ISB Q&A: Ruth West
Ruth West is a creative catalyst and veteran in the field of art+science integration. Her groundbreaking work Atlas in silico is a physically interactive and immersive virtual reality art+science installation that is driven by data from the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, a survey of marine microbial communities led by the J. Craig Venter Institute. Atlas in silico offers visitors a dream-like and aesthetic experience of the pioneering science of metagenomics. Ruth West came to Seattle to set-up her immersive VR work for a short-term exhibition held in October 2016 at King Street Station called “9 evenings 2.” ISB’s Consilience Program Director Allison Kudla invited West to present at ISB. We captured a few of the viewpoints she shared in an interview.
Q: What guides your pioneering research?
RW: What interests me is how we are digitizing our world, both nature and culture, as massive data on personal levels and collectively, globally. I’m curious to see what the arts have to say or do that will change how we see things. How will the arts allow us to experience ourselves differently in this new data-rich era? Being an interdisciplinary art+science practitioner doesn’t mean going back to the era of natural sciences. What does it mean to be a “next-gen” Renaissance practitioner and why do we need it? I often ask myself, can the arts nurture scientific discovery? And I am answering that through my research.
Q: What interests you in working at the intersections of disciplines?
RW: I genuinely believe the future is an interdisciplinary world. First of all, computation is probably one of the greatest cultural forces of our time. Computation is a transformation machine with ultimate plasticity. Through computation, everything goes into everything – 0s and 1s, electric pulses, etc. And now, what I see is that soon (and ISB is a forerunner in this) everything having to do with life sciences and biology will be one of the next greatest cultural forces of our time along with computation. If you think about it historically, agriculture, selective breeding, etc., was happening before computation. But fast-forward to today and you have this synthesis of computation and biology. Now – with all the work that groups like ISB and others do – there is this new understanding of systems with deep learning, AI, etc., in relation to biology and life sciences. What you get from that intersection is, again, another transformation horizon.
Q: Why is consilience valuable?
RW: We know more now about the world than ever – phenomena happening at all levels of scale. There is so much knowledge, yet, at the same time, that knowledge represents only a certain amount of insight into how things work. It seems to me that if you can work in synthesis, you are more potent than if you work one or even multi-dimensionally.
Q: How did you first begin to merge science and art?
RW: Our lives are partly intentional and partly luck. Since being three years old and holding a paintbrush, I knew I was an artist, but I simultaneously had a fascination with nature. My family wanted me to have training that allowed me to be self-supporting. As a result, I was trained as a scientist. The first time the crossover happened for me was when we were asked to draw what we saw when looking through a microscope. That was when I knew I could take the beauty in what I saw in the microscope and my scientific understanding of what it was and combine them both. In that place, I found a way to connect the understanding of the world that you get through science with the understanding of the world you get from art through making. If you connect the understanding of the world through art making with the understanding of the world through observation (that kind of rigorous, principled, structured observation that is science), it is powerful.
Q: When making Atlas in silico, were there any “a-ha” moments between you and the scientists once this new interface for experiencing the data was created?
RW: There is something called the BLAST algorithm developed by Altschul. With that particular dataset (Global Ocean Survey), which is a metagenomic dataset, they collected metadata – meaning data that describes each data collection as it is generated at the time that they took the physical sample. So, there’s the actual data, i.e.: the sequences from the community of microorganisms in the world’s oceans, but then there’s also information that they collected at the time of the sample, like the date, time, latitude and longitude (lat/lon), habitat type, the depth of the ocean, the pH, etc. and that all becomes metadata. The scientists can do a tremendous amount of analysis about their data so we asked them what they hadn’t addressed. We worked with the scientific team to enable them to present the data in the context of the metadata and return BLAST results in to that mixed context – a metadata environment. By presenting the data in the context of the metadata, which is what Altas in silico does, it shows you what multiple records have in common and allows you to see patterns in the data that you may not have seen without the context of the metadata. We also ran a BLAST analysis on the data and brought the results back to the virtual environment and we were able to show the researchers the results of the top hits, and in our environment you could identify the nuances from the metadata that generated the results. Normally the run would give a spreadsheet of results and researchers would be left to their own devices to put that into the context of the metadata. Here we could take the results of the BLAST run, return it in a VR world within the context of the metadata and the entire target dataset, and display that interactively. It was really interesting for us and really interesting for them to create an artistically and aesthetically derived scientific tool.
Q: What advice do you have for newcomers to interdisciplinary work?
RW: The most important thing is a willingness to be self-trained in other people’s disciplines — and learn enough about that other discipline that you can approach someone who has expertise in that area and create the bridge between you and them. It is really hard work.
At ISB, we believe interdisciplinary work is entirely worth it. Thank you, Ruth.