Synapse Leggett

Artists have been looking at what scientists of the day are up to since art critic and social commentator Ruskin’s time. Many have frowned at the notion of artists working with scientists, but artists have always worked with technology of some kind. And modern science, like contemporary art, produces knowledge through ideas. Concept and theory precede method, results are scrutinised critically, and occasionally outcomes are celebrated in public through the market place, exhibitions and forums.

Informal links between the disciplines have been cyclical in modern times. The Artists’ Placement Group (APG) in Britain, for instance, was instigated by artists in the 1960s to formalise processes for creating professional relationships between artists and those in science and commerce. It is only recently, with the broader recognition that advanced research programs are necessary, that initiatives like Synapse have begun to re-build these relationships here in Australia.

Synapse is a series of related assistance programs to encourage collaborative ventures between artists, scientists and technologists. As a structure at the junction between 2 neurons or nerve-cells, the synapse is an attractive metaphor for the program, representing the notion of connection. The Australia Council, starting with its commissioning of the Art and Technology report in the mid-80s, has been at the forefront of support for the establishment of bodies like the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) and more recently programs like Synapse. A joint initiative between the New Media Arts Board and ANAT, Synapse is a strategic alliance through collaborative research projects between key stakeholders, including the Australian Research Council (ARC), university research centres, the CSIRO and industry. Synapse is also a database, maintained by ANAT, bringing together information and advice for artists and scientists seeking to work collaboratively ( In addition, ANAT administers a program of residencies with specific host science organisations.

Three ARC bids have been successful in the first stage of the overall Synapse program, involving artists Nigel Helyer, Mari Velonaki and Dennis del Favero. There have also been several residency placements. The database is a substantial resource, though clearly speculative in its practical usefulness. A more coordinated branding of the scheme will develop as outcomes emerge from the 11 projects planned in the first phase ending late 2005, and as collaborative teams perfect describing their projects and processes to those providing funding.

The 4th century BC Greek term tekhne, meaning art in which creating, method and means are wholly integrated, is another useful image in the Synapse context. Nigel Helyer is a notable exponent, maintaining a consistent link between sound, the oral and their transliteration using the combined technologies of electronics, digital media and sculptural forms for over 20 years. Helyer’s practice has often included a close working with technology industries. Developing a relationship with Lake Technology in 1999, his approach to describing a research project using a narrative scenario with tangible outcomes was adopted over their more traditional practice. The tangible outcomes have been of considerable value to Lake, but because the intricacies of patent law (as distinct from copyright) were new to Helyer and the Australia Council, financial returns to the artist have been less than satisfactory. Though this situation is less likely to occur today, it remains an issue for careful negotiation between stakeholders involved in collaboration.

Currently, together with Daniel Woo and Chris Rizos at UNSW, Helyer is working on a raft of projects with a budget of $360,000 over 3 years from the ARC, UNSW and the New Media Arts Board. Some of the projects, such as the AudioNomad series, are developments of his earlier work with mobile augmented audio reality systems capable of navigation and orientation within real spaces. Others include a pedagogic project with the Powerhouse Museum for an audio trail around the Sydney Observatory, a “virtual wall” for Berlin and the Syren installation that will feature at ISEA04 in the Baltic. Here the ship on which ISEA04 will take place becomes the cursor within a sonic cartography, driving a surround sound installation.

Mari Velonaki is another artist with an on-going interest in the science-art nexus who has received assistance through Synapse. She completed the multimedia performance Phaedra’s Circle in the early 90s in collaboration with Suzanne Chammas and Tanzforum Ostschweiz (where she had studied in the mid-80s), before completing a PhD at COFA in 2003. Formal qualifications are essential in research environments, where they increase the chances of raising research funding. An impressive series of exhibits (including Pin Cushion and Amor Veneris A) were outcomes of Velonaki’s skill-development in electronics and collaborative work with creative coders like Gary Zebington. Through astute networking with the research community and learning their specialised language, Velonaki has immersed herself in the hybrid culture of cross-disciplinary art and science, a world which attempts to balance business and politics with creativity.

Of her current endeavours, she says: “For the last 8 years, the projected character has been a major feature in my interactive installations. With the new project, Fish-Bird, my work moves towards autonomous 3 dimensional kinetic objects. This is a large conceptual and technological shift in my practice and requires a different level of collaboration and support.” The shift from the studio to the laboratory complemented the development of her process: “I felt I had to collaborate with people who were not only proficient with such technologies, but were also innovative thinkers in the use of such scientific knowledge. Working in a large-scale collaborative project requires time to think and evaluate, space to work and test, and sufficient shared activity for ideas to cross-pollinate. The Synapse initiative was extremely important for me, as it provides a framework within which artists can approach leading scientific groups with proposals for collaborations.” The director of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney, Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, introduced Velonaki to 3 roboticists (Doctors Rye, Scheding and Williams) who shared similar interests and concerns in human-machine interfaces.

In regards to the ARC application process, Velonaki comments: “It is much more complicated than anything I had come across in the arts funding structure. The application itself was 20,000 words and required the joint efforts and commitment of the team for a month.” The outcome was $247,000 over 3 years from the cultural and mechatronics areas of the ARC, along with various combinations of cash and in-kind assistance from the Australia Council, University of Sydney, ANAT, Artspace Sydney, the MCA and commercial company Patrick’s Systems. Defining “in-kind”, and classifying exhibitions as “publications” (academic publishing which scores points towards research status), remain grey areas in translation between the studio and the laboratory. Like patent questions, these issues need to be carefully negotiated on a case by case basis.

Velonaki reports that her group has a genuine collaborative spirit where people are willing to assist each other’s project and her own research and practice is valued and respected: “At ACFR I felt welcome and supported from day one. We have already created a light-reactive installation, Embracement, which was premiered in Primavera 2004 at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Fish-Bird is progressing very well and is going to be previewed as a work in progress at Artspace in August, during the Res Artis conference.”

As Anna Munster observed in RealTime 60 (p4); “By working from a position of mutual respect for their differences and armed with skepticism balanced by thorough research into each other’s respective fields, art and science can come together in modest ways on specific projects.” Through the unique Synapse program, negotiating the sharing of resources and the setting up of creative collaborations between art and science has begun in earnest. Many have high hopes for the rewards.

Intersted readers should check the Australia Council website ( in late July for information regarding another round of Synapse ARC Linkage Industry Partner grants.

*copyright RealTime;