Response from James Elkins

James Elkins/

Sorry I missed the event: it sounds like it was great. I can be online until Wed. AM, when I’m off to see the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, where you can imagine there won’t be a speck of science, except in the Renaissance galleries.
Regarding the notion of a “drunken conversation”:  I agree with Suzanne. The expression “drunken conversation” was meant to indicate an interesting conversation: one driven by desires, one that overflows the boundaries of propriety, one that may not get anywhere right away but flows on with force and conviction until it arrives in some unexpected place.
I think we may have space for discussion when it comes to “knowledge.” I am not convinced by most of the theorizations of “knowledge” used, or implicit, in practice-led PhD programs. I don’t think “knowledge” is something always to be desired, and when it’s applied to visual art, I’m not always sure it’s the right word.
Just to get things started, there’s empirical knowledge, experiential knowledge, phenomenological knowledge, and tacit knowledge: which of those, or which other, should we say is appropriate as the goal of art-science collaborations?

6 Replies to “Response from James Elkins”

  1. Perhaps the creative tension in art-science discussions and experiments is that they get to oscillate between different types of knowledge, some of which are not “permitted” within the single discipline’s discourse?

    1. Daniel,
      I think so. The question, for me, is what people mean by “knowledge” in different contexts. I study this in the practice-led PhDs, where it’s important for institutions to claim their graduates produce “new knowledge,” even if what they’re making is visual art.
      So if art-science collaborations aim at “knowledge,” is it knowledge that’s embodied in the visual art itself? And what exactly could that mean?

  2. I’d like to think that it’s tacit knowledge that these institutions mean with regard to the kind their graduates produce. But I don’t think so. I suspect it’s something more like discursive knowledge, such as the kind purveyed by said graduates’ artist statements. The word “new” in the claim is also problematic. I mean, I suppose it’s new in the sense that no one else has made these exact paintings and written this exact statement, but I’m not convinced the kind of knowledge produced in grad schools is the product of anything but what’s already circulating within academia.

    But to be less cynical about things: I think tacit knowledge is enormously important and should be discussed within every field. Polanyi did it for science; I’d like to see it addressed more explicitly — and more frequently — in our field.

  3. It is not knowledge, but rather that which lies beyond the frontiers of knowledge that ignites our pursuit of art. As it happens, this territory is rarely approached even by theorists.

    Science itself cannot be reduced to knowledge alone: it is inseparable from scientific culture, history, language, equipment etc. (an excellent reference is Andrew Pickering’s “The Mangle of Practice” where a distinction is made between big science and the scientific practice of an individual human).

    Curiously, the words experiment and experience are identical in some languages, such as French (expérience) and Russian (опыт). This linguistic equality points to a moment of direct interaction with the physical world situated outside of the confines of any symbolic language – this very stage of experiencing the experiment brings us close to the practice of science. However, it is not the scientific and technological aspects of our experiments, but rather the phenomenological part that is paramount for us. Instead of unpacking existent knowledge of past events, a premonition of the unknown catches the observer in the act of observation. This sensorial, preverbal engagement determines the way we conduct the experience of our audience.

  4. Thanks so much for that, Evelina. All this talk of knowledge has indeed eclipsed what’s essential to any work of art that I admire, which is precisely its invocation of the unknown. We hear so much these days about art as “knowledge production” (which seems to me little more than an appeal for greater cultural authority), but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that at its best what it produces is a felt awareness of the unknown — and, concomitantly, of the relative paucity of what we do know. The profound humility this incites is certainly not foreign to any scientist I’ve ever spoken with, so perhaps this is another point of convergence. (It’s also something, perhaps not incidentally, both share with religion.) Since we’ve not yet had any images posted here, perhaps this is a good time. Maybe you’d like to post an image or video of your work?

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