When he was in high school, Angelo Vermeulen seemed certain to become a scientist. "I was like the science kid of the class. I had my own lab, with a microscope and chemicals and binoculars, and I made these walks in nature, collecting samples," Vermeulen says. "I wanted to become a researcher."
Another of Vermeulen's hobbies was taking pictures of the night sky. Pointing his camera toward the stars, he began to notice that his interest in the stars, and in capturing them on film, was not entirely scientific. An interest in the arts was starting to emerge. "Both worlds"--art and science--"were already there when I was kid," he says.
But at first those worlds--C. P. Snow's two cultures--remained separate, unresolved, even in his own mind. "I had this very classic, kind of naïve idea about the ... rational mind and then the artistic mind, like these were two opposites," Vermeulen says. As he pursued a career in science, the unresolved dichotomy troubled him. He sought a resolution, but his scientific career kept him from finding one. "The daily practice of going to the lab and indulging in scientific research absorbs you so much that there is very little left for other explorations, especially if you're ambitious" in science, he says.
A native of Belgium, Vermeulen, 37, earned a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Leuven, looking at teeth deformities in the larvae of nonbiting midges. "These deformities are caused by environmental pollution, so you can use them as a bioindicator," he says.
As a Ph.D. student, Vermeulen was "an extremely motivated scientist, really striving to do things very well ... and trying to reach [his] goals," says Luc De Meester, a former colleague of Vermeulen's who today is a full professor in the department of biology at the University of Leuven. Some of those goals were scientific but not all: He was also pursuing documentary photography and filmmaking. He spent his days working in the lab and his evenings taking photography classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leuven.
As he progressed toward his Ph.D., Vermeulen's interests started shifting toward the arts. "I started to exhibit my work, and I started to really get feedback on what I did in an artistic sense, and this became like a whole new world that opened up for me," Vermeulen says. It also became clear that pursuing a career in both the arts and science was near impossible. "I couldn't keep up with this pace," he says.
So after obtaining his Ph.D. in biology and his photography degree--the equivalent of a high school diploma in the arts--he decided to step out of science for a year to "digest" his Ph.D. and concentrate on photography. It wasn't easy going. "I got stuck," he says.
Then a book helped him reconcile his disparate interests, giving him the momentum he needed. Reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance taught him "that for a good relationship with technology, you need more than just the rational mind," Vermeulen says. After all rational attempts to fix a broken bike engine have failed, he notes, recalling a passage from the book, there often comes a moment when you let "go of this desire to solve it in a very rational way and just stare at the engine. ... And then, suddenly, a little idea will pop up ... and before you know it, you're into it, and you get the problem solved." "The book showed me you don't have to choose between the rational and the intuitive," he says. "It's so important, all the training you have, all the ideas you have, to keep them together somehow and to accept everything. ... That's what got my creativity kick-started again."
The artistic value of science
Vermeulen spent a year immersed in the contemporary arts scene of 1990s London, with British photographer Nick Waplington as his mentor. His divorce from the laboratory was final and permanent. Upon returning to Belgium in 2001, he "decided to explore biology and ecological processes in art," he says. "I could feel that this was something that was very close to me, and inspiration started coming massively."
Vermeulen moved beyond photography, building art installations using ecological processes as a central component. In Blue Shift, a light-inspired installation sponsored by the electronics manufacturer Philips, he teamed with evolutionary biologist De Meester to create an installation made up of a series of aquarium tanks with a lighting system above. The tanks were divided horizontally by a false bottom with holes big enough to let a population of water fleas swim freely--but too small to let fish leave the bottom part of the tanks. Water fleas, Vermeulen says, are attracted to yellow light and repelled by blue. "In standby, all the lights were yellow and the water fleas were swimming close to the water surface." A hidden sensor made the light turn blue each time a visitor came close. The water fleas swam to the bottom of the tanks. The fish had a meal.
