SESSION III

Taney Roniger/ While many of the threads we started last Sunday are still going strong, today I want to propose another set that promises to be equally catalytic. Moving from theory to practice, our third session gets down to the meat and bones of the matter: How exactly is sci-art being made, and with purposes in mind? I’ll be especially curious to hear people’s perspectives on one of the most nagging issues of the genre: Is scientific imagery sufficient to invoke scientific content?

Modes of Engagement:
Exploring the Nature of Art’s Involvement with Science

Fri. Nov. 10 – Sun. Nov. 12, 2017

3.1 With what angles of approach are the various sci-art genres engaging with science? Does sci-art aim to celebrate, popularize, “problematize,” or challenge science? Can it do all four at once?

3.2 How is scientific content embodied in works of art?

3.3 What is the relationship between scientific imagery and scientific content? Does the former necessarily imply the latter?

3.4 With the rise of transdisciplinary practices, we’re hearing more about “art as research.” What does it mean to engage in art as research? (Similarly, more talk is heard of “art as knowledge production.” What is the nature of the knowledge art produces?)

3.5 Are there modes of sci-art engagement that seem particularly problematic, and if so how might the issues be addressed and/or circumvented? Are there modes of engagement that seem particularly promising?

5 Replies to “SESSION III”

  1. Imho, this is very important set of questions, and certainly not new.

    > Is scientific imagery sufficient to invoke scientific content?

    what underlies this question is a deeper question of whether what we’re about is simply ‘invoking’ .
    We ought to ask: What might science want with art?
    and
    What might art(ists) want from science?

    With very few exceptions, the role for artists as perceived by scientists is that of illustrator. Generations of sci-art artists have rankled, and argued for a more conceptually substantial role. Sometimes, but rarely this happens – usually due to the fact that the ‘artists’ are already dual-qualified. This means, they already have a foot in each camp, which, by and large, is not the case for scientists involved, who tend to have a naive understanding of (contemporary ) art. (That is not to say that many artists have a naive understanding of contemporary science). There is no good reason why professional scientists should provide a place at their table for an artist, until the value of such interaction is demonstrated to them.

    By clinging to these exclusive professional categories we in fact create the problem we’re trying to solve. (That is not to say that trans/anti/non disciplinarity is as easy as just saying it, it certainly isn’t.)

    One answer to the second question is that, as engaged activist citizens, (some) artists, are motivated by subjects for which ‘science’ has become the gatekeeper. Most of the wide variety of environmental issues fall into this category.

    So what use might science have for art.? That is more difficult to answer, as (we know) there are as many different ideas of what an artist does and what the uses of art are, as there are artists walking the streets. The illustrator/communicator role remains valid. At then other end of the production pipeline, a less obvious but more valuable role is to provide extradisciplinary interrogation. As I’ve been told many times in such contexts, I ask the difficult questions.

    Scientific research agendas and projects *can* suffer from being “paradigmatically bound”, by unquestioned axiomatic assumptions, and *sometimes* the artist’s training as a transdisciplinary asker of ‘out of the box’ questions, and offerer of external perspectives *can* be productive. If in no other way than expanding the field of reference of the inquiry, or involving specialists from other fields that at the outset may not have seemed relevant. This is better than finding out too late that important questions had not been asked or important perspectives had not been considered.
    SP

  2. Thanks for joining the discussion, Simon. “What might science want from art?” is indeed the million dollar question here (which I’ll get to in a minute). My question about invocation is really a veiled challenge to/criticism of a lot of the sci-art I see in New York. The kind of work I’m talking about presents itself as being in some way “about science,” or as being some kind of critical engagement with scientific concepts, which it ostensibly achieves through its use of scientific imagery, scientific instruments, or other things associated with science (we see a lot of test tubes and beakers about). But to me, most of this work is not about science at all; if anything, it’s about an attempt to acquire intellectual gravitas by its association with science. This doesn’t make for terribly interesting art, and it certainly isn’t science. (It’s as if the artists find it sufficient to present things that look “sciency” without any careful consideration for either of the deeper dimensions of meaning we expect of art or what the images and apparatus actually mean to science.) That said, this issue admittedly begs a larger question that can be asked of any work of art: How does meaning get embodied in *anything*?

    The question of what use science might have for art is one we’ve been exploring in various ways and from various angles since Session I. The art as science illustration model is the most common approach, yes. But more and more these days we’re seeing art as data visualization – often with some spectacularly exciting visual effects. But this, to me, is equally problematic, because like the illustration model it puts art in the service of science, which is not really an equal partnership (although it must be said that a lot of artists are fine with this, for reasons I suspect related to what I stated above). Some of the scientists on our panel here (Elaine Reynolds, Luis Schettino) have suggested that perhaps what science really needs art for isn’t so much in its visual products but rather the way of thinking and understanding in which visual artists are expert.

  3. What might scientists want from artists? Simon’s last suggestion is something that my artist collaborators and I have been working on for some time. Not in an explicit way, but through our interactions and ‘drunken conversations’. I find it exhilarating to step out of the boundaries imposed by mainstream Science to ask questions that could very well be the seeds of new lines of research. Having said that, it is important to realize that this enterprise is rather young and it will need some time to produce ideas/concepts that work equally well in both Science and Art (probably not the exact same concepts, but forms of them).

    1. Luis, in your experience, how many of your scientific colleagues have expressed an openness to the kind of work you’re doing? I imagine many of them might look on it with some suspicion; how do you explain to them the value it may hold (if you do at all)? Elaine mentioned during our live conversation on Saturday that for many scientists, art (and particularly sci-art) is the object of much ridicule. Given the kind of work that gets hyped in the mainstream media, I understand entirely. I wonder if you have any thoughts about what we artists can do to correct this impression that we’re all a bunch of, say, Damien Hirsts?

  4. I suppose the answer would depend on which group of scientists we are talking about. Most of those involved in basic motor control would consider these notions to be too complex to even consider them an appropriate subject of research. However, last year the international conference of the Neural Control of Movement society finished with an interesting discussion of the possibility of studying artistic behavior. I will say that most of those scientists who presented data were not terribly convincing in their treatment of art. And obviously, studying artistic behavior is not exactly the kind of interaction of Science and Art we are talking about in this symposium. But I felt that at least there appears to be interest in the intersection of the fields.
    In the case of Cognitive Neuroscience I would say that there is a lot more interest and a more nuanced understanding of Art on the part of at least a few of the researchers.

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