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.