Can ‘bad’ science inspire ‘good’ art?

During a residency with the British Lichen Society in 2019, I learned how to cut specimens with a razor blade and analyse them under a microscope. My souvenirs are a few micrographs, shot with an iPhone through the lens of a microscope. Scientifically, the results are not great because they are inconsistent. There are bubbles trapped between the glass plates, the lighting is off, and there isn’t much tissue to analyse. HOWEVER, I am loving how these lichens under the microscope look like sea creatures, dancing silhouettes, ringed planets, or moons that are waxing or waning. Mistakes are so rich sometimes.

These reflections relate to a chapter I am writing for the Routledge Handbook of Digital Environmental Humanities. In the chapter, I focus on the relationship between making science and doing art. My case study is an experimental film called In Search of Chemozoa by boredomresearch, aka Vicky Isley and Paul Smith (2020). The film is the outcome of an art-science residency at the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center where scientists study cancer across different species. Correspondingly, Isley and Smith invented and made a film about a speculative organism whose life cycle emulates cancerous growth. During our interview, the digital artists explained that their research involves looking for the ‘messy entanglements’ that are useless to scientists but fascinating to artists. The radical imagination of artistic praxis allows them to explore possibilities and scenarios beyond the scientific laboratory. Without saying too much too soon(!), I include some extracts below from the manuscript-in-progress…

By ‘art–science’, I mean to say that art is not taken to be a vehicle for disseminating science more widely, even if that goal is achieved. Instead, the artist sets in motion their own processes of decidedly artistic experimentation and they engage a public on their own terms (see Born and Barry, 2010). Unfortunately, the methodological labour of art–science, as with other forms of artistic research, often gets buried. Unlike scientific procedures, the methods and logics of art–science are not systematically documented as a key part of the presented outcome. Even with process art, the question of method might just be a short anecdote, then it’s up to the curator to decide whether or not to place a long-form label next to the work. If we are to understand how the semiotics and embodiment of making science intersect with the imagination and materiality of doing art, then art–science outcomes need to be understood as the result of research processes in their own epistemological right.


A recurrent idea throughout this chapter is that the edges of scientific research open up a creative space for art–science. In scouting out inspiration, boredomresearch often look for the ends of scientific accounts. In our interview, Smith posed the rhetorical questions, ‘What are the limitations of a scientific model? What can’t they do?’. The artists found that scientific models have a distinct epistemology that avoids ‘the messy entanglements that would make them scientifically useless because as soon as the data passes a few levels
of complexity […] you can’t show the difference between two scenarios’ (Smith, personal communication, December 17, 2021). Isley continued, ‘Scientists often need to streamline data, so a lot of complexity gets thrown out of the window. But we look for the mess’ (personal communication, December 17, 2021). In so doing, boredomresearch incorporate dimensions that scientists may have to discard in order to make their model legible, such as landscapes or emotions, as we shall see below.


art does not adhere to the frameworks of science but instead opens new modalities and imaginaries with multiple interpretations and affective relations. At the same time, the specificities of scientific decision-making processes can be instrumental in potentiating and informing decidedly artistic interventions. To use an analogy from urban ecology, understanding where the edges of scientific research become grounds for creativity is perhaps akin to tracing the emergent cracks in the pavement where the seeds of art–science may take root. By ‘edges’ or ‘cracks’, I mean that which lies beyond certainty as well as the limitations that are associated with particular scientific methods in constructing what is presumed to be known. In continuation, art–science projects that germinate in the interstices of the sciences – the cracks in the pavement – then beget messy entanglements of roots that push in multiple directions to create growing space, perhaps eventually debunking the foundations we mistook to be solid and unmoving.

Suggested Citation

Sabin, L. (forthcoming). “In search of Chemozoa: Art-science and the making-of a speculative ecosystem.” In: Bermann, L., Crampsie, A., Dixon, D. Hartman, S., Legg, R., Ludlow, F., and Travis, C. Routledge Handbook of Digital Environmental Humanities. Routledge Handbooks Online.