While working on our Science Fair issue, we’ve thought about how writers might approach and make use of the narratives of science. In this web extra, we ask what a scientist’s work might have to do with telling stories. In consideration of this question, we talked to Anna Lindemann, an evolutionary biologist, composer, artist, and general polymath whose latest performance piece, Theory of Flight, plays with the intersection of science and fiction. Here’s Anna on the objective versus the subjective, butterfly wings, and the inspiration of Borges.
TH: Thanks for talking with us about your work. Can you describe what it is that you do for those who are unfamiliar?
AL: My work integrates animation, music, and performance to tell stories about evolutionary and developmental (Evo Devo) biology. I consider myself an Evo Devo artist.
My performance Theory of Flight begins as a biology lecture with scientist Alida Kear describing the developmental mechanisms of wing growth. The lecture goes quickly awry, though, when Alida reveals a feather she has grown on her own arm through the successful co-option of avian genes. It becomes clear that Alida’s interest in biological flight is rooted not only in scientific investigation, but also in a deeply personal quest for flight. The episodes of biology lecture, featuring increasingly extreme experiments, are punctuated by dream-like interludes that combine music performed by a singing bird spirit and a look into a cellular world animated with simple materials—yarn becomes DNA, lace and buttons become proteins.
Evo Devo stories appear throughout Theory of Flight. The lecture delves into the genetic mechanisms of feather development, evolutionary theories of flight, and ultimately, investigations into regenerative limbs and transgenics. The music combines electronic music inspired from biological processes with live singing that references birdcalls. The animation ranges from a magical blackboard for lecture illustrations to stop motion molecular processes and dreams of flight. Theory of Flight premiered at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, NY in April 2011 and was performed in February at the Ho Tung Visualization Lab and Planetarium at Colgate University. I’ve also done solo versions of the performance at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca and at the Cantor Film Center in New York City as part of an All Day Wonder Cabinet featuring scientists and artists presenting on art, science, evolution, beauty and the intersections of these areas.
TH: One of the things that impresses me about your work is the way it calls on a mastery of a host of fields and skills. How did you come to work at the juncture of so many disciplines? Do you think of yourself as a scientist making art, or an artist making science, or as someone whose work blows up those categories completely?
AL: Bringing together the visual, musical, performance, and biological threads has been a gradual process. I think my “multimedia” mentality is a product of my genes. My mother is a graphic designer and my father is a composer and pianist turned engineer. If visual ingredients come from my mother and musical ingredients come from my father, the performance ingredient comes from many years of ballet. My most significant formative creative projects emerged from collaborative opportunities in the ballet world.
I have always been inspired by nature. But my interest in biology became fully developed as a student at Yale. I became an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major after taking an ornithology class with Richard Prum. I later worked for two and half years in an Evo Devo lab headed by Antónia Monteiro at Yale. The lab studies the evolution and development of butterfly eyespots, concentric rings of color on the butterfly’s wings that have been described as evolutionarily novel traits. The studies on butterflies can help put together the pieces of the puzzle of how butterfly wing patterns develop and evolve, pieces of an even larger puzzle of how body structures in general know where and when to grow and how new body structures emerge and evolve over time. I was swept away by the stories that the field of Evo Devo is uncovering, by the awe-inspiring and baffling processes that make single cells grow into flies or butterflies or birds or humans.
TH: When I watch Theory of Flight, I find myself thinking about differences in the ways that sciences and the humanities conceive of narrative. Much of the performance focuses on Alida working through various hypotheses that might explain flight, almost as if she’s trying on stories to see which might yield the ending she seeks. Does this read on what Alida is doing ring true to you at all? Is a hypothesis anything like a story? What differences do you see in how science and art try to tell a story or explain something?
AL: Yes! I definitely think of developing hypotheses and even scientific publications as a kind of story making, and this was very much something on my mind when creating Theory of Flight.
It was in working in Antonia Monteiro’s Evo Devo lab that I first became cognizant of scientists as story crafters, a role I previously ascribed to artists. The stories that science can tell emerge from the questions that scientists ask and the experimental methods that scientists employ to attack those questions. Investigating a handful of genes can help reveal certain developmental biology stories, but that does not mean that there are not thousands of other genes that are also part of that story. So the story of science is one that shifts over time as new experiments reveal new insights about the way the universe works. Individual scientists can only hope to investigate small pieces of a much larger story. Another part of the story crafting of science lies in extrapolating general stories from very specific experiments. For my work in the Monteiro lab that involved extending conclusions about the role that one gene plays in the development of wing eyespots in a single African butterfly species to conclusions about how development and evolution work more broadly. It was in working in the Monteiro lab that I also became fully aware of how a set of data can be framed in the context of the modularity of development or in a different context of the evolution of sexual selection. The same data can be framed to tell different kinds of stories.
