Art and Science: a duo to raise awareness about the world of research

Three arts and plant sciences projects led by the IJPB - Article published in the Conversation
Research, an impenetrable and mysterious world for society? What happens in a research center? What do researchers do? What do they handle? These are questions often asked by the public during science outreach events. Historically, these events allowed scientists to provide elements of understanding about science, mainly through visual supports, but they did not grant access to the daily life in a laboratory and its sensory dimensions.

Collaboration with artists brings a fresh perspective and a different approach to research work. This enrichment of proposals allows the illustration of other components of the research world beyond just scientific production, through the feelings of an artist.

Artistic creations, which can engage all five senses, are both a surprise for the public and a revelation for scientists themselves, who rediscover their daily routines through a sensory lens and find a new way to talk about their work without relying on traditional science outreach devices.

The originality of art and science initiatives lies in their ability to enter "third places" such as public and cultural spaces, which help raise awareness about science among audiences distant from these disciplines. Art becomes an entry point to complex, sometimes intimidating, concepts.

Three Arts and Plant Sciences Projects

Since 2015, the Institute Jean-Pierre Bourgin for Plant Sciences (IJPB), one of the largest research centers in plant biology in Europe, has partnered with La Diagonale Université Paris-Saclay to implement art and science projects focused on plant sciences. These projects have involved IJPB scientists, the INRAE site in Versailles, and partner research structures like the SOLEIL synchrotron and the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. The project "Music and Light: A Shared History of Waves" (2015-2016) vidéos SPS 1 & 2 brought together artists, students, and teachers from the Trappes Music and Dance Conservatory. "PerceptionS of Research" (2019-2022), actus IJPB 27/09/21 & 08/06/22, a project for sensorial discovery of the research world, united a collective of local cultural service actors from the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines urban community, as well as Dan Ramaën, a photographer, actu IJPB 11/11/20 and Olivier Dizet, a sound engineer artist.

According to Olivier Dizet, sound engineer artist: "An immersion in research so rich that it's impossible to cover it all. The people I met at INRAE are passionate and fascinating, always willing to explain what excites them. A dive into a mixed environment: calm, because experiments, reflection (and growing plants) take time, and noisy, because of the sounds of machines and fans… I used to think that flowers thrived with Mozart, but I was wrong."

This first fruitful partnership with the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines urban community allowed us to propose a new project in 2023 as part of the Curiositas arts and sciences festival. "Dance with Plants" was built around choreographic proposals on dancing in nature (Armelle Devigon, CompagnieLLE) and cultural practices (Sindou Cissé, Ivoire Dance Polyvalent), actu IJPB 11/10/23.

A Heterogeneous Partnership

When observing the panorama of actors involved in these projects, one notices a great diversity of profiles. It is then necessary to "harmonize" these contrasting individualities.

As highlighted in the national survey of the TRAS network on the art and science field, the existence of facilitating structures is essential for supporting art and science projects and promoting meetings and dialogue between different actors. Including a novice and non-captive audience in the project construction process is a real challenge. The same goes for maintaining a balance between artists and scientists in the creation process.

Thanks to such partnerships, the three projects led by IJPB succeeded: the meeting between artists, scientists, and the public was facilitated by a group of cultural actors (music conservatory, cultural center, academic delegation to cultural action) who independently contacted artists for artistic projects, scientists for outreach projects, and the public using cultural spaces.

Moreover, the support provided by La Diagonale offered an appropriate framework for formalizing projects and financial backing for their realization and dissemination. Only long-term projects, like "Music and Light: A Shared History of Waves" over a school year and "PerceptionS of Research" over four years, including the COVID period, enabled mutual understanding and the establishment of conditions for co-creating projects between artists, scientists, cultural actors, and the public.

Innovative and Inclusive Supports and Creations

Starting the process towards more inclusive proposals was also a driver for the project participants. Innovative technologies such as digital tools, 3D printing, and laser cutting provided by digital incubators, Versailles & Jouy-en-Josas, facilitate the creation of supports. We transformed colors into reliefs using computers or created 3D reconstructions of 2D microscopy image stacks and printed the resulting objects. We scaled up leaf epidermis cells using a laser-cut puzzle.

For Bertrand Dubreucq, senior scientist: "Observing living organisms through microscopy allows visualizing organs, cells, or cell contents in plants. Computer tools enable 3D reconstructions on a computer from these microscopy images. But each person is different and does not have the same ease of seeing in 3D from screen images, especially if the person is not familiar with the observed subject. 3D printing results in a representation that allows touching an object, facilitating learning and understanding."

The "PerceptionS of Research" project also explored the artistic fields of listening and olfaction. These original supports engage the public's different senses and allow richer and more inclusive outreach offerings, accessible to people of all ages, cultures, or with disabilities. Similarly, the participation of collectives in artistic creations (theater, dance…) allows participants to step out of the passive role typical of usual scientific conferences and presentations. The public becomes an active project participant with direct contact with the subject, without intermediaries and without intellectualizing the proposal.

Students from the Master's program in Formulation, Sensory Evaluation, and Analysis of the Perfume, Cosmetic, and Food Aromatic Industries (FESAPCA) visited the site's facilities: laboratories, technical rooms, greenhouses, and outdoor spaces. Each one absorbed the sensory atmospheres of the places. The olfactory creations developed reflect their personal experiences. What particularly struck them: a metallic effluvium, a scent of freshly cut grass… Several months later, each one discovered Dan Ramaën's photographs, triggering evident associations between image and fragrance.

The "Third Place" to Challenge, Mix, and Strengthen Collectives

These three projects have in common their occupation of "third places" to reach the public, such as a music and dance conservatory for the project "Music and Light: A Shared History of Waves," a cultural center and university libraries for "PerceptionS of Research," and a media library for "Dance with Plants."

This "out-of-the-wall" approach to the laboratory or traditional science knowledge dissemination venues captures a passing audience that would not have spontaneously visited a science exhibition. Thus, participatory workshops, an introduction to the experimental approach, and scientific experiments took place in public spaces. Conversely, research venues hosted artistic events. Testimonials collected from participants show that art and science projects, far from being just a juxtaposition of disciplines, challenge communities but also strengthen the bond within different collectives.

Projects based on research developed at the Institute Jean-Pierre Bourgin for Plant Sciences.

Art and Science: a duo to raise awareness about the world of research
For Paul-Louis Lopez-Marnet, a former PhD student in the "Biomass Quality and Interactions with drought" QUALIBIOSEC team: "The world knows research when it finds something! Showing, touching, or hearing research in action is quite different, and being able to share it is very satisfying!".

> Marine Froissard, Research Scientist,"Design, Engineering, Compartmentalization of Lipid Metabolism" DIPOL team, initiator and coordinator of these 3 projects.
> Olivier Kahn, La Diagonale Director, arts, culture, sciences direction, society from the Université Paris-Saclay