Laboratory Art in Practice: Building a Model for the Art/Science Lab at Duke (2022-2023)


Over the past decade, Duke faculty have initiated a range of humanities labs that enable novel configurations of interdisciplinary inquiry, including the WiredLab, Microworlds Lab, Health Humanities Lab, From Slavery to Freedom Lab and more. Whether modeled upon, or against, the traditional science lab, these initiatives have had limited engagement with the natural sciences. Rarely in these labs do the arts, humanities and sciences engage each other at the level of practice.

When science engages artistic practice, it is often in the service of science’s goals: for example, acknowledging the need for aesthetic design in scientific figures; appreciating the beauty of scientific imaging; or considering how visual and analytical skills might translate into scientific visual diagnostic acuity. However, emerging lab configurations point toward collaborative models that intersect more robustly at the level of practice: BioArt, critical engineering, creative code and other modes of critical making that productively entangle forms of engagement that would normally be kept separate by disciplinary divides.

Project Description

This project team will establish the framework for developing an interdisciplinary laboratory space for artists at Duke and expand the repertoire of practiced-based research methods in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies to include the media and techniques from the biological and natural sciences. Team members will develop a guiding ethical framework for instituting a studio art laboratory; proliferate criteria for valuing and critiquing emerging forms of BioArt from a practice-oriented perspective; engage an existing faculty project; develop student-led art projects in the laboratory; and collectively organize an exhibition.

Through a two-semester series of courses, team members will explore critical making at the intersections of art, science and design by investigating different models of artistic practices while participating in laboratory work. In the fall, team members will be introduced to historical, ethical and social descriptions of experimental practice from within science studies; learn lab techniques (e.g., microscopy, dissection, immunostaining, keeping a lab notebook); and study artwork that incorporates media, instruments and practices from the life sciences. 

In the spring, team members will develop individual and group lab projects for exhibition and host visiting artists for studio critiques and workshops. Through these projects, the team will examine frameworks for mobilizing artistic inquiry within scientific research practices.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed journal publications; exhibition of student art; BioArt exhibit at the Nasher; network of artists and scholars (within and outside Duke) using lab methods (broadly conceived) in art, writing and pedagogy; data and methods for future grant applications

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will be comprised of 3 graduate students and 10 undergraduate students who have a capacious curiosity to explore practices across disciplines. Interested students will likely be from the creative arts, with a desire to explore methods and expand expertise in the practices of laboratory science, and the natural sciences, with an interest in exploring the creative arts. Applicants should have broad interest in poetics, media studies and do-it-yourself making practices within or outside of academic contexts.

Team members will develop facility with specific laboratory techniques and an operative understanding of how those might inflect their creative practices. They will also learn to articulate a range of possible modes for relating to scientific practice more generally. 

Graduate students will have the unique opportunity to participate in scaffolding a new interdisciplinary space while imagining how this space might connect to broader publics beyond the university. Graduate students will also develop project management skills (e.g., lab management and exhibition planning). All students will be encouraged to assume leadership in identifying areas of the project to steward.

In addition to class sessions, students will have assignments that involve taking on roles in caring for the space of the laboratory (e.g., model organism rearing). The team will meet in plenary sessions as well as in subteams as required by specific techniques and/or the scope of individual or group projects in the second semester. In Fall 2022, the team will meet on Fridays from 1:45-5:00 p.m.


Fall 2022 – Spring 2023

  • Fall 2022: Enroll in affiliated course: Laboratory Techniques for Artistic Practices; learn foundations of lab practice; participate in Nina Sherwood’s lab and Kristen Tapson’s “Another Autecology of the Copperhead” project; identify and contact visiting artists to consult on projects
  • Spring 2023: Enroll in affiliated course: Laboratory Art in Practice; host visiting artists; plan, prototype and construct individual and group art/science installations; document and reflect on creative practice

This Team in the News

Meet the Winners of the 2022 Bass Connections Student Research Awards


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; students must enroll in two-semester course series: Laboratory Techniques for Artistic Practices (Fall 2022) and Laboratory Art in Practice (Spring 2023)


Image: Multi-Nucleated Muscle Cells Grown in Culture, by Kevin A. Murach, Ph.D., University of Kentucky/NIH Image Gallery, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Multi-Nucleated Muscle Cells Grown in Culture.

Team Leaders

  • Mark Olson, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • Nina Sherwood, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • Kristen Tapson, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Monika Narain

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Eric P Spana, Arts & Sciences-Biology