Just what is it that makes today’s science so different, so appealing?

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”.

7 Replies to “Just what is it that makes today’s science so different, so appealing?”

  1. I agree with all your speculations, Dan, and you’ve given us a fantastic list of sources to pursue. Your caveat is important too, however. As much as both science and technology have changed in the last half century (and duly noting the unprecedented rate at which that change has taken place), the arts have a long history of fascination with both. And how could they not? Science is such a tremendous cultural force — and one has, at least since 1945, presented as a threat to our very survival.

    I’d argue that the thing that *has* changed is art’s self-image in relation to the larger culture. The failure of modernism, with all its soaring idealism and promises of salvation, hit art hard. Beneath all the cynicism and irony that set in with postmodernism it’s hard not to detect a really deep sadness compounded by a pervasive sense of insecurity about art’s agency as a cultural force. Science having taken on this soteriological promise, I often wonder if art’s reach in its direction might be an attempt to get some of that back by way of association. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand I think science has much to offer art, but the power dynamic is such that the relationship feels suspect. What I’d rather see is art reclaiming its sense of purpose on its own, and only then moving out into the world confidently bearing what it has to offer.

  2. I’m sympathetic with the idea that art, like other cultural practices (e.g., parts of philosophy and literary theory) might be open to the charge of scientism. This also helps to clarify the link between your questions 2.3 and 2.4, about transcendence and the aftermath of postmodernism (if it has one).

    But I’m curious to know more about what art’s reclaiming its purpose might involve. One way of approaching this question (possibly not what you intended) is as a permutation of Krauss’s invective against the post-medium condition. Roughly, the argument is that in abandoning the notion of specific media, we also abandon aesthetic autonomy for an inescapable complicity with structures of social and economic power. Seen in this light, “interdisciplinarity” in artistic practice might appear as just a more contemporary gloss on “intermedia”, and one that shares its fatal shortcomings. (Haven’t we already noted the “discursive chaos” and “heterogeneity of activities” that go with art-science pairings?) There’s something Kraussian as well in your comments on the poverty of post-studio practice–Krauss herself was an early opponent of institutional critique, after all.

    Pulling these threads together, then, a plea for art’s renewed and distinctive purpose can be sharpened into a case for purity of medium, and against works that disperse art’s force by yoking it to external sources of authority. I’m not ascribing this argument to you, obviously, but I think there are at least hints of it in what you’ve said.

    1. How to reclaim art’s distinctive purpose so it can make a genuinely meaningful and original contribution to culture: this is exactly the issue for me, and I don’t yet have a solid answer. I want to explore it here, and will be returning to this thread later today, but for now I can say with conviction that I have absolutely no allegiance to medium specificity, Greenbergian formalism, or anything related thereto. That whole agenda seems woefully retrograde to me, and I think we should move on from it. If we imagine there are two poles here, with the absolute autonomy of art on the one side and a transdisciplinary, discursive/didactic, agenda-oriented paradigm on the other, it’s somewhere in that vast region in between that I think the way forward lies.

  3. Dan, this is a perceptive list and a useful framework for dissecting the art/science relationship. You seem to be implying that sci-art, regardless of the intentions with which it was made, reflects a desire to reclaim ownership of one’s self and regain control of one’s environment (or cultural authority, as Taney argues), and it is therefore inherently critical of science. And this critical stance leads naturally to discursive art.

    Am I misrepresenting you? If not, then is it possible, under the right conditions, for sci-art to celebrate science and still be non-discursive (as Stephen Nowlin has suggested)?

    1. Hi, Werner. I wouldn’t say that critique is inherent to artistic treatment of science, although on the other hand I admit that I have a reflexive suspicion of art that “celebrates” science. I think that celebration is an uninterrogated goal that too easily degenerates into spectacle. But there are clearly artists who are more interested in what I would call exploratory or phenomenological projects rather than critical ones. They aim to engage in a kind of play with scientific concepts, or to evoke experiences suggestive of encounters with inhuman natural phenomena. My final comments on the sublime were meant to gesture towards this sort of work, which is particularly common in art that draws on physics and cosmology.

      Discursiveness is a separate issue, although it raises questions that I gather we’ll discuss in the next phase of the conference. There is no necessary link between the degree of a work’s discursiveness and its critical stance; artworks that critique genetic modification or that evoke the horror of climate change can do so nondiscursively. But my starting position is that it’s extremely hard (maybe impossible) to embody the content of scientific theory in artworks, and that the fragments of theoretical content that are present are almost always being misused. This isn’t a negative judgment, I should add, but a descriptive claim about how the surrounding context of an artwork transforms the meanings of everything that it contains.

  4. Thanks for elaborating, Dan. This discussion of discursiveness and its alternatives touches on a key question about sci-art for me. I agree that one can be critical (or celebratory) without being discursive, but as you point out, it seems particularly challenging when scientific ideas are involved (which is not to say it can’t be done, obviously). Science derives its rhetorical force from building constantly on long trains of thought. It’s true that new discoveries might arise from an accident in the lab or an irrational flash of insight (deus ex machina). But in order to gain acceptance, these discoveries must, in the end, mesh with the parade of findings that have stood the test of time and that might stretch back for centuries. So for the most part, scientific ideas follow a discursive path, and they depend on their context for meaning (like any good story). So, I think the challenge for sci-art is to engage with that whole backstory of science (i.e. the whys behind the what) and not just a snapshot from the present day.

    More on this in a separate post.

  5. Returning to the issue of how art might reclaim its distinctive purpose as it moves out into the world, I offer the following thoughts (in no way formalized, and still very speculative at this point). For me, the power of art lies in its capacity to embody and transmit tacit knowledge – the kind we’re not consciously aware of but which nonetheless constitutes most of our knowledge. Obviously this is not to say that in art there’s no conscious content. (When we look at a Turner painting we see a ship and an ocean and the various manifestations of turbulent weather. But as anyone with any understanding of art knows, ships, oceans, and turbulent weather are by no means the real content of the painting, the more substantive stuff being all that slips in through the back door, as it were, and lodges deep in your psyche.) One problem with much sci-art, as I see it, is that it showcases the work’s conscious content so forcibly that we become less receptive to any of the more subtle meanings it might have to offer. It’s essentially the non-verbal equivalent of telling people what to think. You look at it, you think about what you’re supposed to think about, and you walk away – thoroughly dissatisfied, and certainly unchanged.

    So the question for our times becomes how can art actively address some of the pressing problems we face so that it’s both seen and taken seriously without forfeiting this power outlined above. The answer I’m going to give sounds too easy, but here it is: Work with whatever subject matter you seek to address, but knead it, complicate it, finesse, compress, and distill it — and then deliver it as poetry. Use the conscious content as the ruse it always was, and let the real stuff do its work as it comes in that other door. The problem is essentially one of anxiety; in our (very laudable) effort to make a difference in the world, we artists have become insecure about the tremendous power of poetics.

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