Again, this is of interest to French-speakers. I will try to get hold of the book as soon as possible to write a summary for this blog. ‘La science (n’)e(s)t (pas) l’art’, the latest book by physicist/philosopher Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, is currently causing some emotional debates on the art-science scene. Particulary amongst the editors and readers of the journal ‘Leonardo’, the book has caused quite a stir. An example is Leonardo editor Roger Malina’s rebuttal on his blog. A review in the same journal suggests that the tension between the vision of art-science advocated by Leonardo and Lévy-Leblond’s vision should be taken as a productive one. I am curious how this debate will develop…
I am also curious to read Lévy-Leblond’s views on art, as I am mainly familiar with his views on public engagement with science (e.g. his excellent article on expertise ingeniously titled ‘About misunderstandings about misunderstandings’).
Tracy Hicks, Moose. Source: National Academy of Sciences Online
A friend (thanks, Stephen!) has just retrieved this event from the data jungle: the National Academy of Sciences’ ‘Visual Culture and Evolution Online Symposium’.
I am not sure how an online symposium works, but I’m sure I’ll find out between 5-14 April 2010!
More information can be found out through their blog on which all the action appears to be taking place…
See you there!
At the beginning of this project, in 2006, I wrote what’s generally called a ‘working paper’ (now part of various thesis chapters) about social science and art methods to think about some of the themes that would become more prominent in the project, which used art-practice inspired methods. For the project, as well out of general curiosity, I have been going to a variety of art-science events, at which I keep finding the same themes appearing, not necessarily in the presentations themselves, but in the post-talk discussions. These discussions occasionally surprise through their condensation of these themes and the ferocity of some of the exchanges (when I brought some artist friends from a different field, they appeared rather shocked). Contrary to what the recent influx of art/science literature wants to have us believe, it feels like the major debates in this burgeoning field are not taking place between artists/non-science academia on side, and science on the other, but between and amongst artists and non-science academia. Non-science academia, in this case, includes arts, humanities and the social sciences. A known minefield is the naming of the work that is alternately called art-science, art, sci-art, art-science encounters, which I might dare to comment on in a follow-up post.
In this post, I would like to draw attention to a debate that, through artist/social scientist hybridity and my involvement with so-called ‘creative research methods’, I have a particular interest in. The last event I went to, ‘Kryolab’ (facilitated by UCL’s Tesla team), conveniently delivered most of the contentious issues in one post-talk extravaganza. What are the issues? They could be expressed in the format ‘art vs. research’ or, to put it into more familiar terms: what does an artist do?
One position seems to be that the arts ‘lack definition’ and method. Popular questions from this position are:
‘What is your research question?’
‘What is your contribution to knowledge?’
‘What is your epistemology?’ (no worries, if you don’t know that word, it took quite a few people by surprise at the event in question)
The first two questions are normally asked of anyone claiming to do university research (science and non-science), the third question appears to be more of a non-science academia issue. But what about applying them to art? Rather than this being just a general arts issue, it seems to me that the artist crossing into the space of science is particularly held accountable with these sorts of questions.
Needless to say, the above position attracts a lot of critique, not necessarily, as some people claim, from ‘practitioners’ (a word that is used in increasingly interesting ways), but from, if that separation can be made at all, academics or other sorts of critics. This critique is often characterised by a desire to make advocates of this particular form of artistic research rigour reconsider the question ‘what is research?’
Positions tend to lie mostly between these two lines of argumentations:
Yes, we do research. We do it in different, but related ways, following a goal, a question, coming to conclusions. Our affective working with materials is part of the process of discovery of new knowledge. Sometimes it is added that this knowledge is co-shaped by the materials themselves which, in artistic research, is more openly acknowledged.
The second position is more openly provocative: no, we don’t do research, we do art. Art makes its contribution precisely through not being research. We play, transform, experiment, bring together new things outside and beyond the limits of academic research.
As many artists are also keen to point out, the kind of research questions academia is allowed to ask is frequently determined by the conditions attached to grant money or considerations regarding RAE ratings – and not as purely intellectually motivated as it comes across. Of course, artists are accused of a similar thing – that they often have to accept work because of their ‘precarious financial standing’ as it is described in the article ‘The logics of interdisciplinarity’ from the Interdisciplinarity and Society project.
