Deja Vu

Deja Vu: How One Scientist Experiments Through Art

by Shirley Dang

At first glance, the setup looks like a typical scientist’s lab bench. Voltmeters riddled with knobs and dials bump up against flasks and beakers of buffers. Tiny vials and half-filled syringes lie among dishes of solution. The only thing out of place is a musty clot of ivy roots, spawning a tangle of tendrils and leaves, which sits in a tray perched on the bench. Near a wet scalpel, a tiny black placard rests askew: “EXPERIMENT IN PROGRESS DO NOT DISTURB.”

Unlike most experiments, this one is being carried out in the middle of an art gallery in San Francisco. And unlike most scientists, Tania Vu, who earned her PhD in Vision Science at the University of California, Berkeley, is conducting research while performing in her own dynamic art installation.

Vu is studying the electrophysiological responses of wounded plants. Wielding a cigarette lighter and a scalpel, she singes, cuts, or burns the leaves of ivy plants. Reacting in distress, the plants emit a “wound response.” This response begins with the movement of charged atoms, or ions, from the cells at the site of damage. The ions quickly disperse from the scene of trauma, creating an electrical signal that is picked up by electrodes and sent to a chart recorder. This antiquated machine drags its pen across a continuous sheet of moving graph paper, marking the peaks and nadirs of the changing electrical potential.

Toward the end of Vu’s two-month exhibit, ivy vines creep up the gallery walls and spill over the edge of the bench with perverse cheer. Vu scribbles observations in a standard blue lab notebook. Every once in a while, a swell of graph paper from the recorder builds up and cascades off one edge of the bench, while a sea of leaves pools on the floor opposite.

Vu’s piece was picked as one of nine for a juried Bay Area showcase this spring at the San Francisco Art Institute, which offered her a merit scholarship last year to explore the connection between art and science. Her piece, simply called “Experiment,” is a study with what she says will be scientifically valid data, potentially publishable. The ultimate goal, however, was to explore the commonalities and contradictions between creating conceptually sound art and making legitimate scientific discoveries. She wanted to set up studies “so they were true science experiments, but to do it in a setting that wasn’t in a laboratory.”

At 30, Vu has already published ten scientific papers and abstracts and has received two grants from the National Institutes of Health. But in January of 2000 she halted her science research to fully devote herself to art for a year. What drives an accomplished scientist to carry out experiments in an art gallery? “In the research, things were going very profitably in terms of the papers and grants,” says Vu, who completed her doctoral thesis on how light is processed in the retina of the tiger salamander. “It was very on track, very focused, studying something very specific. But I felt that rather than waiting— you know, in some sense life is short—it would be better to take the time and really explore this other thing that I’m very curious about.”

Yet there was no meltdown, no singular career crisis, no renunciation of science. Rather, the arts surreptitiously crept up on her, much like the ivy vines on the walls of the exhibit. Vu began by playing violin and piano in private study for eight years. She then played the violin in Carnegie Mellon University’s symphony, simultaneously earning her bachelor’s in electrical engineering with a minor in medical engineering. In the fall of 1995, the “drawing bug” struck while she was in the midst of her doctoral studies at Berkeley. Finishing her degree two years later, she performed with the Berkeley Summer Symphony. Finally, when she began postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco in 1998, she enrolled in a painting class at the San Francisco Art Institute.

From her first drawing class emerged the idea to approach science through art. “There was so much I saw that I didn’t see before, and it was a really different way of approaching the visual world,” she says. Even as an artist, Vu still operates on many levels as a scientist: she systematically uses tools, whether paintbrush or voltmeter, to analyze her old thesis topic, vision. Rather than abandoning her academic life for the bohemian trappings of an artist, Vu still explores how people see—only now she does it through artistic means.

When she speaks of her experiments, she makes compelling arguments for the study of vision through the visual arts. “That’s the other thing that I like about making artwork,” she says. “It answers questions just like in science, but it answers questions in a different way—in a personal way on some levels, and in a way that also [isn’t as] exact as science, but at the same time is very satisfying.

