Art and Science Join Forces to Respond to the Questions of Our Time

In our present time, which is so essentially dominated by technology, it appears that science has taken over the leading role in culture and in many cases replaced religion. Under these circumstances the growing focus on collaborations between art and science and their greater synthesis seems only logical. Humans will always make art and do science, and this is probably one of the most defining characteristics of our species.

LABoral Centro de Arte, Gijón, Spain
November 14, 2015 – May 8, 2016

The interrelationship between art and science has been a crucial issue throughout history – you will not find a period in which artists do not strongly refer to science as a source of inspiration or as a topic worth addressing. Many would even claim that in the beginning art and science were not separate fields at all, and that they continue to be motivated today by the same human desires. In our digital age, this issue has again become a very visible, public topic.


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New tools for artists

The first wave of interest was triggered by the curiosity of artists, pioneers and avant-garde thinkers and led to their exploring the new tools, their meaning and possible impact beyond technical and industrial applications. The “Cybernetic Serendipity” exhibition (1968), the first Sky Art Conference (1981), the 1986 Venice Biennale and, of course, also the establishment of the Ars Electronica Festival in 1979, are all part of this development. And yet it is very interesting to see that at this early stage only Ars Electronica had explicitly included the impact on society in defining itself as a “festival for art, technology and society”.

The growing attention to biotechnologies, in particular to the race to decode the human genome in the late 1990s, gave birth to a new frontier, one that demanded the even greater commitment of the artist to delve deeply into techno-scientific matters. Moreover, artists emerged who were no longer satisfied with only commenting on the ethical implications of genetic engineering, but who also wanted to be able to work with these very new tools and instruments alongside scientists.



Broad exchange between art, science and technology

Recently the increasing need to respond culturally to the rising power of the computer and the massive invasion of digital ICT in every aspect of our lives has again attracted greater attention to the idea of a close collaboration and broad exchange between art, science and technology. But it is no longer just artists and scientists who are interested in working together; collaborating has also become a topic for the industry and policy-makers.

Which is largely due to the growing popularity of the idea that many of the challenges of our present time can only be solved using creative new approaches and even more extensive collaboration. And of course it is true that the challenges we face as a result of the many changes now taking place are greater than the capabilities of each individual group of experts. Hence collaboration that goes beyond a mere joining of forces but has the potential to lead to transformation and innovation is the mantra of our time. No doubt the attention currently directed towards artistic and scientific collaborations has also been determined by very profane expectations – the hope that a new wave of creative innovations might boost weak economies and provide the much needed competitive edge for the next decade.

It remains to be established whether innovations in science and art are a driving force for or rather a result of cultural and societal transformations. Nevertheless, it is clear that they always go hand in hand. And in times of crisis, when many questions are open and answers are few, the focus shifts to innovative sources of inspiration for new alliances and paradigms. And this is especially true for the times we are living in, when the challenges are bigger than the expertise of any single group.



How can we benefit from this relationship?

  • Art and science have always been very close to each other, but now the important point has become how can we benefit from the special energy that emerges from this relationship.
  • What are the challenges without compromising the autonomy and integrity of the artistic process? After all, this process is the one thing that makes it so promising and valuable.
  • What kind of practices might be established to successfully tap into this special energy? How can it be translated and conveyed beyond art? How can art itself benefit from this and gain innovative momentum? What experiences and findings can be drawn from the prototypical encounters and collaborations of the many artists in residence programs that are currently aiming to bring artists and scientists together?

These are the questions that are presently being discussed in many programs and places, and for this reason Ars Electronica organized for six experienced European art institutions to team up with two of the most exciting research facilities existing today. CERN with its Large Hadron Collider that probes the smallest constituents of matter, and ESO’s high end observatories in Chile that study objects at the farthest reaches of the universe (read more on In addition to these unique opportunities for artists-in-residence, a series of international exhibitions is being organized. LABORAL’s exhibition MATERIA PRIMA is the main event.




The LabExhibition as an experiment

But MATERIA PRIMA is not just an exhibition, at least not an ordinary exhibition, it is an experiment on its own, an attempt to create access, to blaze trails into the vast overlapping territories of art and science. Above all it aims to achieve a new level of visitor involvement and participation. What could be more appropriate than a place like LABoral, which itself is exemplary for a new type of hybrid and collaborative institution, a center for original artistic creation as well as community-based co-creation. Moreover, it is a platform for knowledge production and education, and an innovative instrument for establishing new directions in research and developing partnerships in the region with local experts.

The title MATERIA PRIMA is a reference to the history of a philosophy in which material prima was considered the first matter or basic starting material from which everything else evolved. For the alchemists of the early ages it symbolized the mystery of the holy grail. They believed if they could discover the materia prima, they would be able to make gold. In a certain way the idea is not all that far fetched, especially if we think of these alchemists as the hackers and DIY makers of their time, explorers at the borders of science, art and mysticism. They defied established knowledge and scientific dogmas, and did not shy away from taking unorthodox and forbidden paths to gain greater insight. After all, breaking the rules is the only way to get things right, especially when the rules are wrong or insufficient. And although we might call them fools for aiming at the impossible, along the way they created many by-products, maybe even more than produced by the race to the moon.

In our times it is data that has become the equivalent of materia prima. For it is now the basic and universal material which may be translated or transformed into anything else. Moreover, it has become the seemingly inexhaustible raw material for everything, including the spectacular business models that have given rise to some of the most profitable business ever. So it seems to be true that if you just find the proper materia prima, you can even convert it into gold – that is, the gold of our time, stock options for the next most promising start-up.

MATERIA PRIMA LabExhibition  presents outstanding work at the nexus of art and science, while also providing a showcase for the notorious curious. The whole exhibition space serves as an inspiring laboratory environment that has a set of visitor labs literally at its core. This hybrid form of presentation is a clear commitment to the didactic and inspirational potential of art and science. It is also an expression of our wholehearted belief in the potential impact of art and science to go beyond their present territories, as well as our belief in the power and creative energy that can be derived from their collaboration.



“Materia prima, or raw material, speaks to the essence of things, the starting point, what remains inalterable, the most important core reflection on which we base the construction of our surrounding environments.”

Read an interview with Lucía García Rodríguez, the Managing Director of LABoral, on the Ars Electronica Blog. She talked about her understanding of the term Materia Prima, about the exhibition itself that is structured in several laboratories and recently opened in Gijón and about the Spanish view of the connection between art and science.






Download the folder of the Materia Prima exhibition.
PDF file (4 MB)



Ars Electronica Linz

Since its very beginning in 1979, Ars Electronica has focused strongly on the many interrelationships between art and science. From the first Sky Art Conference in 1981, to our festival on nanotechnology in 1991 or the “Hybrid Art” category of Prix Ars Electronica launched in 2007, Ars Electronica has made major contributions to the development of this field, and introduced challenging scientific topics into the discourse and practice of media art.