As a hybrid artist/social scientist I am interested in these tensions. This interest is not motivated, as the phrase ‘interest in tensions’ might indicate, by a form of intellectual disaster tourism, but by a curiosity about where these debates might lead… or whether the discussants decide that these questions cannot – or should not – be answered. For my part, I am more and more drawn towards the questions our interactions with materials and the increasingly indeterminable human-material boundaries bring to the surface. These kinds of questions – about materiality, affect, engagement – seem to appear particularly in the kinds of things recent art-science work is trying to tackle. The questions ‘what is art-research?’ or ‘what makes art different from research?’ and their references to the different materialities of research, could be interpreted as one further example of our tentative probing around our, as Karen Barad would put it, ‘intra-relationship’ with matter.
For people grappling with similar or related issues, there have been a few projects and articles that have addressed this theme. Unfortunately, some of them have been taken off the web since 2006, so I will just give a few functioning links I have mentioned during conversations. The ones that can be accessed without having to go through special channels are:
Landing – eight collaborative projects between artists and geographers – which features some useful essays in the bottom left hand corner
Other examples require access to libraries or research networks:
Recent examples are Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life’, Barbara Maria Stafford’s ‘Good Looking’ (the page is worth visiting for the funky design alone), Cornelia Hesse-Honegger’s essays in ‘Heteroptera’, Joseph Beuys’ and Volker Harlan’s conversations on What is art?, Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, Deleuze & Guattari’s What is philosophy? and Michel Serres’ The Five Senses (Steven Connor’s talk is the closest there is to a preview). Also, there is a useful article called ‘Researcher as Artist/Artist as Researcher’ by Susan Finley and J. Gary Knowles (requires special access) which provides thoughts on the above named issues.
Feel free to post thoughts or links to alternative publications.
Just a quick note about a forthcoming event at the UCL’s Tesla art-science forum.
‘The project brings together bioart, ice sculpture and sound, in an investigation of delicate relationships in the Arctic ecosystem. It traces their individual and collective journeys, in terms of investigative art/science research as well as in terms of being part of the experimental European/world wide collaborative e-MobiLArt project.’
Details about the event, including instructions how to find the room (print them out, you will need them – I had quite some trouble finding the lecture theatre last time…), can be found here.
See you there!
Photo: Leon Muraglia
Four of my friends went to the Cyclotron in Oslo last Friday to attend a concert based on the research that is happening there. I managed to find the webpage for the event, but it’s in Norwegian (you might want to try the web translation). Apparently, the event was quite busy – I assume because it was both because of the music/cyclotron as well as the cheap beer – and had some interesting dynamics between people.
Photo: Leon Muraglia
As far as I can tell from my friend’s report as well as the webpage, the music was preceded by a tour of the cyclotron by a physicist. My friends seemed to like his style and the explanations he gave about physics relationship with with ‘Science’ and politics. As for the music, taped sounds from the cyclotron were used as well as liquid nitrogen (e.g. inside a loudspeaker), superconductors and a guitar. It was an experiment, so some things worked better than others, but generally, people appreciated the effort. Later in the evening, some students apparently started booing. One of my friends was explained that it had to do with a tension between the science and the humanities (?) department. Apparently, some science students wanted their space back or did not want intrusion by crazy music people – or maybe just wanted to have a quiet beer? Sounds like I missed some of this mythical art-science/two-cultures opposition business in the wild – damn! Does anybody have more information on this?
Image source: Exploring the Invisible
Thanks to a friend who specialises in knowing about free things in London (thanks, Ron!), I found out about the Tesla art-science group at UCL and their free talk series, facilitated by Gordana Novakovic and Amanda Egbe. Conveniently close to the British Library where I’d been hovering over some books for most of the day, their most recent talk, ‘Creative Collaborations with Superorganisms’ also made a convenient break from reading/writing routine. The talk was given by Dr. Simon Park, a microbiologist from the University of Surrey, who became interested in engaging people with field through art-science.
