Just a quick note:
In case you know anyone who is interested in doing a PhD at the Open University/University of East Anglia, they are advertising social science PhD studentships. Methods & materialities are amongst the fields applications are invited for…
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.
Mysterious sun or poisonous vapour? Somewhat disconnected thoughts on the history of imagining electricity
Source: Tesla Society
While struggling to get the right sort of camping gear and all sorts of other stuff together for the first public appearance of Mutable Matter, I’m also in the process reading articles about electricity. Not because I am paranoid that a lightning bolt might hit my tent next week (though if one tent is going to be hit, it’s bound to be mine!), but because I am curious how people have imagined or are imagining electricity and what consequences this had/has.
The first article I came across was Steven Connor’s ‘Volts from the Blue’. It opens with a delightful paragraph on how the author’s mother imagined some kind of ‘electric matter’ creeping out of sockets. She thought that ‘one should never leave unoccupied plugs switched on overnight lest the electricity should leak out, and spread across the room at ankle level, in a deadly, prickly, miasmatic carpet’. Wow – this is even better than the dialogue in Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s book ‘The Disenchanted Night’ in which a couple is wondering what would happen if the wires broke and electricity ‘leaked out’ and accumulated in places (a great sentence is: ‘My dear wife, one can breathe electricity without the least danger.’). I guess if we had more people like Steven Connor’s mother, we would not have so many problems with household CO2 emissions from standby appliances! Anyway… The article pulls together very nicely how electricity was imagined in the last four centuries and manages to give an insight into how its assumed ‘strange’, ‘mysterious’ nature lent itself to all sorts of speculation – and application.
According to Connor, the first ‘epoch’ of electric imagination is characterised by electricity as a ‘sensory object, something that could be seen, known and understood.’ At times it was even described as ‘aromatic’ (!). The second stage of our interaction with it (‘after Faraday’) is more abstract, use-value orientated. Electricity could now be managed and more efficiently exploited, so it did not matter anymore what it was made up of. It became invisible in more than one sense. From Connor’s article one gets the impression that the ‘immaterial’ is associated with the future. Creating ‘energy from nothing’ is still a dream (as is ‘substance from nothing’ if one recalls early announcements from certain nanotechnology pioneers).
‘Electricity represented the future, gas the clinging, lingering past. Gas was slow, odorous, insidious, organic, laborious, approximate, fluctuating, mucky, noisy and massy. Electricity was fast, clean, absolute, mathematical and abstract. Gas lighting is mysterious, impulsive, erotic…’
Connor also writes that ‘dematerialised electricity began to immaterialise the world’. Hmh. Did it?
The article triggered connections with a number of things I had come across recently e.g. the film ‘The Prestige’ (with David Bowie as Nikola Tesla!), Nigel Thrift’s ‘Electric Animals’, the aforementioned ‘The Disenchanted Night’, and, of course, the debates about the current energy dilemma: are the non-renewable resources such as coal, oil or gas currently portrayed as ‘slow, odorous, insidious, organic, laborious, approximate, fluctuating, mucky, noisy and massy’? Do we think of them as that when we fill up our car, cook our meals or turn on the heater?
Is energy from sun, wind or water the new fantasy of ‘energy from nothing’? Or is energy ‘from the elements’ in fact more ‘primitive’ and fickle than non-renewable resources? And which category does nuclear energy belong to? How people relate to different kinds of energy and how a particular energy is portrayed or imagined fascinates me. Always, the depictions seem to be riddled with contradictions. I vividly remember a discussion I had with a landrover owner who got annoyed that yuppies now rode them around town as a status symbol and don’t use them like him – to drive into the hills and appreciate nature. The destruction of the nature in question through roads, car tires, pollution, CO2 emissions etc is completely disconnected from this picture.
Nigel Thrift’s ‘Electric Animals’ talks about a different kind of nature. He finds that software enables the creation of an ‘electric wilderness’ by animating inanimate constructs. Recently, technology is not just handling, disenfranchising or ‘immaterialising’ (= extinguishing) animals, but it is learning from them and integrating animalistic elements into its design (think Luigi Colani/Janine Benyus or robotic hedghogs?). Thrift puts it this way:
‘just as the materiality of technology has become an insistent force in the world of animals so the materiality of animals has become an insistent force in the world of technology.’
His other statement that ‘the future has a tendency to turn up not as some kind of gleaming and polished modernity but as overused and battered pieces of equipment’ I had to think about when I read ‘The Disenchanted Night’, which follows the (one could say ‘nonlinear’) development of (and public reactions towards) artificial lighting. Sometimes things discarded by ‘progress’ re-materialise: the lightbulb is in some respects more archaic than the gas lamp. What I also found interesting was the mixed reactions towards gas and, later, electricity. Some considered electricity to be clean, purifying and ‘good for your health’ and others fearfully put up their umbrellas to ‘protect themselves from the rays of this mysterious new sun’.
Electricity’s primeval connection with thunder and magic is not only evoked Schivelbusch’s book, but also in the film ‘The Prestige’ (follow the link to look up the plot summary). It makes you think about how electricity must have appeared like magic when it was first implemented in everyday life – and how it still achieves to imbue buildings, performances or new technological gadgets with aura of ‘magic’. Two major figures in the development of ‘electricity for the masses’ – the ‘unseen’ Thomas Edison (see Channel 4 review) and the more visible, eccentric Nikola Tesla – are also featured in the film. The Prestige shows them as rivals obsessed with proving that their way of working with electricity is the right one, probably after the ‘real’ rivalry of the ‘War of Currents’. Actually, the visibility is sort of reversed in the film and played around with all the time (after all, this film focuses on the enmity of to magicians!). For instance, Tesla, defamed as a madness-ridden magician or alchemist, is hiding away in seclusion – he is ‘visible’ only in the film. Edison is not visible in the film, but is the more acceptable public figure, an ‘engineer’ – and his light bulbs are everywhere. On the other hand, Edison’s lightbulbs are now so taken for granted and do not spell-bind as much as the visible electric force of the Tesla coil which is re-build and shown by many ‘coilers’ around the world. And certainly, how the two engineers envisioned electricity contributed to their invention style.
From: The Prestige
I wonder whether the current combination of ever-presence and hiddenness of electricity makes us not try to build a picture of electricity and the materialities that give rise to it – and our ability to handle it in such a casual manner. In this respect I agree with Connor that dematerialised electricity immaterialises. But I also wonder whether it can re-materialise?