Brian Eames and Jean-Sebastien Gauthier -- Immersive Evolution and Potency of Sci-Art
Jean-Sebastien Gauthier is an artist born and raised in Saskatoon, the grandson of prominent Saskatoon sculptor Bill Epp. He grew up working and learning in his grandfather’s foundry. At Concordia University, Jean-Sebastien expanded his practice as a sculptor into multi-media and interactive arts experiences. He currently resides in Saskatoon.
Together they have created installation works of art combining scientific imaging, immersive art experiences, evolution and a strong desire to inspire people to see themselves in all living things.
We spoke over Zoom in May/June of 2020.
LUCY: I’ll start by just giving my little blurb about why I’m doing these interviews. I received a fellowship to explore how philosophy of poetic naturalism can be applied to contemporary dance. The philosophy comes from the physicist Sean Carroll…
BRIAN: The evolutionary biologist or physicist?
BRIAN: There's a famous evolutionary biologist named Sean Carroll.
(An aside: you can listen to Sean Carroll interviewing Sean Carroll here! )
LUCY: I'll have to look him up! The physicist Sean Carroll has this idea that stories we tell about descriptions of reality, the natural laws of the universe are really important. He sees that certain approaches and certain stories can provoke us societally to cultivate a deeper responsibility and sense of care for the natural world. I’m interested in how this philosophy can bring art and science together in concept and in practice. I’m interested in the storytelling of the research process that goes on in science and art, I’m interested in how art and science intersect in terms of process, concept, and people who are actually doing the work bringing them together in new ways.
My first question to each of you is: how did you get from a being ten-year-old kid to doing what you do? I mean, what got you into your specific field? Brian, you first?
BRIAN: I was not the kind of kid who played with bugs. I was more drawn into this field because of a scientific mind, a rational and curious mind. I was trying to figure out a way that I could maintain interest in a career while learning more. When I finished high school, it was between architecture and biology. My brain was interested in those two areas. I had some mechanical engineering classes where I found it really cool that you could design things that could be realized. That's something that unifies the motivations that I have in science. Tangible outputs.
One of the reasons I'm really happy to know about your focus and what we're getting into here is that I think these worlds are not very far apart: art and science. There's a lot of process similarities, intangibles, the creative spark of invention. These are parallel avenues.
LUCY: Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin was my first scientist interview. He was a huge mind to interview first! In the context of art and science, he talked about novelty. It has such a specific meaning in science, but it gets used colloquially in a very different way. But Lee saw this, invention and novelty, as a commonality between art and science. It's a fascinating concept. I think the arts could do with embracing the scientific definition of "novelty" a little bit more. In arts/entertainment novelty is often thought of as your "hook", a thing that is yours and yours alone, or something unique but trivial.
But we could think of it as what's naturally evolving in our art: what novelty arises through the long arch of our work? What's emergent? What's novel?
Did you always want to go into this particular area of science?
BRIAN: I wear a lot of hats. I'm interested in a lot of things. Evolutionary biology is the framework that motivates me. I like science because of the fact-based, discovery-based observation that the scientific method requires. Physics was too esoteric. After gravity, it gets to be more like philosophy to me. Chemistry was sort of the same. They had empirically figured out how reactions can happen. But they can never really measure it at the subatomic level.
Then biology: the principles of evolution have been around for a while, but the recent advances in molecular genetic techniques, to be able to take part of a gene or part of a DNA and then manipulate it and test it in different ways.... That, I thought, was a major advance. I felt biology was a better opportunity for me to contribute something, as you said, novel, and also tangible. That was a goal. To do science that had a tangible facet.
Evolution is conceptually profound, philosophically. Working inside this idea: that's my passion. But the money is not currently in evolutionary research, so I had to find things that I was interested in related to evolution, but also related to health research, because that's where the research money is.
I became interested in bone and cartilage because of the fossil records and the evolutionary stories that have been attributed to that part of an animal. I took what I was researching there and related it to osteoarthritis. How genes have made cells that developed into bone and cartilage through evolution, and relate that to current health research.
LUCY: Is there an easy way to explain to somebody like me how the evolutionary aspect of it does get applied to current health research?
BRIAN: Yeah, sure. For instance: osteoarthritis. You have cartilage in between the bones and the features of that cartilage change in a way they're not supposed to. It's a natural process but it’s supposed to happen only in other parts of the body, not in the cartilage in between the bones.
