Bellagio Report and Conclusions

Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Rockefeller Foundation,
Lake Como, Italy, 19-23 November 2001


The Art & Science Conference which took place at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center at Lake Como, Italy, in November 2001 was a rare event, based on the proposition: “To bring together a group of artists and scientists to explore the creative process, examine the interface between art and science and establish a foundation for future cooperation and exchange in the 21st century.”

Through many months of work in securing the availability and commitment of leading academics in their respective fields, and careful preparation which involved discussion and negotiation with many institutions in several countries, the proposition was developed and realised as a conference with two primary objectives:

1. To define more rigorously the notion of art given that artistic experimentation and production have become more linked and likened to scientific and technical research;

2. To understand the parallels in the creative process in science and in art.

Delegates from the fields of visual, audio and performance art, mathematics, physics, and neuroscience, and philosophy, art history and science writing were posed a series of challenging questions at the outset related to the proposition and conference objectives, to stimulate debate on relations between art and science, their philosophical and interpretive parallels, crossovers, and possible collaborations, all of which were argued during three days of hotly contested and illuminating discussion.

The conference was organised by Dr Don Foresta, AHRB Senior Research Fellow at Wimbledon School of Art, and Dr Benoit Mandelbrot, Sterling Professor of Mathematical Sciences in the Department of Mathematics at Yale University, Connecticut, winner of the Wolf Prize for mathematics, and the inventor of fractal geometry.

The participants were:

Sir Michael Berry, Royal Society Research Professor at Bristol University, Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Arts, Member of the European Academy, winner of the Maxwell Medal, the Paul Dirac Medal, the Wolf prize in Physics, and holder of six honorary doctorates;
Professor Margaret A. Boden, Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Sussex.  Renowned expert on artificial intelligence and creativity.  Fellow of the British Academy, Member of the Academia Europaea, former Vice-President of the Royal Institution of Great Britain;
Richard Brown, artist, and Research Fellow at the Interval Research Laboratory, in Computer Related Design at the Royal College of Art, London;
Marlene Dumas, artist, recently exhibiting Nom de Personne (Name no Names) at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, tutor at the Ateliers International, Artists’ Institute, Amsterdam, co-publisher of “Sweet Nothings”, her own writings, and subject of a monograph by Phaidon Press in 1999;
Felice Frankel, Artist in Residence in Science and Technology, Edgerton Center, and Research Scientist in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, Massachusetts, and co-author of On the Surface of Things;
Professor William Furlong, artist, editor of Audio Arts, and Vice Principal and Director of Research, Wimbledon School of Art;
Professor Linda Dalrymple Henderson, David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professor and Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin, and author of Duchamp in Context and The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art;
Professor Barbro B. Johansson, Professor of Neurology, Wallenberg Noroscience Center, University Hospital, Lund, Sweden;
Tor Norretranders, Science writer and author of The User Illusion, organiser of Mindship – Copenhagen, a series of art and science conferences and events;
Steina Vasulka, video artist.  Awards from the New York State Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Guggenheim Foundation, and the New Mexico Arts Division. American Film Institute Maya Deren Award, 1992, and the Siemens Media Art Prize in 1995;
Professor Peter Weibel, Director, ZKM Zentrum fur Kunst und Mediatechnologie Karlsruhe, Artistic Director of Ars Electronica, Linz, and Austrian Commissioner for the Venice “Biennale” in 1993;
Professor Anton Zeilinger, Institut für Experimentalphysik, University of Vienna, Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Fellow of the American Physical Society, Member of the Academia Scientiarum et Artium Europaea, Science Prize of the City of Vienna, and Member, “Orden pour le mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste”;
Professor Semir Zeki, Professor of Neurobiology in the University of London and co-head of the Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology.  Fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, foreign Member of the American Philosophical Society, Member of the Academia Europaea, and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts.  Editor of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society;
Allan Walker, artist and Principal Lecturer, MA Coordinator, and Subject Leader for Print at Wimbledon School of Art.  With Naren Barfield, co-curator of Acts of Renewal at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2002, rapporteur;
Dr Naren Barfield, artist, and Senior Lecturer and MA Artist-Teacher Coordinator at Wimbledon School of Art and who, with Allan Walker, formed the “pedagogical team” which provided feedback and direction to the debate through a series of presentations, rapporteur;
Gabriella Kardos, artist, MARCEL  web designer, and conference video recordist;
Alex Geddie, postgraduate student at Studio National des Arts Contemporains, Le Fresnoy, France, and conference sound recordist;
Annie MacDonell, postgraduate student at Studio National des Arts Contemporains, Le Fresnoy, France, and conference video recordist.


