Super Symmetry: Arts & Labs: Residencies at Scientific Institutions - HOLO 2. 2015.  

This longform essay explores the processes and politics of artistic residences in scientific institutions. Featuring interviews with Bill Fontana, Semiconductor, Ariana Koek, Charles Lindsay, and Anna Dumitriu, this piece examines the different types of artistic practice which emerge in these spaces; and the conflicts around what artists are permitted to produce under the power dynamics of such systems.

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Although the programs set up by SETI and CERN are comparatively new, artists have been spending time in science-based organisations for some time, in both the private and public sector. The Kohler plumbing company has run an Arts/Industry residency program since 1974; and Xerox’s Paolo Alto Research Centre has also hosted an Artist-in-Residence Program since 1993. Bell Laboratories has been deeply involved in the arts and technology scene, with artists including A Michael Noll and Lilian Schwartz, developing critical work around computer-generated art and animation in the 1950s and 1960s. This heritage of poking around the edges around emerging technologies can be seen in contemporary programs, such as Jer Thorp’s time as data artist in residence at the New York Times R&D Lab from 2011 to 2013, where he worked with the Lab’s team to develop the Cascade project which used data from Twitter to visualize the life-cycle of a news story.

What may be shifting however, are the power dynamics that thread through these relationships, and the freedoms afforded to artists who engage in them. The arts have been dependent on wealthy patronage for some time, offering both support and censor over what artists produce. Modern science and technology institutions have, however, the potential to place further controls over the very materials, tools, and infrastructures which artists use to create and disseminate their work. In 2014, Google commissioned and sponsored a piece of digital installation at the Barbican arts centre in London, offering a production budget of £25,000 to the winning idea. What might have been a standard arts commission under other circumstances drew criticism when it emerged that the art project had to use at least one Google technology out of APIs, platforms, languages, and toolkits. Applicants were also required to engage with the competition through Google Hangout video chat, necessitating engagement with the company’s own infrastructure.