The arts and the sciences have a complex history of both conflict and entanglement. As C.P. Snow’s controversial writings regarding the “two cultures” demonstrate, disciplinary fiefdoms in education curriculum and research, not to mention the strictures of grant funding bodies and the research priorities of universities and governments, often seek to keep the sciences separate from the arts and humanities.
To take a small example; current debates over “STEM vs STEAM” in education curriculums – that is, the question of including the Arts in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics cluster – reflect just one facet of the broader disciplinary struggle, but they clearly signal the political and economic weight that is brought to bear on the relation between the arts and sciences. Here in Australia, the office of Australia’s Chief Scientist has for a number of years strongly called for increased attention to the STEM disciplines in curriculum design, on the basis that Australia’s future as an innovative nation hinges on such attention. Understood within this context, the question of the relation between the arts and the sciences is not simply an issue of disciplinary boundaries and abstract categories because it is frequently highly politicized, and posed for strategic rather than philosophical purposes.
Despite this political and economic dimension however, the immensely fruitful exchange currently happening in the space where art meets science suggests other possibilities. The art-science nexus has been revitalised by new thinking in neurobiology and biotechnology as well as quantum physics, sweeping away mechanistic ideas of isolated subject-object encounters, and replacing them with force fields, immanence, events, affect and becoming. The prominence of artists like Eduardo Kac and Tissue Culture and Art (Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr), whose works use genomic and biological sciences to pose ethical questions of global importance, testifies to the relevance, and value, of contemporary enquiry into the art-science nexus.
The papers in this issue of Transformations address this enquiry in many ways. Concerns regarding how science may appear to employ art as a kind of “aesthetic science communication,” or how art may appear to use science to “legitimize” its concerns, are addressed and problematized as artists and theorists explore the richness of a middle path where neither pole is prioritized. From jeweller-physicists to plant-thinkers, and via x-ray scans and nano-particles, the authors in this issue explore not just the points where artistic and scientific knowledges and practices have intersected, but what this means in terms of finding new methodologies, ontologies and epistemologies for the hybrid forms that emerge when art and science commingle.
Editors: Grayson Cooke, Erika Kerruish, Warwick Mules, Elizabeth Stephens.
Shimmering Data and Ecological Collaboration: Paying Attention to Intruding Ecological Situations
The alarming effects of global warming and the challenges associated with the Anthropocene have emerged as two of the defining problems (re)organising and (re)orienting contemporary knowledge projects across the arts and sciences. As such, scientists, artists and theorists are increasingly working to find ways to transform their practices and methods in order to account for the problems of scale and complexity that characterise the challenges of the Anthropocene and anthropogenic global warming. This essay, therefore, will examine two different knowledge projects built to address and respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene and anthropogenic global warming. I will begin at the scale of the globe and planet by discussing the achievement of climate and Earth system scientists to produce computer models that reliably simulate global climate changes, and examine how these models have consequences for forms of eco-political practice. From there, the second part of this essay will examine another scale-building, relation-building and meaning-making apparatus that differently empowers situated humans and nonhumans. Specifically, I will examine the art/science practices of Natalie Jeremijenko that enrol ecological knowledge technologies, like air quality sensors, to build ecological structures of participation that draw people, technologies and nonhumans together into situated encounters that activate open source, user-generated ecological interpretations and entanglements. In the end, the knowledge practices I will discuss contribute to a shift in the way artists and scientists perceive, feel and connect to ecological phenomena in the Anthropocene as they work to render sensible and intelligible aspects of complex ecological phenomena in ways that challenge traditional science/politics, subjective/objective distinctions.
Plant thinking as geo-philosophy
At a time of ecological threat, artists and philosophers are increasingly turning to the plant world for information. Plant theorist Michael Marder charts the philosophy of plants and explores how human thinking is altered by encounters with the vegetal world. Janet Laurence is a major international artist who engages with plant theories and whose work references scientific research into plant learning, memory and aesthetics.
Laurence has worked with botanists, naturalists and scientists to create new phyto-elements that become art. Her immersive and interactive installations restore balance between science and art, as she utilizes plants as metaphors, as communicators and as co-species. Through her work, a regrounding and geo-mining of nature, as articulated by geo-philosopher Ben Woodard and geo-philosopher Jussi Parikka, is possible.
Bio Art and the Biotechnological Singularity
In the work of Eduardo Kac, Tissue Culture & Art, Niki Sperou and Pinar Yoldas, bio art appears to participate in a philosophical framework that suggests that the critique of science can only take place outside of science, a position associated with Heidegger. Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier’s assertions concerning the philosophical validity of the physical and biological sciences indicate that thought and science must be recalibrated as standing on equal footing before the real. This allows for a reinterpretation of bio art as an important mode of understanding and negotiating the speculative opportunities afforded by art-science interaction.