So, what happens is osteoarthritis activates a normal program that shouldn't be activating at this point. We can look at new factors, new genes that are doing the same things by doing comparative studies in evolution. You can look at one animal that has normal cartilage and another animal with this other modified cartilage and using evolution you can trace the timing of when these different features appeared and associate that with specific genes. In principle -- this home run hasn't really happened yet -- if you use evolution to learn about the genes that turn this kind of cartilage into another kind of cartilage then you can use that information to address the problem for a modern human.
LUCY: Possibly through gene editing or some process like that.....Amazing.
So JS, can you tell me about your trajectory into art, sculpture and multi-media work?
JS: I was born and raised in Saskatoon. My father is from Quebec. My mother’s side is Mennonite, more recent settlers here in Saskatchewan.
My grandfather was a pioneering sculptor here, doing monumental bronze work, he taught sculpture at the University of Saskatchewan for about 25 years. I grew up here in a very unique setting, my grandfather’s working foundry, about 20km from the city, and his teaching at the University. I grew up embedded in the studio of a very successful mature artist who was also very dedicated to teaching. I grew up around master students and international artists.
In my early years I was being primed: “Now you’re old enough to hold this”, “Now you’re old enough to pour the metal”. I grew up in sculpture. At 14 or 15, around the time my grandfather died, I decided to become a sculptor. I worked independently in France, at a foundry where I learned the ropes. I came back and worked in Montreal, went to Concordia, got a degree in sculpture, became interested in video…. I came back to Saskatoon in 2009.
My practice grew from the figurative influence of my grandfather into new spaces. I became and remain interested relationships to animals in the broadest way. The use of video and interactive work came near the end of my undergrad. I did real time interactive performances that were spatial and sort of disorienting, live video and projections. I was interested in live processing and getting people into the idea of simultaneity. That has continued in the interactive influence.
LUCY: So how did you two connect your work?
BRIAN: A scientist has to be interested in art to even think about straddling it somehow. I've always had an interested in art. I have no artistic skill, but as I've travelled, I've been around a lot of art and artists.
Before this recent collaboration I didn't have any firm way that an artist would be interested in collaborating with me. I have some friends who are artists from back when I worked in San Francisco but at that time they were establishing themselves and not really interested in collaboration with science. What happened more recently-- the Synchotron in Saskatoon, ever heard of it?
BRIAN: It's a melting pot of engineers, biologist, physicists, chemists. So luckily, I had a foot in the door there.
LUCY: How does luck play into it?
JS: I got a tour of the Synchrotron because my sweetheart wanted to get me out of the house. Entering that space with my interest in video and sculpture, my curiosity was very much engaged. I wanted to find ways to work with others. But the Synchrotron people said, “No. This isn’t for you.” So, how I can find somebody?
Here’s the luck: someone I knew worked at the Synchotron and was there while I was doing the tour. He helped me put out a call. Local sculptor seeking collaborator. Brian sent me an email.
BRIAN: We met for coffee and really connected over evolution. The naturalist thing.
JS: I got 8 or 9 responses to my call for collaborators. I contacted a few people but Brian and I – we were just very simpatico. Some people who wrote to me, their technical language was so specific to their field. I was like, “I’ve read your website and I read your paper and I just don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Brian’s research has a lot of abstract levels for someone not trained in his discipline, but the 3D imaging of animals and specimen was really compelling to me. It meant I could at least grasp the visual fundamentals of what he was up to.
BRIAN: Through our conversation we had a real sense how our humanness, how the oneness can be shown through evolution: how similar life forms are....
We had this idea that if people had a better understanding of evolution, well, there was a better chance that people would make better decisions when it comes to environmental policy and behaviour.
LUCY: That's exactly what I'm trying to do out here. There's something that the arts have: an ability to bypass intellect and go straight to something more visceral as people are witnessing it. It's my hope to leap past that place that will rationalize its way through something –make the leap from trying to understand something to feeling it instead. We can disconnect people from the dominance of the floating head and put them back in their bodies.
BRIAN: These types of collaborations need a hook. Our ability to show, through our shared interest in imaging, how nature has been evolving and making beautiful structures was our hook. Once we've got their attention with good images, the challenge was to communicate something specific.
We challenged ourselves to create a project that highlights both the science and the art….I picture it like electromagnetism: there are waves of electrical activity and there are magnetic waves coming at an orthogonal plane. They are happening together, through each other. If there could be meaningful scientific information along one plane and meaningful artistic information along the other, then together both sides of the brain experiencing it could be happy.
