Transfigurations and exchanges

Dan Weiskopf/ I’m going to venture a strong claim: it’s impossible for scientific images and other materials to preserve their meaning when they’re imported into artworks. Images, simulations, and other visualizations are working images: they hone our research projects by operating as evidence, or as devices to reason with. They depend on an array of skilled interpreters, both human and technological. Making them idle by tacking them up for display shifts attention to other properties (their formal character, their allusive potential) that play no role in their working life. Elsewhere I’ve discussed some examples of how this happens in works that draw on astronomy (see “The Sky and the Edge of Sight”).

Of course, it’s the prerogative of artists to transform the meanings of anything that they happen to use as raw material–what Danto called “transfiguration”. The question is whether materials so transfigured can loop back around and feed into the scientific practices that they originated in. We might think of this possibility as a case of what Linda usefully called recursion.

In this vein, Simon pointedly asks what scientists might take away from exchanges with artists. I suspect that in general, aside from moments of adventitious illumination, the answer is not much. There are relatively few “slots” in the epistemically-oriented activities of planning studies, conducting observations, recruiting participants, preparing samples, writing grants, and calibrating instruments for artworks to make contact. Artworks are ill-suited as tools for scientists to think with.

That’s not to say it can’t happen. Some artistic explorations might have heuristic value for theorists, or might suggest new phenomena to investigate (on the latter conception, see Domnitch and Gelfand’s essay on “art as rigorous phenomenology”). One example of a fairly concrete benefit from these collaborations is in medicine, specifically clinical pain studies. In a number of papers, artist Deborah Padfield and researcher Joanna Zakrzewska describe the creation of depictions of facial expressions of varying degrees of pain to be used by patients in conveying their suffering to doctors. Pain rating scales are notoriously hard to use for this purpose; see a summary in The Lancet, and one of several published studies of the procedure’s effectiveness. Notice, though, that it’s hard to regard these pain rating cards themselves as artworks.

Finally, I’m more dubious of the idea of artists as all-purpose outsider critics, mostly because to ask a question that really reframes a live problem requires being fairly steeped in the technical details of the field. The ways of thinking that artists develop are tied to their tools and materials, their hand skills, and the vast network of art-historical references that they draw on. It isn’t clear what “exchange value” these might have for scientists.

6 Replies to “Transfigurations and exchanges”

  1. I made this comment elsewhere but I think it applies here too.
    short comment about the differences between the ‘language of art’ and the ‘language of science’.
    It might be obvious and for that reason overlooked: each individual artist uses a visual language specific to them and we the viewer need to get to understand their unique language in order to ‘read’ and understand their artwork and what they are trying to ‘say’. Even fellow artists need to decipher the unique visual language that their fellow artists use.
    Scientists (and indeed the whole science community) use a universally understood language. As such, scientists understand each other’s writings, terminology, visual imagery, annotations etc immediately. There are descriptive standards which facilitate precise understanding.

  2. While I believe the bulk of the collaboration between Art & Science is bound to happen in the creation of ideas during brainstorming, I am not sure there is no possibility of some type of fruitful interaction through the ‘loop back’. Scientists engaged with Art may find interesting/useful associations when thinking about the ramifications of what they are experiencing.
    I see Dan’s point, but I think that the ‘epistemically-oriented activities’ listed above are part of the methodology of modern science. I would not expect the methods of modern art to be of use in science either. Science and Art intersect in the discovery of ideas and in the cognitive processes leading to them. I am not sure that trying to find commonalities in the methods will be very useful.
    Please note that when I say *cognitive processes*, I am including the process of purposeful exploration through doing. This can be any type of interaction with the environment while in Flow, such as writing notes and drawing on a piece of paper or testing a move for a choreography. All creators tend to engage in this type of activity.

    1. Luis, I think that the cognitive overlap approach you sketch is one that often comes up, and there is probably something to it. At a certain level of generality all “purposeful exploration through doing” (to borrow your nice phrase) shares certain features. Even basic forms of exploration and play can be folded into this scheme, since they involve making moves and seeing how they change both the world and our experience of it.

      Without wanting to deny this, though, I worry about how far this gets us either theoretically or practically. Theoretically it remains to be seen whether we can give a substantial analysis of what this common creative capacity actually is. Practically speaking, if the same cognitive processes are already involved in both scientific and artistic practice, what is the benefit of combining them, since presumably they share the same basic mental resources and operations? I think this is why folks like Simon Penny argue that artists actually don’t think quite like scientists, and that it’s precisely the *difference* that is valuable.

      Anyway, to be clear, none of this is an argument against taking an anarchic collaborative approach towards discovery. I’m in favor of doing whatever works, in a broad sense. It’s just that I don’t think that our common psychology (if we have one) will help to explain the cases where it turns out to be productive.

    2. Luis I really like your characterization of the intersection of art and science and think that however that structure may be understood in the service of either or both disciplines is right..

  3. While I remain somewhat agnostic on the question of what art has to offer science, I can say that I wholly concur with your “strong claim,” Dan – that scientific content can’t survive the recontextualization as art. But as you suggest in citing Danto’s “transfiguration,” this in itself isn’t the problem. (An example we might consider here is Bernar Venet, the French artist who uses mathematical equations in his work. Even when they’re presented in full and are not rendered palimpsestic, the equations no longer read as the mathematical equations they are in their original context, and they’re not meant to. Instead, they might evoke things like the sublime power of mathematics, or the question of whether mathematics is “discovered” or invented, or the dreams of reason gone awry, or any number of other things we associate with that august cathedral that is mathematics. In this case the equations are entirely metaphorical, and in some of his best work they exude uncanny mystery and considerable poetic power.) The problem with much sci-art is its implicit claim that the science it involves is to be taken at face value, which is to say as actual science. I always feel it’s such a shame when I see this happening, because science as metaphor holds so much potential. Why settle for a kind of crude literalism that smacks of disingenuousness when the material is so loaded with rich poetic potential?

    1. It’s an interesting question how to think about Venet’s work. He personally seems to be concerned just with the “look” of equations, formulas, and graphs rather than anything they might mean. For him they are not even symbols, but uninterpreted marks, a new inventory of primitive elements for generating formal compositions that owes little or nothing to traditional styles of mark-making within painting. This accounts for the visually destabilized way they’re often presented (at strange angles, cropped, overlaid, etc.), which serves to block any intrusion of sense. Trying to see his paintings in this way requires, for me, actively working to suppress any thoughts I might have about mathematics itself. The interest of the works lies in discovering how long I can sustain that mildly strenuous form of looking.

      So in a way I think Venet’s work is actively trying not to be about mathematics. However, if I were to push a little bit further, I would say it has natural affinities with the view called formalism in the philosophy of mathematics. Formalists held that mathematics is not “about” abstract mathematical objects–there is no ontology of math. Instead, it is nothing more than it appears to be on the surface: a rule-governed practice of manipulating contentless written shapes. If formalism had a visual realization, this might be it (as long as we can keep sense from leaking through the canvas, anyway).

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