Sci-Art Fictions

Werner Sun/ Leonardo da Vinci is often cited as the original sci-artist and a paragon to be emulated because of his mastery of both art and science. But I wonder if Leonardo is a false idol, given how much both fields have evolved since his time. Science in the 1400’s was a far more speculative affair than it is today, not having been exposed to the instruments or mathematics or Enlightenment ethos that solidified its current cultural authority. And I suspect that most artists in the 1400’s viewed their craft in a utilitarian manner and not as the vehicle for transcendence that so many of us insist upon. In other words, the idealized art/science unity in the Renaissance may simply be a romantic myth that has little bearing on art and science as they are now. Perhaps today’s art and science were never meant to be as one.

Having made that claim, I should also guard against presentism and acknowledge that art and science are surely still evolving. In the future, art and science might leverage the cognitive similarities that Luis has noted in unforeseen ways, undergoing foundational shifts that position them more in alignment with each other. Indeed, before Maxwell, who would have thought that electricity and magnetism were one and the same? [Of course, art and science might instead draw even farther apart.]

Daniel has brought up one such vision: computer-generated Rembrandt paintings. He asks whether this is art. What if future generations say yes?

Elaine has suggested a different kind of partnership, where scientists, when they hit roadblocks, might look to artists’ tacit knowledge to guide them towards the right questions. What if art becomes the oracle for science?

Matthew posits that the indigestible raw images of both art and science undergo successive levels of manipulation and abstraction, and in so doing, approach a middle ground accessible by practitioners in both fields as well as the general public. What if informational diagrams become the lingua franca of civilization?

Stephen has advocated for sci-art as an agent of change that endows science with the emotional resonance required to replace discredited myths of old.

All of these game-changing possibilities would make for interesting thought experiments (which is perhaps another definition of sci-art). Who wants to play?

11 Replies to “Sci-Art Fictions”

  1. Werner, I like the idea of Sci-Art as thought experiment, somehow that feels right. Also, I agree that the future may play a favorable role toward the acceptance of Sci-Art as a culture onto itself. The true beneficiaries of that culture will be determined most likely by that future. Hopefully the cumulative critique emerging from this symposium will influence it for the better in some way. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea that the future may also accept computer-generated Rembrandt paintings as art. I don’t like the idea but I’m accustomed to accepting, or having to work with, ideas that never resonated with me as art. So at the moment I propose that we ask not if that work is considered art, because many things are considered art, but whether it holds a poetic language…or dimension.

    1. Agreed, Gianluca. Maybe calling things “art” that are not yet accepted as art tends to shut down discussion. I think it’s especially important to consider ideas that we don’t like. Many of the technologies and ideas we depend on today faced resistance when they first appeared (writing displacing the oral tradition, the heliocentric model of planetary motion displacing the geocentric model).

  2. Werner — adding to this thought experiment:
    In the future might science replace religion as the means by which humans pursue an emotional relationship to their existence?

    1. Indeed, Stephen! Do you have a sense of how this might work in practice? Your own exhibitions are certainly exemplary in this regard.

  3. I like the idea of sci-art as a thought experiment and advocate for those experiments between disparate disciplines in general. I would underline the experimental ethos to try to avoid a priori assumptions/ conclusions.

    Re science and religion, I really enjoyed George Lucas’ sly comment in THX 1138.

    1. Thanks, Linda! Yes, letting go of preconceived notions is extraordinarily difficult. But if anyone can do it, it’s artists and scientists — that’s what we’ve been trained to do!

  4. Hear, hear to more thought experiments, Werner! On this subject, Matthew’s work with diagrams – which I think he considers a vast thought experiment — interests me very much. Since art’s poetic dimension has been a recurrent theme here over the course of the conference – its power, and indeed its necessity in the world – it might be worth exploring the poetic aspects of the diagram. Part of what makes the diagram so appealing to me as a unique kind of language is its economy of means — the distillation, the condensed expression, of the logical relations that are its content. The diagram, then, can be seen as a kind of visual poetry in which form and content are absolutely inseparable.

    Elsewhere, Matthew has made reference to Edgar Allan Poe and his ideas about the imagination as a form of logical thinking (see his Descent into the Maelstrom). All of this is to suggest that logic may not be so foreign to art as it is supposed to be, nor poetry so foreign to logic as it’s thought to be. And Margaret Wertheim’s practice makes a beautiful case for the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science that are all but absent from conventional science discourse. So perhaps there’s some fertile ground here for new epistemologies that we’re only just beginning to explore.

    And crucially, one of Matthew’s most trenchant points is that diagrams don’t just reflect cognition; they also shape it (as of course does any powerful form of art). Thinking about Matthew’s work, my mind keeps returning the film Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and released in 2016. It was by no means a perfect film, but what made it interesting to me was the aliens’ language. Based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics – the claim that the structure of one’s language determines the nature of one’s thoughts and behavior — their language was exclusively visual and manifested itself in exquisitely beautiful glyph-like forms that issued, vapor-like, from the aliens’ pods. Non-linear by nature (the patterns were to be apprehended all at once rather than sequentially), it was essentially a holistic language that reflected minds capable of transcending time. Okay, this is sci-fi – but the connection between visual structure and mode of cognition resonated very deeply for me, as I imagine it would for any visual artist. Is this not what every visual artist aspires to ultimately – that in embodying a distinct kind of cognition, our work will penetrate other minds and expand the parameters of their thinking and behavior in unexpected ways?

  5. I would like to touch on the idea of Science or Art (or Sci-Art) as a possible substitute for Religion. I have thought about this from time to time and i think there are at least a couple of characteristics of Sci-Art that would commend it as a plausible replacement. First, there is ritual: a fusion of Art and Science can formulate the type of sensory experiences that suggest to the individual that he/she is experiencing Sacred Time/Space. After all, that is what religions have done for centuries with song, rhythm, drugs, incense and other paraphernalia. Second, there is meaning. Scientists have been mentioning for years that there is no better source for wonder than what we already know about the Universe. Our problem has been that we haven’t been great at communicating why we think that is the case, an issue that has been mentioned here a few times.
    Having said the former, there is one issue that religion does well that secular approaches can’t seem to get right, and that is community or congregation. Faith-based belief seems to be especially efficient at bringing people together. Is that something that could be replicated through Sci/Art means?

  6. I must say that the possible convergence of art, science, and religion has been one of the most exciting aspects of this conversation for me. And Luis makes a good point about the necessity for some form of communal experience if this is where we’re heading. Luis, did you see the video Stephen posted of the show he curated called Uncertainty? Watching the unannotated version certainly evoked religious sentiments for me. If experienced communally — preferably in silence — this kind of exhibition could rise to the level of a new form of secular communal transcendence. (You can find the video here:

  7. Thank you for re-posting the link to Uncertainty, Taney. I had not yet seen it.
    I agree that watching the video or experiencing the actual pieces in a group would help induce some form of emotional communion, but joining in a set of actions, in a ritualized behavior, would be more effective. Perhaps that is where we lose some of the secular public, by asking them to join a ritual it raises in them a red flag against crowd behavior, which is a reasonable response. So the question is, how do you convince people in the skeptic to cynical spectrum to join in a ritual?

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