JD Talasek is the Director of Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C. He was the creator and organizer of the international online symposium on “Visual Culture and Bioscience,” (2008) and co-editor of the published transcripts (2009). Talasek has curated several exhibitions at the National Academy of Sciences, including “Visionary Anatomies,” (toured through the Smithsonian Institution, 200406) and “Absorption + Transmission: Work by Mike and Doug Starn.” He is the art advisor for “Issues in Science and Technology” magazine, published by the University of Texas at Dallas and the National Academies. Talasek holds an MFA in studio arts from the University of Delaware, an MA in museum studies from the University of Leicester, and BS in photography from East Texas State University. He is currently on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University in the Museum Studies Masters’ Program.
CB: Can you tell us what is the focus and direction of the Cultural Programs of the NAS? Why did the NAS add culture and art to the areas they cover?
JDT: I should clarify a point upfront. The work of the academy is to provide expert advice to congress and others on issues of science, medicine, and engineering in a way that might be useful in creating policy. In this official capacity, the NAS has not added culture and art as areas that they claim expertise although when appropriate folks from the humanities side are invited to serve on committees. CPNAS, which has its roots in 1970 when the first art exhibit was hung in the NAS building, is primarily concerned with public engagement. Over time our programs have evolved to include more cross disciplinary discussion as a result of a growing public interest.
CB: How long have you been Director and how long has the Cultural Program been in place?
JDT: I have been at the NAS for ten years. Rotating art exhibits began at the NAS in 1970. But the idea of using art as a way of marshaling the public to a better understanding and appreciation of science began when the NAS’ home was built in 1924. The head of the building committee George Hale had the vision to hire architects and artists to adorn the building with icons of the history of science. In fact the original building had seven galleries, two of which have been restored recently to the original state.
CB: How do you see the interaction between science & art benefitting either field?
JDT: The idea, in current discussions, is not that we form new disciplines but that such interactions provide different perspectives that are born out of different epistemologies. The various existing disciplines have served us well and knowledge production in both sciences and humanities has grown greatly. The challenge is to break down prejudices and assumptions that prevent a dialogue or collaboration to happen across the disciplines.
CB: It is a delicate balance for people to work at this intersection. Do you feel an artist or scientist can get involved exploring and communicating science or art while still maintaining their status as an artist or scientist?
JDT: A delicate balance indeed. A scientist has to be careful not to be perceived by the community as steeping too far outside of accepted practices and methodologies. Artists often depend on the perception of the museum and gallery community as well. The art world has been slow to accept artists who tinker with ideas and process of science. But it is changing. I think a key element is to keep the dialogue going so that such exchanges between disciplines become more familiar – more acceptable within a given community. Once assumed prejudices are done away with, only then can we look at the usefulness of “work at the intersection” critically. This idea of making the exchange more familiar and to understand HOW interactions might occur is at the heart of our monthly Art Science salons called DASER (DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous). DASER is a partnership between CPNAS and Leonardo: The International Society for Art, Science, and Technology. DASER meets monthly with the intent of hearing from local practitioners who are working at the intersection between disciplines. Discussion and networking follow the presentations. Most of the talks are archived on CPNAS’ YouTube channel.
CB: Is there funding available for artists and scientists thru NAS or related agencies?
JDT: No. NAS is not a funding organization. But the problem of funding for interdisciplinary projects is often a topic at DASER. Science funders won’t fund it if it looks too much like art and vice versa. Again there is a general lack of understanding of how these types of projects might work. The National Endowment for the Arts has a funding tool called ArtWorks which moves in the right direction. There is also talk between NEA and the NSF to form joint funds but that has hit some road blocks even though the discussions seem to continue.
CB: In your discussions with artists and scientists working at the nexus of art and science what do you feel are the most interesting directions currently taking place?
JDT: There seems to be almost an endless number of ways that we can answer this question. Depending on the branch of science or art in question the shape that an interaction or collaboration might take is different. Look at artists who are working with ideas of environment, climate, etc. An informed artist can raise the awareness of scientific concerns and their work can form a basis for discussion. In this way there is a potential to be a catalyst for behavioral change which is the same with the multitude of genetic and bio artists. Their work may prompt us to consider the ethical issues in an area that is impacting our very self-identity. On the other hand, an artist working with an information scientist on visualizing data sets might have an active hand in the cognitive process of discovery. Visualizing the invisible is what artists seem to do best. An area of interest is around almost any new technology (ranging from neuro technology to social media). These technologies form almost neutral playing fields as both scientist and artist have not yet claimed to them and try to figure out their full potential. This is where I think scientists and artists are most willing to consider the work of the other – when no one has yet laid claim to the technology for their own discipline. At this point there is still openness.
CB: This history of artists and scientists working together is not new. Why do you think that at this time there is a renewed interest in this intersection from governmental agencies, to universities, blogs and non-profit organizations?
JDT: The simple answer is problem-solving. Looking for solutions across disciplines, whether it be scientific, technological or aesthetic, can provide new perspectives. Why now? Keep in mind historically the boundaries of art and science was not always as strongly delineated as they appear to be now. The construction of disciplines as we know them grew due to a changing structure of knowledge and to provide a structure by which to understand what ever problem was at hand. But with advancements in all areas of inquiry – genetics, technology, etc–some of the old labels and thought structures seem to more limiting than productive. So the “renewed Interest” I would say is born out of a need. During one of our first DASER events Guna Nadarajan, then Vice Provost of Research at Maryland Institute College of Art, told a story of visiting a local engineering lab. The engineers shared with him a problem that they had solved after spending a great deal of time and effort. The problem was a visualization problem relating to a video simulation. Guna told them that his first year art students learn to solve this type of problem in their first year and offered to send a few students over to the lab. Shortly after the students’ visit, the engineers called Guna and wanted to hire the students and asked if more could be sent over.
CB: Mr. Talasek, thank you very much for your thoughts and contributions to this evolving topic.