3.16 / Review

Intimate Science

By Renny Pritikin May 31, 2012

Truth in science is established through repeatability. Truth in art is hotly contested: is it the revelation of otherwise obscured power relations, for instance, or the generation of resonant experience? Originating at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and now on view at Southern Exposure in San Francisco, Intimate Science tries to have it both ways, dipping its toe in the utopian stream of Internet theory and positing, first, that the free exchange of research, tools, and information constitutes a viable oppositional strategy to mechanisms of power and, second, that the resulting products can form a new, hybrid, information-based art that repositions our ineffable relationship to the natural world. Here’s the argument, according to the exhibition’s curator, Andrea Grover: “This exhibit examines how networked communication and open-source culture have contributed to this shift, from artists aiding science to doing science.” Two tacit assertions in her statement make the claim that it is beneficial for both science and art for artists to practice science and that such artists are developing good science and good art.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT), David Wilson’s Los Angeles travesty of museological truth, is the model for The Center for PostNatural History (CPH) in Pittsburgh, which presents several displays in Intimate Science. While Wilson’s museum tiptoes along the edge of accuracy and authority, employing exaggeration, parody, and eccentricity, the CPH documents the extraordinary but true ways in which “postnatural” life has been created and often introduced into the world. Like the MJT, the works on view in the CPH are beautifully rendered, as in the case of Transgenic American Chestnut Tree Display (2012), which uses wooden plaques, photographs, and specimens to display efforts to make a more pest-resistant tree of this threatened species. Transgenic Mosquito Display uses an enlarged 3-D image to bring an eagle-size, sterilized mosquito nose to nose with viewers. The posture is one of a neutral and artful purveyor of information and is redolent of Cassandra-like journalism.

The London-based artist Markus Kayser presents video documentation of two sojourns in the Sahara and the machines he used while there to consummate his Sun Cutter (2010) and Solar Sinter (2011) projects. The machines are solar powered; Sun Cutter uses a ball-shaped glass lens to focus the rays of the sun into a laser-like beam and integrates a nifty cam system to cut a pair of sunglasses out of wood or board. Solar Sinter employs what is described as a “custom-built 3-D printer” and a giant Fresnel lens to turn desert sand into glass objects. The conceit here is to create factories that produce neither waste nor pollution and use familiar technology; what makes it art is the bathos of the products relative to the enormous effort invested in their creation.

Center for PostNatural History. Transgenic American Chestnut Tree Display, 2012; chestnut specimen, photographs. Courtesy of the Artist and Southern Exposure, San Francisco.
Philip Ross. Mycotecture Series, 2006-present; Ganoderma lucidum fungus. Courtesy of the Artist and Southern Exposure, San Francisco.

The Tokyo-based artists Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara, together known as BCL, present Common Flowers/Flower Commons (2009). The duo takes as its subject the fact that a Japanese firm has apparently copyrighted blue carnations. BCL, as artist/activists, have used readily available lab equipment to clone their own versions of purchased samples of the flowers, tacitly undercutting claims of intellectual property when it comes to natural, or once-natural, life.

Machine Project, in Los Angeles, takes quite a different approach to art and science. On view is video documentation of the organization’s various workshops given in art museums around the country, in which telepathy and similar communication experiments were explored. These are reminiscent of the séance-like events conducted in the early 2000s by the Bay Area artists Anne Walsh and Chris Kubick, who attempted to communicate with modernist artists like Joseph Cornell. These practices are far removed from the rigor of scientific practice and are closer to the resuscitation of Victorian follies, from a social-practice point of view.

Allison Kudla from Seattle contributes her Capacity for (urban eden, human error) (2007–2009) and Manicured Field: Diptych (2011). The latter consists of photo and video documentation of a work in which leaf material was placed in a large grid of nutrients and hormones and encouraged to grow as a kind of berserk, formless tissue. This material was photographed and montaged into a large, handsome mural of living, green design. In Capacity for (urban eden, human error), algae and seeds were planted in a flat field in patterns related to fractal tendencies in both urban sprawl and bacterial growth.

Finally, on view are many examples of San Francisco’s longtime innovator Philip Ross’s work with fungi. These seem to most closely align with the stated intention of the curator to demonstrate research exploring new ideas in science and art. Pure Culture Series (1996–), for example, which Ross has been developing for more than fifteen years, features cloned versions of the Ganoderma fungus. Through the artist’s intervention, these have been formed into evocative shapes and colors—reminiscent in some cases of Voulkos-like ceramics, in others of cheese wheels, and still others of tree branches, deliberately grown to resemble Harold Edgerton’s famous photograph of a drop of milk. Ross discovered that by exposing the fungus to low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide, the resulting stress would cause these unusual shapes to develop. His second body of work, Mycotecture Series (2006-), proposes these same Ganoderma growths for potential building blocks: a cheap, clean, and efficient replacement for wood and Styrofoam. Ross in fact has a patent pending for this idea. In the gallery, he shares some constructions made up of these brick-like mushroom products.

The works on view in Intimate Science represent a variety of related approaches. One approach is to skillfully illustrate known scientific facts by utilizing the expertise of a trained visual artist. Another is to use those same artistic skills to draw attention to worrisome implications of scientific research. Still another is to imaginatively repurpose industrial techniques or equipment to suggest green, anticapitalist, or even just aesthetic usages. Finally, there is the use of original research to meld the fields of science and art in order to come up with striking materials, conceivably comfortable in both a museum vitrine and a construction site, as seen in the largely unheralded and truly remarkable work of Philip Ross.


Intimate Science is on view at Southern Exposure, in San Francisco, through June 2, 2012.

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