Moderator’s Welcome

Taney Roniger/

As we open this forum to the public today, I’d like to welcome everyone to the online component of Strange Attractors: Art, Science, and the Question of Convergence. First, I want to extend my thanks to all our panelists for enthusiastically accepting our invitation to share their thoughts on art and science over the course of the next ten days. Thanks to this diverse group of accomplished artists, scientists, writers, and curators, the forthcoming dialogue promises to be dynamic and illuminating.

For those of you who missed our opening presentations at CUE last night, we’ll be posting links to both James Elkins’s lecture and the diagram our audience participated in creating with Matthew Ritchie. We hope you’ll take a look at those to get a sense of the ideas that sparked a lively and probing discussion at the end of the evening. (If it’s any indication of the degree of interest in our subject, last night’s event lasted for four hours, with many of our stalwart guests staying well past the stated end time.)

Over the coming days we’ll be addressing four interrelated topics here, each roughly delineating one aspect of our subject, to be introduced by a set of questions issued at the start of each session. Both the topics and the questions are intended to catalyze dialogue and to provide a structure for the discussion.  Participants are welcome to respond in any way they see fit, whether from personal experience or from a theoretical perspective. Excursions, deviations, and musings of all kind are encouraged.

Throughout, we’ll welcome moderated comments from our reading audience. Please note that there may be a slight delay before your comment appears, as we’ll be making an effort to place reader contributions in a relevant context within the flow of the dialogue.

Our first topic, which we’ll be exploring today through Tuesday evening, is: Language Matters: Defining Our Terms. Below are the questions for Session I.

1.1 James Elkins has memorably called the dialogue between art and science a “drunken conversation,” one in which both sides—even when mutually enamored— perpetually misunderstand and talk past each other. With a view toward a more sober exchange, how might we comprehensibly articulate the essence of each? Perhaps more important, what is each emphatically not?

1.2 With the sci-art movement gaining momentum, we’re hearing more talk of the “convergence” of the two fields. What is meant by convergence? Is what’s being proposed a synthesis, or something more like a complementary relationship? If the former, why is sci-art a branch of art and not science?

1.3 However we define convergence, what does each field stand to gain from a prospective partnership?

1.4 As currently conceived, what is sci-art, and who is its intended audience? Granting that it is a branch of art and not science, how does it expect to be met by the scientific community?

1.5 Given that art has always appropriated images and ideas from other domains of culture, on what grounds do we need a special category for art that incorporates scientific content? Why sci-art?









17 Replies to “Moderator’s Welcome”

    1. Thanks for that, Joao. The term “sci-art” can indeed be replaced by any of the others you mention (my use of that one is arbitrary), but the larger issue is why the genre feels compelled to separate itself from the rest of art. Let’s say, for example, that you make art that involves architectural imagery. Do you then call it “arch-art”? Or you make portraits with heavy psychological overtones; does this make your work “psy-art”? You’d probably just call it art, since the term is elastic enough to cover just about any kind of content. That it feels compelled to distinguish itself from other art implies, to me anyway, that the genre considers itself some kind of new hybrid form (i.e., part art, part science). This is a huge claim, because if that’s the case we can reasonably expect it to involve some aspect of real science (as opposed to, say, poetic allusions to it, or an appropriation of its imagery for the work’s own purposes). So to me it’s not so much the language that matters but the claims, motives, and intentions implicit in it.

      1. João and Taney
        Considering this issue of exchanges between art and science in 2000, I settled on the novel term cybism rather than sciartism or sci-art, because cybism implies the technologically-based hyper-connectivity that both scientists and tech-informed artists share: where everything everywhere is connected in a rhizomatic web of communication by the internet. But by 2003, when curating a show called The Attractions of Cybism for Fairfield University (never realized), I understood that what was interesting here was more than the cross-pollinating access to both scientific and artistic information. The issue became a sensibility comfortable with going beyond the reductive logical methodology of both modern art and hard science. The attraction, the desire, to nurture that sensibility is what enables collaborations between scientists and artists to proceed. Something that has proved beneficial to my art, and that of many others.

        1. Joseph, so glad you could make it to our opening event last night! I really appreciate your emphasis on the emergence of a new sensibility (rather than that of a new art form per se). The impulse to push beyond the confines of modern art and science is not just understandable but — given the stultifying tendencies of both — profoundly laudable, I think. This approach also relieves the work of the burden of having to conform to any existing discipline (if what’s being proposed/promoted is a *sensibility*, the work is free to pursue that by any means necessary). What bothers me, frankly, about much sci-art I see is the pretense that it somehow involves “real” (which is to say conventional) science. I find this deeply problematic.

