JULIA BUNTAINE: Curator on Mars
JULIA BUNTAINE is a neuroscience-based visual artist, director of SciArt Center, and editor in chief of SciArt Magazine. Buntaine attained her BA in neuroscience and sculpture from Hampshire College, her post-baccalaureate certificate in Studio Art from Maryland Institute College of Art, and her Master of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts. Buntaine has exhibited nationally and internationally including shows in Amherst, New York City, Baltimore, Seattle, Madison, and Canada. Buntaine also curates and frequently writes, with pieces appearing in SciArt Magazine, Bio Art: Altered Realities, and others. Buntaine currently lives and works in New York City.
We stumbled upon the innovative SciArt Center as we sought out other organizations bridging gaps between fields of thought and study. We reached out to Julia to discuss both her own work as an artist and her work as the director of this forward-thinking, transdisciplinary collaborative organization.
Interview by Lawrence Neil
Your current work combines your two passions: art and neuroscience. Where did these passions originally come from, and how did you find yourself combining the two instead of pursuing one or the other?
I began creating neuroscience-based art about ten years ago when I was at Hampshire College. While I had always done art, I discovered my love for neuroscience during my first year. I had been looking for an academic discipline to pour my intellectual curiosity into, and the science of the brain – the organ that both creates and constitutes our conscious existence – is something I found fascinating at the time and continue to to this day. I double-majored in neuroscience and sculpture for most of college, and happily ran between the lab and studio. I came to a decision point when I had to devise what is called a “Division III,” or the equivalent of a thesis project. I couldn’t choose between the two, and I didn’t have to, in my own way. I realized that while art is what I love to do, science is what I love to think about, and thus my science-based art practice began. The concepts and workings of the brain, which I find so intellectually beautiful, became the perfect creative muse.
Your work often revolves around the concepts of consciousness and perception, and you’ve said that your goal as an artist is to provide your viewer with an alternative way to understand biology. In what ways does your work represent new perspectives on the way we experience reality?
As you mentioned, a lot of my work deals with visual perception and the conscious experience – I am especially interested in visual perception because it is both a major function of the brain, and is what enables us to experience visual art. My piece Visual Objective shows what the retina ‘sees’ before the visual cortex of the brain has time to flip it around, fill in our blind spots, and smooth over our visual field. Another piece of a similar vein is Binding Problem(s), which explores the phenomenon of how our brains weave together the mass of visual information we take in without a glitch. A third piece in this group would be Raw Feels, in which I explore the conscious experience of the color red.
These pieces and others allow viewers to understand brain phenomena conceptually through a visual and bodily understanding – it is my opinion that this is a different kind of understanding than textbooks can provide. For many (including myself), text and small diagrams don’t work well, they don’t facilitate an intellectual or emotional connection to the content. Art is a great vehicle for science because it instantly encourages and enables a unique viewer connection, whether the viewer likes the piece or not!
As complex as the brain is, there would seem to be endless neurological concepts that could be interpreted in art. How do you choose the subjects and angles that you end up addressing in your work?
The subjects I choose usually lie along a few different tracks – there are the biological form pieces, the visual perception pieces, the mechanisms of consciousness pieces, the New York City/brain pieces, and the tools of science pieces. Within these, like you said, are endless possibilities to choose from. My goal as an artist is to balance the beauty of the concept with the beauty of the aesthetic and material manipulation, and I find that not all ideas are suited to this balance, at least in visual art. It has been the case that I thought of a great idea, but realized it was more suited for a dance or written piece, for example. The ideas I decide on have to be as visually compelling as they are conceptually interesting.
Two years ago, you founded the SciArt Center, an organization dedicated to fostering a collaborative community of scientists and artists. What prompted you to create this interdisciplinary organization, and why is this type of collaboration vital today?
When I moved to New York four years ago I began to look for the science-art community here. I found a few groups at first, but was frustrated with the low-level of activity that our center of the art world had. I thought there should be some sort of platform which promoted science-based art, brought science and art communities together, and fostered transdiciplinary thinking. I started our publication, SciArt Magazine, during graduate school, which naturally led to founding our counterpart SciArt Center a year later. It was based on the suspicion that if I thought there was a need for something, there must be other people who think that too, and luckily I was right.
