Art in the Field of Scientific Imagination

autor: Stevan Vuković

‘The times of Corona’ introduced artists and scientists, just like ordinary people, to what is referred to as a ‘media-intensive environment’. Restrictions on physical movement and personal encounters prompted people to increasingly resort to various tele-technologies. Meetings and gatherings were relocated to a variety of web platforms, while cultural and art events sought to find modes of presentation that would not involve immediate physical presence of audiences. This exhibition, albeit prepared to have its opening on the national Science Day[1], which falls on the 10th of July, that is – Nikola Tesla’s birthday (unlike the World Science Day which is marked exactly 5 months later[2]) did not, however, change its format, and was only postponed. The decision was based on the intention that the works should, by all means, correspond to the venue’s physical space, granting the viewers an adequate experience; undoubtedly, a remote reception of artworks considerably reduces the spectrum of experiences and, as much as their transmission via camera or microphone is successful and adjusted to online viewing, the interferences of the place from where the audience is observing cannot be avoided.

Similar to other exhibitions and performances that were staged at the Balkan Cinema throughout the past year, an important aspect of the setup was precisely its ambientalization. It is achieved by adjusting the given space to the optimal reception and experiencing of works, just as the works are adjusted to the specificities of the site; the cinema building boasts rather unique features in the local environment, especially with respect to the atmosphere created by peculiar spatial divisions, which are quite disjointed and well-connected at the same time. On the other hand, the concepts of exhibitions are not forcing art projects that would be dedicated to accentuating and visually improving, hybridizing or, by various means, redefining the given spatial context. Instead, what they solicit are the existing works that could be developed in their full capacity only with an appropriate setup production and possibly conceptually upgraded through their relationship to the thematic framework and other works they are exhibited with. In that respect, the selection was guided by the imperative that the artworks are provided with a suitable spatialization.

The works showcased at this exhibition represent the artists’ pursuit for an expression that would, at least implicitly, involve their relationship to science and technology. They are not interactive and have no network components; they do not introduce us to virtual, augmented or mixed realities[3], while some do not even use high-tech methods. If they do employ some sort of illusionism, it is not an end in itself nor was it introduced to re-examine the ways in which certain scientific or technological principles operate, but rather serves to develop a narrative or demonstrate a clearly postulated author’s idea. The works focus either on specific episodes from the history of science – in the form of mythic narratives about scientists, scientific methods and inventions – or the contexts in which scientific procedures are conducted; some of the works analyse untypical side-effects these procedures may result in, while others simply utilize contemporary digital technology to formally shape the audio-visual artworks. It is important to note that, even when created through collaboration with scientists, the works are developed and presented from the perspective of contemporary art and its referential frame.

A complex visual-musical-stage performance which took place at the finissage of the exhibition, used Tesla coil[4] as a source of light and sound. In another work, the scientist’s fictionalized biopic served as a central motif for a picturesque hand-drawn animation, while the sentences composed of commonplaces from popular myths about Tesla became elements of a spatial installation that uses only text and light. Some of the works address science and technology on a more generalized level in that they thematize and problematize the question of ethics in conducting scientific experiments, as well as the functionality of using sophisticated software. Other artists only utilize non-standard tools to carry out their projects: magnet stimulation of the brain, EEG devises and a facial recognition system were used in the production of the works just as much as standard programs for 3D and 2D character animation and video compositing. In any case, diverse as they are, all of these works resulted from re-examination of often quite ambivalent authors’ attitudes to experiments performed in the field of science and technology, as well as those which are constitutive to the field of contemporary visual art.

 

According to Marilyn Stember’s[5] classification, these works would probably be categorized as cross-disciplinary given that one discipline is observed from the perspective of the other – namely, scientific accomplishments and their applications in technological development are presented from the angle of contemporary visual art. Unlike the approach that one might call interdisciplinary, they reach out beyond the domain of artistic practice; at the same time, unlike interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and trans-disciplinary approaches, they unequivocally result in a complete fruition of the artistic vision rather than just being a composite work whose artistic aspect is only one of the few relevant ones. These works, by all means, point towards the confluence of two imagination horizons and two types of creativity, attempting to somehow contribute to interconnection of what Charles Snow termed more than half a century ago as “two equal means of human symbol-making acttivities” that condition “the two cultures”[6], divided by “a gulf of mutual incomprehension”.[7] These cultures are unified usually by means of novel technologies as new polygons for testing the creativity of both scientists and artists.

The gap between the scientific and artistic horizon of imagination and their respective types of creativity does not only continuously exist, but it is no smaller today than it was half a century ago when Charles Snow wrote about it (naming it at that point), or even a century and a half ago when Robert Hunt[8] described it in different words. Last year’s book[9] by the theoretical physicist Tom McLeish also brought it up, instigating a debate this summer which prompted him to redact and to some extent additionally explicate and even solidify his claims.[10] In this revision, he particularly separated his controversial viewpoints from those of Johannes Lehman and Bill Gaskins[11]; according to him, they maintained that artistic practice serves as an exemplary model for scientific creativity, especially with its heuristic practices of action by means of “trial-and-error, self-critique, openness to accident”[12]. McLeish claimed that such practices, along with their own horizon of imagination, “find a home in scientific research” and create “explicit scientific contexts”[13] for innovation and creativity, so that today we can observe artistic and scientific approaches to creativity developing in parallel.

