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Art and Science: Starting some Hares

A background paper to the conference on Art and Science conference held in London in March 1999

Following the success of the Arts Council meeting, the Gulbenkian Foundation suggested a similar roundtable approach to discuss the role and future of universities. Since the old school house in Pari had recently been restored it was decided to hold the meeting there rather than in London or other major center. Many participants expressed their distress at the current state of the universities and proposed that alternative structures be created. On the final day several suggested that the Pari meeting should not be a one-off, but should continue as a living center. In this way the Pari Center for New Learning was born.

I had originally intended to circulate a discussion paper a week before the meeting but already a number of participants wish to start the debate though an exchange of emails. For this reason I’m starting the ball rolling by jotting down some notes and, in the process, starting off a few hares that you may like to follow. Over the next weeks please feel free to outline your thoughts and suggestions for the meeting.

This meeting is designed to allow artists and scientists to sit together and talk about their ideas, work, interests and reflections on art and science. Over the years I have had exciting and creative exchanges with most of you so I’m interested to see what happens when we all get together. Certainly there are a number of themes and questions I have in mind but we have no brief to put art and science together, nor a mandate to produce conclusions. The best I can hope for is that something interesting, and even unexpected, may occur.

Long before C.P. Snow’s essay on the ‘Two Cultures,’ people had been pointing out the dangers of over-specialization and seeking the integration of the arts and sciences along with a corresponding end to fragmentation. Recently this has become a highly fashionable topic with a number Art and Science conferences and exhibitions being held, as well as funding being offered for individual collaborations. Is this evidence of a new spirit? A second Renaissance? Or is it merely the latest fashion? Are art and science involved in a true marriage, or simply a fleeting series of illicit relationships? Indeed, should such a marriage be arranged, encouraged and fostered, or is it more creative when individuals simply find each other and collaborate in idiosyncratic ways?

It is certainly true that some artists work directly with scientific ideas and use scientific technologies in their work. Others are more generally interested in scientific concepts, and the kick they get from curious new ideas. But is all this in any way essential to their artistic enterprise in general? After all, the mathematician Poincaré’s inspiration came from coffee and both Einstein and Heisenberg were drawn to Mozart sonatas that seemed to have helped their thinking. So is the world of art any more essential to science than the caffeine boost of a cup of coffee?

This is one of the essential themes of our meeting: while it is true that some individual artists draw upon science, to what extent has art anything to offer back to science? Must it always be a one-way traffic? To take one example, theoretical physics has reached a barrier to really deep progress—i.e. the unification of quantum theory and relativity. Could art ever have any role to play in bringing about a scientific breakthrough? Can it play the trickster to disturb, and subvert the scientific enterprise?

The artist Robert Rauschenberg used to nose around junkyards on the way to his studio picking up what happened to take his interest on that particular day. In this way an old stuffed goat and a car tire became more interesting when the one was inserted in the other to produce Monogram. There are times when an artist’s interest in science is of a similar nature, a matter of picking and using ideas, concepts, theories and images as raw material or metaphors. In this sense an artist has no particular obligation to understand the deeper meaning of a piece of science or even to use it correctly and with respect. Scientific ideas become of the same order as Picasso’s toy car that became a monkey head, or bicycle seat and handlebars a bull’s head.

Others chose to comment on science in wry, amusing and even subversive ways. They reflect on what science is doing, the public vision it projects or the way it carries out its experiments. Cornelia Parker, Todd Watts, and Lynn Cohen have all moved across this territory.

Some, such as the American photographer Robert Heinecken, explore the ambience created by our scientific and technical world, or how it causes us to look around us in different ways. Others want to use scientific images directly—employing fractals, scientific apparatus, elementary particle tracks, etc to create images, videos and installations. Others explore scientific images directly—employing fractals, scientific apparatus, elementary particle tracks, etc to create images, videos and installations.

One of the strongest claims for the role of art comes from the painter Patrick Heron who writes, ‘I have always claimed that painting’s prime function is to dictate what the world looks like… What we imagine to be the “objective” look of everything and anything is largely a complex, a weave of textures, forms and colours which we have learned, more or less unconsciously, from painting, and have superimposed upon external reality. The actual “objective” appearance of things (of anything and everything) is something that does not exist…’ Heron argues that it is painting which supplies the visualorder of the world and when painting changes so to does the world.

For Heron, to change the nature of painting is to bring about a change in human consciousness. In this sense art in general would be performing a much more powerful function that we normally assume. Since scientific ideas emerge not simply out of experiment and logical deduction but through an intuition which is born out of the way we see and relate to the world, then art may be playing a significant role in our attitude towards what we take as reality.

