Artistic Inquiries, Public Inquiries

7.2 / Art, Science, and Wonder

Artistic Inquiries, Public Inquiries

By Marina McDougall October 29, 2015

The value of art in the production of knowledge is well appreciated within the art discourse. Educational literature affirms the role of the arts in expanding the imagination and inspiring creativity. Residencies, conferences, and college programs are dedicated to the work of artists making positive changes in civic life. Yet, the role of art for the most part remains misunderstood in mainstream public education. For the general population, art is still often relegated to the province of the decorative or the superfluous, and the role of artists in society is not taken seriously. Art advocates developing national educational policy in both the United States and the United Kingdom rationalize the importance of the arts by using instrumentalist and vocational arguments related to innovation and workforce development. 

Given this context, it’s inspiring to return to accounts of passionate visionaries such as John Andrew Rice, the founder of the celebrated Black Mountain College in the 1930s, to consider the ways in which art-based education can transform society by engendering “not professional painters, sculptors, musicians or writers of novels and poetry, but people who will have the artistic approach to life as a whole and to everything in life…"1

Like Black Mountain College, the San Francisco Exploratorium’s core educational ethos of open-ended inquiry was inspired by the progressive philosopher John Dewey, who advocated for the democratization of art and believed that everyone benefits from learning with and through the arts.2 Also similar to Black Mountain College, the Exploratorium’s roots can be traced to pedagogical reform and a radical concept of how education can bring about social change.

Harrell Fletcher’s project, The Best Things in Museums are the Windows (2014), was a four-day walk (including a sailboat ride across the San Francisco Bay) to the top of Mount Diablo. The project explored the everyday world as an outdoor classroom and probed the porous relationship between a museum and its surrounding communities. Along the route, individuals illuminated aspects of the landscape with talks, demonstrations, and activities. 

In the 1950s, the Exploratorium’s founder, Frank Oppenheimer—having emerged from a dark, personal struggle after his involvement in the Manhattan Project and academic estrangement during the McCarthy era—participated in a national effort to remake science education. While at the University of Colorado, Oppenheimer developed a novel approach for teaching physics: “A Library of Experiments.” Instead of introducing physics abstractly in textbooks, the Library included nearly one hundred models of classical laboratory experiments and embraced an experiential model that “allowed students to explore phenomena at their own pace and according to their own inclinations.”3 Science educators acclaimed Oppenheimer’s Library since students more readily observed cause-and-effect relationships with these transparent demonstrations, and the Library became replicated in other university settings.

For Oppenheimer, the Library suggested something further: a new form of public museum. In 1965, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to research historical science museums in Europe, such as the Palais de la Découverte in Paris and the Deutsches Museum in Munich. During his travels, Oppenheimer gained further conviction for the vital role that museums can play in enhancing public learning and how his vision for a new kind of hybrid museum would be different.

Frank Oppenheimer’s Library of Experiments at the University of Colorado, Boulder

In 1969, Oppenheimer’s vision manifested as the revolutionary Exploratorium, a museum of “science, art and human perception,” located in San Francisco’s cavernous Palace of Fine Arts (one of the few buildings remaining from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915). At the Exploratorium’s inception, artists played key roles as contributors to this ever-expanding experiment in public pedagogy.4 By the mid 1970s, the museum’s first art programs had been established, and the floor was laid out as a kind of curriculum: a public library of educational props that could be explored, adapted, and used according to the visitor’s interests. Oppenheimer, who viewed art as a “basic form of knowing and learning…as an essential mode of communication and discovery,” engaged artists to work alongside physicists, biologists, and engineers in the development of museum exhibits.5  He described artists and scientists as “the official ‘noticers’ of society—those who help us pay attention to things we’ve either never learned to see or have learned to ignore."6

At its new site on San Francisco’s downtown waterfront, Pier 15, the Exploratorium continues to combine elements of a science laboratory, artist studio, and public museum. Behind-the-scenes work leads to the design and development of new learning approaches, tools, experiences, and environments that pique a sense of curiosity and inspire a diverse public toward greater awareness and social participation.

Today we draw upon our own legacy with the working assumption that artistic inquiries inspire public inquiries. Within the Exploratorium’s culture, artists are revered for the way in which they frame questions in unusual and valuable ways. Exploratorium curators and educators are experienced in developing approaches with multiple perspectives to a given theme, and they seek artists who will illuminate a subject or a teaching approach with fresh insight.

