How a UChicago initiative fostered ‘synergy’ between art and science

Scholars reflect on the Arts, Science + Culture Initiative’s decade of impact

Julie Marie Lemon has always been interested in revealing what cannot be seen at first glance. For her master’s thesis at the University of Chicago, she examined how images from the Hubble Space Telescope mirrored oil paintings from the Baroque period. In both, she found, tiny details were made visible.

“Deep down,” Lemon says, “there are these connections.”

Such connections—barely visible, powerful and potentially field-altering—have since formed the basis for Lemon’s brainchild: the Arts, Science + Culture Initiative (ASCI).

ASCI, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, has long supported the collaborative creation of high-quality art, science and social science at UChicago. As the founder, Lemon wanted to bring seemingly disparate areas of scholarship into conversation.

She wondered what new ways of thinking might result from an exchange of methodologies, tools and questions. But she also wanted to create bridges between scholars at UChicago that would resist familiar, cursory answers—like a painter illustrating a biology textbook.

So, Lemon founded ASCI in 2010 to bring together graduate students and faculty from across disciplines and observe the results of their collaborations. Her initial role was to find the people whose work and philosophy would speak to one another, playing matchmaker for connections that could spark something profound. 

Strong foundations

From the beginning, Lemon says, graduate students were some of the most enthusiastic participants—open to new ideas, and able to quickly engage with unfamiliar fields. Their energy resulted in the initiative’s longest-running program: the Graduate Collaboration Grants.

Awarded yearly, these grants fund teams of at least two graduate students from different fields for a year of sustained, collaborative work. Participants weave together their unique perspectives into a culminating project, augmented by exhibition and publication opportunities.

In 2014, for example, doctoral candidates Shane DuBay (evolutionary biology) and Carl Fuldner (art history) collaborated on a project that would eventually become The Phoenix Index: A New Method in Environmental History.

While surveying bird specimens at the Field Museum, the pair noticed that birds collected over certain time periods had noticeably darker plumage. By photographing complete sets of select species, they devised a novel means of tracking industrial pollution based on the relative amount of soot covering each bird. This method revealed data predating by decades the coordinated air quality measurement systems in place today.

The photographic time-series in The Phoenix Index are a work of art, a reflection on pollution and the effects of humanity on our environment—and an entirely new, scientifically valuable method for assessing the rate of planetary change. The team’s findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and covered by news outlets such as the BBC and the New York Times.

John Bates, a Field Museum curator and a member of UChicago’s Committee on Evolutionary Biology, had few expectations when he joined ASCI as DuBay’s faculty advisor for The Phoenix Index.

“Communicating the science to people who are not scientists is an amazing opportunity,” Bates said, “And then being able to actually learn something about the science is an unexpected and amazing boon.”

That said, he added, “It’s not about getting science done or getting art done: It’s about the synergy between the two. You don’t know what’s going to happen until you put those two in conversation.”

ASCI collaborations have been equally fruitful between the arts and social sciences. In 2017, Elizabeth Jordie Davies, a doctoral candidate in political science, and Ayesha Singh, an MFA student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, collaborated on Power Structures: Connotations of the Facade in State Architecture.

They returned to their hometowns and took photographs and rubbings of monumental government structures: a Confederate monument outside a U.S. courthouse and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, a building used by the British during their occupation of India. By producing large-scale recreations and photographs of these monuments, they considered the entrenched divisions of power in American and Indian society and the structural legacies of racism and colonialism.

“This is pushing us towards these spaces where there are conversations that could be very fruitful to our own societies,” Singh said in 2018. In light of the protests against anti-Black state violence over the past year, this work has attracted renewed attention. In a recent article, Davies and Singh consider how recent protests in both the U.S. and India have rejected monuments to Confederate and colonial pasts and taken up new monuments as a challenge to state power.

Since its early days, ASCI has also acted as a forum, amplifier and creative partner in the cross-disciplinary work of faculty participants. Faculty projects include multidisciplinary classes, such as “Images and Science,” co-taught in 2014 by Prof. W. J. T. Mitchell and writer Norman MacLeod, and “Exploring the Body in Medicine and the Performing Arts,” co-taught in 2016 by Asst. Prof. Brian Callender of UChicago Medicine and Assoc. Prof. Catherine Sullivan of the Department of Visual Arts (DoVA).

From these foundations, the program has embarked on a period of thoughtful, flexible growth.

“[Lemon] was smart enough to think, okay, we’re starting here,” said Prof. Matthew Jesse Jackson, who chairs the DoVA and serves as ASCI faculty leader. “But then … she modulated the program to what would work. The program changed to respond to the producers, rather than making the producers respond to the program. It showed such a degree of respect for early-career makers and thinkers.”

ASCI in 2021

Between 2010 and 2019, ASCI awarded a total of 86 grants to cohorts and individuals totaling more than $300,000. A series of video interviews highlights the work of some of the graduate students involved.

Doctoral candidates Beatrice Fazio (Italian studies) and Tanvi Gandhi (physics) make up one of four teams that received a Graduate Collaboration Grant for the 2020–2021 term.

Their project, Dante in the Lab, explores the interplay of contemporary physics and medieval literature by recreating the literary imagery of the Divine Comedy in the laboratory. For both, this partnership has led to unexpected insights—and emphasized the importance of collaborations between arts and sciences in general.

“I really think that beauty, joy and curiosity should be good enough reasons to pursue what you want to pursue,” said Gandhi. “But there’s a more serious issue, from a practical point of view, where people are losing their trust in science.”

Finding a shared vocabulary has required both Gandhi and Fazio to slow down and examine aspects of their work through a fresh lens.

“It brings such a huge difference in the way you think,” Fazio said. “It gets me to explain my work in a more clear way, in a way that one day I will express things to my students.”

In addition to grants and collaborative projects oriented toward graduate students and faculty, the ASCI also conducts a variety of public programming—from video installations and exhibitions to roundtables and artist talkbacks—with the goal of engaging with and disseminating information to the UChicago community, the city of Chicago and beyond.

It also continues to explore new possibilities. “This is a free space,” Lemon said.

Graduate collaborations also often extend beyond the funding period. An independent evaluation by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in 2019–2020 found that 92% of participants said that the program had influenced their professional work over the long term.

Ultimately, ASCI succeeds because it doesn’t lose track of the curiosity and surprise of discovery and creation. This is partially due to a concept it adopted from the sciences: Welcoming productive failure in the process of playful experimentation.

What comes next?

ASCI is looking to expand its programming into new areas, while continuing to support the collaborative work of graduate students and faculty. A new grant program aimed at undergraduates is in development; the goal is to foster quarter-long collaborations between undergraduate students from different disciplines, potentially beginning as early as next academic year.

In 2018, ASCI launched The WATER Project: Research and Cultural Production to address critical international issues related to climate change. The program is designed to provide a platform for discourse around local and global issues related to water and includes UChicago faculty and scholars in the humanities, social sciences and biological sciences; scientists at Argonne National Laboratory; and artists working with water as a social issue and material. The ongoing project offers dynamic and far-reaching infrastructure for water- and climate-related programs on campus.

ASCI has ambitious plans for the future; but at the same time, part of the beauty of the program is that it’s impossible to predict exactly what innovations will result: “You can’t even begin to overestimate the potential for those kinds of collaborations,” said Bates.

—Adapted from a story first published by UChicago Arts. To learn more about ASCI and the projects it has supported, read the full story at the ‘In Practice’ blog.