Editorial: Which Art? Which Science?
This issue has been guest edited by Michael Corris, who is also a member of the first editorial panel for Dialogue. Corris opens this issue with an editorial which considers the distinctions that set art and science apart.
I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. . . at one pole we have the literary intellectuals . . . at the other scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension - sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. 1
- C. P. Snow
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Alfred Appel, Jr: C. P. Snow has complained about the gulf between the 'two cultures', the literary and scientific communities. As someone who has bridged this gulf, do you see the sciences and humanities as necessarily opposed?
Vladimir Nabokov: I might have compared myself to a Colossus of Rhodes bestriding the gulf between the thermodynamics of Snow and the Laurentomania of [F. R.] Leavis, had that gulf not been a mere dimple of a ditch that a small frog could straddle. 2
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Both artists and scientists, when elaborating a style, often have the notion that it amounts to a representation of the truth or 'true' reality . . . [I]f one examines what they [the words 'truth' or 'reality'] mean in a particular style of thinking, one finds that they relate not to something outside the style, but to the style's own fundamental assumptions: truth is what the style of thinking says truth is . . . To choose a style, a reality, a form of truth - together with criteria for reality and rationality - is to choose something man-made. It is a social act and depends on an historical situation. . . It is 'objective' only in the sense which the word acquires from the historical situation: objectivity, too, is a feature of style.3
- Paul Feyerabend
How does art benefit from its encounter with science and technology? Do artists enjoy the same status as scientists in this highly publicised and generously funded arena? What use are discussions between poets and physicists? Do these and other activities that seek to couple the arts and humanities with science and technology simply produce entertainments that divert our attention from the dangers of an over-zealous promotion of scientific rationalism? Or, do these encounters, in the spirit of F. R. Leavis and others, compel us to consider the cultural consequences of the technological revolution? Leavis - an astute, if somewhat harsh, critic of C. P. Snow - looked to the arts and the humanities as a resource to develop new guides to conduct and new ways to tackle the moral dilemmas raised by breakthroughs in science and technology. If science is truly incapable of reflecting on its own ethical ground in good faith and without compromise, what does this suggest about the encounter between art, science and technology?
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Boiling Milk Solfataras, 2000
There is little evidence to support the contention that the encounter between the arts, science and technology is an encounter of peers, despite efforts to frame it as such. We might do well to reflect upon Vladimir Nabokov's waspish dismissal of Snow's attempt to analyse the fatal polarity of modern Western culture. Yes, the stakes are that high and they continue to climb as science and technology continues to maintain its position of dominance in our culture. It is ludicrous to suggest that artists and scientists are equals, in any but the most banal sense of the word. The two enterprises are different; they have different aims and embody different methods. Were it not for the claim that science reveals truths about the nature of the world that are superior to the ideas about the world found in esoteric and religious beliefs or myths, there would be only Leavis's anxiety about science's lack of internal moral guidance to contend with. But as recent polemics between scientists and creationists demonstrate all too clearly, scientific truth is not understood to be the same thing as cultural value. The community of scientists, when challenged, asserts its claim to objectivity and truth in a manner that is inimical to cultural pluralism. When forced to justify itself, science claims its methods and results are 'value free'. Leavis - a moralist to the core - believed it is crucial to recognise the distinctions that set art and science apart. Yet this divide - bemoaned by Snow, yet poorly conceptualised by his platitudinous notion of the two cultures - sustains the culturally inconvenient 'truth', voiced aggressively by Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, that physics (quantifiable and reductive) is the basis of everything while all other attempts to explain the world have the status of social work.
