Drunken conversation or exquisite corpse?

Dan Weiskopf/ At the outset of our discussion, encounters between science and art were framed by James Elkins’ seductive image of the drunken conversation. A conversation may meander, lose its way and double back, but no matter how confused things become, it is still held together by the cooperative norms that prescribe mutual intelligibility as a goal for all parties. These norms, even if allowed to lapse in practice, always hold out the prospect of achieving a hazy form of comity.

Attempts to bring scientific and artistic practices fully into engagement within the same project, though, seem to me darker and less cogent than this, an apopheniac pile-up of meanings more akin to an exquisite corpse. The surrealist parlor game prizes anti-legibility: since neither party can see anything more than the outermost borders of the other’s image, communication is impossible. Each side lays down marks autonomously, as dictated by its own vision and its own internal rules. Neither participant has a clear or complete view of the other’s efforts, so the resulting depictions tend to the fantastic and monstrous, always falling short of making sense.

This contest of representations is irresolvable, I think, because the aims, means, evaluative standards, governing discourse, institutional frameworks, and historical consciousness of contemporary art and science are hopelessly at odds. As this discussion has illustrated, artists are interested in the tools, concepts, and products of science insofar as they are evocative vehicles for poetic expression (in Gianluca’s terms), mystery and transcendence (in Taney’s), or social and political critique (in Linda’s), not for their epistemic or explanatory value.

To return to another opening theme, the situation might be different if there were a common grid of knowledge within which both could be aligned. This remains far from clear, though, as shown by the persisting confusions over “artistic research”. Art-making can be exploratory, playful, perhaps even experimental in the sense of being open to unpredictable outcomes, but its implicit standards of success are always reflexive and historical. Building and testing scientific models, by contrast, turns on assessing their fit with complex webs of evidence. Notions like argument, evidence, and confirmation, when used in their original senses, have no obvious application to visual artworks. (In the same way, “novels of ideas” are never themselves logical arguments).

It may not matter, though, whether artistic practices involve understanding the core scientific concepts, in the sense of being able to do the correct things with them. Mutual understanding may never have been the point. I’ll conclude with a more carnal speculation: fundamentally, what art wants from science is to eat it.

One Reply to “Drunken conversation or exquisite corpse?”

  1. Mutual understanding and exploring the not-so-obvious correlations between art and science are the fire around which we gather our circle. As a soundscape artist I am interested in sonifying data as a means of making the data more meaningful and accessible. I have no idea (well, a few ideas) how to do this and that feels like a good place to start!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *