Follow the Question Marks: Holy Cross Students Blur the Lines Between Art and Science

Fueled by a weeklong residency of rock opera performers, students explore the many ways the symbolic and the scientific entwine

A drum circle in a math class. A music lecture in a marine biology class. A hunt for freshwater shrimp with a group of wader-clad Montserrat students.

It was clear that something interesting was afoot on campus as artists, musicians and scientists from the multimedia rock opera, "Black Inscription," spent a week in residency at the College of the Holy Cross, sponsored by Arts Transcending Borders. The group’s signature song-cycle, a modern, multimedia Odyssean story, blends music and visuals with an accurate view of ocean life — the artists even worked closely with researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod to make sure the depiction was scientifically spot-on. The performers brought that same collaborative spirit to campus, encouraging students to see all the surprising places where science and art intersect and overlap.

A Deep Dive into the Arts

Artists Carla Kihlstedt and Mark DeChiazza accompanied the Montserrat class of Sarah Luria, associate professor of English, titled River Stories/The Blackstone, down to the Blackstone River to collect and inspect samples of freshwater shrimp to see what life looks like in the river. The students donned thigh-high rubber boots to wade into the cold water.

Despite the temperature, Kihlstedt and DeChiazza joined the students. When a chant of, "We got one!" rang out, the artists hurriedly moved to see what the students had found. The learning went both ways. Working side by side, the creators soaked up the experience, learning about the river and its rich life from the students-turned-observers; students, in turn, heard Kihlstedt and DeChiazza's artistic interpretations about the water and what lies within it.

In Gareth Roberts' Mathematical Models class, Kihlstedt and DeChiazza guided students to see data in a different way.

"We were handed a set of numbers and then were told to present it to the class creatively, without saying or miming the numbers. We only had a few minutes to prepare," says Lia Muckjian '20, a mathematics major with a minor in philosophy.

Cue the drum. One student swung an imaginary baseball bat, striking out and hitting a home run — his group's data set represented this year's Red Sox batting average. A staggered rhythm helped another group present their data set to the class. A third group clapped their hands in tandem, walking further away from each other as they did so.

With the exercise, Roberts and the artists aimed to show the students that analytics isn't just numbers — it's about being able to present data to the world in an accessible, interesting way so that it can reach as large of an audience as possible.

"So many people think that math and analytics is a dry field, but we saw that numbers mean nothing if they are not given a creative context," Muckjian says.

"We’re selling these numbers to an audience, and how creatively we decide to present them is how much we are going to impact who we’re presenting to."

Over in a marine biology class taught by Justin McAlister, associate professor of biology, Tim Shank, one of the Woods Hole marine biologists, presented an overview of his deep-sea research while also giving students advice on their future careers, offering some insight into his own winding path, which included college theatre and post-graduate work in a cancer genetics lab.

"He described how important it is for scientists to not only be experts in their field, but to also be open to interdisciplinary collaborations — as can be seen in his work with the performers of Black Inscription," says Ana Dulskiy '19, a double major in biology and music, who was particularly impacted by the thought of combining her two passions to engage audiences from various backgrounds on important topics they may not have been exposed to otherwise.

The week was capped off by two filled-to-capacity shows in The Pit of O'Kane Hall featuring the group’s song-cycle performance that combines music (in the form of a seven-piece band), sound, and immersive imagery. The storyline was inspired by the real-life journey of a deep-sea diver who took a dive and never resurfaced — a fitting blend for a group that blurs the lines between science and art.

"I was struck by how this band is able to take a concept and present it in a profound way," says Muckjian, who, after the exercise in Roberts' class, fully realized that information presented creatively is more meaningful.

"The way they incorporated their lyrics with their style of instruments underscored their ability to take a concept and embellish it so that the audience is forced to think about what they are trying to portray. They get their message across better than just speaking their cause. That's truly impressive."

As Black Inscription bassist George Ban-Weiss, who also happens to be an environmental engineering professor, said to students of the Marine Biology course, "Follow the question marks in your life. Let your path be guided by your curiosity and have the patience to let it evolve."