At the crossroads of science and art; StemBook talks with Broad Institute Artist-in-Residence Bernd Haussmann
Bernd Haussmann was born in Germany and studied art at the MERZ Akademie, Stuttgart Germany. His work is featured in numerous galleries and museums and he is currently the Broad Institute’s Artist in Residence. Haussmann’s abstract paintings have been said to reflect his interest in the natural world and are the means by which he seeks to understand the world and his place in it. Bernd spoke recently with StemBook editor, Lisa Girard, at the Broad Institute about his work there and the intersection of science and art.
Could you tell me a little about yourself and your art?
I have always thought that art should be a vehicle for learning more about who we are and who I am and how I fit into this world; and should hopefully, at least for me, not be just about visuals, or pretty pictures. Art should lead you someplace beyond the visual. So that’s one point that I think has always gone through my art.
So, not just a means of expression, but also a means of growth?
Yes, a means of growth and a means of learning. I think art is about learning. You can dedicate some time to look at something, and really look at something, and in that process of looking you might find something out about yourself; or some visuals might trigger some information stored within you that can lead you someplace new. A collector of my work, an older gentleman, told me a story. Every morning he gets up, makes his cup of coffee, his wife is still asleep, the house is quiet. He takes his coffee mug and he walks around the house and picks a painting, a different one every day, and he talks to the painting and the painting talks to him and that’s how he starts his day. And I really believe the guy because that’s what I so strongly feel art can do. It can be a cleanser, it can clarify your mind, it can irritate you, it can soothe you, it can help you learn something more about yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work. Ever since I have been painting I have been trying to understand, not just intellectually, but emotionally, what this is all about-who we are, what we are. So, I always thought art gives me a good excuse to sit down and think about this. When I then share it, there’s the hope that it might resonate, reciprocate. A good piece of art triggers something. It can be very subtle; it doesn’t have to be something profound. I want to make suggestions, like a gentle conductor, that lets the voices come out and not dictate. So this is what I’m doing and this is why I’m doing it. Just concretely, The Broad Institute was just another project, an interesting project, to me because it seems two very different worlds, but I deeply believe that they are very closely related and we start at the same origins for our explorations.
Do you feel then that when you are giving someone your art you are providing a mode by which to explore themself further?
It sounds very arrogant, but if you lower that expectancy by 99.9% then yes, I believe art can do that. I believe art or culture is so very necessary to provide a little counterbalance to the world we are living in. That includes intuition and emotion, the thing we don’t directly link with science for example. If you are not very emotional and very questioning, or if you are not curious and if you don’t follow your instincts, you cannot do great art and you cannot do great science. So, I am trying to go literally beyond the visuals, beyond what’s visible and by doing that, find something new. It starts with the very selfish act of going to the studio with an abstract idea in mind and then you try and visualize that idea and see if it makes sense. It might be totally boring, very often it is, it might be something I’ve seen a thousand times out there before; then I am very frustrated for some time. Then I go back and try it again, looking at it from upside down, literally speaking, or metaphorically. Sometimes I learn something. What I learned here at the Broad is letting go of the control.
Could you could tell me about the projects you have ongoing with the researchers?
I have set up panels on acrylic glass, a substrate I have worked with a lot. The Broad Institute thinks of itself as an open institute with new ideas and a transparent environment, that’s why the floors are so open and the architecture supports that and so I thought that glass was perfect as a base to start that dialogue. So we collected data and information from meetings, selected some, and printed them on these panels to have something to start with and invited the Broad people to add to that information with special markers we provided for them to play on the panel. Then the panels get removed and new panels installed. The panels then go to my studio and then they come back here. So, quite literally, a dialogue is recorded there. That is Project One. Another project that I will be doing, and for which I am collecting information, deals with how, for example, everybody makes their own little telephone squiggles. You write down a very important phone number, for example, but while you are still talking with that person and you squiggle over that phone number and it gets lost, you can’t read it anymore. It’s still there, but from that concrete information of the phone number you are so desperately searching for to total abstraction is a small gap. So my idea is collecting a ton of visuals, scientific squiggles, and just by adding them on a panel, this very concrete language becomes abstract at a point so without me doing anything artistically in the traditional sense, you create an abstract piece of art. So, for me it is an interesting observation that something very concrete becomes something very abstract at some point. If you have too much information in your brain it becomes the same cacophony of stuff, right? You need to cleanse yourself in between in order to see clearly, otherwise it will look like those panels. Also interesting in this project, there will be three large panels and the first panel will have a little list, and then the second panel and the third panel will have even more information. I think it’s a gradual shift from concrete to abstract and different people will view things differently.
