works of art from objects at hand, works that are—whether fragile or bold—fully molded, embedded and sustainable in the spaces they transform.

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As the professors engaged the students, their language invoked images of subunits existing within constraints merging to completions. Terms such as activation of spaces and generating breadth furthered the comprehensions.

Meanwhile, there are other lessons. “Even if what the students create looks simple and fleeting, their willingness to engage in the process says that what they might find out along the way is as important, if not more important, than anything they might produce,” Mead said.

Just as she pushes them, they challenge her. She recalled their reactions to the large, metallic works she admired as an undergraduate. “Many of them were absolutely offended,” she said. They considered the art “arrogant”; they believed the artists were overzealous in marking the environment, she explained.

“They allowed me to see what that work looked like to eyes that had grown up in a world conscious of sustainability, as opposed to our generation which has learned sustainability,” Mead said.

There are other lessons.

“What we are discovering is that there is this interface between the two disciplines where science has a feed into the arts and the arts have a feed into the science and give rise to something new,” Bagdassarian said. “That’s why we call the class emergent dialogues.”

“I think at the end of the day this class is getting back to what a true liberal-arts education is about, where everyone is versed in all areas and all disciplines,” Mead added. “It’s not just about regurgitating a bunch of skill sets.”

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