When a revered research institution reaches out to a fine artist to create its first ever artist-in-residency program, we should all sit up and take notice. This month, Fermilab, the celebrated particle physics research laboratory, announced a year-long partnership with artist Lindsay Olson. For those of us invested in promoting collaborations between artists and scientists, this is a thrilling announcement.
So how did Olson get the gig and what can we expect from the collaboration? The wonderful thing about these artist-in-residency programs is that you never quite know what you will end up with. For scientists, this should hit a familiar chord - when designing an experiment, you can hope for the results that prove your theory, but you're not guaranteed to get them no matter how carefully you design and execute your experiment. The same goes for artist-in-residency programs, but that should not deter us from taking the calculated risk. For one, past work can be a good indication of an artists' quality of thought and her ability to deliver. And on this point, Olson delivers.
Olson's last project was informed by time spent researching the waste water treatment process at a municipal treatment plant in Chicago, IL. She was fascinated by the technology we have developed that speeds up a naturally-occurring process in streams and rivers to deal with the massive amounts of waste a city of 6-million people like Chicago produces each day. As she describes it,
"Free swimming bacteria dominate the process in the beginning of treatment. They are eating, reproducing and using up oxygen in a mad race. The amazing thing is that these microbes arrive at the plant with the sewage because they grow in our guts. Operators coddle them and provide optimum conditions so they do their work efficiently. In one of the wonders of evolution, their food is our waste...so everything fits together."
Her resulting work draws attention to this dynamic process and remind us of our role in it all.
Prior to her involvement in the waste water project, she teamed up with the Oak Park, IL Police Department to learn about and draw attention to the complexities of maintaining public safety. So while it's anybody's guess what Olson will come up with during her time at Fermilab, her track record proves she has a knack for inserting herself in unlikely positions and emerging with thought-provoking and substantive art. I, for one, am eagerly anticipating her take on particle physics in a year's time. You can bet that I'll keep you posted.
Artist partners with physics lab, water district, cop shop; by Barbara Brotman for the Chicago Tribune
Olson on her Municipal Wastewater Project