In the celebrated, longitudinal study of Robert Irwin’s lifework, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler reveals what the contours of a life dedicated to artistic inquiry can encompass. The chapters of the book unfold like the course of Irwin’s life: one phase of exploration succeeding another. Irwin’s work takes on different forms as the nature of his intuitive investigation into “phenomenal presence” shifts over time.7 New experiences spark new insights, and the questions generated by one series of work lead to the responses in the next. Weschler depicts a sequence of vivid scenes of Irwin: obsessively painting the dashboard of his 1939 Ford in high school; fastidiously creating the dot paintings in his Venice studio; thoughtfully absorbing the vast literature of phenomenology (Husserl, Hegel, James, Merleau-Ponty, and so on) on the UCLA campus; solitarily contemplating non-materialized artworks in the Mojave Desert; generously rethinking the role of the teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute. Seeing is Forgetting suggests how our lives might unfold, richly and idiosyncratically, when we attend to what surrounds us and pursue a line of thought, whether we become professional artists or go down other paths.

Weschler’s book on Irwin and another on David Hockney, True to Life, have become important touchstones for our work in the Center for Art & Inquiry (CAI) at the Exploratorium.8 At CAI, we consider art as process, a way of knowing, and study how its methods dovetail with those from other fields, in order to inspire curiosity and learning.9 We tend to think of art in relation to verbs rather than nouns.10 As a research-and-development lab for the arts within the larger learning laboratory of the Exploratorium, we work with artists who, like Irwin, approach creative practice with a spirit of experimentation and seamlessly integrate ideas from other disciplines.

Fujiko Nakaya. Fog Bridge #72496, 2013Exploratorium, San Francisco

As the director of CAI, I oversee the long-running Artist-in-Residence Program; the newly established Over the Water program (to develop large-scale artworks in our public space); and special research projects related to art and interdisciplinary learning. One of our first projects for the Piers, a collaboration between CAI and the Exploratorium Studio for Public Space, was Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Bridge #72494.11 In anticipation of the move to the new space, we sought ways to animate our civic plaza with participatory artworks that embodied the Exploratorium ethos and worked with the scale of our enormous waterfront site. Nakaya, a Tokyo-based artist with a hybrid practice and fascinating history, was perfect for our context. In 1970, Nakaya developed the world’s first fog sculpture, enshrouding the Experiments in Art and Technology’s (E.A.T.) legendary Pepsi Pavilion at the Expo ’70 in Osaka. Beginning in the late 1960s, E.A.T., spearheaded by the engineer Billy Kluver and the artist Robert Rauschenberg (a Black Mountain College graduate), matched artists with engineers to explore the possibilities that would spring from creative collaborations. For the Expo project, Kluver paired Nakaya with the cloud physicist Thomas Mee to develop a system for generating water-based fog (now used in industrial applications like the cooling of Facebook server farms).

Nakaya’s ephemeral work Fog Bridge, located on a pedestrian bridge spanning Piers 15 and 17, makes the normally hidden conditions of the atmosphere palpable and heightens our observation of the weather with its ever-changing, billowing clouds. When standing on the bridge, one can lose sight of an outstretched hand as it disappears into the fog. Fog Bridge provokes us to wonder: How does fog form in the atmosphere? Why does fog obscure vision? Why don’t we celebrate San Francisco fog?

Ilana Halperin conducting fieldwork at Mono Lake.

In my role in CAI, I work closely with other program directors leading thematic areas of investigation. The Exploratorium currently has five main initiatives: physics and perception; ecologies of place; living systems; human cognition and social behavior; and making as thinking. We seek artists whose work connects with the themes of these various initiatives. We select individuals and collaborative groups who are eager for the opportunity to embed themselves within the institution’s culture, who will spark a rich, lively exchange with our staff, and who will generate new insights for our various audiences. We gravitate to artists who are pushing the boundaries of contemporary art in realms that are particularly relevant to our work. Two current residencies illustrate our process well.

What stories can scientific data on carbon help to reveal?

CAI has been collaborating with colleagues in our Observatory Gallery to steward the artists Ilana Halperin and Rosten Woo, who are developing projects for a glass-box space dedicated to the exploration of cultural and natural landscapes. The Glasgow-based Halperin is interested in correlating human time with geologic time. Her work explores how deep time can be made more intimate through connections to everyday human experiences. The Los Angeles–based Woo—an artist, designer, and educator—develops civic-scale artworks that help people probe complex questions that engage urban history and politics. At the Exploratorium, Woo is currently investigating ways to further public understanding of carbon. Some questions driving his investigation are: How much carbon forms in the atmosphere and in the water of everyday Bay Area environments? What stories can scientific data on carbon help to reveal? How can we find better ways of correlating our everyday actions with the long-term environmental impacts of climate change? 

We tailor each two-year residency to individual artists. In stewarding each artist, we instigate dialogue with internal staff (who offer a diversity of knowledge and expertise) as well as external collaborators (for example, geologists observing glaciers in the Sierra, atmospheric chemists collecting carbon data, high-school teachers developing climate-change curriculum, and humanities scholars reflecting on the Anthropocene). 

