How a UChicago initiative fostered ‘synergy’ between art and science

ASCI in 2021

Between 2010 and 2019, ASCI awarded a total of 86 grants to cohorts and individuals totaling more than $300,000. A series of video interviews highlights the work of some of the graduate students involved.

Doctoral candidates Beatrice Fazio (Italian studies) and Tanvi Gandhi (physics) make up one of four teams that received a Graduate Collaboration Grant for the 2020–2021 term.

Their project, Dante in the Lab, explores the interplay of contemporary physics and medieval literature by recreating the literary imagery of the Divine Comedy in the laboratory. For both, this partnership has led to unexpected insights—and emphasized the importance of collaborations between arts and sciences in general.

“I really think that beauty, joy and curiosity should be good enough reasons to pursue what you want to pursue,” said Gandhi. “But there’s a more serious issue, from a practical point of view, where people are losing their trust in science.”

Finding a shared vocabulary has required both Gandhi and Fazio to slow down and examine aspects of their work through a fresh lens.

“It brings such a huge difference in the way you think,” Fazio said. “It gets me to explain my work in a more clear way, in a way that one day I will express things to my students.”

In addition to grants and collaborative projects oriented toward graduate students and faculty, the ASCI also conducts a variety of public programming—from video installations and exhibitions to roundtables and artist talkbacks—with the goal of engaging with and disseminating information to the UChicago community, the city of Chicago and beyond.

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It also continues to explore new possibilities. “This is a free space,” Lemon said.

Graduate collaborations also often extend beyond the funding period. An independent evaluation by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in 2019–2020 found that 92% of participants said that the program had influenced their professional work over the long term.

Ultimately, ASCI succeeds because it doesn’t lose track of the curiosity and surprise of discovery and creation. This is partially due to a concept it adopted from the sciences: Welcoming productive failure in the process of playful experimentation.

What comes next?

ASCI is looking to expand its programming into new areas, while continuing to support the collaborative work of graduate students and faculty. A new grant program aimed at undergraduates is in development; the goal is to foster quarter-long collaborations between undergraduate students from different disciplines, potentially beginning as early as next academic year.

In 2018, ASCI launched The WATER Project: Research and Cultural Production to address critical international issues related to climate change. The program is designed to provide a platform for discourse around local and global issues related to water and includes UChicago faculty and scholars in the humanities, social sciences and biological sciences; scientists at Argonne National Laboratory; and artists working with water as a social issue and material. The ongoing project offers dynamic and far-reaching infrastructure for water- and climate-related programs on campus.

ASCI has ambitious plans for the future; but at the same time, part of the beauty of the program is that it’s impossible to predict exactly what innovations will result: “You can’t even begin to overestimate the potential for those kinds of collaborations,” said Bates.

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—Adapted from a story first published by UChicago Arts. To learn more about ASCI and the projects it has supported, read the full story at the ‘In Practice’ blog.

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