Citizen Science


By Golan Levin


27 February 2014

"Contemporary science has its roots in the achievements of amateur scientists of centuries past. Although they lacked what we would define as formal scientific training, they deciphered the basic laws of physics and principles of chemistry. They invented instruments. And they discovered, documented, sketched, and painted planets, comets, fossils and species."

-"Amateur Science, Strong Tradition, Bright Future,"by Forrest Mims III

Citizen science is a term used to describe scientific work completed by individuals who may not have been specific scientific training, but are engaging in the work regardless through their own heuristic process. Projects are sometimes issue oriented and facilitated by technology, online networks of volunteers, or open source collaborators with the goal of contributing to larger problem solving, data collection, mapping, or public awareness. In other instances, the term citizen science is used to describe self-initiated, unconventional, hands-on studies. Still other examples of citizen science may be oriented toward education and playful experimentation. In all of these cases, this methodology calls for work outside of traditional research environments.

While its connection to the discipline of contemporary art may be recent, citizen science is not new. Many long-running citizen science projects have had a meaningful impact on the world of research and institutional science; one of the longest-running such projects is the Aubudon Society's "Christmas Bird Count," a yearly census of birds in the western hemisphere conducted almost entirely by volunteer birders. Such projects, while often supported by large institutions like research universities, government agencies, and nonprofit institutes, rely on public participation to further scientific research goals.

Citizen science projects range from myriad bird-watching undertakings instigated by Cornell University to distributed computing projects like SETI@Home, Stardust@Home, and Galaxy Zoo run by the SETI Institute, NASA, and independent agencies- all of which entreat the public to contribute to scientific research. Some citizen science projects operate in a liminal, boundary-dissolving manner themselves: witness the popular online game "Foldit," which uses the pretext of a computer game to empower the public to identify possible ways a chain of amino acids folds into a natural three-dimensional shape, a notoriously difficult determination. Top-ranked Foldit players excel at identifying possibilities, often better than their computer counterparts.

The more that academic and research institutions engage with the public in this way, the more porous the division between the "two cultures" becomes, allowing for far greater disciplinary freedom of movement. If we view artists as working at the intersections of art, science, and technology as having a certain responsibility to demystify science and empower the public to both question and participate in it, then the jump from this kind of "crowdsourced" citizen science to the outright adoption of scientific practices in an art context is not a large one.

Like the citizen science projects mentioned above, the artists and micro-institutions in this chapter all engage the public, whether through a direct call to action, a museum-like presentation of materials, or an emphasis on public connection through open events and workshops. This is the place of dirty hands and excited conversations, strange confluences of subjects, and evenings spent peering into homemade microscopes.

Just as institutional citizen science projects ask the public to lend a hand—making people feel as though their input might well affect how research is conducted—artists practicing as citizen scientists engage the public in a new inclusive relationship. The effect is empowering. Visitors to Machine Project in Los Angeles may come for the art and leave with knowledge of marine biology or processing; participants in CRITTER salon’s “Enormous Microscopic Evening” enter an art museum and suddenly find themselves identifying insects or understanding the operating principles of microscopy. 

They may sometimes be more slapdash than scientists, but artists implementing this methodology can identify research path and points of engagement that might be ignored by scientists. And as they are less beholden to finding and utility, they also need not adhere to the cultural narrative of peer-reviewed experimental rigor. As instigators of citizen science, artists can raise questions that are not more or less significant than those posed by their white- coated counterparts- but that are certainly strange, unorthodox, and often compelling.