Galleries

Art and Science Get Intimate

by Leila Nadir on April 16, 2012

Installation view of the Center for PostNatural History in "Intimate Science"

Installation view of the Center for PostNatural History section in "Intimate Science," at Miller Gallery (all images courtesy Miller Gallery unless otherwise noted)

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — A lot has changed since novelist and physicist C.P. Snow’s assertion in the 1960s that Western intellectual life was split between two irreconcilable cultures: the arts and the sciences. Around that time, Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) was just beginning its efforts to bridge those two spheres. Fifty years later, Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery has made a significant contribution to the relationship between art, science and technology with the exhibition Intimate Science and the related book New Art/Science Affinities.

Intimate Science, which travels from Pittsburgh to San Francisco’s Southern Exposure this week, features artists working at the convergence of these fields, producing scientific research and experimenting technologically. New Art/Science Affinities is a 190-page survey of art-science intersections that provides interviews, manifestos, images, historical timelines and summaries of the work of practitioners from the past five years. (The entire book can be downloaded for free online.)

Both the exhibition and the book are the outcome of Andrea Grover’s research as a Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellow at Miller Gallery and the Studio for Creative Inquiry. In her curatorial statement for Intimate Science and in the introduction to New Art/Science Affinities, Grover explains that contemporary artists working in the art/science matrix are distinct from their 1960s predecessors, a shift she attributes to the networked communication and open-source culture enabled by the internet: “Artists two generations ago were dependent on access to technicians, labs, computer time or manufacturers to realize works of scientific or technological complexity.” In contrast, “practitioners now have greater agency to work fluidly across disciplines and beyond rarified institutions and industries.”

New Art/Science Affinities

Philip Ross, "Pure Culture: Ganoderma lucidum fungus"

Philip Ross, "Pure Culture: Ganoderma lucidum fungus" (2000) (all images courtesy Miller Gallery unless otherwise noted)

New Art/Science Affinities declares itself a “snapshot of ‘now.’” Encompassing works by more than sixty artists and collaboratives — including BCL, Center for PostNatural History, Machine Project and Philip Ross, four of the six artists in Intimate Science — it covers a diverse range of art-science practices. It introduces the reader to programmers, hackers, makers, data visualizers, citizen scientists and bio-artists who engage social issues such as DNA analysis, ubiquitous computing, virtual labor, pollution, overpopulation, disability and surveillance, among other topics. The book is an encyclopedic digital database counterpart to Intimate Science’s physical installation, bringing artists’ voices and ideas directly to any reader with a wi-fi connection.

New Art/Science Affinities feels like the product of collaboration between curators, artists and writers. In the interviews and summaries of artworks, the artists add their own voices to the book’s collectively created history. Ross, whose mycological sculptures are part of Intimate Science, makes the necessity of art-science collaborations most clear:

In the USA most scientific literacy ends at 10th grade if a student is not good at science or math … Our institutional and educational systems fail us as a citizenry when the wealth of our collective knowledge is cryptically removed because of lack of access, language and practice. One of my roles as an artist is to use culture and creativity to bring people into a more informed and critical relationship to technological and scientific environments.

For Ross, art brings science into the public sphere, getting past the wall of inaccessible laboratories and peer-reviewed journals.

Environmental Art

BCL, "Common Flowers"

BCL, "Common Flowers," at Kunstverein Dortmund (2010)

A common theme that emerges in New Art/Science Affinities is concern for the environment, and yet the artworks are amazingly diverse in methodology and form. They often challenge preconceived ideas about what constitutes eco-art while at the same time politicizing and aestheticizing scientific research. Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki’s “Scrapyard Challenge Workshop” repurposes garbage for use as electronic hardware. Gilberto Esparza’s energy-efficient “Nomadic Plants” robots roam the earth powered by water pollution, decomposing toxic elements and turning them into nutritional energy while using excess water to feed the plants on the robots’ backs. Brandon Ballengée, with scanner images of morphologically deformed frogs and toads, documents the impact of pollutants on amphibians, the “environmental canaries in the coal mine.” “Common Flowers” by BCL engages intellectual property rights issues — the group genetically “biohacks” white carnations in a kitchen, turns them blue and releases them into the wild, effectively contributing to a “flower commons.”

