Science and contemporary art
- Jean Robertson
- and Craig McDaniel
The final decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century witnessed an increasing propensity for artists to incorporate aspects of science in their own art. In many fields of scientific research—including the cloning of mammals, the genetic modification of crops, the creation of bioengineered organs and tissues, advances in nanotechnology and robotics, experimental research in how the human mind works and the study of artificial intelligence—the frontiers of knowledge pushed outward at an accelerated pace. In the spirit of creative inquiry, or in order to critique the goals and outcomes of scientific experimentation and application, artists regularly borrowed subjects, tools and approaches from science as a means to the production of art ( see fig. ).
In documenting and assessing the achievements of visual artists engaged with science, there was no broad consensus on the categorisation of artists’ work across the full range of activities, methods, motivations and use of materials. Assessments of artistic practice focused on artists’ work categorised by the traditional fields of science (e.g. artists who explore biology, artists who explore physical sciences). Other analyses of artistic practice focused on categories of art media (e.g. artists who use traditional means such as carving and casting to represent scientific discoveries, artists who explore and employ biological materials and scientific instruments).
Science is the quest for knowledge about observable phenomena. A simplified definition focuses on how studies are conducted (i.e. on the process of the scientific method, a systematic approach to stating and testing hypotheses and predicting future outcomes of observable phenomena). The construction of knowledge based on an open-minded, open-ended determination to state and test hypotheses against empirical observations had never been developed prior to the formulation and widespread adoption of the scientific method. A more complete refinement of a definition of science is complex. Karl Popper, an influential 20th-century Austrian/English philosopher, focused on the concept of falsibility. According to Popper, for a human endeavor to be science, it is not sufficient that the endeavor follows the scientific method and that the endeavor’s hypotheses demonstrate reliability through predictive testing. In addition, it must be theoretically possible to demonstrate that a hypothesis is not true in order for the endeavor to be scientific.
Science is broadly divided into natural science, which studies the physical world (e.g. physics, chemistry), and social science, which studies human behavior and social systems (e.g. geography, anthropology). Mathematics, computer science and engineering are related disciplines that both natural scientists and social scientists draw from. Contemporary scientific endeavors are increasingly interdisciplinary, and new hybrid fields such as biochemistry, astrophysics, neuropsychology and bioengineering are continually evolving. While activities in virtually all the sciences provided subject matter and inspiration for artists active at the turn of the 21st century, the life sciences, including biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics and neuroscience, appeared especially compelling.
1. Artists as amateur scientists.
While contemporary artists’ interest in science and their specific knowledge of scientific achievements are seldom as sophisticated and detailed as the knowledge held by scientists themselves, some contemporary artists based their creative practice on a version of the scientific method, observing the world and gathering empirical data systematically. For example, in a tongue-in-cheek application of the scientific method as used in the social sciences, the former artist duo, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, émigrés from the then Soviet Union who moved to the US in 1978, conducted market research to create the series People’s Choice from 1994 to 1997. Komar and Melamid hired professional polling companies to conduct surveys of people in more than a dozen countries about their aesthetic preferences for a painting, asking them to choose their favourite color, size, style, and subject matter. Survey results were statistically averaged, and the artists then created a painting for each country that incorporated the ‘most wanted’ and ‘least wanted’ visual characteristics.
Artists who behaved like amateur scientists often embraced archaic scientific models, used in times when science and medicine were closely allied to magic and religion, or employed ironic stereotypes, such as the individualistic ‘mad’ scientist. An influential 20th century example was Joseph Beuys , who evoked both ancient medical practitioners (shamans in their role as healers) and medieval alchemists ( see fig. ). More recently, Alice Aycock, Chris(topher) Burden, Dennis Oppenheim and Paul Vanouse, among others, might be described as basement inventors. These artists constructed mechanical contraptions with nonexistent, vague or impractical functions or conducted experiments of uncertain purpose using scientific instruments and materials.
Artists used scientific discoveries in ways never intended or anticipated by scientists. One unusual example is the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project, instigated in 2005 by twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim, a science writer and artist, respectively, who grew up near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The Wertheims mixed geometry, marine biology, ecology and handicraft to create what resembles a massive coral reef using the textile technique of crocheting. The project, which became well known among the online community of knitters and crocheters, adapted the 1997 discovery of mathematician Daina Taimina, who figured out how to meld mathematics and crocheting in order to create three-dimensional crocheted models of hyperbolic geometry. (Hyperbolic space has plentiful curves and volumes compared to the right angles of Euclidean space.) The Wertheims’ Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project was based on an algorithmic process to generate instructions for precisely repeated patterns of stitches that crocheters employed to produce crocheted versions of crenellated reef forms.
