On the Role of Experimentation in Art (and Science)

François-Joseph Lapointe

Full Professor, Département de sciences biologiques, Université de Montréal

[keywords: experimental art, experimental science, research, creation, bioart]

Art and science – autopsy of a tumultuous relationship

So many researchers, philosophers, and epistemologists have tried to circumscribe the field of art and that of science, but none was able to fully reconcile both fields of research. For sure, this exercise was destined to fail in the first place. Art is not science; science is not art. They live alongside one another, with some overlapping areas, and numerous friction zones. One of the first objectives of science is to describe nature to eventually be able to explain how it operates. Art has for its main purpose – historically at least – to represent nature and to make us see the world as it is. For some, science is “an attempt to understand natural phenomena using the scientific method, which involves observation, the formulation of hypotheses, experiments to test them, and the drawing of conclusions that confirm or modify them.” [1] It proceeds from a methodology whereby structures and functions of nature are revealed by reasoning. Scientific rationality thus implies impartiality and objectivity. Art does not satisfy the same criteria; it is rather subjective and intuitive. For Frank Malina, art is a fiction, science is a fact. [2] In other words, “the symbols of art are unique, specific and irreproducible, while the symbols of science are unspecific, reproducible and amenable to generalization.” [3] In this regard, the integration of science and art has many obstacles, whether methodological, philosophical, or symbolical.

One of the main differences between art and science is about the role of the individual artist vs. the scientific community. Science demands to separate the subject from the object, what art does not. Indeed, detachment of the researcher is not a requisite of art. The work of art is never disconnected from the personality of the artist. In this respect, “arts place a great value on individual idiosyncrasy, whereas science is a collective effort in which individual differences are eliminated by application of the scientific process.” [4] The methodology of science is focused on the discovery of laws. The methodology of art is focused on the discovery of the self. On the one hand, individuals must disappear; on the other, individuals must transcend to leave a legacy. In the words of Asger Jorn: “What is the longest distance between two points? What is the maximum deviation in a movement? That is the concern of art.” [5] Finding the shortest path between the same two points. That is the principle of science.

Art, science and research

One should not confuse art with the artistic approach. In a similar fashion, one should separate science from scientific research. For the sociologist Bruno Latour, “science is certainty; research is uncertainty. Science is supposed to be cold, straight, and detached; research is warm, involving, and risky. Science puts an end to the vagaries of human disputes; research creates controversies.” [6] In the general sense, scientific research starts from a question set as a hypothesis to be confirmed or falsified. What about art? What about research in art? The aesthetic vocabulary provides the following definition for research: “work of the researcher, where one seeks to establish new knowledge, or obtain new results.” [7] Of course, this general definition is useless to differentiate artistic research from scientific research – both are seeking the same objectives. However, it is possible to distinguish two types of research in art. The first involves research in aesthetics; it is akin to philosophical or scientific research, and it focuses on all the objects studied by aesthetics. The second one is more personal; it concerns the actual research made by the artist to try new genres or processes. This type it is often less systematic, but more empirical than the first type of research.

It is precisely that second type of research that characterizes the artistic process, that by which it differs from scientific research. This definition, however, separates the moment of research from the moment of creation. It also separates the “artist-researchers” from the “artist-creators.” On one side, the Picassos of this world: “I do not seek, I find,” and, on the other side, the likes of Jean-Pierre Raynaud: “I define myself as a researcher in art. I do not deny the word artist, but I prefer the word scientist.” [8] So, if art is a research where there is nothing to find but the research in itself, the results of this research are no longer important. Unlike science, maybe we should in the case of art, reverse the process; that is, to start with a response and not a question.

If there is another glaring difference between science and art, it lies in the evaluation of research results. The criteria for one do not directly apply to the other. How, for example, can we assess artistic research? Who will judge the success or failure of a project? Who can say if the results are right or wrong? For a scientist, merit is measured by recognition, priority, and citations. [9] None of this applies to art. Roger Guillemin, a Nobel laureate in medicine who is also an artist, clearly states such fundamental differences:

For the scientist, creation can proceed only through the recognition of the existence of laws, constraints, one might say, from which one cannot escape. There can be no creativity in science without laws, whether they are already established ones, or ones to be established. This also forces us to recognize that scientific knowledge must be universal.

For the artist, creativity knows neither rules, still less laws. Thus the creativity of the artist, is entirely within his imagination and his mastery of the manual, digital or other practical means of choosing to get where he wants to go. [10]

Practically, research evaluation in science must verify the universality of results based on a generally accepted paradigm; until the laws change and a new research paradigm replaces the old paradigm. [11] Therefore, the role of the researcher in science is to discover the truths of nature waiting to be discovered. The researcher in art, however, produces innovative and unique results that originate from his imagination. [12] No laws, no constraints, no intrinsic beliefs should constrain the research activities.