Blue Shift was "an interactive art installation" with "specific aesthetics and its specific metaphorical, poetic qualities," Vermeulen says. But it was also, to some degree, science. "We were interested in Darwinian evolution"--in finding out whether the fleas that were not so afraid of the blue light, the ones that didn't swim so deep, would have a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes, Vermeulen explains. The data did show some evidence of adaptation, De Meester says, but to be really conclusive, the experiment should have been repeated with conditions optimized. "The [blue] light intensity was a bit too strong, so most of the animals in the end got eaten up," De Meester says. "If we had made the light a bit less strong, then it would have been a very strong paper," he adds.
Not all of Vermeulen's works have been inspired by science, but many have, including his current one. As artist in residence at the University of the Philippines Open University in Los Baños, Vermeulen is working on a new installation called Biomodd--"a living cybersculpture" consisting of a network of recycled computer components and a plant ecosystem merged within a transparent case. The network of computer components is linked to an outside monitor with a multiplayer computer game. Visitors who play the game heat up the electronic components inside the case, making it a kind of greenhouse for the plants. A system of tubes containing a culture of microscopic algae in water is used to cool some of the hot components. "Social meeting gets translated into electronic heat, and that gets translated into biological growth, and that's the poetry of it for me," Vermeulen says.
Variations on Biomodd will be created in several places across the world, applying the basic concepts of computing, ecology, and game playing to the creation of new installations. At every new location, Vermeulen gathers a team of local collaborators who help build the installation over several months, through dialogue and experimentation. The first version of Biomodd was in the Aesthetic Technologies Lab at Ohio University's College of Fine Arts in Athens. After the Philippines, he's off to Singapore and then Brazil. Biomodd "gets a whole different shape in a different culture," Vermeulen says.
Vermeulen's scientific training helps him navigate some of the projects' technical complexities. Tasks like reassembling parts of secondhand computers and keeping alive entire ecosystems require "a lot of technical hocus-pocus," he says. His research training also helps him navigate the science and culture interface at which a lot of his work takes place. "The concrete problems, issues, joys of doing science research, I can explain that to people working in culture," Vermeulen says. "I'm really in between both worlds." Last year, he published a book, called Baudelaire in Cyberspace, that gathers 10 dialogues he had with philosopher Antoon Van den Braembussche about the relationships between art and science.
An itinerant artist
Today, Vermeulen calls himself a visual artist, filmmaker, writer, disc jockey, gamer, and scientist. "My life is a sort of continuous flow of dialogues, meeting, creating, tinkering, disassembling, reassembling, hacking." In that respect, it is very much like the life of a scientist. But unlike most scientific work, his projects are open-ended and completely self-directed. "I have this immense freedom. ... I can just pursue whatever I get curious about."
Opportunities keep coming his way. Just this month, he was offered a professorship at the University of the Philippines Open University. The European Space Agency has asked him to give a talk about Biomodd to their Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative research group, which is working to develop a biological life-support system for long-term peopled space missions. After years spent exploring cross-cultural communication and collective creativity, Vermeulen's curiosity is drawing him toward civil rights.
"When I was a kid, I couldn't really grasp this artist side of me," Vermeulen says. But in retrospect, he perceives that, even then, "I had a visceral view of what I wanted to do." When he was asked, as a child, what his dream place to live would be, "I would imagine ... it was going to be full of equipments and things being interconnected, and robots, and computers, and systems, and it was going to be this kind of creative universe," Vermeulen says. "Biomodd is exactly this."
But wait, there's more ...
... about Not What You Thought You'd Be Doing
- In Piled Higher and Deeper: The Everyday Life of a Grad Student, read how Jorge Cham created a comic strip about a group of overworked, underpaid, procrastinating graduate students and their terrifying advisers.
- In In Vino Oportunitas, learn how Jeff Mangahas uses his scientific training--along with an excellent palate and fine intuition--to make wines his customers savor.
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.