I think the talk would have been equally interesting had he just talked about microbes for hours. After all, one doesn’t get exposed to the intricacies of the field through mainstream media very often, apart from the one half hour of ‘The Material World’ once a week if you’re lucky or, somewhat second hand, through a food scare or the like. Although I do listen to ‘The Material World’ as often as I can, there were quite a few things in his talk I did not know about or had ascribed to the latest fantasies of social scientists or science fiction writers. The biggest surprise, perhaps, was that we can culture and study only a small part of bacteria ‘out there’ (I think it was around 1% !) – there is a vast area of what Park terms ‘Dark Microbiological Matter’ of which we don’t know what they do in the environment.
At the beginning of the talk, Park traced the joint human-bacterial history and co-evolution. Obviously, humans entered the picture a bit later and remain ‘a process instead of becoming a finished beast’ (I think he was quoting W. Hou Je Bek there). Park showed how our body is made up of distinctly separate, but symbiotic bacteria and cell territories. A telling example later on about our relationship with bacteria was death by cyanide: cyanide is not harmful to the body, but kills the bacteria in such a fashion that the bacterial exodus kills the body.
In terms of our human-bacterial future, Parks pointed towards the current climate change debate. He lamented that we only know that bacteria can have huge effects on the climate, but about the ‘how’ we can only speculate.
Next, we were given an insight into bacterial life which is ‘not as simple as people think’. For instance, they can respond to their environment, order themselves into formations, communicate with each other, pack hunt, ‘vote’ on a decision (e.g. sporulation) and grow into different shapes according to their environment. Their behaviour ‘in the wild’ also differs from their behaviour in controlled laboratory environments (must be one hell of a job to study them!). It was interesting to hear that bacteria sometimes ‘form patterns that scientists don’t understand yet’.
Park then moved on to the ‘art side’ of the talk, drawing attention to the fact, that microbiology already meets art (the word ‘bacteri-art’ came to my mind…) in both useful and annoying ways: all art has invisible microflora growing in or on it (which can destroy artworks or be the purpose of them at the same time), and there is, of course, an overlap of artistic and technical representation in science illustration. We were shown some examples of ‘art directly or accidentally portraying microbes’ – examples of illnesses or notable absence of bacteria – and some more recent examples of artworks where microbes were used as part of the artistic process, starting from Alexander Fleming’s ‘germ paintings’. Other artists included Daro Montag, Edgar Lissel and Susan Boafo (who used algae and light for her project ‘Speaking with the Sun’).
In the last part of the talk, Park presented some of the outcomes of his own collaborations. In the first of these, the ’60 Days of Goodbye Poems of Ophelia’, artist Jo Wonder and Park tried to recreate the John Everett Millais painting with bacteria to document the painting’s life cycle. It was quite amusing to hear Park talk about ‘finding a suitable bacterial palette’ for the ‘morphing painting’. I wonder what Millais would have though about this endeavour…
Other projects included the ‘Microcosmos’, an installation using the colour, shape and even DNA sequences to created sounds and moving visuals, ‘Cybernetic Bacteria’ which explored links between organic and digital forms of communication, a project amplifying ‘bacterial fingerprints’, ‘Exploring the Invisible’ during which bioluminescent bacteria were grown in such quantities that they could run their own photobooth, and ‘Creative Collaborations with Natural Unruly Forms’, a project using Park’s ‘favourite’ species: slime mould. The latter explores the slime mould’s capacity to move over objects in search of food, creating ‘intelligent biogenic designs’. If I remember correctly, slime mould can even find the quickest way out of a maze (which I probably wouldn’t ;) ).
The Q & A was also very fascinating. We all came from quite different backgrounds with different interests in the subject matter, so the questions and comments ranged from our body’s design based on cell death to the ‘geology of blood’ (how iron and other ‘inorganic’ substances evolved into the body from the environment). The latter prompted Park to talk about the ‘arms race’ between the body and bacteria to bind iron during an infection.
So, by the end of the evening, we all ended up with a positively weird picture of hungry, ambitious, sociable, hitch-hiking, exploring, communicating bacteria which artist are helping to ‘express themselves’ in different sort of ‘collaborations’, for instance, by making them grow on and in different materials (I most vividly remember the growths in the agar agar jars and the shockingly exquisite bacterial fabric designs). It made me very curious about what kind of ‘collaborations’ there will be in the future between different forms of live – in and outside of art. Watch this space!