Semantic Sprawl

Werner Sun/

Thanks to everyone for all the posts so far and for such a stimulating discussion at the opening event on Saturday. There are so many interesting threads to pursue here. But for now, let me begin with a somewhat prosaic pet peeve of mine:

As was alluded to at the opening event and also in several posts here, one barrier to productive communication and collaboration between artists and scientists is the lack of a common language or vocabulary (as in any interdisciplinary endeavor). And this disconnect separates practitioners in either field from the general public as well. It seems to me that these misunderstandings go all the way back to the two words “art” and “science” themselves.

For example, in popular parlance, it is not uncommon to come across phrases like “the science of frying eggs” or “what science tells us about climate change” or “with all the science we have, why do people still go hungry?”. These formulations present science as just a set of facts or findings, and they only draw attention to the utility of science for other purposes. But to a scientist, science is so much more than that — it is a whole way of thinking, an open approach to investigating the unknown, sparked by pure curiosity. The heart of scientific research lies in the process, not in any particular outcome.

Similarly, the meaning of “art” is so broad that it can refer just as easily to a mass-produced poster in a dorm room or a diverting preschool activity, as to an Old Master painting hanging in a museum, let alone any of the diverse (and sometimes intangible) forms of contemporary art.

So, if “science” and “art” are both (mis)understood in so many different ways, how can we possibly speak of “sci-art” with any clarity? As both an artist and a scientist, I fully support the spirit of exploration and experimentation behind the sci-art phenomenon. But I worry about misconceptions getting multiplied and amplified when so-called “science” and “art” are randomly paired together. (I acknowledge that such misconceptions might themselves be a subject for sci-art, but I hope they would be addressed responsibly.)

I, for one, am interested in going back to basics, zeroing in on the core concerns of each field, and truly understanding how science and art practitioners view their own work. I think such a low-level conversation would be the first step to envisioning what an authentic practice of sci-art (not “sci-art”) might look like.

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