What makes good sci art? #1

What sci-art?  Is it art that comments on science?  Is it art that uses the tools of science?  Is it science that is done with the intention of being art?  Is it a beautiful image produced by a scientist as an artifact of the research process in a moment of insight?  When does sci-art simply become clever design? Does it matter?  And when is sci-art good, rather than simply being clever, intellectual, etc?  As fascinated as I am, sometimes I find myself somewhat unmoved by certain pieces of sci-art , or actually wondering about their merit.  Other pieces blow me away in their simplicity or complexity (congratulations Eduardo Kac, your brilliant bunny continues to flummox me to bits).

GFP Bunny (Alba) by Eduardo Kac

I hardly expect that one blog post is actually going to get down to the bottom of this.  And it’s something that I’m happy to devote endless hours of discussion to, and probably eventually several blog posts.  A lot of it will come down to personal preference, and the whole “what is art” argument (which I’m not interested in touching either).  But I think that there is a level of complexity to good sci-art that is often missed by pretty pictures of sciencey things.  To kick off this discussion, I thought I would (begin to) look at photography, a medium which is used and abused by those interested in “sci-art.”

I remember a few years back going to an amazing MOMA San Francisco exhibition “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible.”  It was jaw dropping. From my memory, it primarily comprised  photographs from the 19th century.  The first photographs through microscopes; the first photographs through telescopes.  The discovery of photography coincided with a flourishing in science, and there were a few brave souls who took advantage of this.   Artistic intent  barely figured any sort of role in the production of many of these photographs.  It was a combination of experimentation with media, an aesthetic sense, seeing something in nothing….  very much the way contemporary artists think about their work, come to think of it.

Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot, Direct electric spark obtained with a Ruhmkorff coil or Wimshurst machine, also known as "Trouvelot Figure"; 19th-century photograph; © Musée des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris

Compare this with NASA’s “Earth as Art” series of Landsat images.  Many of these satellite images are beautiful.  I have found remote sensing data of all sorts an inspiration for my own work. Yet despite their spectacularity, I find that they pale in comparison with some often rough, peepholes through a microscope.  They don’t lack for meaning—they pose many profound questions about the detatchment of the viewer from the object, are we seeing what we think we are seeing, what mysteries lie within the reality before our eyes that we can comprehend not?  There’s a postmodern sense of estrangement that I doubt NASA is aware of.

Coast of Guinea Bissau, Image courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office

And maybe that’s it.  A sense of naiveté.  That sense of discovery.  A sense of something that hadn’t been done before.  But is that the case for the shots taken with the Deep Field Camera?  Seeing further into the universe than ever before?  Seeing far into the past; far beyond when the Earth even existed as a planet; to the time when galaxies were closer; presenting a very strange view of reality that was…is..was… is………. whatever….

File:Hubble ultra deep field high rez edit1.jpg

Photo credit: NASA/ESA/S. Beckwith(STScI) and The HUDF Team.

Yet with all it’s superprofundity on the early eve of your day, I just can’t qualify it as art.  In the Duchampian “if the artist declares it as art….” sense I don’t think NASA is declaring these images to be art.  They are as art. They contain the beauty and mystery underlying many great works of art, but lack the gestalt.  The messiness; the fumbling around for Truth; that visualising reality in a way that had never been done before (I mean, let’s face it; even the Deep Field Hubble folks had taken photos of spiral/disc/what-be-you galaxy-a-plenty).  And there’s a lack of intentionality– there’s a declaring it to be art after the fact; coming back to Duchamp, it’s as if they are inadvertent readymades.

I am not claiming to make a grand this-is/is not-art statement here.  I realise the line is ambiguous.  But I find it incredible that some of those perfectimperfect MOMA images affected me in a way that few contemporary scientific images (in their traditional forms) actually do.  But it doesn’t mean that science can’t be beautiful either,  isn’t often something that makes you stare in wonder, and contemplate your place in it all.

Some thoughts to ponder until next time….

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About sciartsci

I would like to consider myself both scientist and artist and am profoundly interested in the overlap, intermingling, and interface between these two worlds. I had an academic position (in science) at a university in the USA, which I left (in part) to spend a year in London doing art in a Foundation programme at Byam Shaw/Central St Martins. I now find myself back working in science but maintaining a high level of involvement in art (sculpture, painting, drawing, photography). I have a pretty cool job and this blog reflects only my opinions and not those of the fantastic institution I happen to be lucky enough to work for.
This entry was posted in Astronomy, Bio Art, Photography, Satellite imagery, What is sci art. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What makes good sci art? #1

  1. Colin Rennie says:

    Thanks for starting the blog. This growing field seems to be enjoying somewhat of a renaissance recently, which I think is due. The parallel fields of human enquiry both are looking for a way to see the world. Ocular-centrism, I think, is key; the primary sense is engrained in our modes of understanding. When we are faced with images from the increasing extensions to scales and detail possible in our probing of the universe, there is an excitement generated that is infectious. Being able to see something for the first time is a driver that is common both in art and in science, and I think this is implicit in your blog. Let me know what you think.

  2. sciartsci says:

    I think you are getting at something that is fundamental to why I find this a fascinating field. There’s a great deal of subjectivity to the human experience; while many scientists might argue that Science is immune to this, it is nonetheless something that must be interpreted, perceived. Art allows us to question how we interact with this ocular-centrism; by distorting it; by questioning what we think is true; by examining at how science (which is part of our culture) fits into our culture.

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