Richard Pell’s Center for PostNatural History riffs on the traditional natural-history museum by representing genetically modified organisms that usually escape scientific taxonomy. New Art/Science Affinities describes Pell and the center as “archivists of the biologically weird.” The center’s Intimate Science display includes arrays of transgenic mosquitoes, fluorescent fruit flies and inbred laboratory rats. In an interesting development, Pell recently received a fellowship from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, demonstrating how artists can subvert traditional disciplinary boundaries and be recognized for creating scientific knowledge.

Art, Technology and Disability

EyeWriter

EyeWriter (2010) (courtesy eyewriter.org)

One project that stands out in its unique story and application is EyeWriter, created by the members of Free Art and Technology, Openframeworks, Graffiti Research Lab and the Ebeling Group. EyeWriter was inspired by Tony Quan, aka TEMPT1, an LA.-based graffiti artist who was completely paralyzed, except for his eyes, by Lou Gehrig’s disease. The device uses open-source eye tracking to allow people to draw directly on a computer screen using only their eye movements. Today, TEMPT1 is able to upload his Eyewriter graffiti designs directly to his Flickr account, and his work continues to be projected on buildings. A tutorial for how to make an EyeWriter is available on Instructables.com, demonstrating how art-science practices can have dramatic results, creating medical interventions and responding to disability in innovative ways.

Questions

Center for PostNatural History, "From the collection of the Smithsonian: Mus musculus domesticus"

Center for PostNatural History, "From the collection of the Smithsonian: Mus musculus domesticus" (2011) (click to enlarge)

Like any effective work, New Art/Science Affinities raises some questions. Throughout the book, the authors and artists use “science” and “technology” interchangeably, but the two terms are far from synonymous. I wonder if this collapsed vocabulary is the result of critical oversight or if science and technology really have become one in the public eye.

Second, it’s interesting to note that although four of the book’s six creators are women, male artists outnumber female artists in the book. Johannes Grenzfurthner, founder and director of Monochrom in Vienna, says in an interview that one of his “critiques of the hacker scene and the hacker spaces is that they are exclusionist white boys’ clubs.”

The large presence of women in the digital art world, Grenzfurthner says, simply does not translate to hacker culture. New Art/Science Affinities made me think this lack of translation also applies to scientific art. Is the gender gap in science education to blame? Or is there some implicit way that science is being defined that makes women’s work somehow less relevant?

Last, the book spurred me to think about the imbalance in the art/science relationship. How many scientists are actively engaged in art making? And how does the rise of the modern scientific worldview affect the way we understand artists working scientifically? Paradoxically describing his relationship to science as “torn” but “also cozy,” Adam Zaretsky is one of the few voices to speak about how assumptions about the two fields can adversely affect his work, revealing how the arts are subordinated to the supposedly “real” knowledge of hard science:

“Funding sources expect my work to aid in the social acceptance of new technology or provide a soft social debate without any influence on the pace and direction of future research.”

TEMPT1’s EyeWriter tag projected in an urban environment

TEMPT1’s EyeWriter tag projected in an urban environment (courtesy eyewriter.org) (click to enlarge)

Whether you read New Art/Science Affinities or visit Intimate Science, you will begin to see art as an indispensable contributor to making technological practices and scientific study more self-reflective and humane. As Golan Levin says in his interview, the purpose of his art is “to ensure the presence of a humanist and critical perspective in the pursuit of technological ‘progress.’” Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, self-described “critical engineers,” see their role as applying “radical patches” to “technological ready-mades and assumptions”: “These patches pervert, reposition, rework and in some cases even improve what are otherwise accented as immutable technological givens, engineered by industry with our best interests in mind.” Between Intimate Science and New Art/Science Affinities, Miller Gallery has produced the first chapter of a history of an emergent 21st-century art form.

Intimate Science will be on view at Southern Exposure in San Francisco from April 20 through June 2, and at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut, in November. New Art/Science Affinities, by Andrea Grover, Régine Debatty, Claire Evans, Pablo Garcia and Thumb, is published by Miller Gallery and the Studio for Creative Inquiry. It can be purchased as a paperback or downloaded for free at
millergallery.cfa.cmu.edu/nasabook.

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