Current VPA News

Kevin Morrow

How do humanists, artists and scientists approach a similar subject—water, for example—through their seemingly very different disciplinary lenses? This question is at the heart of a discussion that will unfold when four Syracuse University faculty members from three different disciplines come together for “Creative Conversations: Water + Photography” on Thursday, Nov. 2, from 6:30-7:30 p.m. in Watson Theater. A reception follows at Light Work.

Participants are Jeffrey Karson, professor of earth sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S); Edward Morris, professor of practice in the Department of Transmedia in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA); Susannah Sayler, associate professor in the Department of Transmedia; and moderator Romita Ray, associate professor of art history and chair of the Department of Art and Music Histories in A&S.

“The goal is to bring together outstanding faculty members in the SU community whose research interests overlap, albeit in very different ways,” says Ray, who created the event. “In doing so, we will accentuate how humanistic discourse, artistic practice and scientific research are interwoven with each other.”

In this instance, the overlapping interests involve acclaimed scientist Karson, who has photographed the ocean floor and co-authored the book “Discovering the Deep: A Photographic Atlas of the Seafloor and Ocean Crust”(Cambridge University Press, 2015), and Morris and Sayler, husband and wife and founders of The Canary Project, an international arts collaborative, and co-directors of VPA’s The Canary Lab, which develops research-based art and media focused on ecology.

Bringing them together in a conversation will “open up new ways of dialoguing about water, landscape, time, technology, photography and climate change across the humanities and sciences,” Ray says.

“Much of what I bring to the discussion will be about access to very difficult places and how our images from them inform the sciences, including geology, volcanology, biology and chemistry across a wide range of spatial scales,” Karson says. “This has interesting connections to automated systems, autonomous vehicles and extraterrestrial investigations. Going to the bottom of the ocean, far beyond the depths possible with scuba gear, is not unlike traveling to outer space to visit another planet that is utterly different from anything we humans normally experience.

“All universities highlight interests in cross-disciplinary studies that can explore the exciting areas of inquiry between the traditionally established disciplines,” Karson says. “There are many reasons why these are very difficult to develop and probably rarely achieved, but this does not diminish the value of mixing different modes of learning and perspectives on problem solving that are represented in, for example, initiatives under the umbrella of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics).

“So many students come to SU with highly polarized views with respect to science and the humanities, and yet both of these areas are essential parts of any liberal arts education that is part of the core mission of the University.”

“We are artists who have addressed global risks such as climate change and the mass extinction crisis that really can only be identified through the measurements and analysis of science,” say Sayler and Morris in an email exchange. “As such, we are keen to discuss the relationship between the arts and sciences as two distinct ways of knowing that are in fact, complementary (and necessary complements at that), not antithetical or in any way opposed. We like to quote Vine Deloria Jr. on this score: ‘It is not only by becoming more rational that you become more conscious.’

“An issue like climate change must be identified with the measurements of science, but that sort of knowledge is just the beginning,” they continue. “We don’t fully understand it until we truly believe it. And that belief is much more difficult to attain. Belief requires access to emotional understanding, empathy and insight that are the province of art. We say: art makes a space for belief and belief makes a space for change. We want to talk about that. We want to talk about how art’s function is not to decorate science or to communicate it a more fun way. It is, in fact, another form of knowledge. We are not particularly interested in beauty or aesthetics divorced for this sort of intent. Beauty, at any rate, is culturally contingent.”

While “Water + Photography” is a standalone event, Ray is considering future possibilities for pairing more scientists, artists and humanists in a “Creative Conversations” series.

“Water + Photography” is sponsored by A&S, the Syracuse University Humanities Center, the Renée Crown University Honors Program, the Department of Art and Music Histories, The Canary Lab, Light Work, the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies in VPA, the Department of Earth Sciences in A&S, the Department of Geography in the Maxwell School and A&S, the Department of Multimedia Photography and Design in the Newhouse School, the Department of Science Teaching in A&S, the Department of Art Education in VPA and the Newhouse Science Communications Program.