Put the expertise of artists & scientists together, so you can tackle big challenges

An interview with Christophe De Jaeger (Gluon) - 22.10

Every week, there’s a countdown to Media & Culture Fast Forward combined with a sneak peek of our programme. This week, we dive into some culture with Christophe De Jaeger. He is programme manager of the ‘Art & Research’ department at Bozar. And he is the founder of Gluon. What is Gluon, you might wonder. Well, you’re not alone. 

Christophe, please explain: what is it you do at Gluon?

Christophe: Gluon is a platform for art, science and technology. Its aim is to bring together scientists and technologists, but also economists, and to see how they can work together. This is organised in the form of residencies. We send artists to the R&D departments of companies or universities and vice versa, we bring researchers to artists’ studios. 

Can you make a difference by doing that?

Christophe: We, humanity, are facing fairly big challenges that cannot be solved by one person. Scientists are very good at finding exact data and solutions. But we also see that the value system in our society needs to be adjusted. Systemic economic change is necessary. The way we behave as citizens must change. And therein lies the strength of Gluon. We bring people together around major challenges such as pollution, climate change and now even a pandemic. For artists, that’s very often inspiration for new works of art. 

What’s in it for the scientist? 

Christophe: That varies a lot. It can be a new publication, but it can also be something much more abstract: a fresh look at things, a new form of communication,… That’s the beauty of this project: the impact of an artist on a team of researchers. This impact is also what we’re going to discuss at Media & Culture Fast Forward.

Ursula von der Leyen recently announced her plans to create a new Bauhaus school. It’s meant to be a collaborative space for design and creativity with architects, artists, students, scientists, engineers and designers. That sounds very familiar to me.

Christophe: Yes, that’s what we’ve been doing for a very long time now. So there’s also some criticism of this ‘new’ initiative. Bauhaus originated around the Second World War, because at that time you still had the academies where artists imitated classical sculptures. The Bauhaus movement wondered whether artists could not also work with new technologies. This is all part of an era of extreme populism and is very similar to what is happening today. Once again we’re dealing with major urban problems such as climate change and populism. People need to come together again to solve those problems. The criticism is that so many organisations are already doing this, but have never been recognised. We are talking about Ars Electronica, ZKM, Waag Society, Science Gallery Dublin,… All these organisations have been functioning like this for decades and now it seems as if they’re going to start something new. On the other hand, it’s a hopeful sign. It is fantastic that von der Leyen launched it. STARTS (Science, Technology and Arts) will also play a major role in this Bauhaus idea, I think. Networking between different players, using all the expertise they have and combining all of this into something larger, this will be very important. 

You talk about networking and knowledge sharing. Does that always go smoothly?

Christophe: Honestly? No. Artists speak a different language than scientists. It requires a lot of intermediation. Innovative catalysts, that’s what we call people who guide the whole process between the scientist and the artist. Both also have a totally different way of working. So the intermediary is a key figure. Artists and scientists sometimes have different values. For scientists in companies the following applies: make profit and be as efficient as possible. And that, of course, is not how an artist is wired. Naturally, it differs from scientist to scientist. But this difference in values often recurs. 

On the other hand, you also have to be critical of artists. They are sometimes very naive or very critical from the start. If, for example, you ask an artist for his or her opinion about biotech, he or she often starts with criticism, even without knowing the facts. So it is crucial to show these artists all the perspectives of a certain technology before they give their opinion. After all, it is ultimately up to them to explain objectively to people what they are talking about. 

The exhibition STARTS Prize ’20 runs until Sunday in BOZAR, with a special conference on Saturday. Tell us! 

Christophe: The STARTS Prize is a collaboration between BOZAR, Waag Society and Ars Electronica. Together we give a prize to innovative collaborations between artists, researchers and industrialists. We look at fantastic subjects that are covered by different partners and we witness unseen collaborations. We also give an award to works of art that use technology and science in such an original way that they will also inspire industry. 

In BOZAR we show the winners of 2020 and all the laureates. You will find, for example, the cookbook of the future by Lei Ping. She came up with recipes with non-harmful viruses. These dishes give you special flavours and sensations. There is also an Alexa system you can address with another name, like Robert or other random names. The entire system has been developed in collaboration with ICT experts, so it really works.

On Saturday 24 October we’re organising a conference with a focus on artificial intelligence. We invited four young CEOs of Belgian AI companies to talk about creativity. The fact that our panel only consists of entrepreneurs is a very conscious choice. When it comes to creativity, there are always people from the culture field at the table. That’s why we chose to experiment with another set-up on Saturday.

That brings us to your plans for December. What can we expect from Gluon at Media & Culture Fast Forward?

Christophe: We’re going to organise a panel with a number of scientists who have already worked with artists. They will first of all show the end result. Then, they will explain how the collaboration with an artist impacted them or their lab. This time, we’ll ignore IT and we’ll have a look at life sciences instead.

At the VIB (Flemish Institute for Biotechnology), they very often work on genetics and the impact on health and agriculture. Two artists will do a residency there and talk to different professors about the dangers and challenges of genetics. The VIB often encounters problems with the public opinion, because if the public finds something dangerous, the research cannot continue. Therefore, raising awareness is essential, which is a very interesting fact. Sofie Bekaert of VIB will tell you all about the role artists play in this. 

Then we have Karin Van Doninck. She conducts research into single-celled organisms and the influence of radiation on their survival. She has collaborated with artist Angelo Vermeulen

Beatrice De Gelder is a neuroscientist who worked with artist Emmanuel Van der Auwera. There is a great link between neuroscience and art, just think of how both fields study facial expressions. Van der Auwera had a brain scan taken while thinking back to his last big fear experience. Afterwards, he turned it into a sculpture that depicts fear in a very abstract way.

Finally, there’s Raoul Frese from the Hybrid Forms Lab in Amsterdam. This lab specialises in physics and engineering. Many of the artworks produced here are so important that they are shown all over the world. Moreover, these artists have a permanent, paid contract here as researchers. 

That’s quite a list. Looking forward to it!

Want to join on December 16th? Register here for Meet The Makers – Arts & Science.

Interview by Jacotte Brokken
Analog & Digital Creative