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Patricia Olynyk

Patricia Olynyk is an artist, writer, and educator whose work explores science and technology-related themes and the ways in which social systems and institutional structures shape our understanding of our place in the world. She is the former director of Washington University’s Graduate School of Art and the Florence and Frank Bush Professor in Art. She holds a courtesy appointment in WashU’s School of Medicine and fellowships in the Institute for Public Health and Living Earth Collaborative, both interdisciplinary hubs that facilitate research across a wide range of fields. Prior to joining WashU in 2007, Olynyk was part of the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan, where she also directed their endowed distinguished visitors program and the Roman J. Witt visiting faculty program. In 2005, she became the first non-scientist appointed to the university’s renowned Life Sciences Institute.

Olynyk earned her MFA degree with distinction from the California College of the Arts and spent four years as a Monbusho Scholar and a Tokyu Foundation Research Scholar in Japan at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies and Kyoto Seika University. She is the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions, including a Helmut S. Stern Fellowship at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities; the R. D. Richards Memorial Faculty Award for outstanding teaching and service in the Stamps School of Art & Design, University of Michigan; and a Francis C. Wood Fellowship at the College of Physicians, Philadelphia. Her work has been featured in Venice Design 2018 at Palazzo Michiel dalle Colonne; the Los Angeles International Biennial; The Brooklyn Museum; the Saitama Modern Art Museum, Japan; and Museo del Corso, Rome. Her solo exhibitions include: “Sensing Terrains” at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., “Dark Skies” at the Art | Sci Center Gallery at UCLA, and “Transfigurations” at Galeria Grafica, Tokyo, Japan. Other exhibitions include: “Skeptical Inquirers” at the Sidney Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, New York; “Sleuthing the Mind” at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York; and “Interplanetary VR Sustainable Futures, Ars Electronica,” Linz, Austria.

Olynyk is former chair of the Leonardo Education and Art Forum, a branch of the International Society for the Arts, Science, and Technology (Leonardo/ISAST). For the past twelve years, she has co-directed the Leonardo/ISAST NY Laser Talks program in New York, which promotes cross-disciplinary exchange between artists, scientists, humanists, and scholars. In 2020, she was appointed the inaugural Medicine + Media Arts Fellow at UCLA’s Art | Sci Center. Her writing has been featured in publications that include Public Journal, the Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture, Technoetic Arts, Leonardo Journal, the Angewandte Book Series, DeGruyter, and Bio/Matter/Techno Synthetics.

Personal website


Affiliate Faculty in Medical Humanities, Performing Arts, and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies
Faculty Scholar, Institute for Public Health
Biodiversity Fellow, Living Earth Collaborative
College of Arts & Sciences

Affiliate Faculty, Center for Humanism and Ethics in Surgical Specialties
School of Medicine

Washington University in St. Louis

Medicine + Media Arts Fellow, UCLA
Co-Director, NY LASER, (Leonardo/ISAST), New York

Work by Patricia Olynyk

A person in front of a bookshelf holding a magnifying glass, their eye magnified. Red light from the left illuminates them.

The Mutable Archive (Shimon Attie), 2020

video still, 27" x 52".

The Mutable Archive is a multi-layered series of photographs and performance videosthat speak to renewed nationalistic obsessions with Othering and difference. A unique artistic strategy of this project involves interrogating the mechanics of storytelling and who speaks for those who are lost, particularly in the absence of verifiable archival material. Rather than follow conventional archival theory, the project prioritizes the relationship between each author/performer and their chosen subject while exposing how various narrative strategies can reveal the social and political challenges of the present.

Each photograph from the 19thcentury collection of Viennese anatomist, Josef Hyrtl portrays a single specimen and post-mortem skull tattoo with an accompanying archive card, which details only partial information about each subject.

Nineteen commissioned writers –artists, musicians, scholars, historians, a medical ethicist, a philosopher, an opera singer, and a spiritual medium –each create a speculative biography for the subject of their choosing from a collection of photographs from The Mutable Archive.Invited collaborators write speculative narratives about nineteen subjects from the Mütter Museum’s collection. Each script and recorded monologue, a 4K cinematic video, exposes the roles of assumption and subjectivity in science.

