Living in the Interstitium: a reflection on art–science collaborations

The interstitium is a contiguous fluid-filled space that is part of our connective tissue, enclosing and connecting the blood vessels, nerve fibers, muscles, and various vital organs. Despite centuries of scientific inquiry into human anatomy, this organ – perhaps the largest in the human body – remained unknown up until recently. Vivek H. Sridhar, a postdoc scholar at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (MPI-AB) and fellow of the special residency program »Field Trip,« a collaboration between the art, science & business program of the Akademie Schloss Solitude and MPI-AB, was inspired by the interstitium as a connective entity. Based on this analogy, he invited artists from Akademie Schloss Solitude and fellow scientists from the Department for the Ecology of Animal Societies from MPI-AB in Konstanz for a panel discussion on working in the interstices of different disciplines.

Vivek Hari Sridhar in conversation with Meg Crofoot, Hemal Naik, Yiming Yang, and Eduardo Noya Schreus — Mai 28, 2024

From left to right: Vivek Hari Sridhar (postdoc at MPI & former Solitude fellow); Meg Crofoot (Director of the Department for the Ecology of Animal Societies at MPI); Hemal Naik (postdoc at MPI & former Solitude fellow); Yiming Yang (artist and former Solitude fellow); Eduardo Noya Schreus (sound artist)

Edited Interview

The following conversation was realized in the special residency program »Field Trip,« a collaboration between the art, science & business program of the Akademie Schloss Solitude and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (MPI-AB).

Vivek Hari Sridhar: Recently scientists were able to put a new endoscope inside the body and observe living tissue. What they realized is that collagen, initially thought to be a rigid wall surrounding our organs, is in fact sponge-like, with a honeycomb network structure and fluid gushing through it. This is the interstitium. Traditional Western medicine always thought of the body as an aggregation of its components. Cells aggregate to form tissues, tissues aggregate to form organs, thereby shaping the entire body. On the other hand, Traditional Chinese Medicine was aware of the interstitium for more than 2,500 years. There, the human body was thought of as a system connected by dynamic fluids. For example, in acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine works with the system of meridians, through which the life energy Qi flows. Only recently we’re starting to see parallels between the meridians and the interstitium, drawing a cultural bridge between these different medical practices.

Today, I mention this analogy because we want to talk about the interstitium in human societies, and how we’ve split our professions and jobs into disciplines. This is again an idea by an innovator and entrepreneur, Jennifer Brandel. But what about the interstitium within our society, the synergies, and the people who work between these disciplines? To start today’s conversation, I’d like to go to you, Meg. I was curious about your perspective on art-science collaborations as a co-initiator of the »Field Trip« residency.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Living in the Interstitium: a reflection on art–science collaborations

Interstitium (Image credit: Eric V. Grave/Getty)

Meg Crofoot: I’m going to start by talking a bit more personally about what drives me and my science, and why I do what I do. I’m fascinated by the question: How did we come to be such an unusual ape? We humans are such strange animals. I’m motivated to understand what can seem like a chasm between human behavior, human societies, and the societies of the other species that we share this planet with.

When I think about that kind of chasm, that gap between what we are and what other species are, it’s not about whether one of them is better or worse, or more or less, it’s just different. Here lies the inherently creative process that has to happen. You’re imagining worlds that could have been; you’re imagining how you get from one place to another.

All science basically is the act of trying to understand the world around us by what we can see, hear, taste, smell, and the things that we can measure – and trying to make sense and a story of that. When you go back and look at early scientists and read their journals, you see that they’re engaged in multiple modalities. Yes, they’re scientists, but they’re also artists, as they’re engaging with these multiple ways of understanding and seeing the world.

One thing that I’ve come to appreciate more since the beginning of this collaboration, is the way that science has created a professionalism and increasingly rigid, hard-to-break-free-from constraints on what we spend our time doing, investigating, and thinking about. Yet when people from our department go out into the field, we work exclusively on wild animals in their natural habitats. People in our department come back with these amazing drawings and writings, which is one way of engaging with the world beyond simple data collection, their science. So I see this as a way of trying to reclaim our right to be fully rounded human beings who like to engage with this world in a much more multimodal way.

Vivek Hari Sridhar: Hemal, as you worked with artists and continue to collaborate with them, it seems that you clearly gained something from these relationships. What did you gain? How has this affected your process, in terms of doing your science more broadly?

Hemal Naik: The best way for me to comment on this is to start with my own exploration of how I came to do what I’m doing now. One of my first encounters with an artist was in 2013. I don’t know if he would call himself an artist, but he was one for me. He took me bird watching for the first time. We walked around for three weeks, and we found like a hundred birds. I was super amazed. From there I started meeting other artists in the Max Planck Institute. I will call them artists in the way Meg explained that science can be a work of art. As I moved from room to room and all these super interesting people told me all their stories, I was wondering: Why do I not know about this? Then it dawned on me that they primarily presented themselves through a scientific lens in their professional lives. Even though they knew all these fantastic stories, and they did these amazing drawings in their personal lives, they did not have a clear avenue to express this to a broader audience.

When I met the artists at the Akademie, I was fascinated by their ability to express their perspectives in very vivid and tangible ways and also give space for audiences to connect to complex topics through their emotions as well. That is how I became curious about this exchange, and I ended up working with a bunch of artists exploring the intersection of art and science.

Vivek Hari Sridhar: This brings me to you, Yiming. You draw a lot of inspiration from biology. What makes you work at the interface of biology and to go deep into some biological theories and ideas? What drives you; why do you draw inspiration from biological systems?

