Wide Angle

Inspired Artists in Residence Program bridges gaps between and across disciplines

The Dietrich School’s Department of Physics and Astronomy Artist in Residence Program provides an opportunity for students in the creative arts to draw inspiration from working with researchers.

The semester-long program was sparked by a conversation between Adam Leibovich—currently the Dietrich School’s associate dean for faculty recruitment and research development—who was chair of physics and astronomy at the time, and Michael Hatridge, a faculty member in the department whose research space contains glass leading from the hallway into the lab. It was during the University’s Year of Humanities, and Hatridge was discussing hiring someone to decorate his space.

“I said, well, you could certainly do that, but why don’t we try something a little bit bigger?” says Leibovich.

Inspired by a friend at Northwestern University who invites artists into her chemistry lab to work with her students, Leibovich approached the chairs of the music and studio arts departments about starting an artist in residence program.

“When [Leibovich] approached the Department of Music, I embraced the idea enthusiastically, as did my colleagues in music composition,” remembers Eric Moe, professor and director of graduate studies.

“Human understanding of science in general and perhaps physics in particular has always had a profound effect on the arts—Milton talks about Galileo; Donne about Copernicus; Dante wrote a scientific treatise; the work of incalculable numbers of more recent artists has been transformed by the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics,” explains Moe. “Programs such as this go a long way to benefit and enrich both the arts and sciences in equal measure.”

Delanie Jenkins, chair of the Department of Studio Arts, echoes this sentiment, adding, “Many of the artists I consider formative to my development as an artist participated in EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), an organization that launched in Los Angeles in the 1960s that helped to facilitate collaborations between artists and engineers. This cross-disciplinary embedding is a strategy that I see as critical in supporting experiences for collaboration and in diversifying the groups of people that we engage with in our fields.”

The three departments—music, physics and astronomy, and studio arts—developed the program and application. Leibovich explains that students who were selected for the program would “embed themselves in the lab as much as possible, then come up with a creative piece in response to the experience,” and the pieces would be highlighted in an end-of-year showing. Initially, the program was only open to students from studio arts and music.

Before applying to the program, students are encouraged to get to know faculty in physics and astronomy to identify the kind of research they are interested in.

“It was definitely important for us that they know something about what the faculty member does and have an idea of where they were going,” says Leibovich.  “But at the same time, we didn’t want them to have a fullyformed idea coming in and not have it shaped by what they are learning while they are embedded in the research group. We really wanted it to be a response to the work that the lab is currently doing.”

Jenkins states, “The most successful creative projects are those where the artist enters into the experience entirely open and is able to go deep into the research, to whatever extent is relevant for the work, to find something to explore that resonates with their own creative sensibilities.”

Students who have participated in the program have developed a variety of artworks, including paintings, musical pieces, film, and poetry. Many of the past works can be viewed on the program’s website.

“For virtually every artist involved, the program has pushed their work in a surprising direction,” says Moe.

“There has been lots of very creative interpretations of the science, which, as a physicist, I would not have thought of—and that’s why we do it,” Leibovich says.

The response from both arts departments has been positive, with each group reaping enriching benefits. Says Jenkins, “The best outcome for me has been in getting to work with and know colleagues in physics and astronomy, and to also work with and know better colleagues in the creative disciplines… . These few times each year together, supporting this program, have been enlightening, generous, and productive.”

Students who have been through the program gain new perspective and draw inspiration from unanticipated sources. Composer Ryan McMasters worked with Hatridge on data sonification, a method that uses non-speech audio to communicate data or other information.

“I had done some work with data sonification in the past, but never alongside an active research team,” McMasters says. “Being able to engage with Professor Hatridge and his team allowed me to dig a little deeper into their work and create a piece that was both artistically rewarding and an accurate, public facing representation of their research.”

Laura Schwartz, who received her PhD from the Dietrich School Department of Music in April 2019, worked with Professor Ayres Freitas, a theoretical physicist.  Schwartz was surprised to find that Freitas, who uses symbols to communicate information in the equations he solves as a theorist, had not spent much time thinking about the origins of the symbols he was using.

“But, for me,” says Schwartz, “it was the most interesting point. If we conceive of our equations visually in certain ways, it predisposes us to approach thinking about particle structures in certain ways. The symbols help shape our understanding. It was something I am familiar with, as my dissertation topic was on music notation and how it can shape a performer's self-formation and self-repair process. So, to see something in physics that was similarly taken for granted. I was interested, to say the least.”

The Artists in Residence program is now entering its fifth year and has expanded to include all of the creative disciplines in the Dietrich School, from architecture to theatre arts. Leibovich says he is pleased to see the program continue after his tenure as department head, and Moe hopes to see it continue indefinitely, potentially extending into a year-long program. Jenkins suggested expanding the idea to develop a faculty-level residency and hopes to foster deeper collaborative relationships between the sciences and the arts.

“The program could go in any direction,” says Jenkins, “I think it is exciting to think of this framed by the University’s upcoming Year of Creativity," the latest of Pitt's "Year of…" initiatives. "Artists in Residence could happen in any department, in any lab… . There are many possible models.”