Cross-disciplinary research on data performance and learning, experimental publication and curation is conducted at the ArtSciLab, in collaboration with MIT Press, Leonardo/ISAST (International Society for Arts, Science and Technology), which was founded by Malina himself and which houses the Leonardo Journal and the Leonardo Music Journal along with OLATS (Observatoire Leonardo pour les Arts et les Techno-Sciences).
Roger Frank Malina is a researcher in art and science, an educator, astrophysicist and publisher. He graduated in Physics from MIT, has a PhD in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley, is Doctor Honoris Causa from the Polytechnic University of Valencia, and was awarded the Golden Nika by Ars Electronica Linz for the collective work carried out with the Leonardo Journal. He is a former Principal Investigator of NASA’s Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer satellite and the University of California, Berkeley, former Director of the Astronomical Observatory of Marseilles-Provence of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS in its French initials), Executive Editor for 40 years at Leonardo Publications, MIT Press and the founder of the ArtSciLab of the University of Texas, Dallas, together with Design Professor, Cassini Nazir. The main objectives of this research centre are to foster the close collaboration between scientists and artists and the hybrid projects that require the knowledge of collaborative scientific methods.
Malina’s thinking is complex and deeply rooted. If we want to tackle the task of improving the world, as humans we need different types of knowledge. However, not all cultures share all the terminologies. In each place, knowledge activities are approached in very different, sometimes divergent ways. For example, not all of them consider art, science and technology to be on an equal footing. According to Malina, the points of contact between them depend on the nature of the problems that arise all over the planet; and he cites the problems faced by the Leonardo journal in its beginnings as an example. it came about in 1967, through a group of international creators interested in the production of art using electricity. It was not easy to present the pieces. Museum and gallery directors were not interested in works of art that had to be plugged in. He highlights their discomfort at the possibility of having to seriously consider art based on electricity and accepting that this group wanted to explain it. In fact, there weren’t enough sockets in museums and galleries to plug in the works.
Moreover, as they didn’t have a global perspective on art, the entities’ curators were of the opinion that the works should be presented in each artist’s own country of origin. The Leonardo journal was published to enable those creators to write about their work. At the time, other journals didn’t publish others works, perhaps for copyright reasons. However, the development of science had become an international endeavour, enabling Leonardo, like journals in the scientific community, to publish texts by people working in other countries and continents. One of the most stimulating things about the Leonardo community, according to our interviewee, is that it changes orientation as works in art, science, and technology evolve under the pressure from creators’ interests in different subjects. Currently, it is climate change, which for too long has been kept out of the limelight.
Ten years ago, the University of Dallas invited Roger Malina to design an art and science lab, now the ArtSciLab. From the outset, the universe of situations in which the collaboration between scientists and artists could take place was a subject for consideration, and he resorted to using conceptual tools such as theories of cooperation or translation. The problem was the translation of concepts from the domain of science to the arts. Currently, a group of people are working at the ArtSciLab on various aspects of team science. They aim to answer the question of how to organise and unite people from different professions in order to work together on the same problem. Malina considers that it is necessary to go even deeper and admits that the task is more difficult than it might seem. While it’s true that biologists and physicists work well together, probably because they share the idea that collaboration can be beneficial to their research, artists usually have a different way of thinking. Artistic messages may differ greatly from those of scientists, but artists are the ones who create new experiences for people and are able to fire their curiosity. To set a cat amongst the pigeons: what if it were time to think about how eight billion people could collaborate? He admits the problem is huge, but he tells us with conviction that we need to keep trying.
To explain what his idea of space art is, we are reminded that the brain does not work on its own. It does so depending on what the rest of the body is doing. Anyone living in an extreme environment such as a submarine will only talk to twenty people and will have never seen a dawn. In outer space there is no gravity, so the concepts of up and down have no meaning there. Other ideas, other contacts and ways of doing things are needed. It is also necessary to work with people who think differently. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Malina’s group has spent weeks connected online. They state that they form part of the post-pandemic public cultures. They don’t occupy state buildings or throw incendiary ideas into the air, but rather they use the contributions of Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis theory to envisage the way in which a system as complex as the planet works, enabling wonderful things that permeate everything to suddenly emerge. Maturana died a few months after they started this project. Led by a small group of people, two men and two women, two older people and two young ones, each week questions are asked that he considers similar to those we are asking him. One question is whether democracy is fair. Others include whether democracy needs to be reinvented or whether we should give voting rights to plants. This group argues that as humans we live in a colony with them, because we have imposed our way of thinking on them and that perhaps they would have other ways of calculating the equivalences of votes. Is something like happiness thus a human concept? No, Malina answers himself: some plants are about to die and others grow spongy; even if it seems laughable or an overly academic question, it makes us think about how humans impose our ways of living and thinking on plants. Being a green farmer is no easy task!
Although science and technology are powerful tools which make the world a better place, they are not the only ones. During the pandemic, many people lost their jobs and resources; others even lost their lives or relatives. We have to reinvent democracy and make it possible for eight billion people to coexist together, so that the question of the relationship between art and science emerges once again: if the reinvention of democracy is one of its essential points of contact, another is the reinvention of legal systems, but perhaps a new conception of education is even more urgent. He gives us a figure: 60% of students in Bangalore, India, do not have Wi-Fi, so for two years during the pandemic they have not been able to access online education. Rich people, however, have not had to face this problem. This is called digital colonialism. These are major issues that arise; perhaps the most important challenge is to change our economic behaviour as soon as our conversation ends.