Yiming Yang: One example from my recent time here at the Akademie is when we went to the Max Planck Institute in Konstanz. It was inspiring to see all the biologists who had set up their experiments. I found out they are really open. Previously, it was hard for me to connect with biologists.

But generally, I do not deliberately choose biology as a scientific perspective. I am more drawn to the visual aspect. I could spot some animals that were beautiful or weird. I am impressed by the complexity of the different shapes of animals. From there, I start to use scientific methods to research further. It helps me to understand and perceive in different ways. This way of working is important for me because, in my personal experience, I’m not good at talking. So, I use multiple forms of expression. That’s what I like about art. For instance, in this recent work, Deceptive Behavior, I was so impressed by the seemingly artificial shapes of treehoppers. This potential can be seen as animals submitting to their genetic code to ensure survival. To improve our existence, we have created machines, which initially can be seen as a return to our body, to animality, to the intensification of a productive force in parallel.

Meg Crofoot: Whether it’s the treehopper or the puffer fish, whose bodies are incredibly symmetrical, I wonder if the animals themselves have an aesthetic sense. Do they get some sort of pleasure or emotion from themselves – their own geometries, their own physical forms, or from the things that they create in the world around them? How would we ever know about the internal experience that they have?

Vivek Hari Sridhar: How do we ever know? I agree that beauty is subjective, so maybe never. But this also links with work on sexual selection by Mike Ryan and others, who think about beauty and aesthetics in terms of the cognitive load that something poses upon the perceiver. For example, symmetrical patterns are easier to perceive and in that sense, Mike says beauty lies in the brain, rather than the eyes, of the beholder.

Maybe from here we can move to Eduardo. During the past weeks at the Akademie, I had the opportunity to work with Eduardo on a project at the interface of data, music, and animal behavior. It is based on my fieldwork with Hemal and Akanksha on blackbuck antelopes and their mating system. This system is characterized by aggregated and closely clustered territories of males, marked by dung piles, which are visited by the females. We’re observing the breeding arena every day, in the morning and in the evening. One morning in the field we had this odd experience, which was not at all expected. That day, as we set out to record with drones, we encountered that one of the males had died. It was predated upon by some dogs. And so, our work is a little song to this male, because this is the day before the male died. It encapsulates the last video recordings that we had of him, and a translation of some of his last movements – as part of a larger mating system – into music.

So, by recording videos with drones, we collect data of the animals’ movements and behaviors in the breeding area. This data includes different characteristics such as speed, acceleration, distance from the territory, courting behavior, and the number of females visiting the territory. For this work we focused on this one male at the center, which you see. Again, the black is the male, the lighter individuals are the females. And what I did was I took this data, and I exported it, to get it in the right bpm, or musical tempo. And I gave this data to Eduardo to do his magic.


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Eduardo Noya Schreus: We connected in collaborating here because I’ve already done some work for the preservation of animals in music with sounds of animals of the Arctic. But this project was a bit of a challenge because when you put in all the data, it sounds pretty bad. It’s just randomness. At the same time, I didn’t want to manipulate the data. The cool thing here was the challenge of how to use the data to make something that hopefully sounds good. I used a plug-in that locks all the notes to a certain scale. I chose pentatonic and minor, which is kind of neutral. It’s not too sad, or if it’s major, too happy, you know. And all I did, with the data, to be honest, I was just a mediator to shape it and make it sound in a way pleasant. And the results were very interesting.

What blew my mind was that I already had the information there, I didn’t need to compose from zero. I have worked with a field-recording approach before, with orcas, seals, or ice breaking underwater, and the approach is different because you already have the sound. It’s like working with a sound library. In this case, I was working with the data of the analysis of mating behavior of the antelopes. So, there was already the substance of the data to work with, connected to the fieldwork and the antelopes. For me, I was just measuring and playing on how it can sound. If Vivek gave me the video to compose something for it from scratch, I would have done something completely different. It had a certain immediacy in this case, while I was also being a bit removed sentimentally from the piece. And the result is different. But I’m like, oh, where does it come from? So, it also questions authorship and origin. This is an experiment, but I think it’s very promising and we’re both very excited to keep investigating this fusion or clash.

Meg Crofoot is Director of the Department for the Ecology of Animal Societies at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and an Alexander von Humboldt Professor at the University of Konstanz. As behavioral ecologist and evolutionary anthropologist, she is interested in the evolution of social complexity. Her research yokes field-based study with emerging remote sensing technology.

Hemal Naik is a scientist working on interdisciplinary projects that aim to understand the natural world using technology, including computer vision and augmented/virtual reality. He is currently working as a doctoral researcher on MELA, a project run by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Konstanz/Germany, concerned with studying mating choices in blackbuck antelopes.

Eduardo Noya, a.k.a. NOIA, has tinkered with an expansive range of sounds since he was young. Noya specializes in unconventional approaches to composition, working mainly with synthesizers and acoustic instruments to provide textured, layered, and evocative instrumentation.

Vivek Hari Sridhar trained as a qualified biotechnologist and completed a dual MSc in Evolutionary Biology from Uppsala University in Sweden and the University of Groningen/Netherlands. He is currently working as a doctoral researcher on MELA, a project run by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Konstanz/Germany, concerned with studying mating choices in blackbuck antelopes.

Yiming Yang is an installation and new media artist based in Shanghai/China. Her work expands the post-Anthropocene perspective, combining organisms (plants, animals, humans), everyday objects and machines to explore how these symbiotic relations interact to shape human subjectivities and psychologies.