Translational research and everyday aesthetics

Dan Weiskopf/ The examples of science-art interactions discussed so far have mostly identified science with basic research and its products (theories, data, images, etc.). But science is heterogeneous, and the emphasis on theory neglects other forms it can take. Beyond the classical division between theorists and experimentalists, we also need to add modelers and simulation-builders, who craft and manipulate computational analogs of real-world systems. Perhaps most significant for thinking about science-art collaborations, though, is the comparatively new field of translational research.

Translational science aims not at creating theories or models, but at concrete making. As the slogan has it, the goal is to move “from bench to bedside”, producing useful products and therapies derived from discoveries in basic science. Synthetic biology is the paradigmatic translational field. Its experiments are not geared towards exploring a domain of phenomena or seeking confirmation of a hypothesis, but towards discovering ways of synthesizing new drugs, organisms, materials, and technologies. To the extent that translational science can be understood as producing knowledge, its most direct product is practical knowledge about designing and creating highly tailored living systems. While it typically centers on biomedical applications, the expanded field of translational science includes wider community applications in addition to clinical ones. Needless to say, it’s also hoped that all of these will have lucrative commercial potential.

As Suzanne mentioned, a paradigm for cooperative creation between translational scientists and artists and designers is the Biodesign Challenge. A few of its highlighted projects include biomorphic architecture, Suzanne Lee’s “biocouture” (bacterially-derived textile products), and cheaply grown water filtration systems. These products of translational science are meant to be lived with: inhabited, used, worn, touched and manipulated, even ingested (as in the case of new synthesized foodstuffs). They need to be not just functional, but also desired. Some aspects of the role that design thinking plays in synthetic biology are explored in the volume “Synthetic Aesthetics” and other work by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Artists whose main goal is producing gallery-bound objects of distant contemplation may not see this as involving art at all. In a narrow and somewhat proprietary sense, this is probably right. But so what? The artworld as it exists now is arguably a historical oddity, and one whose continued existence is not guaranteed. As the recent surge of writing on everyday aesthetics has made clear, aesthetic experience overflows the boundaries of art per se. The made world that we inhabit is permeated by aesthetic qualities that are, to most people, more present and relevant than the hothouse flowers of the artworld.

Having said all that, my main objection to this argument is that it sketches a role that isn’t obviously limited to science. All design involves understanding and extending the potential ways that novel materials can be shaped and transformed, hence the artistic contribution here may not involve anything that engages specifically with the project of translational research as opposed to any other way of making things for use. On this general topic, Glenn Parson’s recent book on the philosophy of design is worth a look, as is the site Design Research Failures.


3 Replies to “Translational research and everyday aesthetics”

  1. Dan, on the “..hothouse flowers of the artworld” : In that they have become rarefied arguments of style, and in that they for the most part mimic the proclivities of the people ( maybe 10%) who trade in them, I understand your pointing to the glory of capitalist enterprise- when it is working for “good”. As much as it is exciting to develop ideas that are “useful” as I have said before, I am loath to give up the image of art’s larger critical function. It is possible that the conflation of the aesthetics of art with design will obviate art in every realm, including its most spiritual sense, and I dont know where to look to make claims for it on the grounds of art of any hybrid or “pure ” state. Something I loved and observed in India that I often think of as art: The custom of the sadhu who walks from village to village, standing in its midst shouting out profanity, reviling prominent people and in general creating a totally upsetting atmosphere for a time before going on their way to other locales. What is interesting to me about this practice is that it is accepted ostensibly by all and yet defines itself outside normal social and political parameters. I guess it may be a form of religion but more, one of ethics.

    1. Linda, you say: “As much as it is exciting to develop ideas that are “useful,” as I have said before, I am loath to give up the image of art’s larger critical function. It is possible that the conflation of the aesthetics of art with design will obviate art in every realm, including its most spiritual sense…” This is an interesting point. But I wonder if something that’s useful — i.e., design — can’t also be critical or spiritual. I’m imagining things along the lines of, say, conceptual artist Jonathon Keats’s “Temple of Science.” (Temple of Science). Actually, now that I think about it, Keats is somebody I should have mentioned long ago. He’s someone who works at the (crowded) intersection of “experimental philosophy,” art, design, science, and technology (and with the temple, albeit with tongue in cheek, religion). His new project is something called the Metroscope, which is essentially a set of small public parks shaped like whatever city they inhabit in which thousands of lights will display patterns of the city’s activity (how many toilets are being flushed, how many lights are on, how many cars are clogging the streets) to nightly visitors. While data visualization has become ubiquitous in our time, engaging in it as a shared, intentional activity — and one in which people could contribute their own visualizations — might make it the transformative experience it must be both to galvanize change and to be moving *as art.*

    2. Hi Linda: on the question of usefulness, I’d just point to the claims of architecture, ceramics, textiles, and other crafts to be fusions of aesthetic quality and practical utility. Whether one wants to think of crafted objects as artworks (not obviously the right thing to say, in my view), the two properties don’t drive each other out. Craft’s history is at least as long as art’s, so the prospect of design usurping art’s status within the realm of the aesthetic doesn’t seem likely to me.

      As you noted, there’s a certain notion of art as being like the sadhu, an itinerant critical troublemaker subservient to nothing except its own transcendent spiritual and moral vision. I can certainly see the appeal. (Philosophy, too, can be like this, with its endless Socrates-fixation.) This enfant terrible role should be firmly historicized, and it isn’t anything like a universal, but it also doesn’t seem in any danger of dying out, if only because being a strident critic can be an effective way of securing status and attention (for some appropriately situated individuals, at least).

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