Artists, scientists discover new perspectives through collaboration

Neuron art
The Arts, Science & Culture Initiative project titled ‘net(work)’ is a music and neurobiology collaboration, in which a musical composition interprets and represents images of neurons sending electrical signals.
Courtesy of
Dana Simmons
Andrew Bauld
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesNews Office

When UChicago’s Arts, Science & Culture Initiative began in 2010, program director and curator Julie Marie Lemon had a vision of artists and scientists working together, sharing approaches and deep knowledge of individual disciplines to unearth new findings. The results have ranged from using birds to track the history of industrial pollution to visualizing the structure of the universe through textiles.

“The thinking was to provide a platform of exchange between students who don’t usually have contact with each other,” Lemon said. “There is a wide variety of results, but there are real discoveries that happen.”

This year’s collection of projects is no less ambitious, with students researching topics from neurobiology to the supernatural. They will present their findings at a public display on May 10 at 5 p.m. in the Logan Center’s Performance Penthouse.

The projects include “Dissecting Enchantment: Between Gods and Ghosts” by anthropology PhD students Hilary Leathem and Agnes Mondragón Celis-Ochoa and visual arts MFA candidate Adrienne Elyse Meyers. Their research focuses on the boundaries between the sacred and the haunted.

The team visited sites throughout Chicago, including Graceland Cemetery and spiritual shops in the Pilsen neighborhood, in an effort to understand how certain locations take on the characteristics of the sacred, the supernatural or elements of both.

Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral provided a particularly unique blend. It is one of the most important Catholic spaces in the city, serving as the seat of the archdiocese. But a criminal history gives the cathedral’s exterior an entirely different feel.

“It’s considered haunted because a rival of Al Capone’s was shot in front of it,” Meyers said. “The bullet mark is still there. Inside it is an incredibly holy space. It just depends on how you look, but the term haunted and sacred describes the same place.”

The team compiled footage from the various locations they visited along with collected objects and sculptures to create an installation piece for visitors to experience the mix of holy and haunted that the project documents.

In another project, Pierce Gradone, a PhD candidate in music composition, and Dana Simmons, a PhD candidate in neurobiology, turned to the lab for their project, titled “net(work).” Their project creates music composition that represents the communication between neurons.

Simmons used a device called an oscilloscope to track the electrical signals neurons send to one another. The resulting visual image is akin to an illuminated tree, with the various branches diverging based on the messages being sent. Gradone then took these images to create a 10-minute instrumental performance. The resulting musical piece uses violin, cello and piano, along with collected sounds from Simmons’s lab, to create a mirror of the activity of the neurons.

Simmons, who comes from an artistic background, said she is excited to use art to truly share the story of her scientific work.

“My goal is to spark curiosity,” Simmons said. “I feel like these days there is a lot of resistance to science. I want to make science more palatable, and sharing scientific research through art sparks interest.”

Gradone also appreciates the overlap that comes from the two fields working in tandem.

“A musical piece is kind of like a neural network, with pieces of it speaking to each other,” he said. “I’ve gained a whole new respect for the thought process through Dana’s amazing work. Scientists have creative agency, too. The Arts don’t have a monopoly on art.”

Learn more about these collaborations and all the 2016-2017 projects at the Arts, Science & Culture Initiative website.