CBIS researcher with instrument

Humanities Students and Scientists Collaborate on BioArt

Science and art find a way to collaborate to bring people into both these discourses to explore, experiment and intervene.

For several years, artistic collaborations have been underway among faculty and students in the Schools of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HAAS), Engineering, and Architecture to innovate new frontiers in the interaction of art and science. Explained Associate Professor Kathy High, "We are continually looking for new ways to encourage students to be creative problem solvers. Towards that goal, we began several years ago to look for ways to relate humanities courses with science and engineering fields. I have been trying since my arrival at RPI to make an interdisciplinary area for students to work between art and science, specifically biology.

Early Collaborations

falseThe first collaboration between HAAS and CBIS began in the mid-2000s. An effort funded in 2008 by an EMPAC SEED grant and CBIS created the BioArt Initiative, featuring exhibitions, guest speakers, and “mixers” to bring members of various communities together for a rich exchange of ideas. The project created "cultural interruptions" to encourage artists and scientists to explore issues of aesthetics and ethics

The principle investigators and participants of this effort were Dr. Robert Linhardt (PI), Kathy High (Co-PI, Arts Professor), Rich Pell (Co-PI, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University), Dr. Glenn Monastersky (past Director of Operations), Daniela Kostova (Head Curator, Arts MFA), Dr. Boryana Rossa (Curator /Arts PhD), Dr. Chris Bjornsson (CBIS Director of Microscopy), Dr. Jung Yoon Lee (Arts PhD), and Dr. Adam Zaretsky (Arts PhD). One of the initial premises they set out was to discuss every decision made, whether it was to support or veto proposals. The need for communication, exchange and debate was seen as a key challenge to the initiative.

According to Professor High, the goal to join scientists and artists in a research facility was taken from the ground-breaking model of SymbioticA in Western Australia[2], and inspired by the work of artist collective Critical Art Ensemble, which “explores the intersections of art, technology, radical politics and critical theory”[3]. The RPI BioArt Initiative was only one of a few projects of its kind in the U.S., and it quickly brought together a vital community of artists, scientists and cultural workers interested in being a part of it, both within the RPI campus, as well as nationally and internationally.

false"The inquiries that the BioArt Initiative projects brought to the table raised questions about the obvious need for further exchanges," explained Professor High. "Both artists and scientists need to reflect upon the cultural and communication basis for these collaborations. The fact that the action-based works were more difficult versus the representational ones is no surprise here. To challenge what critic Brian Holmes calls the 'glittering spectacles of technoscientific progress' we need new strategies and modes of collaboration."

Holmes wrote about the challenges of art and science collaborations in a 2008 blog about RPI's new media center, EMPAC.  “To do this requires a precise and far-ranging awareness of what’s happening at the cutting edges of social change, where the new technological environments are invented and installed in daily experience," he wrote. "But it also requires a capacity to confront the managerial techniques, the economic rationalities and the political discourses that keep us on a development path calibrated to the needs of the few and the powerful.” 

New Directions in BioArt

Explorations of how art and science interact have been growing around the world since the early experiments at RPI. And new efforts are gaining ground in our community as well:

  • Professor High continues to focus on this area in her own research and artistic work, and teaches a popular HAAS class entitled “Eco Chic: Living Art,” which is very successful with science students and makes that cross over.
  • Professor High and arts department colleague Michael Century have worked with the Professor Kim Fortun's Sustainability Studies Program in the HASS Science Technology Studies department to develop programming for the Earthweek Festival that has occurred the past two years at CBIS.
  • Professor High and other RPI faculty and students have created a series of local workshops in the Troy community through an NEA grant.
  • Renowned artist and HAAS Ph.D. candidate Heather Dewey-Hagborg has brought her DNA work into her art in innovative ways. She explains, "Since 2001, I’ve been working at the intersection of art and science, with an emphasis on conceptions of the natural and the artificial. Drawing from diverse practices including sound, sculpture, biology and computation, I engage in art as transdisciplinary research; a means of exploration to probe the deep and often hidden structures of media/technology/science that dominate the contemporary moment and frame our cultural imagination."
  • CBIS and HAAS are again looking at how to encourage scientific faculty and students to work with artists for open-ended research that will create new modes of problem solving for the 21st century. The challenge is to find new ways to create cross-disciplinary scientific, artistic and technical training.

Explained Professor High, "The goal of integrating artistic and scientific inquiry is to better understand and articulate cultural ideas around scientific knowledge and informed critique of the ethical and cultural issues of life manipulation.”


  1. This description of the BioArt Initiative was published in “FIELD REPORT - The BioArt Initiative ,” ART AS RESEARCH / Acoustic Space No. 9, Scientific editors: Rasa Smite, Kerstin Mey, Raitis Smits, The Centre for New Media Culture RIXC (Riga, Latvia) and MPLab (Art Research Lab) of Liepaja University (Liepaja, Latvia), 2011.
  2. http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/
  3. http://www.critical-art.net/home.html
  4. Project for a New American University, “Speculations on EMPAC: The Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York” by Brian Holmes