2. Artists adopt scientific tools and materials.
The materials and forms that artists have used to represent images and ideas derived from science vary greatly. Some artists employed familiar artistic media and forms. Among these, some sculpted images of seemingly bioengineered creatures out of plastic or wood or clay, made carefully detailed pencil drawings that evoke scientific diagrams or images seen under a microscope and painted imagined scenes of outer space or a scientifically altered future. Frank Moore, Alexis Rockman, Matthew Ritchie , Bryan Crockett, Ronald Jones, Helen Chadwick , Eve Andrée Laramée, Patricia Piccinini and Tim Hawkinson are a few of the many painters, sculptors, photographers and installation artists who explored scientific themes in relatively familiar artistic media.
Other artists at the start of the 21st century borrowed more directly from the materials, instruments and technologies of science itself, often mixing together methodologies from both art and science. Art about science has proven particularly suited to hybrid methodologies that mix old with new technologies. (In parallel fashion, a science laboratory can be a hybrid environment where glass beakers, a longtime fixture of scientific research, coexist with computers.) With few exceptions, artists did not have the budgets or access to scientific technologies and expert knowledge to be able to utilise them fully even if they wanted to, and therefore, of necessity and choice, they devised idiosyncratic and jerrybuilt technologies.
The term Bio Art is used for art by artists who work with the same living organic materials that scientists do: bacteria, cell lines, molecules, plants, body fluids and tissues, even living animals. The category is not rigidly defined; as with any medium, there have been debates whether particular materials and practices fall within the category or not, such as whether the biological material needs to be alive when the artist uses it to qualify as bio art.
Recent precursors to the bio artists include the earth artists of the 1960s and 1970s, who worked out in the open, sculpting forms from rocks, earth, plants and water ( see Land art ). Prominent earth artists with extensive knowledge of natural sciences such as geology, botany and biology include Smithson, Robert, Denes, Agnes, Sonfist, Alan ( see fig. ) and Chin, Mel . These particular artists viewed nature as an ecological system of growth, change and decay. What distinguishes bio art from previous art using organic materials is its close tie to laboratory research in the life sciences and the sophistication of the technologies the artists use. Bio artists generally acquire knowledge about a biotechnology, such as genetic engineering and cloning, in order to achieve their results. At times these artists work side by side with scientists in their laboratories, even delving into the finer points of gene splicing or DNA sequencing.
Contemporary bio artists have produced results echoing the startling, sci-fi quality of laboratory experimentation. For example, the artist George Gessert, who studied both art and horticulture, started using plant breeding as his artform in the 1970s. Applying principles of genetics, Gessert selectively bred wild irises to produce what he considers highly artistic versions, calling his practice ‘genetic folk art’. Eduardo Kac , like Gessert one of the pioneers of bio art, has used custom-designed bacteria, plants and animals in his art installations, transferring natural and synthetic genes among organisms ( see fig. ). Mark Dion ’s spectacular Neukom Vivarium (2006; Seattle, Olympic Sculpture Park) is a hybrid work of sculpture, architecture and horticulture. Dion installed a sixty-foot-long fallen log inside a specially designed greenhouse, where it functions both as an artwork and as a biological environment inhabited by a diversity of plants, insects, lichen and bacteria.
British artist Damien Hirst first became notorious for a series of displays consisting of tanks of formaldehyde containing pickled biological specimens, including a shark, a cow and a sheep. These were exhibited whole as if in suspended animation or dissected into cross sections to provide a clear view of the insides. Exhibited in art venues, these tanks with their creepy contents re-posed some long-standing questions: What makes something art? What is the difference between art and non-art? And how does the context (an art gallery rather than a science lab or science museum) influence interpretation?
3. Critiquing the ideology of science.
Defenders of pure research argue that science is disinterested and neutral in its pursuit of truth and that scientists should be allowed to pursue their goals without fetters. While modern civilisation has benefitted from scientific discoveries and technological applications, nevertheless, some artists, like some people in general, have remained skeptical about the outcomes of science and have been unwilling to accept that scientists—and the organisations that support scientific research—are necessarily the best to determine the prioritisation of research goals and funding, to strategise the application of scientific knowledge in new technologies and to resolve moral questions that surround scientific enquiries.
