Dan Weiskopf/ I’ll offer a few fairly wild speculations as to why now might be an especially propitious time for artists to take a special interest in science. (With the caveat that there may not be anything special about now except that we’re living in it.)
Five reasons why contemporary science might make a particularly appealing artistic subject:
1. The gaze of data. Arguably one of the signature traits of modern science is the analysis of massive datasets. At the same time, we have learned to see our own everyday actions as raw material constantly transformed into data to be mined by advertisers. Big data is both an ineliminable tool for scientific discovery and a potential threat to privacy and liberty. Data is a modern lingua franca. Thus we get art that reuses, transforms, and perverts data of all sorts. Nathalie Miebach is a paradigm here. (On the history of data’s insinuation into our visual practices, see Orit Halpern, “Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945”.)
2. The pixelated image. The rise of cheap, powerful digital visualization technology is another common factor. Physical, chemical, and biological processes can be dynamically rendered in ways that are immediately captivating to the eye, if not always essential to the actual practice of science. These computational simulations and images constitute a pre-made set of materials for artists to play with (or subvert).
3. The vanishing self. Science has become a default mode for contemporary self-understanding, and even self-fashioning. Genetics and neuroscience have, at least in the popular imagination, started to lay out an account of the most fundamental characteristics of human beings: our “innate” biological code, and the physical underpinnings of thought and consciousness. This activates worries about reductionism and the erosion of the self under the intrusive scientific gaze (as well as more nuanced and celebratory reactions—see Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin’s survey in “The Molecular Gaze”).
4. Monsters and nightmares. On the flip side, there are also historically unparalleled threats to the continued existence of life on the planet. Mass extinctions might arise from runaway genetic engineering, climate change, or industrial pollution. A significant body of sci-art depicts technoscience, its translational applications, and their consequences as something alien and threatening, tapping into a range of old and familiar anxieties.
5. The distant and sublime. Advances in astronomical imaging and nanoimaging have made it possible to detect events in the macro and microworlds that defy the ordinary scale of human experience and perception. Contemplating these inherently unvisualizable orders of nature provides hooks for concepts like the sublime. Cf. Linda Francis’s earlier comment on the gorgeousness of these scales of reality relative to the griminess of our own; also see Ofer Gal & Raz Chen-Morris, “Baroque Science”, for the 17th century origins of these concerns.
I’ll try to bring some order to this list. The first two items involve an overlap in technology and media between scientists and artists. They also draw on a more general shared awareness of how our lives are inextricably enmeshed in networked computational systems—the emergence of what I’ve called elsewhere the “data self”. These cases, in which specific tools, modeling techniques, and visualizations migrate back and forth between science and the arts, can fairly be thought of as specific to here and now.
The last three turn on the fact that contemporary scientific discoveries and their applications can readily be incorporated into familiar art-historical themes. These have to do with human identity and personhood, with apocalyptic anxieties, and with an attitude of awe at the natural world and the limits of human perception and expression. None of these are specific to now, but at the moment they may be evoked in distinctive ways.
I’m not sure that any of these count as explanations per se, but they do seem to be patterns. Other items might be adduced as well, e.g., the cultural and economic power that science, in some of its guises, wields relative to the artworld. For an institutional account of the conditions that make bioart in particular a viable form right now, see Robert E. Mitchell’s “Bioart and the Vitality of Media”.