Art, science and technology

Science distinguishes between basic research and applied research. The first seeks to enrich the field of human knowledge, without any economical purposes; the second wants to apply scientific knowledge, especially for technological purposes. In industrial environments, the term research is used to describe innovation, whereas university scientists prefer to use development. In fact, history teaches us that great innovations are often the result of what the Nobel laureate and physicist Joseph Thomson calls “pure science”: “By research in pure science, I mean research conducted with no prospect of application in the industrial field, with the sole aim of expanding our knowledge of the laws of nature.” [13] However, the primary source of innovation is always fundamental (or basic) research, without which there would be no science to apply. For the French scientist Louis Pasteur, there is not a category of sciences that we can call applied sciences: “there is science and applications of science, bound together as the fruit is bound to the tree.” [14] In principle, any basic research has the potential to become applied.

The artist Frank Popper defines science in the broadest sense of the term as a synonym for knowledge. However, “technology is usually regarded as an application of science.” [15] In other words, science is described as a reservoir of information, but technology is just a means to make art projects. Although several artists may be indifferent to science, all are affected by technology, either directly or indirectly. For one, technology offers a diversity of artistic creation tools beyond what traditional media make possible. Such new media (and new technologies) illustrate the fundamental paradox that links art and technology – if the technique is by definition improvable, the work of art is not. Frank Popper considers any artistic approach relying on current technology as a thing of the past. For him “true science is always oriented towards the future and can not be technocratic.” [16] This distinction is reminiscent of the gap between applied research and basic research.

The making of artscience

Facing the paradigmatic dualism separating the field of art from the field of science, opposite theories clash. For some, art is a subdivision of science; for others, science is a subdivision of art. [17] Regardless of these seemingly different positions, this unifying vision erases artificial divisions between disciplines, as if the old distinction between art and science was no longer valid. David Edwards, professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard University, is the founder of Le Laboratoire in Paris, a place for collaboration between artists and scientists. For him, aesthetic inquiry is closely related to scientific inquiry:

We dream, and realize dreams, through a creative process that mixes two ways of thinking – aesthetic and analytical – which we often encourage and exploit in very different settings. Through aesthetic thinking, we embrace uncertainty and complexity, we induce, follow intuition, and draw inspiration from images and sounds. This process especially thrives in artistic environments, like theater companies or design studios. Through analytical thinking, we simplify a complex world, reduce its challenges to resolvable problems, and pursue the logic of equations. The aesthetic process is the substance of hypothesis generation, while the analytical process is the substance of hypothesis testing. Inevitably we fuse both when we create anything new. This fused process is what I call ‘art science.’ [18]

According to the model proposed by Edwards, the collective modus operandi of artscience is based on the same process, with artists and scientists representing the “twin engines of creativity” working alongside towards the same objectives. [19] Assuming that it actually is eligible to participate in the research process similarly for both artists and scientists, one question remains – how? For Stephen Wilson, artists whose work lies at the confluence of art and science/technology can advantageously influence research, for example by presenting new research topics, by inventing new technologies, by undertaking new experiments or by collecting new knowledge. For David Edwards, it is more important to enhance the process of experimentation, not just the result of this experiment.

Experimentation as a common language

For Claude Bernard, the father of experimental medicine, scientific experimentation is “the art of getting rigorous and well-defined experiments.” [20] For Allan Kaprow, the pioneer of performance art, experimentation is the “testing or trial of a principle.” [21] One could easily swap these two definitions as much as they both apply to science and art. Indeed, no one would reject that experimentation is the most effective model in science, especially in the field of so-called “experimental sciences.” What about experimental art? Do artistic experimentations have anything to do with scientific experimentations? Two different interpretations are offered to solve this conundrum: one which starts from the assumption that art indeed shares something with the experimental sciences, in terms of methods, procedures, or a commonality of objectives; the other which implies that one can only speak of experimental art as analogous to experimental science – that is to say that artistic experimentations are mimesis experimentations rather than true experimentations.

Experimental artists “usually say they are making art, whatever anyone thinks, whereas art artists know they are always making art, good or bad.” [22] Thus, the limits of experimental art are to be located elsewhere, in-between distinct areas of practice, or to quote Kaprow, in the blurring of art and life, or similarly the blurring of science and life. Confronted by the mysteries of the world we live in, experimental scientists are looking for answers. The task of experimental artists is to deliver questions rather than answers. Experimentation then becomes a process of questioning, testing of hypotheses, and questioning again, iteratively. The essence of this experimental approach holds much to the act of experimenting, and not just to the results and products of such experiments.