I think another connection between art and science, is that we both try and find visuals, not to just store information but to store and to share information. Artists do that all the time and scientists do that all the time, for example, when you have an idea in your mind and you want to share it with your colleagues and test it to see if it’s a direction you want to explore. You have to show them something that doesn’t really exist, so you find hieroglyphs that you all agree to, like a language, a separate language from our written language almost, like the language of numbers, or for me the language of color.
I think what you’re saying is that both scientists and artists are trying to represent, I guess in the case of a scientist, data or a conceptual finding, whereas you are more visually representing experience, emotion?
It all starts with a concept. You have a basic concept as a scientist. As an artist I have a basic concept. Then you find the right media as an artist to explore the story that you are curious to learn more about. It starts with the concept, not the desperate urge to share something, a curiosity that is based on an idea, the idea is based on a concept of your basic life philosophy.
When we talked earlier I remember you raised the point that in order to be a really passionate scientist you need the creativity that pushes you beyond competency. Can you relate that to your art?
I grew up in a Western environment, Western art, so I grew up with the knowledge and being surrounded by Western art so that’s my foundation. Then you get exposed to other art; Asian or Indian miniature, whatever, but you always start somewhere. The idea is to free yourself at some point from what you know, what is established. Not only is it boring, it repeats what you see, you want to instead add to what you see.
And I think that’s particularly true, I think a lot of scientists are indoctrinated based on the culture of their lab, and their field, and how it is.
Exactly. So, cleansing is very crucial, I think, for artists and, I believe, also for scientists. Cleansing for me means you expose yourself to something else, or when you are not in control and share the weirdest ideas or reverse completely what you just thought about and do the opposite. 99.9% of the time nothing comes out of that little game, but it helps you cleanse and refocus.
What do you hope to impart on the researchers here from your art?
It’s a big question and I have very few expectations because I don’t want to give the impression that I know any truth, I don’t. What I have learned from this experience is that I’m not a team player. As an artist, I am usually doing a solo thing at the studio. What I learned here is that there is a lot of teamwork going on. I also learned personally about this project about giving up a lot of the control I normally have. Feeling a little irritated by it, a little anxious about it; but hopefully at the same time staying critical about your own work, not to be too self-indulgent and not feeling too great about your own work. If you get a little success, I think it’s great to question that, and if you don’t, don’t give up yet. I think there are a multitude of truths and if I can stimulate a few people here to try and look at things upside-down or shake loose and explore things a little differently that would be phenomenal, but again I don’t have the arrogance of assuming that you expose some people to art and do a few little projects here and it is going to change the world or any scientific project. I think it’s about trying to come closer and understand each other better and provide a language that for scientists is very concrete. You see on those panels there is a lot of doodling and a lot of different things going on from very serious to very playful.
What enduring qualities do you think this experience will bring to your art?
It makes me want to explore collaborations more. Dialogues, in the broader sense, has always been my thing, I am working with an organization right now, One World One Ocean, which is a nature conservancy group out of California. I am doing a project with them and that’s outside the regular artist’s world. Having the experience of not understanding is a great learning experience because in art, or in science, or whatever field we are all specialists, which makes us all idiots because we miss a lot of the other parts that may have some very helpful element. I am doing video now and for the longest time I thought I am a painter, and people know me to be a painter and some of my galleries want my paintings because they have a market for that and ideally they would want the same paintings over and over. For me, art is about creativity, about inventing. Inventing is a big point in art and in science and not standing still is a big point, and not submitting to certain conventions is a big point in science and art.
Bernd-thank you so much for your time, it was a pleasure meeting with you.
Sure, thank you.
For more information on Bernd Haussmann’s work: