DRAFT ESSAY FOR THE NEXT ISSUE OF LEONARDO QUARTERLY REVIEWS ( http://www.leonardo.info/ldr.html ) FOR COMMENT AND ATTACK UNTIL NOV 15
Science in the first person singular; new roles for the arts in the theatricalisation of science?
1. Some preliminary contextualisation
In this discussion for LQR I would like to start off from Michael Punt’s comment that:
“For a number of reasons including a commitment to multi-disciplinarity, and a genuine concern to share and world view, some scientists have also embraced art practice in literature, film, theatre and more recently in installation and interventionist visual artworks. They do so with the security that science is clearly understood as an important – if not the only way – to know the world and that it both describes – and is – reality.” I certainly count myself among these scientists.
Punt goes on to say:
“This was not the case in the late seventeenth and eighteen centuries. Science was not self-evidently a pathway to truth about the world around and within us and each of these practices had to be convincing about its claims (most of which we now regard as partial and provisional – if not completely wrong)”
As the sole ‘scientist’ in this LQR discussion it allows me to position myself as clearly as I can on two issues that inevitably contextualize my approach to these topics. First I am an atheist. I came to this clear position only a few years ago when confronted by my eldest son; recently immersed in the renewed religiosity of American university students, he was just helping set up the universities first “Atheist Club”. He asked me whether I was agnostic or atheist; I had never taken position in a clear manner. It seems to me that one of the successes of the sciences is that it has been able to elaborate credible and convincing scenarios of how structure has emerged in the universe, and that we are now beginning to understand the mechanisms that lead to self-organization through low level interactions in the sciences of complexity and the origin and development of life. The sciences of complexity and Darwinism need no teleological appeal, nor intelligent design (see Stuart Kauffman’s “Re-Inventing the Sacred” (1) for one attempt to put the small and big pictures together). Yet this view is not universally held by my scientific colleagues and it can be argued that one of the ‘failures of the enlightenment’ has been the realization that science in itself cannot re-design its social embedding. Living through the current American Presidential campaign as I write this is a depressing reminder of the resurgent ‘religious’ context within which science develops today.
My second confession is that I am a positivist (though reformed). I certainly believe that the human senses, augmented and extended by scientific instruments, can be used to obtain falsifiable knowledge of the world, a world that exists independent of our existence; and that the scientific method is a reliable, the most reliable available, method for obtaining such knowledge. However I fully understand the post-modern critique and that factors external to science determine not only the direction that science takes but also the kinds of explanations that have currency at any given time as well as the process of social acceptance by peers. The scientific method itself evolves as does the nature of acceptable explanations. Two recent developments have been forcing new epistemological strategies in the scientific method. The first is the appearance of elaborate computer simulations which act as ‘falsifiable hypotheses” for understanding complex systems (including social ones). The second is the impact of ‘big data’ on field after field of inquiry, enabling research questions that were unanswerable before to be attacked and re-orienting the direction towards questions where big data is available; correlations and extrapolations become powerful methods of scientific explanation. These raise new issues in the ‘presentation’ or ‘re-presentation of science that I will elaborate further below. There is no doubt that the digital humanities are re-confronting many of the battles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
2. The Social Embedding of Science
Both Martyn Woodward and Michael Punt refer us to Scientia 2013( 2) a conference to be held in spring 2013. The organisers state “The premise of this conference is that the Scientific Revolution can be considered an interdisciplinary process involving Biblical exegesis, art theory, and literary humanism, as well as natural philosophy, alchemy, occult practices, and trade knowledge.” Would Scientia 2413, 800 years after Galileo’ not equally well discuss 21st century science in similar terms? Globalisation would expand the issue of Biblical exegesis to those of other world religions that now are equally strong cultural contexts for science. Art theory and literary humanism would be expanded to the influence of e-culture on the cultural embedding of science. Trade knowledge would be replaced by global commerce and military strategy and its influence on the direction that science takes through funding mechanisms. And alchemy and occult practices are alive and well as evidences by the dismal statistics on global scientific literacy.
3 Presentation and Re-Presentation
I would like to argue that we have entered a crisis of “representation” as profound as those of the Renaissance or of the 19th century, and that this is driving a new theatricalisation of science. As described by Michael Punt, Martha Blassnig and Martyn Woodward in their essays, the arts and crafts played an important role in making tangible and sensible the discoveries of unseen worlds revealed by Xrays, by electro-magnetism, by the discovery of microbes; and often scientific experiments played in performative roles, in public, were key parts of the rhetoric of science to convince not only peers but the public of the plausibility and understandability of the new phenomena being revealed.
