Third Culture: Good Art and Good Science

That's how davidkremers, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Distinguished Conceptual Artist in Biology, describes his work-in-progress. Kremers, who has dropped the use of capital letters to follow the egalitarian 1920s Bauhaus tradition and "smashed" his name together because there are so many Davids, is collaborating with molecular biologists to make transgenic zebrafish sculptures. He expects the "living sculptures" to be ready this spring, in time to be swimming around in a fish bowl at an exhibit entitled "The Art and Landscape of Nature," which will be on view at de Verbeelding in Zeewolde, The Netherlands, from 24 January through September 2001. The goal, says Kremers, speaking by telephone from his studio in Pasadena, is to construct fish that, as well as being aesthetically pleasing, will also contain science that is "good enough to become journal papers."

And Kremers should, by now, have some idea of the kinds of data scientists need to produce publishable papers. Although he describes himself as working full-time as an artist since age 5, Kremers, born in Colorado in 1960, hails from a long line of scientists on his father's side--starting in the 16th century with Gerherd de Kremer, otherwise known as Mercator--and physicians on his mother's side. Add "an 18th-century art education" to get the current mixed bag of influences.

Kremers first started incorporating science into his art when, by accident, he met Air Force operations personnel who were struggling with space station design. Kremers, who was studying architecture at the time, says he became intrigued by what was considered an organic failure of the design: The stations should have been growing like coral reefs in space, but they weren't. Kremers worked on the project between 1983 and 1985, but it all came to a halt, he says, after the Challenger explosion.

Serendipity also led to Kremers's next foray into the realm of art-meets-science when, while out dancing, he met molecular biologists who invited him to visit their laboratory. While looking at protocols for genetic research, Kremers says he recognized "at once" that they could be used to make paintings. In 1992, he created his first living paintings from genetically engineered bacteria.

Kremers's work with basic research scientists led to his association with Caltech's Biology Division in 1992, where he has been officially on staff since 1999. Though based in biology, Kremers collaborates with computer scientists and aeronautical engineers and says he has the freedom to work with anyone at Caltech.

Kremers believes that good art is as rigorous as good science. And, although he says he has been described as "a visitor from the future," he is hard at work on what he calls "the fluid problem," a fundamental conceptual conundrum that he sees as "the biggest problem" currently faced by scientists. The fluid problem arises, says Kremers, when scientists need to analyze "something that is alive and growing," which, as Kremers points out, is as much a qualitative as a quantitative analysis.

He also believes that "art is good at capturing qualities, such as light on an apple," and that traditional techniques used by artists have much to contribute to solving problems at the frontiers of science. As an example, Kremers points to a current collaboration where, using techniques from Impressionist painting, he and his colleagues are inventing new ways to analyze MRI readings in several dimensions. Here, as in many other instances, Kremers--as an outsider--seems to have the facility to see where the puzzle piece fits in, often more quickly than those who have been deeply involved with the problem for a long time.

Kremers's work frequently appears in exhibits of digital art, and it can be found in permanent collections, including those at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Hammer Museum/Greenwald Center for the Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. His own Web site is a work of art in itself.

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