Sarah Stewart and Lucy Rupert in conversation-- what makes you curious?

Sarah Stewart is a former marine biologist turned data librarian and PhD researcher studying the impact of open data on scientific research practices in biodiversity. She is also a fan of contemporary dance and visual art, with a strong interest in the exchange of information across disciplines.

Sarah appeared on my art-science horizon after the Squash Court Collective show "Mirrors" which I created with Paulina Derbez in the spring of 2019 at the Citadel. She volunteered to work box office for us and we chatted about the science and art connection. Sarah has been a supporter locally, and from afar, of mine for so long that  I couldn't remember exactly how we met.  Was it at Denise Fujiwara's butoh intensives? Was through the theatre world?

Lucy Rupert and Paulina Derbez in "Mirrors" photo by Francesca Chudnoff

Thankfully Sarah remembered. It was through a classmate and good friend while I was doing my Master degree in History at the University of Toronto. Monika Berenyi -- a scholar and visual artists-- became a good friend and sometime collaborator during the early years of Blue Ceiling dance. We have since lost touch: Monika, where ever you are, I hope you are thriving and happy!

Sarah was a friend of Monika's back then and came to see our shows and now 15 years later, our curiosity has impelled to us interview each other on the art-science connection.


LUCY: So tell me about going from marine biology to data science?

SARAH: To be honest, it wasn’t that much of a shift – although in some ways it has been, perhaps in terms of more tangible ‘organismal’ thinking, such as identifying a bird or (in my case) seaweed, or other algae,  or plants in their environment. Biology is becoming increasingly a ‘data-centric’ or even ‘data-driven’ science, and it is becoming transformed by digital data.

Biologists now are more likely to be working with data on computers as looking at specimens in a natural history collection in a museum or herbarium. This is something that I am currently investigating in my (part-time) DPhil at Oxford University, where I am examining how open biodiversity data (often generated from these natural history museum collections) is changing how scientists identify and study species. 

My work as a biologist has mainly been investigating evolutionary relationships through a comparison of physical morphology and genetic sequences to determine how species evolve and change. I have studied a group of red algae, and was able to both collect them in the field (lots of hiking through incredible forests, in streams, and later, along the seashore!) and then take them to the lab to extract and sequence sections of their DNA for molecular comparison, and generate phylogenies, which are like family trees of evolutionary relationships.

I have been fortunate to work both in the field and with data, which is kind of a field of its own! It is exciting to be able to explore novel patterns in data, and find new connections, but at the same time, there is also a potential loss of context, as data is really just an abstraction of nature, and, although data can provide a very rich context in itself, it may ‘miss’ or even ‘misinterpret’ some things that can only be observed directly in situ. Data in itself likely only captures a specific part of a question posed about the natural world.

My current day-job is being a ‘data librarian’ at the British Library, which is fantastic, as I can work with data from many different disciplines – from the arts and humanities and from the sciences too. The British Library is currently developing a digital research repository with some other galleries and museums, including Kew Gardens, The British Museum and the Tate galleries, so it is an exciting time for open data in museums.

I’m curious to find out how the data that we are releasing ‘into the wild’ of the web will be used by researchers and, indeed, anyone who is interested. The great thing about making data ‘open’ and freely-accessible online is the innovation that it can inspire – from climate scientists looking at historic maps to determine how an environment has changed over time, to musicians making music from geological data and artists using collaged images from Victorian newspapers and city maps to tell stories! It is fascinating to see the synthesis of data to produce new knowledge.

LUCY: That mention of data "into the wild of the web" reminds me of Robert Macfarlane (and other researchers), when he has spoken about the wood wide web. Kind of an inverse of his inverted image. But in both there's distinct imagery of connection that permeates boundaries that we perceive otherwise as rigid or uncrossable. I think it was you who recommended I read Robert Macfarlane!

How would you explain or research data in “practice based art forms”? I feel like I know what this means, but probably not in an academic/research context.

SARAH: ‘Practice-based art forms’, is perhaps a rather dry, technical way of describing how ideas and new knowledge are manifested and generated through the actual process or workflow (the practice!) of creating a work – this could be an artwork such as a painting, a piece of music or a choreography, such as in a dance work. In the process of creating the work, the artist, author or creator produces knowledge through the synthesis of various ideas, inspirations and influences, so the creation of a work is essentially a form of research. For instance, you take a lot of inspiration from science to create your works and in your piece, ‘The Speed of Our Vertigoes’, which explores Einstein’s thought experiments and the development of the theory of relativity, and this work literally embodies how a scientific theory comes into being.

original postcard image for The speed of our vertigoes, 2006
photo of Lucy by David Hou

Interestingly, in my own data and digital preservation work (wearing my data librarian hat), dance and other ‘practice-based’ forms of research and inquiry should be preserved as ‘data’, so finding a way to ‘preserve’ something that may not be directly tangible is also an interesting and challenging problem.

Dance is often considered to be an 'ephemeral' art form - how would you 'preserve' your choreographies for the future? Would you rely on digital technologies for this preservation?

LUCY: Mostly I do rely on digital technology, archival filming, iphone videos of rehearsals. sometimes I write out the choreography descriptively as well. Though the words I use are often not formal descriptions, more images and evocations. But perhaps in the future it will be more interesting to interpret “spin like a butterfly pinned to a cork board” than to just reproduce that form from video. it might actually reveal more about my intent with a piece of choreography than a list of codified "steps".