Traditionally, we think of science generating objective stories and art generating subjective ones. There is of course gray area here: the specific experiments that are pursued defines what part of the overwhelmingly complex “objective” story of the universe gets told, and the specific stories revealed by those experiments can be used to inform multiple more expansive stories. To think of science as representing a purely objective truth is a misnomer; however, some part of the objective/subjective distinction still holds. While you can tell different stories from one set of scientific data, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t wrong stories to tell from the scientific data. Artistic work is accepted, rejected, and edited by fellow artists and art institutions, and there are certainly stories and storytellers that are better than others, but I don’t think you can really have an artistic story that is “wrong.”
If scientific stories aren’t quite objective, they are at least explanatory. Artistic stories can still aim to understand and explain parts of our universe, but they need not be purely explanatory. Artistic stories can be based in fiction; they can engage humor; they can aim to illicit a particular emotional response. Artistic stories need not be based in text, but can engage visual, sonic, olfactory, tactile, and taste sensations.
TH: When you undertake a project, how do you think about building narrative arc around scientific fact? Do you ever feel inhibited by the facts that science provides you with, or wish nature gave you something else to work with?
AL: Figuring out how to build the narrative for Theory of Flight around scientific fact was probably one of the trickiest things about putting the performance together. I think the script underwent something like six major overhauls and about twenty drafts. At the heart of all of those iterations was figuring out how to balance the “scientific” and “theatrical” elements of the narrative.
I never felt inhibited by the facts that science provides us with; to me they are the richest treasure trove of source material. Beauty, absurdity, poignancy, whimsy—all of the sensations I hope to craft as an artist have already had some masterful manifestation in nature, and science is a profound way of understanding these manifestations. In her book Art and Science, Siân Ede notes that scientists regularly talk about beauty, while artists hardly ever do. Pretty much any scientist, whether studying butterflies or a motor mechanism of a single celled creature or metastasizing cancer cells has proclaimed their subject of study to be beautiful. In artistic spheres, on the other hand, “beauty” seems to be a word to be avoided. Perhaps artists are afraid of being cloying or saccharine.
So while I have never wished that nature gave me something different to work with, I have definitely felt overwhelmed by the scientific material. In Theory of Flight, I wanted the audience to know all of the details of the genetic mechanisms that I had fictionally amassed to realize Alida’s flight in a scientifically sound way. At the same time, I was aware that getting engrossed in these genetic details would not make for a very compelling theatrical piece or effectively communicate the magic of the biological processes I wanted to convey.
TH: Are there particular fictional stories that have inspired your own work and how you think about telling stories?
AL: When I was creating Theory of Flight I was thinking a lot about works that integrate fact and fiction. I was thinking about narratives like Borges’s Garden of Forking Paths and Lermentov’s A Hero of Our Time, which are framed as true tales taken from professorial dictations and traveling notes, made all the more authentic by the pages missing from the statements and travelogues. I had also recently watched Charlyne Yi’s film Paper Heart and was enthralled to see a documentary form morph into fantasy and fanciful animation. I was fascinated by how audiences become actively engaged in disentangling what is real and what is fictional in these types of stories, and how combining factual and fictional elements can be a device to capture the attention of viewers and readers.
TH: Finally, what’s next? What other projects are you working on at the moment?
AL: Well, I hope to continue to perform Theory of Flight at new venues. It’s been really rewarding bringing the piece to different kinds of places and different kinds of audiences and I think the integrative thinking, combining art and science, that the piece encourages is much needed.
I’m also excited to be beginning work on a new piece called Evolving Eyes that will be a performance drawing from biological and mythological tales of visual perception. The piece will feature a menagerie of mythological characters introducing their counterparts in the biological realm. An upcoming mythical-biological spectacle!
Anna Lindemann has a BS in Biology from Yale and an MFA in Integrated Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her work combines music, animation, video, and performance to explore biological development and evolution. Sights and sounds and more about her work can be found at www.askewmusic.com.