Artists have motivated and empowered viewers to challenge the absolute authority of science using a variety of strategies. Some artists incorporated scientific information in visually compelling forms; others produced emotionally laden artworks that show real or imagined outcomes of scientific activity. An example of the latter is the series Olteppiche (German for ‘oil carpet’) made by Austrian-born artist Robert Gschwantner, which expressed his alarm about oil slicks caused by shipwrecks and other industrial disasters.
Artists have collaborated with scientists who share their sense of caution and want other scientists and the public alike to reflect on scientific outcomes and choices. Along these lines, Weather Report: Art and Climate Change, a 2007 art exhibition on view at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in Colorado and at other public locations, fostered dozens of collaborations between artists and scientists. The resulting interdisciplinary artworks drew attention to climate change by addressing such related issues as deforestation, global warming, species extinction, damage to the ozone layer and ocean pollution. The artist Mary Miss worked with a hydrologist and geologist to envision the magnitude of a feared five-hundred-year flood in the local area (see figs 1 and 2 ). Veteran environmental artists Helen and Newton Harrison relied on the research of a biologist studying the effects of global warming on alpine plants to create The Mountain in the Greenhouse (2007), artwork showing plants creeping to higher elevations as their habitat shrinks. Some works dramatised climate change while others offered solutions.
Activist artists can take an extremely provocative stance. Gregory Green, for instance, made a series of sculptures that replicated, in basement-inventor fashion, primitive prototypes for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. All that Green’s versions lack is the various fuels (such as enriched uranium) for making the weapons fully functional, although Green ‘helpfully’ provided recipes for mixing explosive materials. The artist, who worked from instruction manuals readily available on the Internet and by mail order, wanted in part to demonstrate how easy it is for terrorists to obtain the knowledge needed to make dangerous weapons. The Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), an art collective founded in 1987, presented participatory performance projects all over the world that were intended to critique various outcomes of emerging biotechnologies and help the public understand the issues ( see fig. ).
4. The visual culture of science.
Contemporary science has generated many powerful images. These images have affected how visual artists see and think about the fundamental elements of visual art such as space, texture, movement and pattern. For example, science has stretched human awareness of scale, from the subatomic to the galactic. The Hubble Space Telescope provided pictures of galaxies beyond our own; medical imaging tools have revealed the interior of the human body and forms of life invisible to the naked eye.
Today physicians and science practitioners in a range of fields use advanced imaging technology, including electron microscopes, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), satellite images and CAT scans (a sophisticated form of x-ray), to capture scientific information in a visual form. In addition, scientists use computer-aided rendering programs to translate their data and interpretations into maps, diagrams and models. Bioimaging in concert with scientific modeling revolutionised modern medicine and the biological sciences. In diagnosing diseases, physicians regularly employ instruments that see and measure the body’s inner workings even at the cellular level. Mona Hatoum used the tools of medical bioimaging to create her video installation Corps étranger (1994), a kind of self-portrait presenting camera images of her bodily interior.
For visual artists, the focus on hidden phenomena and systems operating at the molecular or genetic level contrasts with, or complements, the perceptual approach still used in visual art training in most university art programs. Bioimaging has made it possible to represent human beings in new perspectives, unavailable to the naked eye ( see fig. ). Such an expanded view of reality calls into question the reliability and truth of everyday surface appearances. Gary Schneider created his art installation Genetic Self-Portrait (1997–8) in collaboration with scientists using photomicroscopy. The installation juxtaposed photographs of Schneider’s ears, hands and teeth with greatly magnified images of biological samples of the artist’s own DNA, chromosomes, cells, sperm, blood and hair.
Artists responding to science have utilised iconic scientific symbols such as the double helix, copied pictures from x-rays or MRI scans, adapted images of cells magnified by powerful microscopes and mimicked models of molecular structures and genomes. For example, to make her 1980s series Viral Landscapes, British photographer Helen Chadwick superimposed magnified images of her own body’s cells over landscape photographs. In the 1990s American painters Frank Moore ( see fig. ) and David Wojnarowicz as well as other artists made artworks about the impact of AIDS that included molecular images and models of the HIV virus.
The general public frequently learns about science by visiting such institutions as natural history museums and planetariums. Some contemporary artists have created installations that mimicked the display techniques of museums, archives, libraries and related institutions, including institutions with scientific missions. The ideas and results vary greatly depending on the kind of institution the artist is responding to and why. Mark Dion , for instance, borrowed from museum practices to create displays of his own design into which he often incorporated real scientific specimens and artifacts. Dion’s displays of collections resemble Wunderkammern (‘cabinets of wonders’) with their eclectic assemblages of historical artifacts and scientific specimens ( see fig. ).