          1. Taney, I agree that much ‘sci-art’ that one sees currently does not involve real science at all. Often, artists who try and draw on things scientific in order to include it in their art-making do nothing more than create a sign that reads ‘science’. This may take the form of a neat row of test tubes, each filled with a different coloured water (I have actually seen this) to signify ‘science’. Without wanting to criticize artists for this too heavily, let’s analyse this phenomenon in order to try and understand it. Surely this superficial attempt to include science in art is indicative of the chasm of prejudice that most artists have towards scientists and vice versa; a prejudice that prevents us stepping into and engaging with each other’s domains? At the same time, this chasm indicates a need to address this prejudice, hence this symposium.

            But science, and those who market the image of science to us, are also responsible for reinforcing a superficial visual/artistic (mis)representation of science and consequently the regurgitation of similar images by artists (such as colour filled test tubes). I recall a lecture by James Elkins at the University of Cape Town in 2011, in which he also spoke about the use, by researchers, of bright colours in images used in the garnering of funding from pharmaceutical companies.
            Most images taken of microscopic bacteria are monochromatic and perhaps uninteresting to non-scientists to look at; hence the need for scientists to colour these images in order to attract our interest. So, science is at least reaching out and making the idea of things scientific palatable for non-scientists.
            Now that science has made itself ‘attractive’, albeit superficially, to non-scientists, let’s now go a bit beyond the colour filled test tubes.

  1. How might we comprehensibly articulate the essence of each?

    Day 1 of the conference: Heard several compelling viewpoints at the opening , one of which seemed to argue against the possibility of convergence of science and art and two which seemed to argue for the possibility and indeed, the need for convergence.

    In terms of articulating the essence of each, it might make sense to start with the process of each discipline. Any elementary school science class starts with scientific method: Hypothesis, test or experimentation, data gathering and analysis/drawing conclusions. The process is fact-driven and strives to eliminate ambiguity of interpretation.

    The process of making art is different. It may start with a question: can I draw a likeness of the model’s face, can I film and edit a video to convey an experience, can I assemble objects in a room to make people consider their perceptions or the facts of an issue differently?? The iterations are countless. There may be some experimentation along the way — the artist may try using a line differently, select a different color, edit video footage differently, shift the installation etc… But at the end of the day, art is always more than an accumulation of fact. In fact, its impact may lie exactly in its rejection of facts as overly simplistic. there’s always an unknown quantity — a mysterious factor, an added interpretation, something that cannot easily be defined — that elevates the output to art. Without that unquantifiable, undefinable, ambiguous element, it won’t be art.

    So I am hoping to be convinced otherwise, but as of Day 1, I can’t cross the bridge that tries to link these two subjects. The essence of each inquiry is diametrically opposed to the other.

    1. Thanks, Corina. While I agree that “synthesis” is an impossibility (not to mention being far from desirable), there have been some convincing arguments suggesting we should abandon the idea of a diametrical opposition. The problem with binaries is that they tend to oversimplify what is in fact a complex and nuanced situation to the detriment of both “sides.” See, for example, Stephen’s recent post here, in which he proposes that this insistence on conceiving of art and science as polar opposites (as in “strange attractors”) perpetuates the perception that sci-art is little more than a charming side-show attraction. It’s a very valid point. Perhaps a more nuanced conception might encourage exploration of the genre’s more substantive dimensions.

    2. As a scientist, I think that one of the interesting links between Art and Science is the playfulness of curiosity and method. Sure, we apply ‘The Scientific Method’, but it is not as rigid as sometimes our publications would make it to be. It is said that Isaac Asimov suggested that the most exciting words in science are ‘Hmm, that’s funny…’ It is not uncommon that during the process of testing a hypothesis, the researcher notices a curious result which leads to a more interesting and successful line of work. Once I heard a talk, early in my career, where the speaker stated that scientists are ‘paid to notice things’. That ability to stop the internal chatter and notice that something interesting is before us is something that artists and scientists share. Most of the subsequent work is trying to understand the event/phenomenon, and couching it in a way that can be shared with others.

      1. “Scientists are ‘paid to notice things'” — I love this, Luis. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in terms of what we do; I often tell my students that artists are “the great noticers of society.” (One point of divergence is that most of us don’t get paid, but that’s another matter.) I do think the public’s perception of the scientist — i.e., as the humorless, inaccessible eccentric who walks around in a white lab coat — is a caricature that needs to go. So maybe the scientific method is not so foreign to us after all. Thanks for pointing that out. One never hears about an “artistic method,” but it might be worth articulating, if only to underscore some more possible points of convergence.

  2. While I value the art science axis, I usually say that’s just because I’m an artist and am interested in science.
    But not just in science.
    Are we not perhaps in a larger moment which is not just about the opening of the boundary between art and science but about many fields trying to reach out of their boundaries towards many others.
    Several people at the opening event yesterday mentioned that connecting across boundaries and languages can lead to miscomprehension or mistranslation. This does happen. But reaching beyond our boundaries also allows us to begin to see the metastructures which connect us, and perhaps, as we face many different types of globalization phenomena (cultural and climatic) we are realizing that the our cloistered modalities are no longer sufficient to account for a complex world, and that we need to collaborate, to contrast and compare our points of view, sometimes to aggregate them, in order to account for the realities we are experiencing.
    And thanks Taney for organizing this framework for the larger discussion.

