If you go into any modern art gallery these days, you are unlikely to find paintings or sculptures. Instead, there is an eclectic collection of objects that have been made or assembled by an artist, such as bricks, dolls’ heads, and old sofas. This is installation art and its power rests on the relationship engendered in the gallery between the objects and the viewer.

This is not a new concept. Marcel Duchamp kicked off the movement in 1917 by installing a urinal in an art gallery, which let the ‘is it or isn’t it art?’ genie out of the conceptual art bottle. Ever since, the public have had a love-hate relationship with installation art. In 1999, Tracey Emin was shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious Turner Prize for an artwork called ‘My Bed’, which was an installation of her bed, dirty sheets, knickers, and used condoms among other things. That such visceral installations are still in vogue after 80 years might seem strange, but shocking the public is still one of the art world’s raisons d’Étre. A more serious direction for the installation movement has been technology. In a world dominated and transformed by a new digital culture, many artists have sought to make installations that explore the relationship between technology and society by including video and computers into their art. This has had several unexpected consequences for scientists.

Firstly, artists have had to learn how to use technology and to innovate with digital protocols. In the same way that the old masters mixed their own paints, modern artists now build their own electronic devices. The problem is that many artists do not have the engineering background to do this and many art schools do not have the facilities to help them. The upshot is that many artists find their way to science labs in search of technical support.

The second repercussion is that artists have helped scientists see their labs in a different way. Science labs are full of old equipment that no one can be bothered to throw out. This practice, which gives university administrators nightmares, creates treasure-troves for the modern artist. I have taken artists round my own labs only to see their eyes glaze over with awe at the sheer clutter. Artists love these spaces not only because of the strange collection of machines, wires, computers, and faulty lighting, but because they are genuinely creative places. The clutter means something. It is detritus from heroic attempts to test theories. These labs are theoretical battle grounds, filled with the technical wreckage of old campaigns and academic ghosts. As a result, science labs have an emotional power that stems from this mix of passionate endeavor and haphazard technical mastery. In this sense, science labs are art.

In the last ten years, there has been an explosion in the number of artists taking up residence in science institutions and universities. And these activities are starting to be more widely encouraged. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a permanent artist in residence. The Russian space agency promotes artistic involvement in international space programs by organizing zero gravity flights for artists. Recently, the particle physics laboratory at CERN in Switzerland invited ten artists, sculptors, and poets to collaborate with its physicists. The resulting exhibition, called ‘Signatures of the Invisible’, went on show at CERN last year. Even art galleries and museums are starting to promote art in scientific contexts. The Tate gallery in London, UK, for example, recently announced plans for a new gallery in space.

What’s next? Well, it surely won’t be long before some cash-strapped university science department decides to engage with this movement and re-brand itself as a modern art gallery. With the aid of a stylish café and a postcard shop, this could bring in significant extra income and even have the welcome side effect of contributing to the public understanding of science.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00412-7