I think that transdiciplinary initiatives and thinking are vital today because the opportunities and problems we do and will face in the 21st century and beyond are multi-faceted and complex. We are no longer trying to get into space, we are trying to figure out the right way to found new societies on new planets. This may sound like science fiction, but it’s not – with the space industry privatized, we’ll get to Mars far sooner than many think. I like to ask questions like “Who will be the curator on Mars?” This fictional future curator, of course, relies on the science, technology, engineering, architecture, humanities, etc. to be there, too. Having a holistic approach is essential in these types of endeavors, so that we may come up with solutions that are both functional and sensible.
People are no longer satisfied with the single-discipline mode of thinking. Fundamentally, people are complex, have multiple interests, and want to explore and express them simultaneously. This is exemplified in the younger generations, where double-majoring, career-switching, and entrepreneurialism is on the rise. I can’t tell you how many times people at our events come up to me and say something like “I’m a biochemist, but I play guitar on the weekends, does that count?” Of course it counts! We can take a holistic approach to so many things from our future in space to climate change management measures to education. We have only to gain from our two cultural partners, art and science, working together. They can inform, enlighten, and benefit from one another.
One of the SciArt Center’s programs, The Bridge, pairs an artist and a scientist together in a residency to collaborate on a self-defined project over the course of a few months. What have been some of the most important insights resulting from these residencies?
The idea for The Bridge program sprung from my observation that “collaboration” was becoming – and is – a buzz word that I hear more and more everyday. Everyone likes collaboration, thinks it’s good, wants to do it – it’s always a positive idea. What I realized, however, is that everyone has a different idea of what collaboration is, which makes it both a difficult and interesting thing to talk about. Importantly, there is often the expectation that a collaboration should always culminate in an end product, which I think is unrealistic and untrue to the real point of collaborating.
We started The Bridge program to explore the collaborative process between three pairs of artists and scientists without putting any goals, expectations, limits, or rules on them. The Bridge’s program subtitle is “Experiments in Science and Art,” and it was truly an experiment for all of us – we had no idea how it would turn out, if the pairs would get along, if their conversations would amount to anything, etc. Our first group (we’re starting round two this fall) all blew me away with the energy and creativity they brought to their projects.
The most important insight – which was my hypothesis starting out – is that collaboration can only be defined if you’re willing to give it a multi-faceted definition. It’s an art piece, it’s a conversation, it’s a tangible end product, it’s a working relationship, it’s an insight, it’s time spent, it’s whatever the collaborators want and make it be. Our groups covered all of this ground, and more – I know that some of pairs are still in communication, and have plans for conferences, books, etc. Each group kept a weekly blog of their process that will serve as an archive and record, and I look forward to seeing how the processes of each year compare and contrast with one another.
Beyond these more formal opportunities, how do you find that scientists and artists have been able to learn from one another through the increased interaction and open-mindedness proposed by the SciArt Center?
At our very core, we’re interested in bringing scientists and artists together via common ground. As C.P. Snow noted in his infamous “Two Cultures” speech, one way to bring these disciplines back together is to create a neutral social space for the two to interact. In so many ways, art and science are very different. But in more ways, they are similar. They are both concerned with the same fundamental questions of who we are, why we are here, where we are going, and where we come from. What we need to get past are the prejudices the disciplines have for each other, and this happens easily through interaction. With each event I hope that people walk away with the knowledge that while they may speak different languages, have different short term goals, and run in different social circles, the arts and sciences are enjoyably compatible.
How do you envision the exchange between artistic and scientific mindsets changing the landscape of thought and human capacity over the long run?
I got into this a bit before, so I won’t repeat myself fully here. I will say that I’m excited to see a lot of universities incorporating cross-disciplinary thinking and it is very encouraging. Schools are doing this through opening cross-disciplinary centers, having flexible curricula and majors, and by hiring people to act as a connection between departments (I’ll be joining Rutgers University in the fall as their STEAM Innovator-in-Residence educator). Eventually this will lead to people in the professional and academic worlds who grew up with multi-modal thinking being the norm, and I think that will have a great effect on our capacity. There is definitely a cultural phase shift going on, in the direction of cross-disciplinary methods, and I’m excited to see what happens.
Published: July 7th, 2016