Third Culture? : From the Arts to the Sciences and Back Again in Shanghai

I will be giving this talk on August 25 in Shanghai at the SIVA Shanghai Institute of Visual Art

I would welcome feedback and thoughts:


Third Culture? : From the Arts to the Sciences and Back Again


Roger F Malina

Version 1.1 Aug 10 2011 current word count 2100 words


I believe very strongly that we need to find new ways for the arts and sciences to collaborate, and create a networked culture that brings into interaction the arts and humanities with the sciences and engineering. Our world faces many problems, at all scales, where we must use all the different approaches to create a world culture that is sustainable and respects and nurtures the differing world views of each community. We have no choice but to forge new art-science collaborations.


However, I do not believe that the concept of a third culture is a useful one in exploring the ways that links between the arts and sciences can be generative of new ideas and cultural developments. There are very good reasons, epistemological and methodological, that knowledge construction has evolved over the last few hundred years with the creation of various evolving disciplines. At the same time we now live in a situation of ‘networked knowledge’ and our institutional and social organization often make it difficult to create the conditions of interesting interaction between the arts and sciences. And innovation and creativity theory tells us that we need to deploy the whole panoply of different approaches in inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary practice.


Michael Punt a recent Editorial in Leonardo Reviews Quaterly (Issue 1.03 May 2011: ) asks some simple questions: as we move into a new cultural context, of networked e-culture, what is gained, what is lost? When two cultures interface there can be constructive or destructive interference. What knowledge is being transferred, or constructed, by whom and to whom?  His skepticism I think rightfully argues that we are very much in the ‘dark’ ages and not yet the ‘middle ages’ of the way that digital cultural is re-shaping knowledge. Martin Zierold in his commentary in the same issue of Leonardo Reviews Quaterly, points to the writing of Vilem Flusser who emphasized that these new cultural tropes have to be learned, and this takes time. The idea of a Third Culture I think reflects an understandable but counter productive impatience and the desire for easy formulas that is not warranted and will not prove to be generative.


One way to think of this is as a problem of ‘translation’, and try to deploy a geometrical analogy. In Euclidian Geometry the three ‘orthogonal’ transformations are translation, rotation and reflection. Euclidian ‘rigid’ transformations preserve the properties of the objects, they are ‘isometric’. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the development in mathematics of ‘non-Euclidian’ geometries with profound consequences in physics. We now know that the universe is ‘non-Euclidian’. Special and General Relativity informs us that space and time are un-separable and that we need to think of ‘manifolds’ which may be Euclidian on small scales but very much more complex on larger ones, with folds and singularities. Needless to say ‘culture’ is non-Euclidian and as we move ideas, or objects or processes, around ‘the space of culture’, the move to networked culture is not isometric.


Translation Studies have recently emerged as a new focus for understanding a number of problems in the humanities, with the expansion of the métier of textual translation to cross-cultural studies, and more recently inter-disciplinary studies.  Within the digital humanities there is also interest in the translation model when trying to understand, or design, how we ‘translate’ cultural creations into differing media, how the same project can be expressed in social media, in sound, technological performance or other types of digital mediation. I want to explore here the usefulness of some of the concepts of Translations Studies to current discussions on the relations between the arts and sciences. Rainer Schulte (2) points out that ‘the German word for “to translate” is “übersetzen”.’ In its most basic visualization, the German word means ‘to carry something from one side of the river to the other side of the river’. The metaphor carries a number of complexities, which can illustrate why translation in a non-Euclidian space is not isometric: the landscape on each bank of the river is different, so objects are transformed, or grow or shrink, in their new context; some things can be carried over by boat, others are un-transportable; the journey back is not symmetric with the journey there; the boatman has an influence on what is carried and how; the idea is not to pave over the river to unite the banks, but rather to encourage trade and barter between the banks; travel between the banks is in itself enriching; the nature of the river is important (how long does it take to cross, is it a violent crossing, does one get distracted on the crossing) and so on. And of course acts of productive translation require the translator to find firm footing in the context of the other side of the river.


To avoid the trap of the false dichotomy that C.P Snow led many into, I would prefer to imagine a river delta. (3) The river beds themselves move with time and silt can create new banks and territories. In a recent book, actually a pamphlet of unusual vigor, Jean-Marc Levy-Leblond, has mounted an all out attack on some of the claims of the art-science field today. (4) Titled “Science is not Art” Levy-Leblond demolishes some of the art-science communities’ favorite toys (the golden ratio, fractals, beauty, techno-kitsch, neuroaesthetics, new media art in general and 3D realism). He decries the search for a new “syncretism” that would somehow help us create a “third culture” that melds the arts and sciences. In his view the arts and sciences are two different banks of a river as distinct and un-reconcilable as two ecologies that develop within different contexts, on un-mergeable continents, and have grown with differing survival mechanisms and goals. He argues that there are very good reasons that the arts and sciences have separated, that we need disciplines and we don’t want a syncretism. In the same issue of LRQ, Leonardo Co-Editor Jacques Mandelbrojt (5) reviews Levy- Leblond’s book, and points out that the concluding chapter, entitled “brief encounters” is actually a plea for art-science interaction of a specific nature. Levy- Leblond’s arguments fall onto two categories: what I would group under the general category of creativity theory, and second the feeding of the cultural imagination that helps us make sense, make meaning, of the world around us. I want to argue here that these ‘goals’ of art-science may be viewed as tasks of ‘translation studies’. Scientists get their ideas from somewhere, and Levy-Leblond values the ‘otherness’ of the perspective of artists, which forces scientists as a potential source of ‘creative friction’. This idea is one that is frequently discussed in translation studies; the translator’s role in unraveling the nature of ‘other-ness’. Artists who visit or work in the world of science, through the journey from art to science and back, can not only notice aspects of the landscape ignored by the scientist, but also translate in ways familiar to the indigenous people on the other bank; ideas or experiences that have no equivalent. Thus scientists are embedded in a world that is only accessible through scientific instruments, whereas in daily life we are in a world accessible only by, and filtered, by our senses (augmented by our cell phones). These are different worlds; one of the tasks of the translator then is to find ways to transfer certain “translatables” while acknowledging that much is untranslatable. Levy-Leblond’s second general argument relates to how artists help scientific ideas become culturally re-appropriated, and then fed back into the imagination of scientists. He argues that it is a necessity today ‘to re establish the link between the concepts constructed by science and the reality from which they were abstracted’. Again this idea is one that is rooted in basic concepts of translation studies. Einstein famously stated: ‘The universe of ideas is just as independent of the nature of our experience as clothes are of the form of the human body.’ (6) The interest, even fascination, of artists in ‘embodiment’ of scientific concepts can therefore be seen as a translation device. Numerous projects in ‘science as theater’, or interactive art works exemplify this approach.