John Fraser, Fiona P. McDonald, Nezam Ardalan
Reflections on Public Art + Science Reasoning
This paper explores informal science learning in public spaces by exploring theoretical arguments about the role of public artworks that incorporate “subjugated knowledges” as a way of thinking about the public construction of knowledge and engagement with science through art experience. This article challenges the disciplinary solitudes that characterize art discourse versus science pedagogy by exploring common understandings that emerge from the nexus of art and science (art/science). The authors critically examine two threads that cohere first at the intersection of understanding the nature of science (NOS), and secondly in the literature related to informal science learning (ISL) that prioritizes public engagement with science (PES) through transdisciplinary perspectives. The paper offers this perspective as revealed through the authors’ reflections on results from a case study of a public art/science installation. The installation set out to provoke public engagement in scientific issues related to urban sustainability without declaring itself as an art or science initiative. By considering their findings in ahistorical context, the authors suggest that disciplinary discourses shape public expectations, silo content in either a science or art sphere, and dictate a learner’s focus. The authors suggest that limitations to advancing science literacy in public spaces are largely due to an overemphasis on prescriptive outcomes rather than embracing more open processes for learning. They suggest that to truly explore the art/science nexus, it is important to extend beyond how the two disciplines inform one another at an elite level of discourse, and instead situate the work in the lived experience of public reasoning.
Beyond Bifurcation: Thinking the Abstractions of Art-Science after A. N. Whitehead
The past few decades have seen the proliferation of discourses, practices, and spaces of what has come to be termed ‘art-science’. Employed in the social sciences as a loose umbrella term for a heterogeneous array of practices, art-science is typically seen to be united by a common attempt to explore and open up the liminal space between the methods, knowledges, and objects of these increasingly bifurcated disciplines. Pushing beyond the representational logic of interdisciplinary ‘communication’ that continues to frame social science engagements, this paper instead explores the implications of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead for how we might rethink art-science as a space of ontological encounter that opens a creative interval in disciplinary habits of thought that transforms how the world appears. What Whitehead offers is an understanding of art and science as modes of thought which can enhance capacities to be affected by material relations and nonhuman forces in ways that orient thinking and perception towards other possible individuations. In particular, I foreground the concept of ‘abstraction’ as an important conceptual frame through which to rethink art-science encounters as ethical interventions in worlds of process that produce empirically-felt variations in the way experience comes to matter (Stengers, 2008). I flesh this out through an engagement with the Bristol-based nanoart collective danceroom Spectroscopy whose installations, I argue, creatively engage artistic (new media and technologies of visualisation; contemporary dance), scientific (the speculative concepts of the nanoscale and molecular fields), and corporeal (the intensities and forces of dancing bodies) techniques of abstraction in ways that modify our capacities for thinking and feeling the immanent forces and nonhuman agencies of emergent (nano-) worlds.
External and Internal Topographies: Art on the Uncanny Limits of Scan Technology
This paper flows from a particular development in my artistic practice in the realm of ceramic sculpture: the search for spaces of interdisciplinarity by employing technologies that are meant and developed for scientific rather than artistic use, creating an exciting, innovative interface that reconnects rational distance and emotional involvement and allows for alternative paths of artistic experience and analysis. In my search for new terrains beyond established ceramic and sculptural methods, I am incorporating medical scanning and imaging technologies into my studio-based research practice, inserting my art practice and outcomes in New Media and Performance Studies. Conversely, the new technologies applied to my artistic research and practice are producing new functions and new knowledges beyond their initial purposes, leading to a rich interface of ex/change. This paper briefly reviews the history of scan technologies and its employment in the arts over the years, and then considers the new knowledges that may be derived from the artistic use of scanning, in particular my own practice.
Anita Milroy, Margaret Wegener, Ashley Holmes
Labpunk – Curiosity, Intra-action and Creativeness in a Physics-art Collaboration
Artistically and scientifically, we see potential for experimentation and discovery in the artefacts of physics – in bits of lab equipment, experimental results and theoretical models – for the creation of original works of art which may be worn as jewellery, or enjoyed as sculpture. Collaboratively, we are making, analysing and speculating within this art-science praxis as we transform lab junk into “Labpunk.” The 2014 national conference of Australian physicists, themed “The Art of Physics,” was the launch platform for Labpunk. This article presents an interview with the two artists involved, using images of the artefacts produced to structure the conversation. Each has arrived at this collaboration from opposite poles of CP Snow’s “two cultures” – one from physics and one from fine arts. A dynamic discourse is prompted by a provocateur. The artists reveal academic discipline-based bias as well as metalsmithing commonality. Material agency emerges as a significant discussion topic. This is discussed using terms familiar from exponents of social studies of science and technology such as Bruno Latour and Andrew Pickering and from feminist studies using diffractive analysis detailed by Donna Haraway and Karen Barad. Under scrutiny are the commonalities and differences in systems of knowledge, process and practice inherent in art and science intra-actions. These are highlighted in this reflective, or rather, diffractive practice review of the Labpunk collaboration.