Last Friday I headed over to the GV Art Gallery in London to check out their new and ambitiously titled show Art & Science: Merging Art and Science to Make a Revolutionary New Art Movement and hear a panel of bio-artists moderated by Arthur Miller discuss whether this is actually the case.
This evening proved to be a much-needed source of inspiration and challenge to what-I-thought was so. The art presented was an excellent overview of the different facets of the genere, ranging from Stelarc‘s performance art-cum-body modification to Oron Catts‘s famous pig wings (for sale!) to some gorgeous prints by Susan Aldworth. I highly recommend taking a look at this impressive little show to see work by some really talented and innovative artists working in scientists’ laboratories.
The main theme for the evening was a discussion of whether art and science were converging/hybridizing to form a ‘third culture’ (as proposed by Arthur Miller), whether they were really separate entities, and if they were… what all of those artists were doing in laboratories anyways.
Arthur Miller started the discussion with the contentious question of whether a third culture was forming from the convergence of art and science. After centuries of operating in separate spheres, is it possible that this fringe movement of sci-artists are bringing these two seemingly different world-views together into something completely new? Overwhelmingly, the view of the artists was no– or at least not yet. But Miller’s question, like that of any good moderator, was provocative that a good discussion ensued. Catts, who works full-time in a laboratory alongside scientists, emphatically feels that they are separate discipline, and that despite the fact that he used scientific tools in his art, he is certainly not a scientist. Scientists work according to a set of axioms for/against some hypothesis and are nominally bound by the scientific method. In contrast, artists have more freedom, can explore ridiculous tangents, and most importantly, critique the media that they are using. Artists see science as a tool to be exploited to creative ends, whereas scientists have a duty to be -well- scientists.
An interesting distinction was made by the artists about the difference between science and engineering — as there is a convergence between art and science, at the other end of the spectrum, is there a convergence between engineering and science? This is seen in fields, such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and geoengineering. The artists saw a hierarchy– shouldn’t engineers be the servants of scientists and not their equals? Overall, the artists were wary of science driven by technological developments, and saw an important role for themselves in challenging that.
Questions from the audience brought up the issue of aesthetics (is sci-art also challenging notions of what is beautiful?), the politics of funding (UK arts funding has been drastically cut, whereas science funding has survived by the skin of its teeth), how scientists and artists were regarded in the time of Leonardo, and why arts critics have not as of yet embraced sci-art.
As somebody who has extensive experience in (geo)science, and also has a passion for making and appreciating art, I found myself teetering between these two camps. I understood what the artists meant when they said that the realms of science and art are separate (even if they are increasingly cross-fertilising one-another). When making work, I often feel as though I need to flip a switch in my brain to move into art-mode– otherwise, I feel trapped within scientific constraints and unable to make things that are interesting and visually stimulating. I have to give myself that permission to explore and connect with a slightly deeper, less logical sense of being, give in to irony and humour. I applaude these artists who are doing so within the context of a laboratory.
So is a new culture forming? Probably not yet… but then again, Stelarc sees technology as an extension of the body and has a soon-to-be wifi enabled ear embedded in his arm, and it seemed that everybody was open to what the future might bring.
Disclaimer– this post was written based on my impressions of the evening. Hopefully I am not wrongly attributing anything to anybody. If you are interested in a full and accurate account of the evening, I understand a video of the discussion should be posted on Youtube by GV Art in good time.