Where art and science intersect


Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The fol­lowing post was gen­er­ously con­tributed by San­tiago Gil, a post­doc­toral research asso­ciate at Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research.

Botond Részegh and Albert-​​László Barabási share a sin­gular his­tory. Both were born in a small vil­lage near Csík­sz­ereda, in Tran­syl­vannia, as part of the Hun­garian minority in Romania. They lived through an oppressing dic­ta­tor­ship, through hard­ship and scarcity.

Their jour­neys, though, have been quite dif­ferent. Barabási became a world-​​renowned sci­en­tist and dis­tigu­ished pro­fessor of inter­na­tional acclaim who lec­tures around the globe and sat on the Global Agenda Council of the World Eco­nomic Forum. Részegh stayed in his vil­lage; he’s a quiet man who feels most com­fort­able in the inti­macy of small crowds, or in the pri­vacy of his studio.

But they seem to have a common essence: Barabási’s sci­ence is intrepid and visionary, and Részegh’s art is emo­tional and tem­pes­tuous. A common love for lit­er­a­ture brought them together. They were intro­duced by the great poet Sándor Kányádi and together birthed a book, Bursts, written by Barabási and illus­trated by Részegh.

Since then they have devel­oped a friend­ship, on which they had the oppor­tu­nity to rem­i­nisce as they sat together for a con­ver­sa­tion on Friday, Feb. 28 at North­eastern University’s Vis­itor Center mod­er­ated by asso­ciate pro­fessor of graphic design, Isabel Meirelles. Through Meirelles’ direc­tion and their dia­logue with the audi­ence, the duo explored the dif­ferent roads they trav­eled, and to find where they meet.

Részegh pro­claimed that his work is always full of sub­jec­tivity and he never wants to be objec­tive. For his part, Barabási asserted that the exe­cu­tion of sci­ence is sup­posed to be objec­tive, but that there is a lot of sub­jec­tivity in choosing a problem and how it should be addressed. The audi­ence sensed that both approaches are two aspects of the same quest, an insa­tiable curiosity and a search for truth. Részegh described his prac­tice as sam­pling and col­lecting expe­ri­ences from dif­ferent people as if they were mea­sure­ments from an experiment.

I think I’m both a filter and a cat­alyzer of my expe­ri­ences,” said Részegh, explaining that his job is to coerce them into one uni­fied expres­sion. Some­times he likes to think of him­self as a neu­trino, trav­eling freely through every­thing, going through all of our minds.

Sci­ence has the con­straint that it has to cor­re­spond to reality, but in art there are also a lot of con­straints,” added Barabási. After all, is the true artist not obliged to remain faithful to his own reality?

They even­tu­ally arrived at the ques­tion of the respon­si­bil­i­ties that art and sci­ence have toward society. Barabási reminded us of the days in which artists and poets led social move­ments, like the Hun­garian rev­o­lu­tion of 1848. But nowa­days, tech­nology is often asso­ci­ated with demo­c­ratic move­ments, and sci­en­tific evi­dence is increas­ingly impor­tant for novel policy-​​making.

Barabási asked, “Has art lost its ability to really engage the public? Has sci­ence?” Sci­ence, he added, is rou­tinely con­fronted with its respon­si­bil­i­ties. This is true today more than ever, as per­sonal data from mil­lions of people are con­stantly fun­neled into research. But the pres­sures of the mar­kets and the cul­ture of super­star artists seem to have locked our art away into insti­tu­tional sanc­tu­aries. “Art is boxed into the art par­adise, into a zoo of art,” he lamented. “We’re losing some­thing as a society by not bringing the artists’ per­spec­tive in.” As we transit ever more rapidly changing cul­tural land­scapes, we must break art out of its box and restore it to its rightful place as a beacon of light to help us nav­i­gate uncharted territories.

Barabási told us that the ground is clearly shifting. “The art and the sci­ence com­mu­ni­ties have been coming together dra­mat­i­cally,” he said, noting the increas­ingly rec­og­nized value of com­mu­ni­cating sci­ence and the artistic dimen­sion of data visu­al­iza­tion, dig­ital artist Aaron Koblin’s flight pat­tern series. In turn, sci­ence inspires artists who empha­size exper­i­men­ta­tion and pro­duce their work in groups that resemble a research lab more than a tra­di­tional artist’s studio, such as Tomás Sara­ceno and Olafur Eliasson.

We have a respon­si­bility to con­tinue these dis­cus­sions, because I think it’s ben­e­fi­cial to both com­mu­ni­ties,” Barabási said. Undoubt­edly, they are also ben­e­fi­cial for society as a whole.