Room for Craft
MARCH 2019: JORGE PEREZ-GALLEGO
Jorge Perez-Gallego is a science communicator, astronomer, designer, curator, and cross-disciplinary educator. He has led and assisted in the launch of several community-facing initiatives advocating for audiences to imagine connections between science, art, and culture, particularly through the lens of environmental education and engagement. Dr. Perez-Gallego earned his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Florida and has published original research about the formation and evolution of galaxies. His passion for the arts, education, and community engagement led him to go on to earn an MFA in design, a second terminal degree. He has used his unique educational profile to forge interdisciplinary connections in his work as a curator and opening collaborator at the Frost Museum of Natural Science in Miami, Florida, as exhibition designer at the Florida Museum of Natural History, as a project lead on a NASA education grant for Spanish and American high school students, and as a postdoctoral researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid. He currently serves as the associate director and scholar in residence at Nature, Environment, Science and Technology (NEST) Studio for the Arts at University of Colorado Boulder. T. J. McLemore spoke to him about his vision for serving communities through the curation of imaginative connections between science, the arts, and the environment.
Your work embodies a rigorous interdisciplinarity—you are an astronomer, a designer, an artist, and an educator. How did these interests all align and consolidate? In other words, how did your commitment to exploring connections between different disciplines and ways of knowing develop and grow?
I remember looking up at the night sky at an early age and wondering about its mysterious nature. As I grew older, I realized we all share a similar moment. We have all been that kid. I was lucky to then come across old VHS tapes of Carl Sagan’s COSMOS: A Personal Voyage. I binge-watched the series before binge-watching was even a thing. I decided then that I wanted to find a way to do what Carl was doing, only my way. Carl opened a window to science, as a way of thinking, for everyone who wanted to join him for the ride. That window can be more or less literal, and it is what I focused on. I had peculiar ideas of how to bring the sciences and the arts together. My father wisely suggested I get a terminal degree in the sciences if I wanted to be heard, so I did in the field that had fascinated me. Later I got my terminal degree in the arts as a way to explore those necessary bridges between two ways of thinking that need coalescing. It was Sagan who said “science is a way of thinking way more than it is a body of knowledge.” To that I add that art is also a way of thinking way more than a body of work. Together, they are two complementary way of thinking about the world both within and around us. I am a big proponent of STEAM. We want scientific and technological innovation and design STEM curricula to achieve it—but forget that innovation needs creativity, and creativity comes from arts. In my mind, educational curricula should aim for renaissance humans. There is no need to build walls between the sciences and the arts before one gets to college, and even then, it is always good to keep an eye open for everything happening outside of your own field.
Do these convictions speak to your decision to forge paths to do culture-facing work rather than following the traditional track to tenure within a university department?
I do not feel the disciplinary/tenure academic track would, at this point, allow me to freely explore the many ways we can bring the sciences and the arts together to empower the next generation of scientists and artists. This seems to be changing, but the tenure process seems to still be rooted in a past in which interdisciplinary efforts were not rewarded. Millennials seem to understand the value of interdisciplinary efforts and are demanding them as part of their education. That may be the tipping point many have been waiting for. But yes, I enjoy the freedom that jumping from specific project to specific project allows me at this stage of my career. While that may certainly change, currently it is what drives me.
In her “antidisciplinary hypothesis,” the artist and designer Neri Oxman proposes that traditional disciplinary boundaries no longer serve as useful frameworks to understand the world, that “knowledge can no longer be ascribed to, or produced within, disciplinary boundaries, but is entirely entangled.” This idea seems to resonate with the work you’re doing at NEST (Nature, Environment, Science and Technology Studio for the Arts).
NEST combines artistic practice and scientific research to explore our common and disparate ways of observing, recording, experimenting, and knowing. It was initially funded by the Grand Challenge after Erin Espelie and Tara Knight wrote a compelling proposal showing the role the arts and the humanities may play when facing ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination. By facilitating empowering conversation between scientists and artists, we feel we break those artificial compartments. I believe, we all have both scientific and artistic potential, and maximizing them, in any way possible, should be a complement to the pursuit of our own passion, whatever that may be. The future is not compartmentalized, the future is cross-disciplinary. Don’t get me wrong, specialization is still needed, but not at the expense of sacrificing being literate in fields outside of one’s passion. We need meaningful conversation among people that are not only experts in their fields but literate in those of their peers; progress needs it. You can see that already in how the newer generations approach learning.
I’m interested in that word progress. It seems to me you’re envisioning a much more generous, much less technocratic vision of a path forward than we often get from the culture.
Progress to me is not just about the technologies that seem to drive the term itself but also about the awareness needed to embrace them. Let me use an example. Once we develop the technology to clone humans, what would better signify progress, the technology itself or our collective ability to fully understand its extensive implications? Can science drive progress without the humanities?
