Ashley Zelinskie is an artist who practices at the intersection of art and science, from computers, to genetics, to NASA space exploration. We talked with Ashley about how art can explicate science and how the quest for scientific knowledge should be a priority for all of us, taking us back to our Da Vinci roots.
Q: You practice at the intersection of art and science. Which came first — the art or the science?
I always had an interest in science. Originally, I thought I'd be working in biology or astronomy. But not being very good at math, I applied to and got into the Rhode Island School of Design. I had an artistic ability and, with encouragement from family and friends, I went in that direction. When I graduated from college and looked at my portfolio, all the work either plugged in or bleeped or blooped. All my work led back to science, either utilizing technology or incorporating scientific concepts. And it occurred to me: I think there's something here!
Q: In your early work you did both — utilized technology and incorporated scientific concepts. What took you in that direction?
One of the works I was inspired by in school was Joseph Kosuth's "One and Three Chairs", which is an installation composed of an object, an image, and words, all representing a chair and posing the question as to what is the true nature of a chair. It occurred to me that I could do something similar except with 21st century technology — 3D printing, which at the time was in its infancy. So right out of school I sought out 3D printing companies and asked if I could do a residency making art using that new medium. That led to residencies at MakerBot, which was one of the first 3D printing companies in New York, and then at Shapeways, which is a bigger 3D printing factory. I made a 3D printed chair that was wrapped in the code – the hexadecimal code – for the 3D file and posed the same question: what is the true nature of the chair? But instead of a photograph, an object, and words, the "chair" was rendered as a physical object that we see and as the code of the chair as the computer sees it.
Several different layers of code went into making the chair. That project was the first of what I call my Reverse Abstraction series. I wanted to display on the physical object the code that makes up the 3D file of the digital object. To do that, I needed to write a program that extracts a text file of the hexadecimal code, the machine code that is underlying every file in the computer and that is basically the language of the computer. I worked with my brother, who's a software engineer, and we wrote the program, which we called CatByte. Using that program, you can input any file and it will output a text file of any machine code you want – binary code, hexadecimal code, octal, base 64 or any other. It was a way of peeling back the layers of the onion to get to the inner workings of the computer file. And that text is what you see embedded in the physical chair.
Q: What other works have you made using this or a similar approach to depict code in text form?
I was using this technique – Reverse Abstraction – to make a variety of sculptures, which had to be minimalist – like the chair – in order to fit the code back into the objects. The feedback I was getting from the audience was that the work was all about the code and struck them as cold and without any human element. In response to that reaction, I decided to make sculptures of people embedded with the subject's DNA – my Human Code series. Because, of course, people are just made of code, and this work brings the essence of who we are into the objects. I started by doing a 3D scan of my own head and shoulders and taking a cheek swab for my DNA. I sent the swab off to a lab and the lab sent me 2 back my 13 CODIS markers, which are the 13 points in your DNA that the FBI uses to match DNA profiles. Then, I embedded the code on the bust itself. So, just like the chair, I represented both the object – my bust – and the genetic code that makes me who I am. I made similar works for a number of collectors and other people, scanning their busts and extracting their DNA.
Q: What do art and science have in common?
I'm trying to pull us all back to our Da Vinci roots, where science and art aren't separate disciplines practiced by different people. You shouldn't have to be put into a box – either a scientist or an artist. Like Leonardo Da Vinci, you can be both. Science and art inform each other. Scientists explain their ideas to me, and I interpret that research applying historical references. Often the scientists are exploring really high-level ideas, and they can't see the forest for the trees. As a result, it's hard to get lay people excited about the importance of the research and all the possibilities it holds. So, when an artist comes in with a fresh – and maybe a more approachable – perspective, it is an opportunity to communicate why the science is important and to share that with the world.
Q: For at least seven years you have been working with scientists at NASA. How did that come about?
I got my start in "space" through an artist residency at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institute, which is part of the Carl Sagan Center for Research. That, and a couple of other residencies, led me to NASA Ames. I did a tour of NASA Ames with the SETI crew and one thing led to another. I went to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch of the OSIRIS REx Mission, which was seven years ago, and I've been working with NASA ever since. When I was at Kennedy, I heard that NASA was working on this cool new telescope – the James Webb Space Telescope. Maggie Masetti, who worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center, invited me to come and see the Webb telescope in the clean room, before it was launched. The rest is history. I've been with the project for seven years and the Webb telescope team has become just like family. I have gotten to know all the scientists working on the project and learned everything about the telescope. We've made some cool stuff for public outreach during COVID, and my most recent exhibition – Unfolding the Universe – incorporated the first images transmitted from Webb. I was honored to be with the team at Goddard when the first images came through – with the scientist who had worked on the telescope for over a decade. The telescope deployed perfectly, the images came back better than expected, and when the first images lit up on the screen there wasn't a dry eye.
Q: You've explored a number of areas of science. What's next?
Yes, I've done computers, I've done biology, and I've done genetics, including gene editing butterfly wings with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. I don't really want to drop any of that work, but I think space exploration right now is really important and I expect that will be my main focus for some time.
I've had invitations to meet with the Mars Rover team and to work with the Hubble space telescope team and hope to meet scientists working on the Roman Telescope, named after Nancy Roman, one of the first female astronomers. But, right now, I'm focusing on a couple of projects. I'm working with astronaut Mike Massimino on an exhibition about his experience in space, including spacewalking outside the spacecraft to repair the Hubble telescope. I'm also collaborating with the European Space Agency, which was part of the consortium that, along with NASA and the Canadian 3 Space Agency, made the Webb telescope a reality. The European Space Agency built the rocket that sent the telescope to space and they built several of the instruments that are on the telescope.
Astronomy is not something for just one country. It takes all nations to collaborate. The fact that the globe spins means somebody has to be on the right side of the world when the data comes through. Space exploration is an international collaboration. I think this sends a really good message to the world right now: here's what we can do when we're not fighting with each other and here's what's possible when we work together. I think it's also a good moment to connect with the public and remind ourselves that, when we're looking up at the stars, we're all human.
Q: How has working with science and with some of the most remarkable scientists of our time made you think about the world?
My interest in science and my interest in technology have always been driven by optimism. To me, science is what humanity should be focusing on. The search and quest for knowledge should be our top priority. There can't be anything more important or more interesting than figuring out the world in which we live. Art is just one of the ways that we're trying to figure out the world around us and science is another.
I wish more people in the world would take an interest in science. Scientists aren't the ones who are tearing the world apart. There's nothing bad that comes out of the search for knowledge. It's how we apply it as humans after we've made discoveries. That's where things can go wrong. But acquiring knowledge, there's nothing bad that ever came from that.
Q: Do you think you'll ever go into space?
I'm preparing! I've been on a zero-gravity airplane flight, so I know what it's like to be weightless. Who knows? My next residency may be in a space station. Beam me up, Scotty, I'm ready to go.
Watch Ashley's conversation with Sarah Kendrew of the European Space Agency: Creating a Webb Telescope VR experience - Gazell.io featured artist & ESA scientist explain - YouTube
Experience Ashley's VR version of Unfolding the Universe: https://unfoldtheuniverse.myhubs.net/
See recent images from the Webb Telescope here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/27/science/astronomy-webb-telescope.html