We are indeed seeing a new ‘performativity’ in science today that harks back to the theatrical rhetoric of nineteenth century scientists. The first wave of this appeared in the 1970s with the realization that there were not enough scientists and engineers being trained for the growing technological industries; the STEM (Science Technology Education Mathematics) programs became embedded in the scientific enterprise. The new performative spaces included the re invention of science museums, such as the San Francisco Exploratorium; indeed from the beginning when it was founded by Frank Oppenheimer, artists were called on as mediators not only to improve exhibit design but to create art work that would intrigue and inform their publics. In the U.S, agencies such as NASA began to fund in the 1990s ‘science outreach’ programs to take the scientific results outside of the science ghettos into classroom and into the media. As pointed out by Michael Punt major scientific projects began to be explicitly staged, often live, as with the US Shuttle launches and moon landings. The recent JPL landing of the Curiosity spacecraft on Mars is perhaps an exemplar, as is the way the Higgs Boson discoveries at CERN were revealed act by act in real time to the media and to the public; it is perhaps no coincidence that CERN announced just a year before its official hosting of artists residencies programs. Science indeed is now often designed as public theater as it was in the nineteenth century, and the rhetorical strategies are part of deep battles to maintain the supremacy of the scientific methods as explanatory systems of natural phenomena.
The second wave of new forms of science as theater began to appear in the 1990s through what are called ‘public engagement’ rather than ‘science outreach’ methodologies funded by various agencies. The concern here is not simply attracting young people into STEM careers, but anchoring science in the public imagination and social and cultural practices. In April 2001 the global “Yuri’s Night’ parties (3) began to be held, celebrating the first human space flight; hundreds of thousands of people have been attracted. There have been a proliferation of such events which have also been adopted by such international festivals as Ars Electronica, ISEA, Future Everything, Zero One; these events are cultural events that appropriate science and technology – not science education events.
Simultaneous with the science engagement type activities, we have witnessed the emergence over the last ten years of new forms of artistic engagement in science through art-science collaboration practices, new kinds of artists residencies (such as those promoted by the Wellcome Trust in the UK) and the development of new institutional contexts for such work ( eg Symbiotica, IMERA, Synapse, ArtistsinLabs .. see the ArtsActive network for some other examples (4)). Other curatorial spaces such as the Dublin Science Gallery, Arts Catalyst have emerged in a growing ecology for showing art-science work to diverse publics. Though art-science collaboration is embedded in rhetoric of mutual influence, the dominant outputs to date have been of a performative nature in arts contexts. In some cases these draw explicitly on 19th century practices such as Adam Brown and Robert Root Bernsteins public re staging of the 1953 Miller-Urey experiments on origins-of-life (5)
Just in the eighteen and nineteenth century this creates tensions between the motivations of the scientists and the motivations of the theatrical producers.
Michael Punt: states” In perpetuating the confusion between rhetoric and technique the role of the artist appears to have become largely devolved to particular kinds of behaviours – (participation, collaboration, observation etc) which corresponds with a loose view of art practice beloved of amateurs and libertines but actually very little to do with what artists (or at least those artists who form the canon of the last 400 years in the west) actually do.” And this un-ease is picked up on by Martha Blassnig who goes on to point out, in discussing Warburg and Bergson’s views, that´ These were the spaces for reflection — “Denkraum der Besonnenheit” or “Andachtsraum” (Warburg 1992: 267)) that Warburg was so eager to preserve and which led him to rather polemically critique technologies of industrialisation; but which nonetheless indicates the very threshold which the Humanities still hold as their cradle in the current fierce ambient of a STEM driven research environment.” Indeed the role of the arts and humanities, if reduced to an instrumentalised function, will be unable to help re-invent science in a socially robust context as argued by Helga Nowotny.
3. Big Data is not Just More Data
Today’s crisis in representation is driven by two other epistemological transitions.
First we have entered a period of data plenty, the era of big data. Historian Daniel Boorstin called this an epistemological inversion, a transition from a science that was meaning rich and data poor to one that is data rich and meaning poor. We are only just beginning to invent the new systems of representation that allow one to ‘visualise’ (and sonify or more generally make “sensible”) these large volumes of data. The invention of perspective as a system of representation did not happen overnight. Just as it took decades for the technologies of photography and cinema to develop their visual languages and conventions, so we can expect that it will take many years of experimentation to develop stabilized ways that large volumes of data can be represented to both scientific peers and larger publics. Big data is not just more data: New research questions become accessible that were unthinkable before. Hiding data, or data cloaking, becomes a crucial technique to enable representations that are manageable. Large complex data sets sometimes drive 3D navigable representations; swimming or flying through data is not merely metaphoric but performative; informed by our knowledge of ‘mirror neuron’ processes in cognition, these theatracalisastions help build up intuition and tacit or implicit knowledge. Live interaction with data introduces the possibility of manipulation, transformation in read time, mash ups, of data objects or representations. Though live interaction with data is not specific to big data situations, large data volumes privilege such cinematic and immersive techniques over static fixed representations. Data becomes theater and it is through this theater that meaning and sense are created.