    1. Daniel, I couldn’t agree with you more. I do think the move toward increasing inter-, cross-, and transdisciplinarity is rooted in an acute awareness of the multiple crises we face — and an equally acute awareness of, most certainly on the part of art, the limitations of our field. To be siloed away in our own little world feels increasingly inadequate, and I find this exciting. But if we’re to move out into other domains of culture in search of partnerships, it’s now incumbent upon us, it seems to me, to do two things: (1) to acquire at least a working knowledge of languages and sensibilities foreign to art, and (2) to assume an active role in the education of non-artists about what art is and does, and what is has to offer. On point number 1, one of the things I find most troubling about artists’ engagement with science is the general lack of concern for the scientific method. My feeling is that anyone who wants to genuinely incorporate science into their work should first take a course in the philosophy of science. Similarly, scientists with an earnest desire to engage with artists should take it upon themselves to learn the rudiments of contemporary art. And on point number 2, I’d very much like to see artists drop the pretentious language that plagues our field and make it our business to speak clearly and forcibly about why what we do matters.

      1. Ah, but I don’t think scientists themselves are all that familiar with the philosophy of science. At least in my own experience, I have never had a conversation with any of my colleagues about Karl Popper or logical positivism or postmodernism. Scientists tend to just go about their work, use common sense, and let their results speak for themselves.

        1. Interesting, Werner. It just seems unreasonable to expect that any non-scientist interested in science would take a crash course in, say, the higher mathematics. Barring this, what would you recommend to someone who wanted to learn about the core values of science without formal training? There’s no dearth of books on popular science, but these seem to only perpetuate the problem.

          1. Good question. I think the core values of science are not fully absorbed through lectures or textbooks; instead, they *emerge* from doing actual research. I took physics classes like everyone else, but until I went through the experience of taking data, figuring out how to analyze it, and making all the pieces fall into place, I did not appreciate how seductive it could be to gain an understanding of (a small piece of) the universe.

            Scientists believe that nature can be quantified and modeled mathematically because they have seen it with their very own eyes. And they have seen that equations describing one phenomenon can be applied in a different context and they still work. That’s powerful stuff.

            I think this is the challenge: communicating the fact that science is not just another belief system, another religion. There are reasons that scientists believe what they do. Science *works*, dammit, and if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t believe it. Of course, not everyone gets to do research first-hand, but I have found that well-told stories of how discoveries are made — how the pieces came together — to be useful in this regard.

  3. There are some great comments here! I wanted to respond in particular to something Corina said, contrasting the scientific method to what Taney calls the artistic method. I think the way the scientific method is taught in schools makes it seem like a recipe to be followed. And when you take a science class, the lab activities reinforce that notion because students already know what the answer is supposed to be, and they just go through the motions of “applying the scientific method”. In reality, scientific research is playful — as Luis described — and it’s not a linear path from hypothesis to result. There’s usually a lot of backtracking, problem-solving, and trial-and-error behind any published result.

    And in fact, I would say the starting point for the scientific method is not so much a well-formulated hypothesis, but a simple question, just like in art. A famous (possibly apocryphal) example: when Newton observed an apple falling to the ground, his leap of logic was to ask: What if the force that pulls an apple to the ground is the very same force that holds the moon in its orbit around the Earth? With that seed of a thought, he set about trying to deduce the logical consequences of that “what if” (i.e. how can I construct a mathematical model that describes both phenomena at the same time) and ended up with a theory of gravity that could be tested against observations.

    So, scientists often try out many different explanations for some phenomenon until they find something that both “feels right” and agrees with the prior body of knowledge. It’s not always clear when they start out that they will be successful. Nor is it clear, when they do find an explanation, that it will stand the test of time. Science is suffused with uncertainty, even if it isn’t presented that way in the popular press (to its detriment, I think, but that’s a whole other topic).

    I really like what Luis and Taney said about scientists and artists being “paid to notice things” because I do believe they share the same fundamental impulses. But what they do with those sparks of attention leads them down different and equally valid paths.

    1. Werner – you can tell that my “scientific” education ended very early in life…. very striking how similar the experience of the processes can be — backtracking, problem-solving, and trial-and-error — who hasn’t experienced that in the studio????

      also love what you say about “how seductive it can be to gain an understanding of (a small piece of) the universe

      1. Thanks, Corina! Yes, I also find my processes in the lab and in the studio to be remarkably similar, which is why I suspect there is some substance to the science-art linkage, drunken conversation or no.

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