| ||Jules Allen |
Knowledge, Beauty, Life, 2004
The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend - among others writing from the 1960s onwards on the problem of the rational basis for scientific discovery - imagined a condition where the encounter between art and science presupposes an epistemological, as well as moral, equality.4 For Feyerabend, the problem of science's cultural value turns on whether or not one believes that science is, at its core, a rational enterprise and how science tolerates opposing points of view, both internal and external. Clearly, scientists do believe in the value-free nature of their pursuit; they could hardly remain scientists otherwise. And they vigorously defend their field from the incursion of irrational, fuzzy, and unverifiable theories. Feyerabend lends credence to Leavis's argument about the essential moral bankruptcy of science by demonstrating science's historical intolerance to allegedly 'unscientific' ideas. By doing so, Feyerabend constructs a fascinating and powerful counterargument to science's claim to objectivity. 'To say that a procedure or a point of view is objectively true', writes Feyerabend, 'is to claim that it is valid irrespective of human expectations, ideas, attitudes, wishes. This is one of the fundamental claims which today's scientists and intellectuals make about their work.'5 Feyerabend goes on to say that 'the idea of objectivity' is older than science and independent of it.' The point is, as scientific theories and their application through technology enjoyed increasing success in the mastery of the natural world, codified notions of objectivity began to be applied not only to the creation of knowledge, but also to its legitimation.6
The critique of objectivity is a hallmark of postmodern thought; a cultural phenomenon that cuts across many disciplines. Some of the most interesting and significant work on the subject of what we know and how we know it has been undertaken by feminist intellectuals like Sandra Harding (Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? 1991 and Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialism, Feminism & Epistemologies, 1998), Donna Haraway (Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 1991) and Nancy Hartsock (Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism, 1986 and The Feminist Standpoint Revisited, 1999), who criticise the foundations of science and technology from the standpoint of gender, race and class.
| ||Shelley Wilson |
Beneath the Mask (detail)
M753 series 2, 2001
As one reads through The Two Cultures, what is most striking is how profoundly tied to the times this series of lectures was. Snow's lectures are, frankly, a relic of the Cold War and the Labour government's response to the achievements in the field of science and engineering of the former Soviet Union. Given whatever measure you please - level and quality of science and engineering education, degree of integration of literature and science in the common culture, or preparedness to move the industrial revolution forward - the Soviet Union leads, with the USA, then Britain, trailing in its wake. Snow - who coined the phrase 'corridors of power', using it as a title for one of his novels - was briefly in the business of supplying a rationale for technological investment by raising public awareness about the degree to which a lack of understanding between science and the arts constituted a grave disadvantage to the nation. In relation to the Soviet Union, asserted Snow, Britain would surely continue to lag if it did not learn the lesson of cultural integration that was there for all to see.
The issue that Snow reveals is real enough; but his solution has branded him as an apologist for the notion that science and technology are capable of providing a moral compass for society as a whole. The point of considering The Two Cultures now, in the context of contemporary encounters between art, science and technology, is to sensitise us to the political and social uses to which the arts and the sciences have historically been put by the liberal State.
Today, when science is far more globalised and depends for its power on the free circulation of brains and capital, it does not make sense to speak seriously of 'British' or 'American' or 'Chinese' science, even though competition between research teams remains the rule, rather than the exception. The continued domination of science depends on the maintenance of the concept of value-free research. In such an environment, the encounter between art and science remains an anxious embrace. And it seems that each new initiative to draw artists and scientists together rehearses the problem posed by Snow. 'Bridging' the two cultures means more than demonstrating mutual respect, or identifying qualities or styles of work common to each field even though, for strong cultural reasons, these commonalities may remain unacknowledged. To fully appreciate the potential of the encounter means to be able to demonstrate a real transformation in the practices of both science and art. If we accept Leavis's claim, then scientists have a great deal to learn from artists (and novelists and poets and literary critics). What scientists do not need to learn from artists is how to be more 'creative' or 'imaginative'. Rather, they need to learn how to become more responsible. Artists, on the other hand, may find the environment of collaboration and collective research programs in the sciences and technology to be quite alien to their culture and potentially threatening to certain well-established and cherished notions of individuality, including the privileging of subjectivity over dialogue and group problem-solving.
Current guidelines for artists seeking funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council are viewed by artists as problematic mainly due to their proximity to the research culture of the sciences. This suggests that artists in academia are not comfortable with the program of cultural modernisation that such strictures on funding seem to advance. If we put Leavis's claim aside and focus more generally, as Feyerabend does, on broader, historical issues of cultural diversity and tolerance, then we would be inclined to argue against not only the requirement that art and design rationalise professional practice as research in a manner similar to that already well-entrenched in the sciences, but also the inequity that exists in the funding of the arts and the sciences. At the same time, the moral agenda attached to Feyerabend's notion of cultural diversity may prove to be quite uncomfortable to some artists, as it implies that the artist is not necessarily unencumbered by the needs and interests of the larger community. The encounter between art, science and technology raises many questions, not the least of which is the perennial debate on the social obligation of art, science and technology to the community that supports it through taxation.