The Exploratorium’s laboratory-like environment and social-behavior initiative have produced a unique platform for the current artist-in-residence, Nina Katchadourian, to conduct a series of investigative explorations. Working in various media, Katchadourian incorporates playful juxtapositions and conceptual twists to provoke reconsiderations of seemingly mundane, everyday natural and cultural phenomena. Her Exploratorium research took as its point of departure her experience as a test subject in the so-called Marshmallow Test. Conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School in the early 1970s, this infamous study investigated the capacity for delayed gratification in children.12 Katchadourian’s experience as a test subject, and her memories about the choices she believes she made, have been a life-long preoccupation.

During the development phase of her residency, Katchadourian launched an investigation into boredom, an outgrowth of her research into delayed gratification. (It turns out that every subject assumed to be boring—dust, empty rooms, white noise—can be quite fascinating.) Thinking about boredom led Katchadourian to an exploration of eye floaters.13 This month, she will ask museum visitors about the ways in which they experience phenomena in their visual field. Working with Katchadourian has inspired us to ask ourselves: Are there benefits to seeking instant gratification? Are wanderings of the mind important to creativity? And, who is Jan Purkyně?14

The Exploratorium’s culture embraces a good experiment. Many artists relish the chance to work in our shop with experienced designers and engineers who can help them realize new possibilities in their work. Our current Over the Water project, Bosun’s Bass (2015), a monumental, tide-activated sound work, is a great example of this; the artist Tim Hawkinson worked with a team of engineers and designers to develop the work. A shipping container, pitched vertically in a hole in the deck of the Exploratorium’s outside plaza, is connected to the bellows from an articulated Muni bus to create a two-stage bellows, similar to what one would find in a pipe organ. As the tide rises up into the shipping container, the chamber fills with air and the bellows expands. Air from the bellows flows through a tube to a nearby bicycle, the tread of which is inscribed with patterns that triggers a series of valves and levers to produce twenty-one bosun’s calls (a pipe or whistle used on naval ships by a boatswain). This experiment with the physics of sound produces haunting tones that recall San Francisco’s maritime past. Hawkinson’s process of developing Bosun’s Bass compelled us to ask: How did the boatswain’s call develop into an international maritime language? Can wakes in the Bay generate as much air pressure as the rise and fall of the tide? How does the mouth move when we trill?  

We delight in the madcap ingenuity of this marvelous contraption

Hawkinson uses everyday materials (the bicycle in Bosun’s Bass came from a ninety-year old neighbor and had been in his studio for years) in the creation of his whimsical, wondrous, and often confounding works. One could imagine a more straightforward exhibit, using parts seen in more conventional science museums, to demonstrate how the tide generates air pressure. Yet, Hawkinson’s one-of a-kind-work grows out of a nonlinear, intuitive path involving imagination, prodigious tinkering, and playful associative leaps. The work speaks in a unique language of materials developed by Hawkinson over time that resonates in mysterious ways with those who behold his works. In viewing Bosun’s Bass, we work to fathom and comprehend what we’re experiencing. We delight in the madcap ingenuity of this marvelous contraption, and we are compelled to explore the dynamics of tide and air pressure, as well as think about the maritime language of the boatswain’s whistle.

Recently a writer called the arts the secret sauce of the Exploratorium. Having artists in the mix in the development of our public pedagogy makes learning more pleasurable, colorful, memorable, delightful, and mysterious. We work passionately with the vision that artistic ways of coming to understand the world must infuse learning everywhere.


  1. Louis Adamic, “Education on a Mountain: The Story of Black Mountain College,” Harper’s Magazine, April 1936, 519.
  2. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1934).
  3. “Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, 1912–1985,” Exploratorium,
  4. The museum officially opened with the presentation of the seminal art and technology exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity, curated by Jasia Reichardt for the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1968.
  5. Frank Oppenheimer, “The Arts: A Decent Respect for Taste,” originally published in The National Elementary Principal 57, no. 1 (October 1977).
  6. K.C. Cole, Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 191.
  7. Lawrence Weschler, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Thirty Years of Conversation with Robert Irwin, expanded edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1982), 61.
  8. Lawrence Weschler, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 2009).
  9. The Exploratorium convened the conference “Art as a Way of Knowing” in 2011.
  10. Richard Serra’s Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself (1967–68) helps to illustrate this notion.
  11. See the Center for Art & Inquiry publication Over the Water: Fujiko Nakaya (Exploratorium, 2013).
  12. While left alone briefly, kids who managed to sit at a table with a marshmallow and not eat it were rewarded with a second marshmallow. The experiment became a long-term study of the qualities that appear to have a significant impact on a person’s long-term success and decision-making.
  13. Sometimes referred to as muscae volitantes (Latin: “flying flies”), eye floaters are deposits in the otherwise transparent vitreous humor of the eye. Usually appearing in the shape of round specks or long tubes, they cast shadows on the retina, affecting one’s visual field.
  14. The Czech natural philosopher Jan Purkyně wrote some of the earliest scientific descriptions of eye floaters in the early 1800s.

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