Initially, each delegate was invited to make a short statement outlining their position on the interface between art and science, with responses from other participants generating immediate feedback and discussion.  As the debate unfolded over three days, three dominant themes emerged:

– Exploration of the Creative Process
This considered parallels in art and science through conceptualisation, which was agreed to be common to all genuine creative activity, and an identifiable (and researchable) aspect of creativity.  Also considered were the range of methods employed across the disciplines, and to what extent those methods paralleled or differed from each other.  The role of consciousness in creativity proved to be a very hotly debated issue, and it was suggested that consciousness transcends the usual scientific paradigms because no-one can demonstrate it in scientific terms and that art and science together have a legitimate role in exploring such areas.  It was agreed that viable art practice involved self-reflection, and that the creative process generally involved publication and review for its legitimation, although creativity has to be valuable in some way and not led by fashion.

– Examination of the Interface
As might be expected, there was a range of views regarding the interface, from art and science being the same thing in terms of creativity, to a rigid (historical) separation between the two, resulting in the metaphor of friction vs. lubrication.  It was recognised that scientific advances, particularly in the last century, have been appropriated and employed by artists, often without understanding of the scientific theory involved, with the corollary of artists as the ‘visualisers of science’.  This developed into debate about the notion of ‘art about science’ and ‘science concerned with art’, with agreement that it was extremely difficult to identify when something was both science and art.  It was clear that in general artists were more likely than scientists to attempt to cross the interface, and that given the ‘creative impulse’ scientists were more likely to remain working within their discipline while artists were more likely to take a ‘chaotic’ and synthetic approach.  This carried the caveat that it was better to consider specific as opposed to generalised examples.

– Potential For Future Cooperation And Exchange
Further scientific research is required on the study of artistic processes, particularly involving contemporary artists as a counterpoint to more commonly used (historical) models.  Cooperation could be greatly facilitated also by artists concerned with scientific concepts and processes developing awareness and dialogue with current scientific research.  Exchange would be assisted through recognition of the fundamental importance of the historical links between art and science, especially in the development of art practices.  This raised the issue of the ‘canon’ – key texts on history and theory to which artists and scientists could refer.  The conference agreed that a key to future cooperation lay in identification of those artists and scientists interested in examining the creative process, and contributing to developing the interface.  While much recent and historical debate has considered ‘surface’ parallels, or apparent similarities in method, the importance of deeper philosophical analyses and development of appropriate frameworks for examining the creative process in art and science was recognised.  Finally, it was agreed enthusiastically that cooperation and exchange could advance rapidly through the design and implementation of collaborative projects involving artists, scientists, technologists, philosophers, theorists and historians – contributing to establishing and developing an online faculty to serve as an education portal for art and science.

The conference was supported by the presence of a ‘pedagogical team’ comprised of Allan Walker and Dr Naren Barfield, who made a series of feedback presentations based on their assessment of the unfolding debate, providing the conference with a number of structured key issues to focus on.  In turn these review presentations will form, in collaboration with Dr Don Foresta (AHRB Senior Research Fellow) and Professor William Furlong, the basis for both the written and video forms of the conference proceedings for future publication.

The Rockefeller Foundation and it’s Conference Center in Bellagio, the Wimbledon School of Art, the Center for Art and Media, (ZKM) in Karlruhe, Germany were the organising institutions of the conference.  The importance and topicality of the event was underlined by substantial Arts Council of England support as well as support from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology in Montreal for archiving the materiel.  Additional support was provided by Le Fresnoy, the National Studio of Contemporary Arts in Lille for the video edit.  As a result of the success of this first Art-Science conference, plans are in progress for future events and structures to enable the debate to continue and for future research to develop.

The Bellagio event evolved from a conference on art and science organized by Don Foresta in Prague with the Council of Europe under the auspices of President Vasclav Havel in 1996, <>.  The idea of a virtual art and science faculty was first broached at that time and is now being developed by a group of international experts, which has been meeting periodically in Souillac, France.  The results of the Souillac Conferences have been published in Leonardo Magazine and can be consulted at::

Souillac Charter for Art and Industry (Souillac I)

The Souillac Report (Souillac II – Projects)

A third Souillac meeting took place in 2000 to further develop the projects proposed at Souillac II.  Since then, the Wimbledon School of Art and the University of Maine have developed Global Threads, the virtual faculty project, further and a detailed description can be seen at <>.  The Bellagio Conference results will serve as the philosophical base and point of departure for many aspects of the virtual faculty and several of the Bellagio participants have already agreed to serve as faculty for the first year of the project.