But painting and drawing while conducting demanding scientific research is very different from fusing the two together to form a new career. “I think at first the two were very separate, the science and the art, for me. It wasn’t until halfway through last year that I could feel that they were coming together, and it came from internally— the feeling of art as a part of life, living as part of the project that you are doing.”

Still, she finds herself unable to peacefully meld every aspect of the two disciplines. “I feel schizophrenic sometimes. I feel like I’m in a science mode, then I’m in an art mode,” she explains, turning side to side. “I was thinking about how in science we try to look for general and replicable kinds of responses, the idea of repeatability…and I was thinking of how in the arts there is an emphasis on individuality and the personal, and the unique.”

Vu eventually incorporated the idea of uniqueness into her science experiments. She began measuring the wound responses of individual leaves, and found that each leaf had a unique response, perhaps related to leaf geometry. By the end of the exhibit, she had attached several tiny ivy leaves to one wall, each with their own measurements. Changing her experiment quickly, on a philosophical whim, has been a learning experience for the methodical scientist in her. In art, she says, “your mind is in a different mode, where you embrace the unexpected, and you have to embrace the unexpected in order to make work that’s good.” Of course, the same might often be said of good science.

The push and pull of art and science in her artwork provides the tension that makes her installation so effectively discomfiting. Vu says she has been watching to see “whether I would bring art into science, or science into art. I’m feeling that it’s much easier to bring science into art than the other way around.” There does seem to be a trend to incorporate science into art. For example, this past year, the artist Eduardo Kac worked with a biotechnology lab to create a conceptual art piece: the genetically-modified fluorescent bunny. However, Vu is a forerunner among scientists moving into the realm of art, making her work not only novel but also particularly noteworthy to those in the arts.

“In art, it’s definitely special,” said professor Werner Klotz, who taught Vu at the San Francisco Art Institute. “She creates a system that functions. Most artists who use the instruments of science don’t know how it works. A lot of artists just use science or the language of science symbolically…there are not many scientists that go into art. Financially, it might be strange to do that. Actually, it would be absolutely absurd to do it. You only do it when you have a very strong passion for art. It is very rare.” In coming years, Klotz expects to see even more exciting work from his former student. “I and others think she’s someone that you really will hear about in the future.”

Vu’s parents have been supportive of her career change, if a bit puzzled. “When I first told them about this, I’d say they were curious, and they didn’t quite understand, and they wanted to understand,” says Vu, sighing. “Because I spent so much time going to school, it was perplexing. But they’re happy that I’m feeling satisfied.”

Her thesis advisor at Berkeley, Molecular and Cellular Biology department chair W. Geoffrey Owen, comments, “I’m not one of these people who think if you’re trained as a scientist that you have to only do science.” Instead he sees Tania’s artwork as parallel to her science. “By looking at electrophysical responses with different kinds of stimuli in plants, that makes people think about a plant in a different way, the meaning of these responses in a different way.” Although plants do not actually feel pain, Owen notes that people looking at the exhibit can, in a way, feel it for them. “Like all good art, you connect with it because you identify some aspect that you relate to.

Indeed, Vu has found audience interaction integral to learning about how society views science. Most people have been intrigued, although many have opted to stay back from the bench. “Some people even grimaced when I told them what I was doing,” she says. But not all responses have been negative—one observer suggested using microcomputers to more discretely measure and record electrical signals. Someone else brought pink daisies to decorate the bench. One day, a resident artist in the gallery stopped by to chat during the exhibit. Vu recalls, “her friend was visiting and brought her some hibiscus flowers from Africa. She was drinking the tea from that.” Vu smiles, then adds, “I really enjoy that kind of thing— the unexpected.” Next on the docket: burning, singeing, and clipping flowers.

Shirley Dang