A white room with shelves of preserved substances in jars and various objects, some (stuffed/taxidermied?) animals, others skulls and bone, more still mounted on the wall. An arch in the midground reveals a hallway lined with more shelves.

The Mutable Archive (Animal Archives), 2020

video still, 27" x 52".
Two images, side by side, of severed/detached, likely bionic (right) legs, illuminated by green-golden ambient light. The background is a red-black gradient. The foot in the image to the left is in a black dress shoe, with long light brown socks. The leg in the image to the right is bare, with some cloth draped across the thigh.

Isomorphic Extension I (diptych), 2014

digital pigment print on archival paper, 71 ¼" x 25 ¼".

This diptych conjures the way in which the brain constructs an image of the body and the perceptual phenomena of phantoms. Individuals who have lost a limb almost without exception experience the phenomena of the phantom limb, the vivid impression that the missing limb is present. In a macabre reversal of the missing limb phenomena, two, large scale photographs portray two prostheses, which linger below the invisible, or phantom body. A disarticulated human form is implied through an amusingly unmatched pair of prosthetic legs from different periods, one gendered male the other female. This diptych strategically places them in a configuration that suggests self-organization—or autopoesis—and ambulation.

Installation in a white gallery space of two large, bulbous hanging forms connected by black wires/cables/ropes, red light shining through its perforations.

Oculus, 2018

Light sculpture, 44" x 48".

This complex light sculpture depicts a colossal abstracted drosophila eye—replete with compound faceted surfaces—that is inspired in part by a series of scanning electron micrographs I produced in a transgenic lab several years ago. Its recalls the circular opening at the apex of a cupola and also alludes to a surveillance device, or drone hovering in mid-air. Oculus invites us to ponder the impact of the gargantuan and the miniature on our perception of bodily presence and scale. This work explores those sensory modalities that play a dominant role in spatial perception and triggers the affect of scale on several fronts. Ultimately, Oculus strategically triggers an affective encounter with the colossally represented miniscule, offering a fantastic voyage that navigates spatial, temporal, and phenomenal worlds.

Digital Modeling by Nathaniel Elberfeld and Alex Waller, Metron Designworks; and Sung Ho Kim, Axi:Ome.

An abstract composition of a squiggly surface, its colors ranging from a warm golden-yellow to vibrant reds and soft grays. Ambient light surrounds the form/sculpture, casting it in shadows that highlight its irregular texture.

Dark Skies, 2012

Two-channel projection on dimensional (digitally sculpted) wall, 8’ x 8’.

Dark Skies is a multi-media, multi sensory collaboration with the architectural firm: Axi:Ome and sound designer, Christopher Ottinger. This work is motivated by the existence of light pollution, defined by The International Dark-Sky Association(IDA) as an excessive amount of obtrusive artificial light. The work takes as its title an astronomical reference, referring to remote places free of hazy city light that allow for an extended view into deep space and time as a unique perceptual and psychological experience.

Dark Skies is a multi-channel video projection on a large-scale dimensional wall:one side reveals a crepuscular sky and the other, a dark sky with smoky trails. The installation also includes a soundscape, drawn primarily from field recordings captured at twilight in the Rocky Mountains during high summer. The sound design in “Dark Skies” serves two functions: The first is to sonically articulate the ambiguous space between micro and macro environments, echoing those depicted in video elements, and the second is to add an interactive/immersive quality to the work. The sound elements are projected directionally into the exhibition space and viewers will be able to migrate between these two soundtracks—essentially moving between macro and micro realms.

Olynyk black swan trilogy video still 2023

Black Swan Trilogy,, 2023

HayArt Cultural Center, Yerevan, Armenia.

Patricia Olynyk with Adam Hogan

Video still from three channel video (each screen 65”)
Drawing from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s timely and relevant book from his Incerto Series, “Antifragile,” and the notion that individuals can gain from the impact of highly improbable events, this triptych and evocative soundscape offer three meditations on a selection of black swan events, including 911 and its aftermath, the 2008 Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and collapse of the global financial market, the sinking of the Titanic, and the recent rise of ChatGPT. The score in particular explores perceived randomness and variability through algorithmic electroacoustic composition and granular synthesis.