Paul So Interview

What inspires/motivates you?
When people ask me, as both an artist and a scientist, do I think of art and science together, the answer is mostly no. I think about the two differently. The motivation behind science is always a “why?”, trying to see what’s going on. You try to see how your prior knowledge fits into new problems. It’s a method and a process. This is not something that earns fame or money, it is done for personal interest and to connect things you see in nature. I began painting because I appreciate form; I am an abstract painter with acrylic because it allows me to express form. Art allows me to express the beauty and aesthetics of how things connect. It is similar to science in this regard, although when I became involved in SOFALab I wasn’t necessarily aware of that.

How does data affect aesthetics in your work, and vice versa?
Data and aesthetics are connected through the same process of inquiry. In the scientific process there are steps that involve aesthetic judgments. You don’t just ask any random questions, you choose questions that affect the form of your hypothesis and the procedure that follows. There’s elegance even to data, if it isn’t distilled into a form that gives the reader a new way of looking at a problem or scientific phenomenon it isn’t complete. It’s meant to remind people of forms and models they already know. In art, once you’ve trained in form, you don’t talk about form. You talk about concept, about society and the message you want to send. If it doesn’t make the connections then it won’t be enduring. As you move along in art you train in the humanities, in history. This is something that I feel less involved in as an artist.

What adaptations has this involved both on theoretical and practical levels?
In terms of the practical interaction of art and science, I would point out the work of my colleagues. The work of Selin Balci comes to mind. Her medium is unique. Her background is in forestry, and her medium is fungi and bacteria. To manipulate those organisms into an artistic work, she has to understand the dynamics of the growth and color of those organisms, how they grow.

A more standard example would be new media art, like video and electronic media. These artists train in CGI and manipulate electronic media into pieces that have a unique feel to them. Technology allows art to have a different experience. When art flows to science, the question is mostly one of visualizations and accessibility, being able to reach the target audience. For instance, Giorgio will say that his work is literally about a neuron tree. The structure of different neurons in the brain, their interaction, the complexity and function they create are the same as walking into a forest, seeing different kinds of trees.

What (if any) personal collisions have occurred in the combination of art and science?
That’s actually one of the biggest difficulties we’ve encountered in going through this project, finding people who can mesh and collaborate. It’s hard to find the right pair. It’s easy to make initial goals, but as the project develops the interaction becomes more complicated. Being able to incorporate the intuitiveness of artists and the procedure of scientists is a process unto itself, and getting the conversation started is the first step. Artists can become intimidated by science, and artists can be less structural, while scientists are more structured in a way that may feel constraining to artists. Scientists always ask “what is the question you want to ask?” If the goal is simply to play or explore, many scientists may not want to proceed. If you can’t get past the first step it will be difficult. Taking down the initial perceptions of constraint is very important, giving yourself freedom to explore and be adventurous.

What “aha” moments have occurred in the process?
As scientists we live for those moments. However, it’s not a linear progression towards that moment. It happens in a discontinuous way, you may spend five or six months on a project and most of the work is done in a few weeks when everything comes together and there’s a breakthrough. One of the most important things about science, it isn’t always about the “aha” moments. The “aha” moments may spurn long procedures of continued development that may extend for a long time. It may not be flashy or exciting compared to the “aha” moment, but it supports the “aha” moment. It isn’t one magic thing, but many aspects of various disciplines that come together.

What has been most unfamiliar to you in this research process? What has made you take a second look at the process and/or product?
I like both art and science, but I’ve never tried to combine them. SOFA Lab forced me to look at the connections.

Where might this work be displayed? Who is the target audience?
Most of the work that is going to be produced will go into regular art galleries. Just because they use different subject matter doesn’t make it, in practice, less of an artwork. With the SOFALab projects like the neuron tree, it’s still more scientific in nature. Alice’s work will have a more aesthetic/artistic bent, and the goal of that part of the project will be to present the final work in an art gallery. At the same time, Giorgio might take the physical product to science conferences, in which case scientists would be the audience. Caroline’s survey will go into research, to be presented to an academic audience. Artwork produced in the project will go into art galleries. The website can help show the path of the product.