Intertwining citizen science and art

In the mid-20th century John Cage created a work called 4’33 ‘which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Silence to be interpreted (in truth the musician did not play anything during that time) in an auditorium with an audience, the artist conceived the audience as actors and not only as listeners. Each person involuntarily makes a sound when yawning, breathing or moving their feet, which the audience hears and perceives as part of the work. We can see many more examples of works that are not possible without the participation of visitors who become co-creators.

If to this involvement of the non-professional public in a creative process we add a key ingredient, commitment, and apply it to scientific research then we have what we call citizen science. Passionate hobbyists, people who want to collaborate for the common good, and curious people of all colors actively participate in experiments. LVolunteers contribute their knowledge or experimental data, they even use their own phones or other utensils. These resources are useful for researchers seeking to jointly solve the increasingly complex challenges we face. The potential of this paradigm can be seen in many dimensions: scientific, technological, social, political, economic or environmental. By participating, volunteers gain new skills and a deeper understanding of scientific work directly, first hand. Not just hearing or seeing, but doing. This also serves to open doors and windows in institutions and laboratories, changing the sense of secrecy that many people have about research.

The citizen science project Eyewire is modeling a brain in 3D and inspiring artistic practices among its thousands of users. Credit: eyewire.org

In this exchange of roles and looks, the borders become more blurred. The number of citizen science projects and initiatives is continually growing. Among the list of the most relevant projects to mobilize millions of people, we must highlight Zooniverse, Fold.it, voluntary computing or the monitoring of our biodiversity. Reference initiatives such as the Socientize project that we have been leading from Zaragoza since 2012 have been promoted in Europe, and in Spain since 2011 we have had Ibercivis, the national foundation that serves to promote and support participatory projects for the inclusion of the general public in science. We have more than 40 projects from as many research groups from Spain, Portugal and Latin America that are used to monitor the flu, the quality of the water from the mouth in the taps of the house, or to study human behavior, to name just a few examples. Also in the United States, the federal office was launched a few months ago to offer services to different communities.

Each experiment is a world unto itself, but in general the projects seek to achieve the highest possible participation levels. For this, it is necessary to enrich experiences and understandings, exploring new paths in open formats. Here it is fundamental also the role of artists. As creators, creatives, they mix disciplines of knowledge and create tangibles in a natural way. This remix serves to create synergies that appear and are amplified by the confluence of the digital and the participatory, of the human. At the AirBezen project in Antwerp in Belgium, small pots of strawberries were distributed to the population to use the plants themselves as biosensors and analyze the air quality in that city. The volunteers placed the plants outside their windows and after a month they sent some leaves of the plant in an envelope to be analyzed for certain indicators. It is just one example that serves as a counterpoint to the inertia towards massive use of technologies and microcontrollers.

Two images of experiments that Ibercivis has promoted at the Sónar + D festival in Barcelona. In 2014 (left), Miguel Angel Mercadal and RdeRumba collaborated on an experiment to analyze collective intelligence applied to the composition of musical patterns. In 2015 (right), Chelis agreed to have his brain activity analyzed during a session in which part of the public was also being monitored.

There are more and more examples of citizen science projects in which, among other groups, researchers and artists converge. A few months ago the European Commission commissioned us to present the STARTS program in such a unique setting as the Sónar + D festival in Barcelona and we brought together more than 30 reference groups and institutions that promote and take advantage of this type of transdisciplinary practices with a focus on innovation. Now, in Zaragoza we have an international call for artists in residence who create new works for the exhibition Reverberadas, which is part of the European Digital Art and Science Network, of which the fascinating exhibition Materia Prima at Laboral Centro de Arte y Producción is also part. Industrial in Gijón.

In our hyper-connected world, words also take on broader meanings and change very quickly. Labeling science as a citizen serves primarily to emphasize the two-way nature of win-win interactions. And to demonstrate the critical, democratic values ​​that these approaches have. We continually discover fascinated that we can do things with our environment and with ourselves that a few years ago were mere fiction. This cascade of innovations has unpredictable consequences and is relevant involve as many people as possible to continually evaluate and review the system. It is becoming easier to harness all the power that is outside of the conventional scientific system. Be it in exhibitions, in laboratories, in cities or in remote mountains. These dialogues between art and science, between technology and society, help us to dialogue, reflect, analyze and better understand our society. Let’s try to improve it together.

Image: Res-Ser, diorama by Oscar Sanmartin