LUCY: Whether the “sides of the brain” are metaphors for different kinds of thinkers or whether it is actually stimulating both sides of the brain in a single person…..
The images I saw from Within Measure reminded me of an exhibit at the ROM years ago. This artist had collected "dead things", all of them were white objects in simple glass cases. Whatever they were, they seemed like skeletons or exposed infrastructure. Some were literally dead things, dead owls and mice, but others were things like outdated pieces of technology -- writing instruments, sewing boxes, I think even an old telephone.
I had the same kind of emotional response to the images from your exhibit as I had to this one at the ROM. It’s clear and obscure at the same time. Familiar objects presented in a disassociated context. You can’t help but see them freshly.
BRIAN: One of the challenges for us is reaching an audience and grabbing their attention. JS had been an interactive artist already, working in technology-based interactive art. He knows ways to grab attention so that anyone would respond. He uses technology to do that.
Our first exhibit he used sensors so they would detect the presence of a person and it would modify the image. The last time we did it for Nuit Blanche in Saskatoon he had a Kinect from Xbox -- it could recognize the ends of limbs, sensing a stick figure and put a stick figure on the screen in an array of images and the stick figure (the interacting-viewer) could close his hand around a place in the projected image and grab it and make it bigger, throw it, spin it, change the angle of it. This interactive aspect is what JS has done to make people participate in the art, really be in it.
So, the next iteration of our collaboration will be a VR world, putting people inside the 3-D space and letting them play around with the world, grabbing different embryos like a chicken and a mouse embryo and mix and match, see the similarities. This unity of life idea is the main goal. People can have a choose-your-own-adventure in this virtual space with all these images of animals from different lineages, to see themselves in it. That's our next step.
LUCY: that's the way we should be teaching evolution. I know it's not exactly teaching evolution, but the virtual hands-on aspect.... who knows? You might have some converts.
How did you conceive your first collaboration together? Did either one of you have an idea before meeting about what the content or theme might be?
JS: After we first met for a coffee, Brian brought me to his lab and I saw the animal facility, his zebra fish. We chatted for an hour and half and from that chat were the raw nuggets of what we did. We didn’t have a specific vision for what it would be, but we had a question: hey, what if we could make something that show people how they can relate to these embryos?
BRIAN: But we knew the imaging would be the specific output. That output is still our objective.
LUCY: How has your collaboration evolve? How did you find the ways to work together? That’s a big question so…. plunge in anywhere and start swimming….
BRIAN: Through our collaboration we’ve now been put in a spotlight it’s been interesting to see how JS can talk about his work in a more academic setting. What his motivations are, his history. Drawing a seam between the events of his life and what he’s doing now.
That’s been a plus for me. To watch that evolution and having been a part of it. That’s part of our interaction, to share what I know to help his art reach farther. I don’t know that much about the specifics of the art career path, but there are certain things that I have experience with that help him – how to communicate your motivations and your work.
LUCY: I just published an interview with Amar Vutha, a physicist in Toronto, and unexpectedly we got talking about the mutual pressures of art and science to have a constant public presence. The pressure to do that can actually pull you away from what Amar called “your core content” because you are trying to frame it in a way that will grab people’s attention on social media.
It seems like this kind of collaboration eases that pressure. The collaboration speaks for itself and becomes and engages public without you pulled out of your work.
JS: I don’t do particularly well with social media. But I realized early on with SCI-ART how deep of a niche this is and how deep are the layers of obscurity within the technical language and the interests. Within art, and within science, and within art-and-science. It’s a small niche. I have only 30 followers on Twitter, but it’s a group of people actually interested in what I’m doing.
At our first exhibit, Within Measure, the curator of the Snelgrove Gallery, Marcus Miller, said “The art gallery crowd is small, you don’t need to worry about a huge outreach plan. You only really need to talk to a few people to get it out there.”
The show ended up being the perfect example of that. It was at the university, two weeks long. The exhibition brought youth, daycare kids, academics, people different university departments. One man who attended told us he really liked the exhibit because he used to be a scientific illustrator. And it turned out to be David Geary. I had been super influenced by him in my teenage years. He had made all these socialist posters for Saskatchewan, taking old Soviet propaganda posters and adjusting them for Saskatchewan: The “Winged Red Gopher of Socialism Bounds Above the Prairies”. Things like that.
I notice when we’re with the exhibits and able to make interactions that’s a lot more valuable than when the exhibit is on its own. But I also really appreciate being able to see people at something like Nuit Blanche where people encounter it, not really knowing at all what it is. They stumble into it. Then engage with the images without being prompted.
