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).
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.
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.
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….
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….