Art + Science = Magic (Or Not?)

7.2 / Art, Science, and Wonder

Art + Science = Magic (Or Not?)

By Christopher Reiger October 29, 2015

I recently watched a network television news segment highlighting the remarkable innovation of the twentieth century. The panel interview featured the astronaut Buzz Aldrin and biographers David McCullough and Walter Isaacson. McCullough was promoting The Wright Brothers, his bestselling account of the aviation pioneers, and Aldrin spoke about his famous moon walk. This pairing was compelling; it’s staggering to contemplate the fact that Orville and Wilbur Wright’s famous liftoff in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, and Aldrin's lunar landing were separated by just sixty-six years. Issacson, who was included because of his recent popular history of computer science, The Innovators, asserted that both the Wright brothers’ feat and the launch of the US space program were products of the interface of art and science. Isaacson states:

…connect[ing] arts and science [is] what we did when we created the space program. That’s what Wilbur and Orville Wright [did], they were people of pure curiosity. And this connecting faculty—to say it’s the arts and the sciences, when they come together […] that’s where innovation lies.1

According to Isaacson, when we combine art and science, spectacular innovation results. That makes for a nice sound bite, but is it really true that the Wright brothers got Flyer I airborne or that NASA built the Apollo program because they connected art and science? Unless you consider engineering to be art, I think not (such a case can be made, but that’s not what we typically have in mind when we use the term). Nevertheless, statements such as Issacson’s are becoming commonplace and they’re generally received approvingly: art plus science equals magic.

A decade ago, however, even the suggestion that art and science were correlates would have raised eyebrows. When I attended an MFA program in the early 2000s, professors and classmates remarked on the fact that I was more interested in reading about physics and natural history than I was about art; my interest in science was unusual. Today, many peers share my fascination with science. What are we to make of this shift? In the last few years, especially, it seems as though everyone is buzzing about the significant relationship of art and science, and new efforts to cultivate interdisciplinary projects are announced each week.

A view of the Apollo 11 lunar module "Eagle" as it returned from the surface of the moon to dock with the command module "Columbia." Command module pilot Michael Collins took this picture just before docking at 21:34:00 UT (5:34 p.m. EDT) 21 July 1969. (Apollo 11, AS11-44-6642). (Public domain)

The Bay Area has long been at the vanguard of this trend. In 1968, Stewart Brand published the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine that championed “whole systems thinking” and is regarded by many as a catalyst for the tinkering or “maker” movement that thrives in our region. One year later, the Exploratorium was founded by Frank Oppenheimer, who insisted that art and science were complementary modes of inquiry. More recently, in 1997, the artist and engineer Ken Goldberg founded UC Berkeley’s Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium to “consider contemporary issues at the intersection of aesthetic expression, emerging technologies, and cultural history.” A decade later, in 2008, Piero Scaruffi launched the Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) lecture series to nurture interdisciplinary activity in the Bay Area and to push back against the twentieth century’s prioritization of specialization over general knowledge.2

In the past five years, art-science activity in the Bay Area has ramped up: in 2011, I cofounded BAASICS, a nonprofit that produces programming and digital media exploring contemporary topics through the juxtaposition of art and science; also in 2011, the California College of the Arts launched its “Exploring Science in the Studio” pilot program, offering courses that “provide students the opportunity to understand science […] as directly relevant to their studio practice”; and, in 2014, in partnership with Leonardo/The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (ISAST), the Djerassi Resident Artists Program launched “Scientific Delirium Madness,” a residency bringing together artists and scientists to “explore and expand how the creativity of scientists and artists are connected.”3

The art-science meme has spread well beyond the Bay Area, too. Grants, exhibitions, and residencies focused on the intersection of art and science are proliferating both in the United States and abroad, and the movement to promote education that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) is now almost as popular a talking point as STEM, its artless predecessor.

I’m gratified by this proliferation of interest, but the blanket embrace of the art-science connection has led to some rhetorical abuse of the idea. For example, many champions of the movement argue that art and science are so alike they’re virtually the same. To the contrary, art and science make good bedfellows precisely because they are so different from one another: just consider the objective aims of science versus the subjective experience of making or viewing art.

Moreover, in art circles at least, the art-science craze has given rise to a misplaced emphasis on art-science collaboration—misplaced because, with few exceptions, the products of endeavors such as the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) artists-in-labs program are vaguely science-like artworks that baffle or amuse scientists and disappoint most artists.4 Still, although the concrete results of such orchestrated art-science collaborations are typically forced and forgettable, the discourse between the artists and scientists involved often proves worthwhile.

In 2013, BAASICS participated in Science Foo Camp, an annual gathering organized by Google, O’Reilly Media, Digital Science, and the journal Nature that “brings together people from around the world who are doing groundbreaking work in diverse areas of science and technology.”5 During the “Art & Science” session that the BAASICS team helped lead and facilitate, a theoretical physicist stressed the "fundamental importance of conversation," explaining how personally and professionally valuable his longtime relationship with a sculptor had been; another participant, a molecular biologist cum inventor, highlighted the different approaches to concepts of error and rightness in art and science, contending that certain types of contemporary science could benefit from more willingness to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty.6 Similarly, in a 2013 interview with the online art magazine Hyperallergic, the artist Emilie Clark observed that “if done seriously, artists who work in close dialogue with science have the ability to create a kind of third space—a space that is not strictly science and not strictly art […] that can teach the viewer how to consider the science from an alternative perspective.”7 This gets to the marrow of why I feel it’s important to foment creative exchange and long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between artists and scientists: both groups have so much to gain through cross-discipline interaction. Additionally, when contemporary art and science are presented cheek by jowl, audiences of all kinds are more likely to think about how art and science relate to one another and to society at large.