I tend not to worry too much about preservation on the whole. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the art form, and I have given in to the ephemerality. I think the ephemerality is part of what is special about dance and any performing art. It will never be the same twice. I hope the legacy of the work is small shifts or changes in the people who danced it and witnessed it. Those changes are the best preservation of a work a art.

What draws you to dance?

SARAH: I love that dance is so transformational and even transcendent – a dancer can literally embody anything from an animal or other being, to elements, sub-atomic particles, cancer cells, or even more abstract concepts like ideas or emotions. I also love that dance can be such a cultural medium of expression, and it can convey stories and histories that might not otherwise be expressed. It can give voice to the voiceless. Finally, I love how dance is such an expression of just being alive, in all its aspects!

I’ve been obsessed with Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal, as these strange, and often absurd situations resemble my dreams!

In your own experience as a dancer, how would you 'capture' or 'embody' abstract scientific ideas in performance?

LUCY: This is tough to answer. I’ve trained a lot in butoh — a form of dance from post WWII Japan which focuses on transformation at a cellular (or imagined cellular) level. So I put that training into practice when working, but a lot of it is very instinctual. So it’s personal to my body and different in the bodies of other dancers I work with, but there is truth in all our responses.

What that looks like is a sort of mediation on a given idea, action or principle that unfolds into improvised movement and eventually is shaped into non-improvised choreography. Sometimes we stay improvisational with it, but give the image a specific task as well. For instance in our upcoming show there is an improvised segment where the all dancers are moving through space and connected by one finger to the person in front and behind them in the line, while trying to embody dark matter spreading into a vacuum. Another example is a duet in which the two dancers work with the same choreographic material but one is moving as a particle and one is moving as a wave. If they make eye contact they switch wave/particle roles.

The fundamental idea is to bypass the heavy, analytical thinking work and respond to the image/natural law/language and the choreography with the instincts of the highly skilled dancing body. It requires really remarkable artists who stay curious and don't judge their impulses too harshly.

With your PhD research, how do the arts integrate with your research?

SARAH: Sadly, at present, the arts don’t integrate as much with my research as I would like, but there is the possibility of using visual art techniques to ‘map’ how knowledge is produced through flows of data as a scientist conducts their research. Perhaps the flow of data into knowledge could even be danced! Maybe we could collaborate here?

LUCY: Any time. That would be a challenge!

SARAH: Art and science are very similar in terms of their use of ‘practice’ as a mode of inquiry and research. Einstein demonstrates this through his thought experiments, which are like a form of 'practice-based' research, similar to how a choreographer might create a dance work. The evolutionary biologist and entomologist Edward O. Wilson wrote a very interesting book, Consilience, on the synthesis and unity of knowledge derived from human thought, which finds parallels between the arts and sciences. In order to produce knowledge in both the sciences and the arts, creativity, imagination, and the ability to observe and find new patterns is necessary. It will be interesting to study how data is turned into knowledge in a scientific context, and see the parallels in a humanities context, too.

What inspires you about science?

LUCY: When I really started down this road of science through dance etc -- back in 2005 --it was the way ideas unfold from scientists, the realization (though it should have been obvious, I suppose) that all these ideas are human-generated and thus part of a creative process.  I was immediately inspired by the language scientists choose to name or describe things; “the violence of metamorphosis” and “heliopause” and “coronal mass ejections”. I encountered one scientist's description of the scientific process as: saturate, incubate, illuminate, verify. And it seemed to me to describe the artistic process perfectly as well.

I started reading a lot about astrophysics/cosmology after my father died in 1996. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I had just graduated from university with a Joint Honours BA in Dance and Music, and no distinct plan other than “to make it as a dancer”, not really knowing what that meant or entailed. I went back home to the house I’d lived in from birth til 19,  and rode my mom’s stationary bike (when I was 15 she had passed away from multiple myeloma cancer but she used to ride her stationary bike at home for the Great Ride for Cancer) while I read Darwin and Sagan for hours at a time. It was the liberation of knowing how vast and complex the universe is that allowed me to proceed without a distinct plan. just what my next step might be, and to be ok with the not-knowing beyond that.

Over the years, this has transformed into a love of learning about frontiers of science — particularly astrophysics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, neurology — and an excitement about the mystery that is inherent in science. The path of the unknown never ends. There will never be a complete theory of the universe.

I’m definitely a Type A personality — I like order and discipline and to-do lists and equations and problem solving. I also like bringing together seemingly disparate ideas to find new patterns and connections. Science does all of this as rigorously as does dance. The challenge of trying to really understand the science I'm reading about appeals to the ghost of my student-overachiever self.

SARAH: From your experience and interviews, how do you envision the intersections between art and science?

LUCY: Well, I really think we have something in common — science and the arts often get restricted and limited under conservative governments and I’m sure that is related to the fact that both use their disciplines to describe the nature of reality, and it’s messy and mysterious and not at all comfortable.  To challenge the status quo on a fundamental level is very confrontational. It encourages independent thought and creative problem solving, which is not always in vogue. I think using science as a launching point for art articulates the science more imaginatively for people who aren’t scientists and also gives a grounding for audiences who may be uneasy with contemporary art.

I think we need to team up to support and express or reveal each other’s discoveries.


Art + Science interviews are made possible with the generous support of the Chalmers Family Fund Fellowship program, administered by the Ontario Arts Council.

Catch Blue Ceiling dance's next science-inspired show in January at The Theatre Centre



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