 

If these McLeish’s stances are tenable – and many valid empirical footholds for that from both sides of the above mentioned gap  – then further questions open up: are these two types of innovation and creativity somehow comparable, and if yes, in what ways and can they at all be combined within joint projects? The sample analysis of the twelve selected works from the local art scene that make up this exhibition – all of which have been shown before within the thematic framework of relationships between science and art and whose conception, or at least production, included collaboration of scientists, technicians and artists on various levels – showed imagination as a potential common denominator. With regard to the artists, they were not so interested in concrete scientific research programs and their practical contributions to social developments as in the horizon of possibilities that sciences open up by their perpetual re-conceptualization of the reality we are immersed in, which as Nelson Goodman argues, provides them with the same role as that of the arts – the engagement in “worldmaking”.[14]

 

 

The logic of continual creation of worlds as something that brings science closer to art, Paul Feyerabend at the time defined with a thesis that the absolute dominance of one scientifically approved reality is not supposed to take us to the conclusion that we have reached some ‘real reality’, but only that other types of reality have at the time not enough strong defenders, or that there is just not enough interest for their production.[15] The ways in which the artists, whose works are part of this exhibition, dealt and often confronted with the dominant modes of reality were classed in the following categories: fragmentation of experience under the influence of technology (Ćuzović, Ćirić and Savić), examination of the behaviour amplified by technology (Jovićević and Trtovac), researching the experience of human body and its replicas (Gajić and Teofilović), mythic narratives about scientists and the logic of scientific discovery (Brkić and Ličina), as well as cynical questioning of artificial intelligence’s limitations (Kojić, Aleksić) and normative reflection on the ethics in scientific research (Atoski &al). Be that as it may, these categories should be regarded only as constructs with a heuristic role.

 

Literature:

[1] As per the decision of the Government of the Republic of Serbia („Official Gazette“, No.62/2010) the National Science Day in Serbia is marked on 10th of July.

[2] The idea to establish a „World Science Day“, which would be celebrated on the same date all over the wold was proposed at the 1999 World Conference on Science in Budapest,and as a potential date was suggested Novembar the 10th. UNESCO has, on that basis, proclaimed the „World Science Day for Peace and Development” (UNESCO 31 C/Resolution 20), which was for the first time marked globally on November 10, 2002. In Serbia it is market from 2011, fromwhich, besides this date, which the Republic of Serbia is celebrating as a member of UNESCO, there was another date established by the decision of the Government , the National Science Day, which is on July the 10th, the birthday of Nikola Tesla.

[3] The works in the VR media were presented at the special exhibition that was on view 3 – 10 September as part of the 13th Beldocs festival at the Balkan Cinema, which also had to be postponed from May to September. It showcased the works by  Jan Kounen, Diego Kompel, Ana Knezević and Milad Tangshir

[4] Tesla coil is a high frequency transformer that operates at high voltage. Nikola Tesla used this transformer for experimental purposes to produce lightning, conduct research on electric light,  phosphorescence, production of x-rays, electrotherapy, wireless transmission of electrical and radio signals and power over distances.

[5] Marilyn Stember: “Advancing the Social Sciences through the Interdisciplinary Enterprise”, from The Social Science Journal 28 (1),1991, pp. 1–14.

[6] Aleksandar I. Spasić:  “Foreword” from Charles Snow: Dve kulture i ponovo o njima, Beograd: Narodni univerzitet Braća Stamenković, 1971, p. 7.

[7] Charles Snow, The Two Cultures, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 4.

[8] Robert Hunt: The Poetry of Science: Or the Studies of the Physical Phenomena of Nature, Boston, MA: Gould, Kendall, and Lincoln, 1850.

[9] Tom McLeish: The Poetry and Music of Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2019.

[10] Tom McLeish: “Taking the Discussion Onward”, from Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 45:1, 2020, pp. 51-70.

[11] Johannes Lehmann & Bill Gaskins: “Learning Scientific Creativity From The Arts”, Palgrave Commun 5, 96, 2019.

[12] Tom McLeish, the aforementioned paper from 2020, p. 65.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Nelson Goodman: Ways of Worldmaking, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2013, str. 133,

[15] Paul Feyerabend:  “Wissenschaft als Kunst”, Frankfurt am Main: SuhrkampVerlag, 1984, published in English as “Science as Art: A Discussion of Riegl’s Theory of Art and an Attempt to Apply it to the Sciences”, Art and Text, 12-13 (Summer 1983 – Autumn 1984), 16-46.

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