In 2008, I created a Venn diagram to illustrate an essay I wrote about the work of the artist Matthew Day Jackson. The diagram, pictured here, depicts the relationship of science, art, religion, and philosophy. At their best, each of these spheres of inquiry awakens or invigorates our capacity for wonder and provides a means of engaging our astonishing existence. Each sphere makes use of a different approach, but they are fundamentally complementary. When I created the graphic, I had in mind the scientist and historian Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of nonoverlapping magisteria, an attempt to resolve the conflict between science and religion by describing them as separate-but-equal spheres of human inquiry. Gould insisted the spheres of science and religion are nonoverlapping because good science trades in facts to explain material phenomena whereas religion traffics in the unverifiable and the unobservable. Where science seeks to demystify, and to build on each subsequent revelation to learn more, religion aims to make the mundane sacred, to make the ordinary extraordinary. As my diagram shows, art and philosophy share traits with both science and religion and, while I agree with Gould that science and religion don’t overlap, it’s important to note that all four magisteria are realms of the question (i.e., although the methodologies of genuine scientists, philosophers, artists, and religious thinkers may differ, all are preoccupied with interrogating our world).8 Contrary to the caricature of the scientist as the white-coated statistician ready to provide any and all answers, science is like a matryoshka doll, a series of questions nested within questions. The same is true of exemplary art, philosophy, and religion: any answer arrived at is merely a stage for another question.9

But if we’re ghettoized, isolated in our spheres within spheres, any answers we ferret out are necessarily incomplete. The questions are more rich and the answers more robust when we interact with one another. Today’s exciting molecular biology breakthroughs were made possible because chemists, physicists, and biologists freely shared ideas and then were able to take advantage of the tremendous leaps in computational power made possible by engineers and computer scientists. The more we’re willing to open the conversation, the more rich the possibilities will be. That’s really what Issacson was getting at when he touted the “connecting faculty” of the Wright brothers. Despite focusing on art and science, his observation has very little to do with art and science per se; he was just excited about people connecting the dots between apparently disparate fields and, in so doing, creating astonishing constellations.

We  have to be specialists—there’s simply too much experience and information to parse for us not to choose areas of expertise—but specialization should be complemented with “whole systems thinking.” The late author and scientist Jacob Bronowski contended that scientific reductionism represents the best way we have of decoding an interconnected world, but he cautioned that the approach results in distorted, incomplete representations. “Nature is more subtle, more deeply intertwined and more strangely integrated than any of our pictures of her—than any of our errors,” he wrote.10 So he championed bilingualism: “I grew up to be indifferent to the distinction between literature and science, […] simply two languages for experience that I learned together.”11 The burgeoning popular interest in art-science dialogue is therefore something to be celebrated, even if the rhetoric is sometimes extravagant and the forced collaborations wanting. We can be specialists in the studio and laboratory and generalists otherwise, engaging in conversation with all of our curious peers.

Notes

  1. CBS News, “Face the Nation Transcripts September 6: Fiorina, Gingrich, Aldrin,” September 6, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/face-the-nation-transcripts-september-6-fiorina-gingrich-aldrin/.
  2. At the turn of the twenty-first century, both art and science generally lived apart from popular culture, and we—that is, those of us active in the fine arts—were complicit in this ghettoization because we’d been so long content to carry on a conversation among ourselves. We'd come to prefer our tribe's voices over others’, and there was—and is still today—a surplus of insider commentary and critique passed off as art. Almost all of this work and wordiness is irrelevant to the world outside the art-ghetto walls and, because young artists have been educated in this context, with little or no pedagogical emphasis on disciplines other than art theory, the art and commentary has become, over time, increasingly provincial. The source of this contemporary predicament is as old as modernism, and it is a great relief to see so many in the arts push back against this state of affairs.
  3. “Scientific Delirium Madness,” Djerassi Resident Artists Program, http://djerassi.org/scientific-delirium-madness.html.
  4. Notable exceptions are the exemplary efforts of artist-scientist hybrids like Brandon Ballengée or Phil Ross, whose projects succeed because they blur the line between artist and scientist/engineer.
  5. “Sci Foo Camp 2015,” Digital Science, http://www.digital-science.com/events/scifoo-camp-2015/.
  6. “Sci Foo Camp Postgame Report,” BAASICS, http://www.baasics.com/sci-foo-camp-postgame-report/.
  7. Allison Meier, “Art Exploring the Worlds of Female Victorian Scientists,” Hyperallergic, September 27, 2013.
  8. While the science and religion spheres do not overlap, I contend that, where their circles meet, the membrane is semipermeable, and the bleeding of one realm into the other represents the very pinnacle of art and philosophy.
  9. Sadly, among the religious population, dogmatists and fundamentalists far outnumber the open-minded.
  10. Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values (New York: Julian Messner, 1956), http://www.thefullwiki.org/Jacob_Bronowski#wikiquote_Science_and_Human_Values__281956_2C_1965_29.
  11. Quotation in John Wakeman, World Authors 1950–1970 (New York: Wilson, 1975), 221–23, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jacob_Bronowski.

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