In addition to museums, concepts and images emerging from science reach the popular imagination through print media and Internet sites and through films, television shows, novels, video games, comics, science fiction novels and advertisements for consumer products. In popular culture, fictional clones, mutants and cyborgs inhabit fantastic futuristic worlds and enact extreme scenarios that portray science paradoxically as both a cause of apocalypse and the means to salvation. Numerous artists have responded as much or more to representations of science in popular visual culture as they do to science itself. For example, the aptly titled Reversed Double Helix (2003), a two-week installation in Rockefeller Center in New York of sculptural works by Takashi Murakami , featured colourful figures that look like friendly cartoon versions of mutant hybrids. Motohiko Odani gained an international reputation for works in sculpture, photography and video that investigated mutations and transformations, melding biology and genetics with science fiction. Matthew Ritchie drew from a wealth of sources encompassing science fiction, creation myths and particle physics to create his paintings ( see fig. ).
5. The nature of nature.
The basic concept of taxonomy—that life forms can be grouped and categorised according to observable and measurable qualities—has remained in wide usage since first established by Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707–78). Humans, in the original version of this scheme, are part of the animal kingdom but preserve their identity with respect to other species of animals. The sharp distinction between humans and everything-but-us has eroded, in the view of mainstream science, since the advent of evolutionary biology. In considering evolution and the spectrum of living creatures, a number of contemporary artists have been influenced by the philosophical ideas advanced by scientific research as well as by theorists, such as the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari who argued that nature knows no absolute, essential divisions. The artistic responses to humans’ status as life forms have taken a wide array of forms and perspectives.
New scientific research in genetics unsettled basic assumptions about human identity and the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. Researchers in genomics study the DNA molecules that make up genes and the proteins they control to look for the complex structure of genetic information at the cellular level. Genetic code is expressed in symbols, using the letters A, C, G, T as a form of scientific shorthand for the primary chemicals that comprise DNA. Artist and critic Suzanne Anker became interested in how genetic information is expressed in symbols. For example, a pattern of dots and dashes can be used to represent the complete set of chromosomes of a cell of a living organism. In her installation Zoosemiotics: Primates, Frog, Gazelle, Fish (1993), Anker presents magnified representations of chromosomes that resemble ancient writing.
Whereas taxonomists used to classify organisms on the basis of observed physical similarities and differences, now researchers map and compare hidden genetic sequences expressed in complicated, abstract codes. This approach to classifying living things gives priority to the instructions ‘written’ into the chromosomes and defines human identity using linguistic metaphors such as language, script, code, map and blueprint. The emphasis on organisms as information systems emboldened people, including artists, to imagine that we might someday control human evolution. In contrast to natural selection, a cumulative process that slowly sorts the fit from the unfit and ensures the survival of the fittest organisms, genetic engineering holds out the possibility of controlling the selection process to achieve specific goals. Genomics researchers are identifying genes linked to a range of diseases, behaviours and physical attributes and experimenting with ways to modify those genes. Even when manipulating genes with the most benign intentions, such as to ensure that a baby will not develop a grave genetic disease, the life sciences offer choices with profound ethical and societal consequences. Artists’ work related to this research has been prompted to explore a range of moral issues, such as where is the line between genetic engineering and eugenics, a social philosophy that advocates the shaping of a more perfect human race by manipulating hereditary factors? Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle raised the issue of eugenics in his installation Banks in Pink and Blue (1999). In addition to bringing attention to the potential for selecting a baby’s gender, the work raised questions about issues of the ownership and consumer marketing of genetic materials such as sperm.
Traditional selective breeding practices influenced evolution without raising widespread social or ethical concerns. The pace of genetic mutation is accelerating, as cloning and DNA sequencing techniques are applied to many plants and animals in biotechnology labs. We consume genetically modified food every day, and it is a matter of debate whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a boon to agribusiness at the expense of consumers’ health. Advocates point out that GMOs have the potential to solve world hunger. Naysayers fear health risks from exposure to GMOs in food, worry about the potential of GMOs to hybridise with nonmodified plants and fear a loss of biodiversity. Alexis Rockman , an artist who is concerned about the ethical and environmental implications of unregulated biotechnology, reminds us that genomics is a science and an industry. Rockman’s painting The Farm (2000) shows a world in which the demands of agribusiness override the integrity of animals and plants. On the left are familiar farm animals; on the right are imagined bioengineered versions of the same animals. Rockman’s painting also depicts modifications that have already occurred in labs, such as vegetables bred to have a squarish shape so they can be packaged efficiently.