LUCY: They put together their own understanding in a more individual way, since they haven’t had a set of expectations to begin.
It seems like the initial conception for your collaboration was, or has become, not just an idea for one project together, but more the way that your two forms could develop together over a longer period of time.
JS: Yes. William Burroughs wrote a book with Brion Gysin called the Third Mind. It’s about a different personality that develops between two collaborators working together. There are the two individuals and there’s the relationship between them: that becomes its own entity: the third mind. That is what working with Brian has been like. The collaboration has its own energy.
I’m a curious person. I have a trust your gut approach. If I’m this interested in something, it will pan out because I’m invested. I wrote a lot of proposals to try to get funding, to not just think about these ideas, but start implementing them. It was way harder than I expected. Way, way, way more complicated. It’s hard to dial it in to just one particular output sometimes.
LUCY: Because you can see how far the potential could reach, what the possibilities are?
BRIAN: Again, that’s where my training comes in. I’m a robot in terms of management and trying to get people to focus. So that helps our collaboration. The creativity, the concepts, are things you can play around with, but in both our fields, at the end of the day you have to produce something. There has to be an output. Then you can put it on your CV and use it get more funding.
We are complementary skill sets with a shared vision.
LUCY: In collaborating it’s very easy to get seduced by another’s intellect or artistry without having a deeper conversation about how the two collaborators can have a shared aim or intention that goes beyond “this performance”, or “this exhibit”. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that approach, but when two collaborators’ skills and aims fold into each other’s something important has the opportunity to emerge.
I think it’s quite special to find that. Not easy, but fortuitous that this made itself apparent to you both so quickly.
JS: There’s a lot of super blazing luck. Especially my end. Starting with the Synchotron. And at the first exhibit, when somebody came right up to me and gave me a hug and said “Right on, great job!” I didn’t know who she was, then she walked off and I said to Brian. “She’s really nice.”
Brian said, “Oh that’s the Vice President of Research”. And she followed up and offered us some funding to continue. It made a really big difference to push through the imaging of new species.
LUCY: Kudos to her for knowing. A lot of people in those kinds of positions aren’t intuitive enough to recognize when somebody is on to something potent.
BRIAN: The university has policies about being innovative. They have their buzz words. Interdisciplinarity is one right now. This was how she was able to tap into our exhibit, realize that what we are doing is a priority for the university right now. The Vice President of Research, Karen Chad, has a very open mind in general. We were lucky those things came together at the right time.
JS: It’s like the perfect storm.
LUCY: Sometimes I think, not in a fatalistic way, that when the right components come together it creates -- now I’m really going to sound like a dancer because we talk about energy all the time -- it creates some sort of energy. Like that third mind. Lots of things immediately bounce out of a really good idea. And lots of things get drawn to that energy.
JS: I try to align with intentions. And if a component of a project doesn’t fit with the intention, it doesn’t stay. Brian and I have a pretty clear intention to share the work. And to learn. There’s mutual respect and trust. I trust his opinion and his way of evaluating things. We are able to speak frankly about what we’re doing, then assess and direct it toward the intention.
The third mind and the intent: then the means are what they can be.
LUCY: You mean the way to make it happen becomes clear or reveals itself.
JS: Understanding the deepest intention with clarity makes room for not being caught in “it has to be this”. You find a way to match the intention and then it sparks. It’s easier for people to understand an intent and an emotional kind of thing. I think I’m able to translate data into intent with an emotional spark. It doesn’t matter what the art is about, if you can’t relate to it, it’s not a transmission.
LUCY: Transmission between creators and witnesses or audiences?
BRIAN: It’s the iterative thing, the connection. People can get something from it aesthetically, but then the deeper questions grab them. What is it? What am I looking at? How is this made? In viewers, we see that same stepwise understanding that we went through to make it. There’s an interesting parallel.
LUCY: I’ve never considered that before, that there can be parallel artistic-scientific-witnessing processes. Lots to think about….
BRIAN: Now, I want to know how you’re integrating science into your discipline.
LUCY: That’s another conversation…. Let’s stay in touch. Be well.
JS: Be well!
Learn more about Brian Eames' work at the University of Saskatchewan.
Learn more about Jean-Sebastien Gauthier's work by visiting www.jsgauthier.com
This Art + Science interview was made with the generous support from the Chalmers Family Fund Fellowship, managed by the Ontario Arts Council, and from the Canada Council for the Arts Professional Development program.