Project space devoted to art and science springs up on Agua Fría

If you’re trying to self-fund an art space, here’s an idea: Buy a burned-out building. Fixer-uppers are highly affordable, and smoke damage is an edgy aesthetic. That’s how Andrea Polli and John Donalds landed a 1940s home near the intersection of Agua Fría and Baca Street to establish a project space called Biocultura.

"There's one space we call the Burn Room, and any time we show it to artists they say, 'This is so beautiful!'" says Polli. She's a professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico, and Donalds is an architectural designer. The couple has collaborated on built structures that act as incubators for biological art projects. When Polli went on sabbatical in the spring semester of this year, they jumped at the chance to create a forum for artists, scientists and the public to converge. They've been living in the house as they renovate it and prepare for Biocultura's opening event, which takes place on Thursday.

"Biology affects us in everyday life," Polli says. "I come from a computer background, and I can separate that from my life—but biology affects the food that I eat and the people around me. It affects my dog." A primary focus of Biocultura is the burgeoning, interdisciplinary field known as bio art and design. Polli took an interest in exploring biology through her work when she moved from New York City to Albuquerque in January 2009.

"When you live in a big city like that, you don't have as much control over your lifestyle because there's so much pressure to conform to the culture," Polli tells SFR. In New Mexico, she and Donalds took an interest in gardening, composting and brewing beer and sake—all pursuits that rely on biological knowledge. "I started thinking, 'Well, how does that way of life become a form of art?'" She began experimenting with cells as a sculptural material, cultivating ever-changing artworks that live and die.

Polli sees bio art and design as an access point for regular people to understand how scientific advancements are affecting our lives. That's why she and Donalds situated Biocultura in an approachable, domestic space. "Synthetic biology and biotechnology are changing our genetics," she cautions. "Non-scientist people don't know about that, and there's a barrier to understanding what's going on. Art can be a channel to understand some of those things."

Biocultura aims to further the couple's educational mission by hosting workshops, panels and art installations that demystify complex scientific concepts. Santa Fe was an ideal place for the project because it's a center of contemporary art, and close to two major national laboratories.

Polli and Donalds have repaired much of the fire damage and are preparing to furnish the space with lab equipment; now all they need are people who are ready to roll up their sleeves—and surrender to natural forces. "Biology is messy," Polli muses. "Things happen that you don't expect."

Biocultura's first event is a presentation and roundtable discussion titled "Lakota Cosmology Meets Particle Physics: Converging Worldviews." Agnes Chavez, the Taos new media artist and educator who organized the project, has collaborated with Polli in various capacities to advance STEAM education efforts. STEAM is a takeoff on the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, education and math; the added "a" stands for arts. When Chavez heard about Biocultura, she asked Polli to host one leg of a collaborative education project she's been developing.

"I've been working on a project for six years called Projecting Particles, which is a series of installations and workshops that use projection art to explore and communicate topics in particle physics," says Chavez. She utilizes a tablet app called Tagtool, developed by Austrian artist Markus Dorninger, to project visual representations of scientific concepts in public spaces. Workshop participants– often groups of teens—manipulate the imagery to better understand the Higgs boson particle, the observer effect and other scientific concepts and phenomena.

In the latest round of the project, Chavez has teamed up with the Taos Integrated School for the Arts to engage fourth- and fifth-graders in a special version of the workshop. With grant money from the Martin Foundation and nuclear research organization CERN, she'll teach a two-day course with physicist Dr. Steve Goldfarb, Lakota artist and educator Steve Tamayo and Tewa educator Dr. Greg Cajete. The class will construct a Lakota tipi and discover links between theories of particle physics and Indigenous knowledge systems by using Tagtool to project animations on its interior walls.

"What we need now is an ecological philosophy, where a Western science worldview joins with a Native worldview," says Chavez. "We have to deal with this idea that we are connected with nature, or we are not going to survive as a species." After the workshop with the kids, Goldfarb, Tamayo, Cajete and Chavez plan to present a video of the process and host roundtable conversations in Taos, Española and Santa Fe. Biocultura is the last stop on the tour.

The free event is by registration only, so head to the website (URL below) to save a seat. A second launch event, Earth Optimism Santa Fe, takes place at the space on April 23.

Lakota Cosmology Meets Particle Physics: Converging Worldviews
6 pm Thursday April 13. Free; RSVP required.
1505 Agua Fría St.,

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