Genetics experiments aimed at changing animal and plant genomes, even producing new organisms that combine traits across species boundaries, have been both unsettling and mesmerising to artists. Thomas Grünfeld began a series called Misfits in 1989 in which he constructed his own versions of cross-species creatures by combining parts from two or three different taxidermied animals, such as one with the narrow face of a sheep and the stocky body of a St. Bernard dog. The hybrids appear to be the uncanny results of genetic lab experiments. Other artistic versions of transgenics include Patricia Piccinini ’s uncanny lifelike sculptures that simulate transgenic creatures ( see fig. ), Lee Bul ’s cyborgs that envision combinations of organic with inorganic forms ( see fig. ) and the many hybrid creatures inhabiting the five epic films in Matthew Barney ’s Cremaster Cycle, including Barney himself as a kind of satyr in Cremaster 4 (1994).
Another rapidly developing arena of scientific and technical research is the interfacing of machines with human functions. Designing smart machines that are capable of adjusting to their environments and performing multiple tasks has a wide range of commercial and everyday applications. The research possibility of machines acting with human intelligence (such as carrying on a meaningful dialogue) has fired the imaginations of creative thinkers in the sciences and the arts. For example, Paul DeMarinis created a range of art projects based on various processes to animate devices, such as Hypnica (2007), a series of talking metronomes in which various hypnotists’ voices lull listeners to ‘a sonic trance’, and Rain Dance/Musica Acuatica (1998), in which twenty streams of falling water, modulated with audio signals, create music when intercepted by visitors’ umbrellas. DeMarinis’s Firebirds (2005) features flames from oxyacetylene torches that, positioned inside birdcages, create sound vibrations by utilising a process in which the flame is electrically modulated to heat and cool. The sound waves produce speeches of famous 20th century political leaders.
The concept of intelligent machines has been explored in artworks by numerous others, including Andy Gracie, Usman Haque and Nicholas Stedman. Stedman says his goal ‘is to build machines which appear to be alive in some capacity.’ One project in his Machines for Social Circumstances series involved a hypothetical blanket that could move in search of people. Upon finding a person, the blanket would use tactile sensors to cover the person and respond to movements.
As humans use technology to intervene in the organic world, many questions and concerns arise that have provoked various forms of artistic responses. Some key concerns have included: How much manipulation can take place before we decide that something natural has become artificial? Is a new species created in a lab still natural as long as all of its components are organic (e.g. see Nature? )? What does individual identity mean in an age of cloning and robotics?
6. Marveling at the universe.
While numerous contemporary artists looked critically at scientific activities, other artists celebrated how science has added to knowledge of the universe and elicited awe at its beauty and vastness. This attitude towards science has an ancient lineage, at least as scholars imagine our forebears’ motives. For example, based on observations of the temporal rhythm of the lunar cycle, scholars now see Stonehenge as a combination of planetarium, public sculpture and sacred site. Humans in all cultures seem to have been motivated to make sense of the universe by both a curiosity about how things work and an appreciation of visual qualities.
Lita Albuquerque completed work that combined empirical information about observable natural phenomena with awestruck wonder at the vastness and beauty of the universe. The National Science Foundation in the US helped fund Albuquerque’s Stellar Axis: Antarctica (2006), a breathtaking site-specific temporary installation of ninety-nine vivid blue spheres placed on the frozen whiteness of the Ross Ice Shelf very close to the South Pole. Using global positioning system technology, Albuquerque and her team (an astronomer, two filmmakers and a photographer) created a star map of the constellations in the Southern Hemisphere.
Josiah McElheny expressed a dual concern—how phenomena occurred and the beauty therein—in his sculpture An End to Modernity (2005). The form of the artwork embodies two distinct concepts. First, the large (twelve-by-fifteen-foot) glass and metal sculpture resembles an over-the-top 1960s chandelier, and its starburst form specifically pays homage to the historic chandeliers at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera house. Second, McElheny’s sculpture represents the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. An aluminium orb at the sculpture’s centre represents the earliest stage of this transformation. The spoke-like silvery rods that radiate from the sphere have different lengths that represent the relative passage of time. Bursting from their ends are glass clusters representing clusters of galaxies that formed during later phases of the Big Bang. Thus the outer periphery of the sculpture represents the universe now. As an abstraction An End to Modernity encapsulates a current scientific understanding of the universe and at the same time inspires an aesthetic reaction with its elegant form.
Contemporary artists responded metaphorically and impressionistically to scientific images and discoveries. They examined scientific topics with playfulness and skepticism, enchantment and wariness, and, perhaps most importantly, they viewed the practice of art itself as a field of research inquiry, a sort of alternative science.
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