Session 1

Jeanne Brasile/In thinking about the idea of a ‘convergence’ between art and science, I see this not so much as a union of two disciplines, but rather, a meeting of the minds.  Sci-art is a trend, a catchy name to describe something that artists have been doing quietly for some time without an official title.  If you think back, Sci-art has pretty much always been ‘a thing.’  Georges Seurat was studied in the science of optics.  Robert Smithson was interested in the geometric properties of molecules and crystalline structures.  Kenneth Snelson worked with the forces of physics and was inspired by atomic structures.

We like to name and organize things, it’s a human tendency built of our desire to make meaning and understand.  Sci-art is another way of compartmentalizing an array of artistic and scientific approaches that are innate, and needed no name until rather recently – when marketing intervened and fads, then later memes, became the dominant culture.  We get intensely interested in ‘things’ for a short amount of time.  Then we move to the next obsession.  Sci-art is now having its moment as a meme, but I suspect it will continue to be a way of relating to the world even when it’s no longer cool to be a Sci-artist.

Isaac Asimov said “Any increase in knowledge anywhere helps pave the way for an increase in knowledge everywhere.”  Perhaps that is where the complementary relationship begins.  Not that art and science will meld, but perhaps they can share ideas, methodologies, ways of thinking and seeing that stem from the other side.  While artists and scientists surely have commonalities that many of us have elaborated on and to which we can agree, the essence of an artist is to create freely and generally without restriction.  There are exceptions, such as artists working on commissions and those who are pressured by collectors or gallerists to create in a certain way, but that too is a choice and not a mandate as to working conditions.  Artists are generally self-employed and can dictate their own work flows, benchmarks of success, investigations, etc.  Scientists are usually in the employment of an institution and must have demonstrable results to show at the end of a trial, study, experiment, project or investigation.

Using the example of science-fi, it’s clear that science fiction is a literary genre.  Nobody construes sci-fi as actual science with literary underpinnings.  It’s clearly literature but it is definitely informed by science while not being held to the scientific truth of laws, or even theories.  Science fiction can be pure imagination and that is where the artistic can play a part in the relationship between art and science.  Art can offer a way of seeing and thinking outside normative scientific methods.    The artist potentially benefits from this relationship by having access to tools, materials, technology, methodologies, fact-checking and raw materials to which they would not normally.   For the artist, the relationship is more pragmatic.  I think for the scientist, it could be a pragmatic relationship, that artists might help them solve problems through different ways of approaching a challenge, but ultimately, I think scientists kind of think artists are sexy and like many other people, they may like basking in the residue of this appeal that artists may bestow on them.

3 Replies to “Session 1”

  1. I’m glad you brought up the comparison to sci-fi, Jeanne. I think it’s such an important point, because that model seems particularly promising to me where sci-art is concerned. Some of the most probing and philosophically trenchant films I know of fall into this category (Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Solaris, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven), although calling them “sci-fi” seems slightly unfair for some reason. At its best, the genre can ask the big questions that need to be asked — where are we going as a species? What kind of Faustian bargain have we before us? — in a way that stirs us deeply without being overly didactic. So far, very little sci-art has reached this level of probity. It seems to me that if this is where we want to go, we have to abandon certain pretenses, the first of which is that we’re somehow doing “real” science. This is why I’m particularly keen to see more of what Dan Weiskopf below has delineated as sci-art in “critique mode.”

    1. I agree that Sci-art’s potential (and perhaps when it is functioning at its highest level) is when it does not attempt to replicate or undertake the scientific in a literal manner. Its value is in its desire to simply ask questions, or posit possible meanings. The value of artists is that they are encouraged to daydream about matters that are incomprehensible.

      I also agree with Stephen that being in the center of this phenomenon, it’s way too early to tell what the future of Sci-art will be. This will require the distance of time to sort out its relevance in the long term, but I do believe that Sci-art (whatever it maybe called in the future) will continue to endure.

  2. I agree with Jeanne that Sci-Art will continue to be a way of relating to the world even as it morphs into the future, and I think it’s an important topic to try and unpack. For the moment, Sci-Art criticized as a kind of fad or fashion, temporary obsession, etc, is something to which it is vulnerable, and one which may be helped by discussions such as these that provide some historical perspective.

    One lens through which to view that history begins in the mid-nineteenth century and the gradual metamorphosis of representational painting into abstraction and non-objectivity by the early decades of the twentieth century. It is not accurate to declare the period to have begun a permanent decline in representation and its symbolisms, since to this day representational art persists in abundance. But I think it is accurate to say that the introduction of abstraction created not just a new vocabulary of forms, but added a new ontological paradigm that competes still with the older one, a path for art that, it bears mentioning, paralleled the emergence of a radical new scientific worldview during the same mid-1800s period (Darwin, Pasteur, Planck, Einstein, etc).

    Up to that time, traditional cosmologies were dominated by fictional/supernatural beliefs about how the world was ordered, and they were given form in the pictorial/fictional space of representational painting. One might claim that to the degree science of the period challenged such traditional models of reality, the traditional authority of pictorial space as an adequate place for art to symbolically represent a changing paradigm, became suspect — and art responded by transforming paintings from being windows through which one peered into fictional/pictorial worlds, to paintings being actual real objects in the same space that art’s creators and onlookers themselves occupied. Abstraction closed the window of painting, and by the time Mondrian, Malevich and others had turned paintings into objects on a wall rather than windows to look through, art can be interpreted as having declared aesthetic experience and its commentaries could, or should, exist in the same world as the one that science was studying. Metaphorically, this switch from pictorial to real can be claimed to have echoed the way in which scientific discoveries of the same period challenged the authority of the fictional/supernatural and substituted the real/natural as explanations for ourselves and the universe.

    During the course of the 20th century, one art movement after another reinforced the paradigm of art as real object, from the New York School, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Earthworks, Art and Technology, Media Art, Installation art, to Interactive art in which the spectators themselves are active forms of the experience — and I propose that all of these can be seen as having embodied the trend-to-real originated in the 19th century as foundation for an eventual emergence of Sci-Art. Although it may likely someday acquire a different name or a further evolved consciousness, Sci-Art is I think a part of this longer continuum, is just emerging, and is not in any way a fad.

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