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A Case for Engineering and the Creative Arts – Ella Di Stasio

The creative arts and engineering are categorised as being worlds apart but there are intersections where the two fields meet. These intersections can uncover beautiful, innovative and wonderful ideas. My name is Ella, I am studying a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and Arts (Art History) and this is how I see the interconnectedness of engineering and the creative arts.

Art and engineering have crossed paths frequently throughout history. The pyramids of Ancient Egypt, Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings and wearable machines, as well as the paintings created by many Aboriginal communities, who refined naturally extracted substances to form colour pigment that last for millennia. But why would they overlap? Both art and engineering respond to a fascination with the world, using accessible materials and processes to create a final product, whether made from fabric, metal, paint, software or perhaps light. Broadly, the product of engineering is utility and the product of art is an idea or aesthetic. However, breaking down the barriers between the distinct creative processes in the two fields widens the lens of experimentation and possibilities. Currently, there are a vast array of innovative and thought-provoking projects that people are working on. 

Art oriented examples include the works of Olafur Eliasson, Stelarc and art conservation. Eliasson’s works ‘Fog Assembly’ (2016) and the ‘Weather Project’ (2003) use engineering to fill spaces with light, mist and rain. These works immerse people in a meditative space which is not typically experienced in traditional art galleries. Stelarc is an artist who has bioengineered his own body by adding a permanent third ear and microphone to his arm, ‘Ear on Arm’ (2008). Stelarc also created ‘Reclining Stickman’ (2020), a giant mechanical exoskeleton suit, showing the limitations of the body. And finally, art conservation uses chemical engineering to make solutions and processes which can allow paintings, drawings and sculptures to be repaired. 

Engineering oriented examples include the works by Neri Oxman, gaming used for rehabilitation and architecture. Neri Oxman is a designer working in MIT who collaborates with a team of people in design and material engineering. Oxman’s work is greatly inspired by nature, organisms and botanical drawing. The materials and objects Oxman’s team have engineered have also been displayed as art. Engineers and scientists may look to collaborate with artists who can use software to create a story, game graphics and subtle music for serious games used in rehabilitation. Additionally, in urban planning and architecture, the creative arts can offer an external perspective on aesthetic design for utility objects and spaces. 

These examples show that there is room for collaboration and a possibility to learn from one another. Of course, it does not mean that collaboration is always necessary but that it is a possibility. The distinctions between engineering and the creative arts should not separate them further but reinforce the need to come together at times. As the world becomes more technologically orientated, there needs to be an increased sensitivity to its effects on humanity. This discussion may be better articulated when engineering and the creative arts come together and benefit from each other’s differences.

List of resources I recommend:

-Abstract: The Art of Design, episodes 1 and 2 (on Netflix)

-The Art Gallery of South Australia’s Dark Matter, Bright Light exhibition

-ANAT: The Australian Network for Art & Technology, Adelaide SA

About Ella: Ella is a third year student studying a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering (Medical Technologies) and Arts (Art History). She volunteers taking art tours at AGSA and enjoys caring for her veggie patch when the weather is nice.