The second transition that is driving a crisis in representation is the proliferation of scientific domains that reveal phenomena that are incommensurable with the human senses and perception. This is not new to today’s science and indeed in nineteenth century science such problems arose as microscopes, telescopes, electrical probes gave access to phenomena that were not directly accessible to the human senses. What is new today is the dominance of these new scientific terrains made accessible through a growing menagerie of new scientific instrumentation. The science of evolution dealt with evolution of life forms that were understandable if not familiar, to the layman. However the nano-sciences, molecular biology, high energy physics and quantum mechanics, brain imaging, complex systems (such as global warming) deal with phenomena that we cannot perceive, even with augmented senses. Our intuitions, our languages, metaphors, our basic ontologies, arise from the performative manipulation, beginning at an early age, of the world around us. But in the nano world we are in territory where everything has to be invented in terms of representation and again this privileges new forms of theatricality. The representation of phenomena not only invisible to the human senses but in-commensurable with human experience and concepts requires new forms of representation.
In a recent issue of Leonardo (6), a number of writers confronted the reality of the ‘in-commensurability’ of the nano world with those of our current languages of representation. The concept of color for instance is a meaningless concept at the nano world where atoms and interactions occur at scales smaller than the wavelength of light. Objects do not have edges in the world of quantum mechanics; every representation of atoms of molecules that shows discrete objects with sharp edges is fundamentally misleading. In air a typical carbon monoxide molecule moves at 500 meters a second (yes, half a kilometer a second) faster than any kind of cinema can meaningfully capture. Yet we convert data from field effect microscopes to colored images and animations as if they were macroscopic objects, compounded by the fact that the act of reading the electric fields perturbs them. We are at the very beginning of creating the new systems of representation for these scientific terrains.
As explained by Leonardo Section editor Kathryn D. de Ridder-Vignone (6): “Nanotechnology art exhibitions provide more than a portal through which to enter the future world of nanotechnology. They also represent the state of nanotechnology in society today. This paper compares three exhibition forums that serve as representations of three of the most common genres of nanotechnology art (nanoart). These exhibition forums and their creators demonstrate distinct perspectives about what counts as engagement and how best to achieve it; they all attempt to persuade their publics that art can serve as a conduit for the creation of alternative nanofutures”. So the target is not only the public but also scientific peers and the political sphere. Physicist and string theorist Lisa Randall (8) who has written a libretto for an opera “Hypermusic: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes” explicitly states that her intended public includes her scientific peers who have difficulty understand conceptually her scientific work.
As explained by Michael Punt, the arts and crafts played a crucial role in nineteenth century science in bringing scientific discoveries not only to the general public but also to scientific peers. The scientific ‘performances’ at the Royal Institution familiarized scientists and the lay public with the new discoveries, and these performances played a key role in the ‘rhetoric’ of scientific plausibility. But demonstrating magnetism is a far easier proposition than demonstrating genetic mutation in a Christmas performance.
One problem today of course, especially in the area of big science, is one cannot put in a public performance an orbiting Xray telescope: the earth’s atmosphere blocks all x rays reaching the earth. The CERN accelerator, MRI imagers or Field Effect Microscopes are difficult to transport into public settings. The emerging ‘artists in residence’ programs in scientific institutions are one way to overcome these difficulties, and the emergence of ‘open data’ observatories and the development of the citizen science movement is another.
4. Concluding Notes
The scientific enterprise since the second world war has had a societal contract is anomalous in the history of science over the past four hundred years. The high technology industries that grew out of discoveries in fundamental science were a demonstration of the social utility of science that embedded science at the highest level of government. The military systems that depended on physics gave it a privileged seat in government. Today while bemoaning the lack of students in STEM programs, governments faced with budget realities are de-emphasising budgets for science and technology ( the Spanish government has announced draconian cut backs and in the US funding is flat).
Perhaps scientists again find themselves, as in the eighteenth and nineteenth century where is Michael Punt’s words, “Science was not self-evidently a pathway to truth about the world around and within us and each of these practices had to be convincing about its claims (most of which we now regard as partial and provisional – if not completely wrong). From this dispersed set of practices that we now understand as the beginning of science there an orthodoxy of claims which were disseminated through a cascade of demonstrations, first to the homes of aristocrats and middles classes, and then to the masses in public displays and museums. It is now widely accepted that the tactics used in this struggle for the public acceptance of science has impacted on experimental practice, what science enquired into, how it was done, and what was prioritized.”
Is today’s art-science movement then part of a number of developments that are part of a new theatricalisation of science which responds to the insecurity of the science establishment in the current economic and political climate?
I want to thank the PhD and MA students in the ATEC Graduate Seminar on Arts, Humanities and Science at the University of Texas, Dallas for helping me test and develop some of these ideas informed by their pre occupations and passions.
1. Stuart Kauffman, Re-Inventing the Sacred, Google e-books: http://books.google.com/books/about/Reinventing_the_Sacred.html?id=xpUalZ8vnVYC
2. Scientia 2013 : http://go.warwick.ac.uk/scientiae
3. Yuri’s Night: http://yurisnight.net/about/
4. Artsactive: http://www.artsactive.net/en/
5. Adam Brown and Robert Root Bernstein: http://adamwbrown.net/projects-2/origins-of-life-experiment-1/
6. Leonardo Journal Issue Vol 45, No5 2012: http://www.leonardo.info/isast/journal/toc455.html
7. Lisa Randall: http://www.physics.harvard.edu/people/facpages/randall.html