Three days of intensive formal and informal debate demonstrated that there is a complex tapestry of current thinking on the interface between art and science amongst some of the leading practitioners and thinkers within each discipline.  While no unanimity of outcome emerged (nor was sought) on more rigorous definitions of art in the light of developments in modern scientific thought, nor on what constitutes the creative process (and its parallels) in art and science, the notion of future cooperation and inter-disciplinary research was warmly welcomed, with many delegates expressing an interest either in returning for a follow-up conference, or in becoming involved as a participant in collaborative projects which examine and test some of the issues raised at Bellagio.

Post-conference debriefing meetings between the co-organiser, Dr Don Foresta, and the pedagogical team, Allan Walker and Dr Naren Barfield, have identified and begun to clarify some possible ways forward.  These include:

– future art and science conferences to be held with specific and transparent objectives which are examined through smaller ‘think-tanks’ focussed on a particular aspect or question, which is returned to the main conference for consideration at plenary discussion sessions;

– regular informal, localised ‘meetings’ at several locations globally where debate and collaboration can continue in between larger conferences, and through which it is envisaged that small-scale projects and ‘hothouse’ ideas may emerge;

– the establishment of the online faculty involving research and delivery of art and science academic programmes in a de-localised, international context taking full advantage of the developing high-bandwidth networks managed through the MARCEL project, an international broadband network for artistic, cultural and educational experimentation <>. This will involve both teaching, learning and research, and highly visible online interactive projects involving a ‘lead’ artist and ‘lead’ scientist, each backed by expert teams, to produce art-science collaborations beyond the limitations of national and geographical distance;

– access to funding.  Art and science collaboration and the technologisation of education are high priority areas with arts funding, educational and research bodies, and national and supra-national institutions, particularly in the US and European Union. Applications are being prepared to secure funding for the development of the art and science projects and the online faculty, Global Threads, as discussed above.

Finally, three key areas of art and science interaction have been identified as possessing characteristics which distinguish them as ‘categories’ deserving further investigation, and to which future research and collaboration might be directed.  These, briefly, can be classified as:

– Art about science.  That is to say, art which responds to, is inspired by, or works in tandem with, scientific thought and the development of scientific theory and technological advances.  This is the category most closely related to existing historical models of collaboration but is, in relative terms, in its infancy and could be explored with rigour and radical new approaches from both sides;

– Philosophical parallels between art and science, i.e. common weltanshauungen approached via wildly different methodologies and concepts but which, nonetheless, describe or reveal something about the natural world and the human condition.  The surface has hardly been scratched, and in fact the divide has widened since the time of the renaissance.  Research in recent years, however, has begun to reveal the parallels between art and science at a philosophical level that have existed, somewhat opaquely, since the latter part of the nineteenth century, and which may provide opportunities for highly interesting and original work in the future;

– Although difficult, and somewhat intangible, it is apparent that there are what might be described as meta-level connections and interactions between art and science, built upon but somehow beyond existing paradigms which, if examined, have the potential to generate highly original new modes of thought and understanding.  Work in this area could reveal not only much sought after information about the creative process, but might begin also to address some of the questions of consciousness upon which creativity is predicated.


Participants at the Bellagio Conference

Back row, left to right:
Naren Barfield, Director of Research,Wimbledon School of Art,UK,rapporteur
William Furlong, former Director of Research,Wimbledon School of Art,London,UK
Don Foresta, Senior Research Fellow,Wimbledon School of Art,UK, organiser
Peter Weibel, Director, ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany
Anton Zeilinger, Institute for Experimental Physics, University of Vienna, Austria
Michael Berry, H.H.Wills Physics Lab., University of Bristol, UK
Margaret A. Boden, Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, University of Sussex, UK
Benoit Mandelbrot, Sterling Professor of Mathematical Sciences,Yale University, USA,
Richard Brown, artist, London, UK.
Allan Walker, Vice-Principal for Academic Affairs,Wimbledon School of Art, UK,rapporteur
Tor Norretranders, writer, lecturer, consultant, art/science, Copenhagen, Den.

Front row, left to right:
Alex Geddis, technical team, Canada
Marlene Dumas, South African born painter, Amsterdam, NL
Barbro Johansson, neurologist,Wallenberg Noroscience Center, University Hospital,
Lund, Sweden
Felice Frankel, photographer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Edgerton Center,
Linda Dalrymple Henderson,David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professor in Art History,
University of Texas at Austin, USA
Gabriella Kardos, technical team, UK
Annie MacDonell,technical team, Canada
Steina Vasulka, video and installation artist, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA,
Semir Zeki, Professor of Neurobiology at University College, London, UK