And should it want to? I, for one, think not. Relatedly, I wonder how those first two letters of the NEST acronym—Nature and Environment—come into this vision. How do you encourage NEST participants and visitors to cross disciplinary boundaries to confront issues like habitat destruction, environmental injustices, climate change, and so on?
The collective phenomena of the physical world and the surroundings in which it operates set the rules of the game we call life—and make it possible for us. We need to take care of our home, the only one we have ever known and, maybe, the only one we ever will.
We run a yearly fellowship program for graduate students whose central requirements are (1) creating cross-disciplinary pairs—or small teams—of graduate collaborators to (2) delve into educational traditions, exploring ontology, epistemology, and emerging expertise that (3) result in a broadly defined media project for public exhibition on campus. Interestingly, many of them deal or have dealt with environmental issues, whether directly or indirectly. My guess is that these concerns are tangible in the minds of novel scholars who, at the same time, may be more open than ever before to tackle these challenges by means of cross-disciplinary approaches.
Tell me a bit more about the work you’ve done to encourage collaborations between scientists and artists, particularly the intersections you see between astronomy and poetry.
I have been involved, one way or another, in efforts to bring scientists and artists together. In particular, regarding astronomy and poetry, while in Miami, I got the privilege to work alongside the outstanding folks at O, Miami, a nationally renowned nonprofit corporation in the state of Florida which produces a poetry festival, a publishing imprint, a poets-in-schools residency, and other programs that democratize access to literature and re-think the role of the literary arts in American society.
In my mind, poetry and astronomy resemble each other in an essential way. Thousands of years ago, we looked up at the night sky, and brought disparate stars together, to project ourselves onto the ultimate blank page, and make sense of our place in the world. Poetry does the same with words.
“Planetary Poems” brought together O, Miami, Frost Planetarium, Topos Graphics, and the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center to create original poem animations to be shown inside a 67-foot, 250-seat, 8K dome with a longstanding tradition of being a gathering place for the community. Each animation brought to life an excerpt of a poem by Tracy K. Smith, the 2018 Poet Laureate of the United States and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. The poems used for Planetary Poems were from Life on Mars, a collection inspired by her relationship with her late father, an engineer who worked on the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope. New recordings of Smith reading the poems were unveiled during the project’s sold-out launch reception. Furthermore, during 2018’s national poetry month, a series of poems from Tracy K. Smith were serendipitously drawn as wondrous constellations onto the planetarium’s night sky as people would walk in before the beginning of each show.
It strikes me that using a planetarium dome to animate—literally—the confluence of people’s scientific and literary imaginings serves nicely as an image to encapsulate your vision. What are some ways that NEST has encouraged this kind of imaginative “crossover” between the sciences and the arts in regard to nature and the environment?
While NEST is still in its first year of real activity, we feel we are planting the necessary seeds to see it become what we all dream. I’m proud to have joined Tara Knight and Erin Espelie in this work. Their approach to bringing science and art together to facilitate constructive conversations, that would move each field, and its nexus, forward, intrigued me since I first learned about it. NEST develops exhibitions, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses, funds graduate student research and creative work—for example, Camila Friedman-Gerlicz, an MFA candidate in art and art history, and Aaron Lamplugh, a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, incorporated porous materials such as activated carbon into ceramic surfaces to create simple and elegant air-cleaning art pieces that can be used in nail salons and other toxic indoor environments. NEST also runs public programs and workshops and hosts events with the clear mission of celebrating science and art as two complementary ways of thinking about the world inside and around us, as much more than a body of knowledge and a body of work, respectively. We are sending a graduate and an undergraduate student to the MARBLE/marble Symposium this summer; we are curating art for the new Aerospace Engineering building in the University of Colorado Boulder East Campus; we have developed exhibitions in our own space and elsewhere on campus; and there is more to come.
It’s an exciting project. How do you think your museum experience—as curator and exhibit designer—has both influenced and been influenced by this academic work through NEST that insists on crossing into community spaces and engaging public interest?
I have been quoted before saying “I am in the business of wonder.” And, in a way, I am, since I decided to make the move to informal science education where I could cultivate my passion for science while exploring the meaningful bridges between science, art, and technology. Museums, in many ways, are windows to wondrous worlds we do not necessarily understand—and this applies both to science and art museums. A good museum, a good exhibition, a good program, etc., not only entertains, but leaves a mark in you and sparks an action.
T. J. McLemore
T. J. McLemore’s poems, interviews, and reviews have appeared in or are forthcoming from 32 Poems, Crazyhorse, Massachusetts Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, SLICE, Prairie Schooner, Willow Springs, and other journals. Individual poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, selected for Best New Poets, and nominated for a Pushcart, and he has received awards and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Boston University, and Crab Orchard Review. He is a doctoral student in English literature and environmental humanities at the University of Colorado Boulder.