Monday, 25 June 2012

Ultramarine and ultraviolet: scientific theories and technological techniques in contemporary art

If one of your first thoughts when considering science is of a scruffy-headed physicist chalking equations on a blackboard - interactive whiteboards somehow being not quite the same - then it's easy to see how the subject might offer limited appeal to artists. So is it possible in our visually sophisticated society to create satisfying works of art that utilise elements of scientific thought processes, theories or techniques?

It's difficult to define what constitutes contemporary art, since the majority of people seemingly find it difficult to relate to installations, video art or ready-mades, never mind more traditional media. On the other hand, it can be argued that scientists might have a sense of aesthetic that differs profoundly from the mainstream. A well-known example of this was electro-magnetism pioneer James Clerk Maxwell's addition of a term to an equation in order to achieve an aesthetic balance, prior to him working out the actual meaning of the term.  Novelist and physicist Alan Lightman promotes the notion that scientists have a difference perspective on aesthetics, from the familiar consideration of particle symmetries to more abstruse mathematical harmonies. He describes Steven Weinberg's 1967 paper on the weak nuclear interaction in these terms: "to a physicist, (this) Langrangian…is a work of art." As someone of very limited mathematical ability like me it might as well be written in ancient cuneiform, but you can judge for yourself below:

But then aren't all aesthetic judgements subjective? One familiar chain of urban myths concerns art galleries who have suffered the embarrassment of finding their installations thrown out by over-zealous cleaners who were unaware the material was art. This leads to the interesting point that although much contemporary art is roundly ignored outside the cognoscenti, new technology and the social changes engendered by it, especially mobile communications and the World Wide Web, have been rapidly assimilated and rarely questioned. When it comes to the shock of the new, scientific ideas and the resulting technology appear much more comfortable than post-Second World War art. Or should that be qualified by the statement that if the technology is seen (albeit via persuasive advertising) as an improvement to everyday life, then it will be unquestioningly accepted, whereas art is ignored since it is rarely seen as serving a purpose?

At this point it might be good to consider two distinct approaches to how the two disciplines can be integrated:
  1. visual representations of and/or responses to science
  2. the use of scientific theories and methods to produce art
Approach 1:
In the Eighteenth Century Joseph Wright of Derby produced several atmospheric scenes of experiments, but the art history of the past century has made such clear-cut reportage unfashionable. The visual sophistication of our age would probably deem equivalent work today as both pedestrian and irrelevant to contemporary needs. After all, a straightforward painting of the Large Hadron Collider or a theorist lecturing in front of an equation-covered black board would hardly prove satisfying either from an aesthetic standpoint or as journalistic commentary. Changing technology has also eliminated the innate visual romanticism of peering through the eyepiece of a microscope or telescope; sitting at a computer screen is hardly inspiring material for the heirs to Wright of Derby.

Over the years I've attended several exhibitions that emphasised collaborations between both disciplines and have to confess I usually find the works have little depth beyond obvious, facile connections. Last year I saw a series of works reminiscent of my juvenilia (see the previous post). It consisted of a sequence of photographs of birds in flight, overlaid with the relevant motion equations. A slightly better result comes from the world of fashion, via collaboration between designer Helen Storey and her developmental biologist sister Kate. In the late 1990s they created a series of dresses elucidating the first thousand hours of human life, from fertilization through to recognizable human form.

One of my favourite examples is Yukinori Yanagi's World Flag Ant Farm, in which ants were introduced into a series of interconnected Perspex boxes containing national flags made of coloured sand. Once the human artist finished the initial setup, the wandering ants rearranged the pictorial elements as they used the sand to construct their colony. Yanagi stated his intention was to examine how much the animals rely on programmed instructions rather than free thought, but ironically the end result appeared far more expressive of individual freedom than the robot-like mentality considered essential for a hive mind.

Since 2005 Princeton University has been holding an irregular Art of Science competition, but again the resonance of the work varies enormously. Many entries are photographs of experiments or equipment, frequently at nano- to microscopic scales: good to look at but nothing that could not be faked by a skilled Photoshop user. However, a few submissions have proven to be the ultimate achievement of an aesthetic work integrated within an active experiment, including how computer memory degrades following power loss and a study of individual ants within a colony by painting unique patterns of dots on them. By and large though, most examples I have seen are woefully inadequate attempts to combine art and science.

Approach 2:
Originating with Hamlet's dictum to actors, it has been said that art's task is to hold a mirror up to nature. There have been concerted efforts by artists to deconstruct the world by adapting scientific knowledge, from the Impressionists attempt to understand how objects are modelled by light (consider Monet's haystacks and Rouen cathedral at different times of day and year), via the Pointillist's experiments to understand how the eye builds an image from minute elements, to the Futurists and Vorticists attempts to create apparent movement in a still image. Now that science shows us brave new worlds (apologies for mixing my Shakespeares) via electron microscopes, telescopes in numerous wavelengths, etc., what attempts have been made to illustrate this?

Luke Jerram is a colour-blind artist who has created glass sculptures of viruses at approximately one million times life size. What is so interesting apart from the novelty value of the subject matter is that unlike most representations in popular science books, the sculptures are transparent and therefore colourless. The works therefore immediately impart useful knowledge: viruses exist at a scale below the wavelengths of visible light and so cannot be the beautiful if  randomly-hued images we see in computer-generated illustrations. In fact, the only direct visualisation of viruses is produced by high resolution, transmission electron microscopy, the results being monochromatic, grainy and from the layman's point of view, distinctly samey. Jerram's works are not only a complex example of art meeting science, but in a tribute to their accuracy, have been used in medical texts and journals.

American artist Hunter Cole has created interesting works using techniques derived from her geneticist background, such as drawing in bioluminescent bacteria. At an even more experimental level, Brazilian Eduardo Kac has not just used life forms as media but has created novelty organisms as the artworks themselves, such as a fluorescing rabbit courtesy of a jellyfish protein gene; Doctor Frankenstein, come on down! Finally, at yet another step, Luke Jerram's 2007 Dream Director installation even made the viewer the subject of an experiment, although not exactly under laboratory conditions: visitors could stay in the gallery overnight, sleeping in pods which played themed sounds trigged by their own rapid eye movement.

If there is anything the recent history of science, especially cutting-edge physics, has taught us, it is that we need metaphors to visualise ideas that cannot be directly observed by our limited senses. But as astrophysicist and science writer John Gribbin has frequently pointed out, linguistic metaphor is often inadequate to the task, causing the analogy to return upon itself. Thus without help from the visual arts, anyone who isn't a maths genius has little hope of understanding the more arcane aspects of post-classical physics. Both art and science challenge perceptions, but it is likely that the latter will increasingly need the former to elucidate novel facts and theories. So any artist seeking a purpose need look no further: here's to many a fruitful collaboration!