Akron's Synapse Art Series Explores the Intersection of Art and Science

Dec 12, 2016

An ongoing series at the University of Akron brings-in artists who are breaking down barriers between art and science.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair explores how the Synapse series is changing the way we view both disciplines.

Simon Schleicher is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley

He was in Akron recently to talk about his work designing architectural elements for buildings based on the mechanical properties of flowers.  

A breakthrough innovation was inspired by the way a large tropical flower opens when a bird lands on it.

“Engineers call it lateral torsional buckling, and usually you consider that as a failure mode.”

Far from failure, it was the starting point for Schleicher to help create a unique type of window blind that, just like the flower, opens when a slight pressure is applied to one end.

The bird of paradise flower was the inspiration of a novel flexible window blind. The blue petal opens laterally when a bird lands on the shaft.
Credit SIMON SCHLEICHER / FLECTOFIN

It's a "hingless flapping mechanism inspired by nature," called Flectofin.

“What we learned from the plant," says Schleicher, "is that there is an entire world of flexible constructions out there which we until now considered failures, that you could instrumentalize and use them to make a certain function possible and use it in a performative aspect.”

Schleicher is an engineer with a background in art.

“I’m both and in between and everything…” or more specifically, “the person who is building the bridges between the disciplines.”

Synapse series explores interplay between art and science
Schleicher is just the kind of bridge builder that Matthew Kolodziej loves to include in his Synapse art series at the University of Akron.

“That’s why I’m doing this," says Kolodziej, "because the gaps in understanding, the places where there’s disagreement - that’s where the innovation is.”

As a painter and art professor Kolodziej sees the need for an ongoing examination of the technology that shapes our world, and the artistic impulse to interpret what’s happening around us.

He says, advances in science and medicine happen faster than our ability to process them.

“They offer great possibilities, we live longer, have healthier lives, but there are also problems and art is really meant to get at those challenges and those kind of concerns.”

The Synapse art series, with recent help from the Knight Foundation, has brought 30 artists to Akron in the decade since Kolodziej launched it.

Recent speakers include a sculptor who builds installations based on meteorological data of major storms, a fashion designer inspired by the defenses used by insects, and art inspired by radioactive groundwater contamination in southern Ohio.

The art of data interpretation 
In 2011 he invited architectural designer Jenny Sabin, a professor at Cornell, to present her ideas.

Sabin builds sculpture and architectural prototypes based on the language of science – which she says is itself undergoing a revolution.  

“The way that science is done is being radically challenged in the onset of big data.”

She’s experimenting with new ways to reveal the underlying insights hidden within huge number sets.

Jenny Sabin's polythread project introduces architecture to lightweight knitted structures based on the spaces between cells.
Credit JENNY SABIN

“For me the use of data is not about mapping or just representation but really unearthing that dynamic scenario that is highly spatial and highly structural,” says Sabin.

Working with biologists, she's creating installations based on the spaces between cells, the extracellular matrix, to find new ways to approach architecture.  

Using 3D printers, she creates new building materials inspired by nature, including an updated version of the humble brick.

Her polybrick is designed with holes based on the pore structure of human bones.

Curiosity unites art and science
Sabin teams art and architecture students with engineering and material science majors to spark ideas across disciplines.

“We very much need the intersections.”

Simon Schleicher at UC Berkley combines the systematic approach of science with the intuitive insights of artists to solve design problems.

He says there’s one thing though, that connects all approaches.

“You can be curious as an artist, you can be curious as a scientist, as a doctor, and in every field, so keeping the curiosity is the important thing.” 

At the University of Akron, painter Matthew Kolodziej has collaborated with the polymer science department, the biomimicry research center, and computer scientists.

“I’m interested in created community, I’m interested in created dialog where there’s more openness.”

He says science sometimes needs the disruptive energy of art to break new ground.

The video below shows large scale window shades based on the Flectofin design.