| ||Antony Hall |
ENKI Prototype, 2006
Both Leavis's and Feyerabend's arguments that science is incapable of generating adequate moral principles would no doubt scandalise a scientist like Richard Dawkins, who sees the virtue of science in its ability to defeat irrationalism by reference to a culturally transcendent conception of experimental evidence, truth and verifiability (one might say that with friends of science like Dawkins, who needs enemies?). Feyerabend's point is that the appeal to rationality as a human faculty above culture and interests is itself irrational when one examines the historical evidence of the advancement of science since the 16th century. But Feyerabend is merely a philosopher of science; an informed outsider, yes, but an outsider nevertheless. And while many scientists are keen to exert their moral influence on society, they rarely feel compelled to take notice of the philosophy of science or to consider it relevant and binding on their experimental practice. Artists, it must be said, hardly fare better in this respect. Barnett Newman's quip about aesthetics being as significant to artists as ornithology is to the birds mirrors in the field of art the scientist's reflex to retreat into one's specialised corner when the very foundation of one's practice is challenged from the outside. The difference is that science defends itself much more successfully than art. This is why Feyerabend's arguments - admittedly battered and bruised by now, but certainly in the forefront of anti-dogmatic thinking - are worth reconsidering.
At a time when cultural pluralism is under attack, it is important to take note of Feyerabend's vision, even if it smacks of the sixties in its appeal to an idealised notion of cultural exchange within a truly democratic society. Such visions deserve to remain credible, so long as the current levels and patterns of funding for the arts and the sciences in Britain and the US remain and cultural pluralism is viewed with suspicion:
Were we living in an age which believed naively in the therapeutic power and 'objectivity' of the arts, in which art and state were not separated, in which the arts were generously funded from taxation and taught as compulsory subjects in schools, while the sciences were thought of as collections of games, from which the players selected first one and then another - then it would be equally appropriate to point out that the arts are sciences. But unfortunately we do not live in such an age.7
- Paul Feyerabend
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In this issue, historian and critic of art and culture Charlie Gere compares the concept of experimentation as it is understood and functions in contemporary science and art. Gere makes the important point that the cultural context of experimentation in science does not produce facts independent of the experimental protocols that constitute them and enables them to be articulated as part of a theory about the world. Still less can we be certain that science provides representations of the world that are universally true. Experimentation in science, according to Gere, is a fairly routine affair when compared to the potentially paradigm-busting objective of experimentation in art. In this regard, Gere identifies the media as a crucial tool in the pursuit of new art and new relationships between artists and audiences.
| ||Robert Pepperell |
In Robert Pepperell's feature, we learn about a truly enlightening encounter between an artist and neuroscience researchers. Using his paintings as stimuli in experiments aimed at mapping areas of the brain that are activated when subjects are shown images of paintings that exhibit a degree of visual indeterminacy, what intrigued Pepperell most about the encounter was how much was learned by both parties in the experiment. For the artist, the 'brutal' directness of the empirical method revealed itself to be far more complex and contingent than expected. The scientists, on the other hand, had to come to grips with the impoverished stereotyping of creative work that marked their initial experimental design.
| ||Sarah Kettley |
Speckled jewellery nodes (2nd iteration)
Sarah Kettley reports on the marriage of jewellery making and new computing technologies and how this has resulted in the emergence of a new transdisciplinary practice, dubbed digital jewellery. Like every important relationship, there are a lot of rough edges and sometimes it makes more sense to let these differences flourish rather than to try to level them. Kettley identifies the significant milestones towards learning to, in her words, collaborate meaningfully with the engineers, systems experts and programmers. Crucial to this synthesis is the understanding that for the individuals involved, practice continuously redraws the map of expectations. Different kinds of expertise and proficiency helps craftspeople create products with unexpected cultural properties alongside the novel technological capabilities anticipated from the outset of research and development of these fascinating items of wearable technology.
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The Girl with X-Ray Eyes, 2006
Presented at Vooruit, Ghent, during the Homo Futuris festival, October 2006.
A work in progress presentation of the performance element from The Girl with X-Ray Eyes, a current interdisciplinary project.
Supported by Arts Council England.
For this issue Dialogue invited a group of artists and curators to take part in a round table discussion hosted by the Hunterian Museum, London. The discussion was chaired by Verity Slater, Visual Arts Officer for the Arts Council England's South East Office and formally manager of the Wellcome Trust's Sciart scheme. The invited panellists were: Lise Autogena, Anna Dumitriu, Simon Gould, Antony Hall, Paddy Hartley and Phillip Warnell. The insightful contribution from these artists and curators led to a fruitful exchange of ideas and experiences.