Then there are those, such as Susan Derges and Todd Watts, who are interested in the way scientists actually look at the world, how they carry out their investigations, and so on. Michael Petry seeks experiences at the visual level that are equivalents to such concepts as Black Holes or Superstrings. He also meditates on the nature of description, account, history, time, fact and the closure of story.

There are also cases in which artists seem to be resonating with the sorts of questions that are being asked by scientists. Questions about the nature of time, space, matter, experience, objectivity and subjectivity. Here I have in mind Anish Kapoor’s meditations on the void and the nature of matter, Antony Gormley’s space, and Cornelia Parker’s residues, shadows,

Joseph Beuys claimed that ‘everyone is an artist.’ But not everyone can be a scientist. Just how exclusive is the scientific enterprise? Can a piece of art be a scientific experiment? Can the notion of experiment be used in the context of Ansuman Biswas’s CAT where the artist was confined to a box for 10 days? Or to Cornelia Parker’s proposal to send a meteorite back into space? And while many scientists are quite happy to proclaim their scans and charts as ‘works of art,’ can a scientific experiment ever have the qualities of an art act, art event, art installation or happening? What is the nature of the boundaries between the two?

Of course Beuys’s remark should be taken in its wider context of ‘social sculpture.’ That is, the notion of art moving outside the space of the gallery and into society at large so that artists give attention to the way their work, life and actions operate in society. More and more the barriers between art and political, social and environmental action are dissolving.Siraj Izhar’s Fashion Street space, for example, cannot be captured in any easy definition. In this sense even the name and category of ‘artist’ is slipping away

For their part scientists have become more sensitive about the public image of science, for some of their experiments have become extremely costly and their professions depend upon a granting system. And thus the political life of many scientists has become concerned with generating and projecting an image of science and its values. How true is such an image and what hubris is connected with these acts of projection? And can art help science to define the social spaces in which it is operating, or act as a critical friend in commenting upon the ethics, values, morality and communicative skills of science?

Much contemporary physics has become an exercise in worlds of the imagination; a postmodern physics concerned with theories about theories about theories. To what extent do the imaginal worlds of art and physics overlap in their methodologies?

Contrary to what non-scientists may believe, new ideas in science happen by a mixture of insight and accident. It is only later, as the ideas are fleshed out, that rigor and logic must be applied as well as the test of scientific proof or experimental verification. There is also a logical order and structure to a poem, a painting or a piece of music. But is the logic, structure and order of art of the same nature as the logic of science, or the rigor of architecture and engineering?

David Bohm loved to point out the common root of the words ‘theory’ and ‘theatre.’ For Bohm a scientific theory was generated as a creative act within the theatre of the mind. Martin Kemp has argued that there are acts of visualization associated with new scientific concepts. To what extent do the mental theatres and visualizations of artists share common ground with those of science?

When it comes to the quantum world the writings of Niels Bohr warn us against the use of models and visualizations. Bohr saw all descriptive systems, even language itself, as expressions of our rootedness within a classical (large-scale world). To begin to discuss the nature of quantum reality, or even to postulate that such a reality exists, is to import classical notions (often unconsciously) into a domain to which they don’t belong. Models and ideas about quantum reality, therefore, will only engender paradox and confusion. There is a limit to what can be said.

In many ways similar questions occur in both science and art about the role and limitations of representation as well as the nature of the object and its gradual disappearance. One of Michael Petry’s pieces asked what it would mean to have complete information about the universe when we don’t even really understand the person who is in bed with us.

To return to this question of the creative generation of scientific ideas within ‘the theatre of the mind.’ How much does this have in common with the generation of artistic work? Anish Kapoor has spoken of the need to build up intention to a certain point where the ego must step aside and allow the work to emerge. This sounds very similar to what occurs in science. Both scientists (such as Bohm and Einstein) and those in the arts (such as Cézanne and Michael Tippett) have spoken of the embodiment of their work—the way work is formed and generated as tensions within the body. Several of the participants at this meeting have direct experience with the way creative work emerges out of the body. This also raises the general question of the role of the body in art, the image of the body and our experience of the body. After all the body is the medium by which we experience the world which comes back to Bohr’s point that all our language and visualization is tied to this way of seeing, a way which may not accord with the processes of the quantum world.

Meditating upon our experience of the body and matter also brings us to notions of transformation—the transformation of matter, the nature of matter’s inscape and essence, the nature of space (both inner and outer) and the role of intention in the transformation of matter.

But these are just the start of many questions about the connections between art and science. These notes are by no means meant to be exhaustive and definitive. Their purpose is to spark off debate and promote some responses, and to invite others to make comments on the many areas on which I have failed to touch.