From the perspective of a general theory of experience, there is actually no difference between experimental approaches in art and science. The creative process, whatever it is, is part of the same phenomenological enquiry. The difficulty lies elsewhere, for to understand scientists, artists must learn to master the language of science, and vice versa. That pursuit of a common language poses several challenges and raises important questions. Namely, if science and art are really twin brothers (or sisters), what language can they use to get along? Is it required for one to learn the language of the other, or should we create a new one, i.e., the common language of experimentation? Despite obvious operational similarities, complete integration of experimental art and experimental science is not there yet. Even when artists and scientists are working together towards common goals, are they not always at the service of each other? In order to establish a better dialogue between researchers from different cultures, it is imperative for one to learn not only the language, but also to master the skills of the other.

On the one hand, artists have to study the scientific literature related to their areas of interest and acquire a high level of skills and knowledge that will enable them to become active practitioners in research. At least, they would need to consider the technical design of scientific experiments, which facilitate clarity of results.

On the other hand, scientists would benefit from finding a way to open up to the contributions from other disciplines. They would need to find a way to temporarily suspend the rigidity of their monitoring protocol to accommodate the value of non-traditional research questions, practices, results and technologies from other fields. [23]

As soon as it will be possible for scientists to understand the work of experimental artists without any prejudice, artists will in turn be able to fully appreciate the core values of experimental science. No one knows whether science can progress without art, or art can progress without science. [24] One thing is for sure: art and science are interactively experimenting with various forms of technology and new media. Their progress does not depend on such experimentations, but it is precisely their experimental nature that leads to their mutual progress, and reconciliation.

Bioart as an experimental practice

For over 20 years, researchers and artists have been working together to generate a new genre of art whose material comes from living organisms. The advent of this so-called biotechnological art (or bioart) is no stranger to the longstanding issues raised by the art/science dualism. [25] Namely, on what basis should we evaluate the success of such hybrid practices? The criteria of art or the criteria of science? Few theoreticians have looked into that debate. For sure, the boundary separating science from “bad science” is no different from that separating art from “bad art.” [26] That is, that an individual who painted a black square cannot proclaim to be an artist without understanding the historical and cultural context of art. For the same reasons, an individual who isolated DNA in his basement is not a scientist. As a researcher with a dual career in art and science, I have been confronted to this paradox in my own practice. Am I a biologist venturing in the field of art, or a bioartist trying to do science?

It is not easy for an artist to enter the compartmentalized world of science, and maybe more difficult for the scientist to be accepted by the art’s world. In this context, the bioartist occupies an enviable position on the checkerboard of artscience collaborations; he has the power to invite the public to question scientific research. Nevertheless, artists are usually put off by the idea of creating biotechnological art, and among those who dared to take the plunge, there are very few artists who willingly embrace the scientific method. [27] Bioartists who produce works that reflect advances in biotechnology are taking the risk of being accused of glorifying science. Consequently, it is often more paying to be provocative by attacking science and criticizing biotechnological research with subversive art performances and installations (e.g. Critical Art Ensemble). My own work goes against this negative bias. In my lab, I use the same experimental methods to study the population genetics of endangered species as I do to create self-portraits based on DNA sequences. An essential feature of my work is not only to produce art, but also to participate in the experimental process of science at the same time.

As a scientist, my research revolves around the concept(s) of self, and the revolution that human microbiome research has brought with respect to our definition of individuality. [28] As a bioartist, I address the same questions by transforming the bacterial communities living on my body, collecting the microbiome before and after each experiment, and generating a series of ‘microbiome selfies’ to illustrate the metamorphosis of my bacterial self. What if I become a vegetarian? What if I travel to a different country? What if I practice celibacy for a month? Will that affect my microbiome? Those are the kinds of artistic experimentations that can be directly translated into scientific data.

1000 Handshakes, Montréal, February 28, 2015. François-Joseph Lapointe, Photo © Cindy Bouchard. Used with permission.

1000 Handshakes, Montréal, February 28, 2015. François-Joseph Lapointe, Photo © Cindy Bouchard. Used with permission.

As an example, I recently shook hands with 1000 persons to transform my microbiome as a way of transforming myself. This experimental performance was presented in Copenhagen, Montréal, and San Francisco to reveal how our contact with others is shaping the microbes between us. This scientific experiment was also designed to collect samples of my skin microbiome to analyze the bacterial contamination of my right hand in time and space. As such, the same performance was satisfying at once the criteria of science and the criteria of art; the same experiment produced results that could be exhibited in art galleries, and published in scientific journals. For some, art will never bring anything to science; the two fields are independent and incomparable. [29] For others like Wilson, art and science have the potential to enrich one another. [30] My postulate is that experimental art is a methodological invariant of experimental science. I also posit that experimentation is the missing link separating scientific research from artistic creation. That hypothesis remains to be further tested – experimentally!