The discussion draws upon the panellists experience of working with and within scientific institutions. What is apparent from this conversation it is that the 'scientist' is happy to collaborate and see what happens. This is the confidence of an (unreflective) superiority. What is also evident is an explicit issue of translation (talking to non-artists about art) but translation here also means negotiating across two language/frameworks, which during the course of translation, undergo transformation themselves.
Another interesting aspect of this discussion relates to funding sources and criteria, implying that research support is being increasingly channeled into commercially-viable areas. One wonders if art's funding, directed at particular social and cultural themes, is of the same type and if the work of artists in academia is increasingly circumscribed by this steer.
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Out of Body Control, 2004-2006
Out of Body Control uses special technological implementation. The colour map of the face is based on thermal imaging application.
Brigitta Zics, a new media artist, undertaking doctoral research at the Newport School of Art, Media and Design, discusses two recent projects and the collaborative process that facilitated their production with Julia Peck, a colleague from University of Wales Newport.
Zics was born in Hungary and has studied media art in Cologne, Germany. Zics' practice concentrates on virtual reality systems and responsive interfaces that produce an immersive and interactive environment in gallery settings. Zics' doctoral research focuses on interface development and real-time visualisation in creative artworks, which will culminate in the realisation of a major work titled, 'Out of Body Control'. Zics and Peck met during the course of undertaking their research projects and have used this interview as the occasion to extend their discussions.
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The Centre of the Universe, 2005
Installation in University Parks, Oxford, June 2005
David Rooney, Curator of Timekeeping at the National Maritime Museum interviews artist Jem Finer. This interview took place at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, a fitting location for a discussion about Finer's projects, Longplayer and Score for a Hole in the Ground, both of which grapple with the selection and implementation of technology and its sustainability and maintenance over time.
David Kirshner discusses his work 'PPP' in relation to the texts and theoretical models which inspired its conception and development. Kirshner takes us through these texts within an annotated bibliography; exploring the key concepts and issues which bear relevance to his own practice and the practice of others working within the realms of new technology.
| ||David Kirshner |
1C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures: and a Second Look (Cambridge, 1965), pp. 3-4. The origin of Snow's notion of the two cultures is an article published in the October 6, 1956 issue of New Statesman. Snow elaborated on this divide in the course of four Rede Lectures delivered in 1959. Snow straddled the worlds of literature and science, having authored a series of novels over the course of 30 years under the collective title Strangers and Brothers and having worked as a physicist and parliamentary secretary to Frank Cousins - the Minister of Technology (1964-66) - under Harold Wilson's Labour Government. See John Halperin, C. P. Snow: An Oral Biography (London, 1983) and John De La Mothe, C.P. Snow and the Struggle of Modernity (Toronto, 1992). For a contemporary indictment of Snow, see Roger Kimball, '"The Two Cultures" Today', The New Criterion, vol. 12, no. 6 (February 1994) at newcriterion.com. Perhaps the most famous of Snow's critics was F. R. Leavis; see Nor Shall My Sword (London, 1972).
2 Alfred Appel, Jr., 'Interview with Vladimir Nabokov', Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, vol. VIII, no. 2, Spring 1967; see: kulichki.com/moshkow/NABOKOW/Inter06.txt.
3 Paul Feyerabend, 'Science as Art: A Discussion of Riegl's Theory of Art and an Attempt to Apply It to the Sciences', Art & Text 12/13 (Summer 1983-Autumn 1984): 46.
4 See Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (London, 1975), Science in a Free Society (London, 1978) and Farewell to Reason (London, 1987). Against Method advances a number of arguments that attack the 'myth' of the rationality of scientific progress. Despite the technical nature of most of the book, it should be required reading for every artist and scientist. Feyerabend concludes that the only principle that does not inhibit progress in science is anything goes. Farewell to Reason is an extended polemic against reduction and conformity and a valuable contribution to the discourse on cultural diversity and cultural change.
5 Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason, p. 5.
6 Ibid., p. 9
7 Feyerabend, 'Science as Art,' p. 46.
Michael Corris, 2007
Illustrations courtesy of the artists. For further information on these artists see the links below:
More information on Ilana Halperin
More information on Jules Allen
More information on Shelley Wilson
More information on Antony Hall
More information on Robert Pepperell
More information on Sarah Kettley
More information on Phillip Warnell
More information on Brigitta Zics
More information on Jem Finer
More information on David Kirshner