Other interesting aspects of concepts from translation studies can be quickly sketched: Artists’ use of visualization and sonification technologies from computer science are a rich terrain of art-science practice and should be viewed as projects in translation, not projects in representation. As Gyorgy Kepes called for (7) they appropriate the ‘new landscape of art and science’ but their goal is not transliteration or accuracy, but rather to ’re-sense’ in the context of the arts ideas that arise on the other banks of the river deltas. Maybe my non-Euclidian analogy can help us in thinking about ‘sense-making’. The born-digital generation has a currency in a dialect that is valid on both sides of the river, and this shared language entails shared ontologies and eventually connected epistemologies. This process of shared language building, enables trade and barter and not assimilation, is one that is surely a contributor to creativity and innovation on both banks. But this surely takes time. And like all good translators we must avoid ‘false friends’ that unintentionally may create misunderstanding.


In a recent text Lynn Hogard, Denis Kratz and Rainer Schulte (8) note that ‘technology, globalism, and relentless change’ are characteristics that are creating synergies between the humanities and sciences for which translation techniques can be strategic. They go on to state that there are three challenges:

a) To navigate the technological environment, expertise and the ability to employ the current and yet to be invented technologies of inquiry and communication;

b) To navigate in a global environment, a capacity for empathic understanding of the other and the ability to collaborate and communicate across barriers of language and culture;

c) To respond adequately to change and surprise, intellectual flexibility and creativity–that is, applied imagination.’


These would seem naturally to define some of the agendas in art-science practice. To return to our translation idea, one of the strategies of art-science practice can be the development of the tools of translation studies as means ‘to carry something from one side of the river to the other side of the river’ and back. And of course the metaphor of our delta crossing begs the question of the nature and source of the river and the nature of the sea, and of the rain that feeds both the river and the land. And we know that to be effective we must deploy not only metaphors but also analogies and models. We are just at the beginning of the ‘translation’ to networked culture and the task of art-science collaboration is an urgent one in the context of the problems we face today.



This text is an adapted version of the editorial originally published in LRQ 1.03 May 2011. I would like to acknowledge that this line o thinking was stimulated by conversations with Martin Zierold of the GiessenInternationalGraduateCenter(http://gcsc.unigiessen. de/wps/pgn/ma/dat/GCSC_eng/Martin_Zi erold/) that took place in workshops of the INTR consortium: HERA JRP call ‘Humanities as a Source of Creativity and Innovation’ led by Michael Punt ( and with Rainer Schulte, Frank Dufour and Tom Linehan who are teaching a course on Translation in the Digital Age at the ATEC center at the University of Texas, Dallas



References and Notes

1) Doris Bachmann-Medick, Introduction: The Translational Turn, Translation Studies, Vol. 2, No.1, 2009, 216.

2) Rainer Schulte, The Translator as mediatorbetween Cultures:

3) I am bothered by the river metaphor since itsets up a ‘strawman’ dichotomy between the arts and sciences. I would prefer somehow to have a network of water streams to carry the idea of ‘networked knowledge’ rather than transdisciplinary practice as argued by David Goldberg and Kathy Davidsen in the report ‘the Future of Learning Institutions in the Digital Age’. ( Many disciplinary boundaries are fuzzy and shifting.

4) Jean-Marc Levy-Leblond, La Science n’Est pas L’Art, Hermann Editeurs, Paris 2010 ISBN 97827056 6954 4.

5) Jacques Mandelbrojt: My review of the book can be found at: 2011/04/17/is-art-science-hogwash-a-rebuttal-tojean-


6) Albert Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity,Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921, p.1.

7) Gyorgy Kepes, The New Landscape in Art and Science. Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1956.

8) Lynn Hogard, Dennis Kratz, Rainer Schulte, Translation Studies as a Transforming Model for the Humanities: research/FIT.pdf

9) If I had the space I would explore also the issue of ‘teachability’ since the issue of ‘translatability’ also carries with it the idea that there are tacit and explicit knowledge that may or may not be ‘transportable’ or teachable.

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  1. Pingback: Science-art Scumble #22 « Daily Art News

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