Creative collaboration between science and art inspires new approaches

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Case study

A project pairing professional artists with researchers at the University’s Bragg Centre for Materials Research is helping to develop materials of the future - and sparking new research ideas.  

Ten partnerships have been formed between researchers from a variety of academic schools, including physics, computing, engineering and design; and professional artists including poets, sculptors, theatre producers, sonic artists and visual event creators. 

The project was led by Professor Lorna Dougan, Director of Research and Innovation at the School of Physics and Astronomy, and Dr Scott McLaughlin, Lecturer in Composition and Music Technology. The two matched interested researchers from the Bragg Centre with artists who had applied for the programme; both freelance artists and colleagues in artistic research. 

The project is part of the Cultural Institute Leeds ‘Creative Labs’ programme, and was funded through the University’s Interdisciplinary Pump-Priming Fund. Unusually, the project had no ‘required’ outputs, and the scientists and artists seized the chance to collaborate with complete freedom. 

What happens when researchers leave their comfort zones?

Dr McLaughlin explains: “Innovation and ideas can’t be ‘efficient’. They need space and time to marinate and this was the ideal opportunity to unite science and art, which are often seen as being completely opposed.”

The artists and researchers met in early 2020, taking two months to explore each other’s labs and studios and discuss potential avenues for their work. The ‘Bragg Edition’ of the Creative Labs was therefore just getting underway when the coronavirus pandemic hit; fortunately the timing had allowed the partnerships to meet and start working together before lockdown was imposed, and collaborations could then continue online. 

Professor Dougan says; “What better way to innovate than by taking two sets of people out of their disciplinary comfort zones? Although this was purely seen as a way of getting conversations happening and sparking collaborations, we’ve been delighted that many of the partnerships have had concrete outputs.”

Exploring applications for materials

One example is the collaboration between physicist Prof Michael Ries, who is researching applications for a plastic-like structure he has produced from cellulose. He was paired with Dr Dominic Smith, an artist interested in printing and photographic techniques. Together they worked to embed photosensitivity into the process of creating the cellulose, with the result not only of beautiful images, but of possibilities of using the material itself for large-scale, robust and sculptable projects with a photographic element.

Dr McLaughlin explains: “Dominic discovered a new type of material which reacted differently to his usual printing techniques. Meanwhile, Michael now has a much clearer idea of possible applications for his material – and a better understanding of how other industries might use it. It’s unusual to have that type of direct feedback so early on in the process.”
In another pairing, the poet Dr Caitlin Stobie, whose work looks at the relationship between human and non-human bodies, collaborated with biological membrane specialist Dr Paul Beales. 

That resulted in a series of poems: “Blurred Lines; Life, Matter, Poetry” inspired by medical applications of soft matter and the science of artificial cells. Stobie has also written a short story titled: “What Schrodinger Said” which was recently published by ZenoMagazine.  

Project next steps

Since the Creative Labs programme ended, Professor Dougan and Dr McLaughlin have signposted the partnerships to opportunities for funding that rewards different disciplines working together, such as the Royal Society’s Apex awards and the Leverhulme Trust charity. 

Professor Dougan was granted funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for a new iteration of the programme in 2021, which included opportunities for the public to get involved in the process. 

Cross-disciplinary collaborations have much to offer. Professor Dougan muses: “In the current education system students are often expected to choose between following a science pathway or an arts pathway. The Bragg Centre Labs demonstrate that creativity is present in both pathways! Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could provide more opportunities for everyone to engage in both the arts and the sciences, to see where the different creative approaches can take our ideas?”