  1. Stephen Wilson, Art + Science Now: How Scientific Research and Technological Innovations Are Becoming Key to 21st-Century Aesthetics (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010), 7.
  2. Frank J. Malina, “Some Reflections on the Differences Between Science and Art,” in DATA: Directions in Art Theory and Aesthetics, ed. Anthony Hill (London: Faber, 1968), 134¬¬–49.
  3. Aharon Katzir-Katchalsky, “Reflections on Art and Science,” Leonardo 5, no. 3 (1972): 249–253.
  4. Wilson, Art + Science Now, 16.
  5. Asger Jorn, Pour la Forme: Ébauche d’une Méthodologie des Arts (Paris: Internationale Situationniste, 1957), 81.
  6. Bruno Latour, “From the World of Science to the World of Research?,” Science 280, no. 5361 (1998): 208–209.
  7. Anne Souriau, “Recherche,” in Vocabulaire d’Esthétique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004), 1206–1207.
  8. Nathalie Heinich, L’Art Contemporain Exposé aux Rejets: Études de Cas (Paris: Hachette, 1997), 106.
  9. Max Alfert, “Creativity and Merit in Art and Science,” Leonardo 19, no. 4 (1986): 323–28.
  10. Roger Guillemin, “Similarities and Contrasts in the Creative Processes of the Sciences and the Arts,” Leonardo 43, no. 3 (2010): 59–62.
  11. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
  12. Leonard B. Meyer, “Concerning the Sciences, the Arts – and the Humanities,” Critical Inquiry 1, no. 1 (1974): 163–217.
  13. Robert J. Strutt, The Life of Sir J. J. Thomson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1942), 198.
  14. Louis Pasteur, Quelques Réflexions sur la Science en France (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1871).
  15. Frank Popper, Art, Action and Participation (London: Vista, 1975), 226.
  16. Popper, Art, Action and Participation, 231.
  17. Sheldon Richmond, “The Interaction of Art and Science,” Leonardo 17, no. 2 (1984): 81–86.
  18. David Edwards, The Lab: Creativity and Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 4.
  19. Wilson, Art + Science Now, 6.
  20. Claude Bernard, Introduction à l’Étude de la Médecine Expérimentale (Paris: Flammarion, 1865), 13.
  21. Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 72.
  22. Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 74.
  23. Stephen Wilson, “La Contribution Potentielle des Bioartistes à la Recherche,” in Art et biotechnologie, ed. Louise Poissant and Ernestine Daubner (Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2005), 350¬–51.
  24. Sheldon Richmond, “The Interaction of Art and Science,” 81–86.
  25. Charles P. Snow, The Two Cultures: And a Second Look (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963).
  26. Stuart Bunt, “The Role of the Scientist and Science in Bio-Art,” in Art in the Biotech Era, ed. Melentie Pandilovski (Adelaide: Experimental Art Foundation, 2008), 62–67.
  27. Marta de Menezes, “Art: In Vivo and in Vitro,” in Signs of Life: Bioart and Beyond (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 215–29.
  28. Thiago Hutter, Carine Gimbert, Frédéric Bouchard, and François-Joseph Lapointe, “Being Human is a Gut Feeling,” Microbiome 3 (2015): 9.
  29. Lewis Wolpert, “Art vs Science: the Critical Difference – Unlike the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Response to a Painting Needs no Prior Training,” The Independent, 25 February 2000.
  30. Stephen Wilson, Art + Science Now, 7.


François-Joseph Lapointe is head of the Laboratory of Molecular Ecology and Evolution at the Université de Montréal and full professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. As part of his scientific research, he is interested in systematics, metagenomics and population genetics. Author of more than 100 publications in evolutionary biology, he also has developed numerous algorithms in biostatistics and bioinformatics. François-Joseph Lapointe completed in 2012 a PhD in the study and practice of arts at the University du Québec à Montréal. As part of his thesis entitled “Choreogenetics, or the art of making DNA dance,” he produced a genetic algorithm for dance composition and created a performance generated from the genetic sequences of 30 dancers. His most recent bioart project is to sequence his microbiome (and that of his wife) to generate metagenomic self-portraits (or microbiome selfies).