The functional and the functionless

An exploration of the relationship between science and art.

The compatibility between art and science is complex, while they often seek each other to develop ideas through using the others knowledge or skills, it can be unclear how the comparatively useless can benefit the useful.

Art has a long history of questioning and challenging the function of everyday objects. Pioneered by Duchamp through his concept of the “readymade’ in the 20th century, depriving objects of function has become a common way to define art. As explains the difference between the tables used by Martin Creed in Work No. 928 – stacked in a pyramid in the gallery – to the one I am using to write this article. While work that explores these ideas act as a visual trigger for philosophising notions of art, its significance pales in comparison to landing a probe on a comet or developing cures for diseases.

However, some works/projects have more practical aims. Grizedale Arts, the rural contemporary arts organisation in the Lake District for example, aims to ‘promote the functions of art and artists in practical and effective roles, as a central tenet of a wider culture and society.’ They aim to give artists a strong use and purpose in the rural environment, developing artists as practical contributors to the working farm and community where they are based.

When art explores elements of science the uselessness can appear more evident through directly comparing its value with a practice that is more conventionally useful. However, art can do a lot to raise awareness of certain issues and areas of research. By looking closely at specific projects rather than art/science, generally the mutual benefits and functions of both become clear.

Bio-Artist Eduardo Kac’s project GFP Bunny uses genetic engineering in an unusual and a seemingly scientifically useless way to highlight the topic and possibility of genetic engineering. GFP Bunny focuses around an albino rabbit that appears like any other, until she is illuminated with blue light showing her ability to give off a bright green glow. Alba, the rabbit, was engineered using an enhanced version of genes found in the bioluminescent crystal jellyfish. On the website, dedicated to documenting every facet of this project, Kac explains that this transgenic work is made up of the rabbit, the public dialogue it generates and the social integration of the rabbit. This project creates a complex social event that functions in numerous ways and particularly raises questions of the cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering.

While discussion is an important aspect in making scientific advancements, particularly with something as controversial as genetic engineering, art can also be used to deal with issues in a more hands on way.

ONCA, One Network for Conservation and the Arts, is a Brighton based gallery which focuses on providing exhibitions and events that harness art to explore issues of conservation. With group shows that have explored extinct species, climate change and biodiversity, ONCA aims – not only to raise awareness of environmental and conservation issues through the arts – but also to promote educational initiatives for both art and conservation, and to raise funds to support conservation projects. While projects from ONCA do raise awareness for the need for conservation and may rouse viewers to take up the mantle themselves, they are also using their position and funds to support projects like 100: A Making of Trees. An on-going project inspiring the community to think about trees in new ways which plans to plant 100 new trees in Brighton over the next year.

Given the myriad of both scientific and artistic practices, it is impossible to create a general assessment of how one uses the other. However, it is clear that art is a platform that can be harnessed for a range of subjects and issues, and despite its history of creating functionless objects; the relationship between art and science is more about how these different subjects can benefit each other. Using the different functions and possibilities they each present.


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