Sci-Art in motion: experiments and exploration: artists and scientists are exploring new aesthetic territories and creating artwork that is uniquely about this century
Art and science may seem improbable bedfellows, but their marriage, often called Sci-Art, is one of the hottest topics in today’s art world.
Sci-Art is about how artists and scientists observe the world and their enduring attraction to what happens at the edge of discovery. As astronomer/fine-art photographer Bill Fletcher puts it, “Science and art go together–both are about what the human mind explores.”
Whether the subject is lunar surfaces, cellular structures, elementary particles, DNA or even how a human brain thinks, science is increasingly dominated by cutting-edge imaging technologies. Sci-Art emerges when artists–or scientists thinking like artists–apply those technologies and scientific work to the creation of art.
Once relegated to computer trade expos, academic conferences and science museums, the convergence of art and science has lately been the focus of fine-art exhibits in New York, San Francisco, London, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. For example, the international Center of Photography (ICP) in New York has just concluded a five-part exhibition series, “Imaging the Future: The Intersection of Science, Technology and Photography,” along with a retrospective show of work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, an art-science pioneer.
The ICP is not alone in its interest in Sci-Art. “Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution,” which showcased 39 artists exploring the science of genomics, traveled from New York’s Exit Gallery to galleries at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and the University of Michigan from 2001 to 2002. As part of an ongoing art-in-science series, the Esther M. Klein Art Gallery in Philadelphia presented “The Earth Exposed,” integrating art, technology and earth science research through imagery taken by astronauts and satellites.
London’s Blue Gallery exhibited the photographs of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev taken while he was orbiting the Earth as commander of the International Space Station (ISS). In San Francisco, Blue Room Gallery presented “Interfacing Ideas: Fine Art Meets Technology,” works by 17 artists of the YLEM Organization, an art-science group whose name comes from big-bang theories. “It was a great success–tons of people came out to the show,” said gallery director Paul Mahder. “We showed everything from holograms to giant installations. One artist did art by using her own brainwaves; another utilized an electron microscope to make photographs.”
Today, hybrid museums, such as ARS Electronica Museum in Linz, Austria, and Hexagram in Montreal, showcase Sci-Art. This summer, Berlin’s Digital Art Museum has slated a show of work by art(n) Laboratory, a group of artists and computer scientists who collaborate with other scientists to produce art that visualizes how biological processes work.
At the same time, mainstream art institutions such as New York’s Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are beginning to acknowledge that, just as the technological advances and scientific discoveries in the late 19th century inspired dramatic changes in art forms in the 20th century, so too have the digital revolution, quantum mechanics, space travel and advances in biology and genetics in the 21st century.
The Next Generation’s Bold New Steps
“The 20th century was full of interest in science and technology and art, and more so today,” said Stephen Nowlin, director of the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. “Now, all the interesting questions in society come from science.” Nowlin’s interest in art science-technology mergers began when he was an art student in the 1960s, and he has curated a decade-long series of art science crossover exhibitions.
“Interest in art and science is growing–it’s in the air. And it doesn’t surprise me,” said Nowlin. “Science is upsetting the apple cart, challenging long held notions related to life span and personality, undermining our cherished, traditional thoughts about ourselves. Always looking for new ways to view themselves and the world, artists are drawn to that nexus of change.”
Today’s avant-garde artists are exploring aspects of light, space, time, motion, kinetics, biology, genetics, disease, the human body and more. Yet, observed curator Carol Squiers, who produced ICP’s art-and-science series, the important scientific discoveries of the 21st century and the scientific imaging that has resulted “raise significant issues as well. Primary among them is the disquieting fact that all of life, including our genetic code, can be reduced to pixels and processed as data.”
Printmaker Sue Gollifer, for one, is happy that Sci-Art is moving into the mainstream art world. She runs an arts and science organization, teaches fine art at the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom and serves as chair and organizer of the 2004 SIGGRAPH Art Gallery, an annual exhibition associated with the graphic arts trade association conference. “The link between art and science is very important at the moment. And it’s not just digital technologies,” said Gollifer. “Everyone now seems to be into DNA, and making art using DNA.”
When she was first starting her career, Gollifer recalled, “I wrote myself a manifesto: ‘I am an artist, and I am a scientist.’ I was just fascinated about how computers can be used to generate art.” Gollifer started as a silkscreen printmaker interested in mathematics, geometry and science concepts, and then became a digital artist who still works with art that can be hung on wails.
For this year’s SIGGRAPH Art Gallery, “Synaesthesia,” scheduled Aug. 8 to 12 in Los Angeles, Gollifer is showcasing a range of cutting-edge Sci-Art work encompassing a mixture of formats and media, including 2-D work, electronic pieces and screen-based animation. The artists include Gollifer, Hans Dehlinger, Anna Dumitriu, Eric Heller and Roman Verostko, who was one of the first scientist artists to program computer-generated art, using coded procedures called RalgorithmsS to instruct a computer to draw and paint. “There is a real history to the art and science movement,” Gollifer noted, “and I wanted to include some of the pioneers in my show.”
Fundamentally, all artists are influenced by the scientific thought of the day. And much contemporary art, noted Nowlin, including computer art, animation, video and multi-media, has been made possible through advances in technology and “has a ‘sciencey’ look to it.” But true Sci-Art is in some way about science, according to Nowlin. Mahder said Sci-Art is “about artists taking the science process and turning it into something aesthetic.”
For example, said Nowlin, the artist Jim Campbell did a series dedicated to Heigenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In the work, the viewer must walk forward–and as that happens, sensors track the footsteps, altering the piece. The aesthetic experience cannot be separated from the scientific experience. And last year, as part of the “Neuro” show at Art Center College of Design and nearby Caltech in Pasadina, Calif., artist Christian Muller created “Cheese,” using a computer’s visual intelligence software to examine the sincerity of six women’s smiles.
Many Forms of Sci-Art Under the Sun
Sci-Art has many conversations with science. Perhaps the most direct is pure scientific visualization, such as anatomical drawing or botanical prints. In Sci-Art, visualization is both speculative and fact-based. Trailblazing astronomical painter Chesley Bonestell, whose classic “Saturn as Seen from Titan” encouraged many future rocket scientists, also inspired a generation of artists who have painted planets, moons and stars.
“These artists really have to know their stuff,” explained Don Dixon, a preeminent space painter, who, like other space painters, must consider the geometry of lighting on different planets and moons. “On Earth we have one big light source: the Sun. Some worlds have more than one sun. But on the moon, you have a black sky–there is no air to scatter the light.” Dixon consults actual space photographs and extrapolates from geological science. “I just finished some renderings of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon,” he said. “It’s a place so cold that air as we know it would freeze, while other gasses are liquid. Titan would be dark and murky.”
Scientific visualization also looks down from the skies and into the interior of cells and molecules. Julie Newdoll, a painter who calls her studio “Brush With Science,” has a background in scientific illustration and computer graphics. In one of her first post-college jobs, Newdoll illustrated DNA and proteins in a science lab. “The work exposed me to some of the hottest science in the world. I came across nano-technology, which has come further, faster than anyone thought it would,” she said.
Newdoll’s newest series revolves around the senses. “I have been e-mailing all the world’s experts on taste and taste buds and taste proteins and the underlying molecules,” she said. “How do we, for example, know when something tastes sour?
Now I have information on all the different proteins from all the different taste receptors: sour, sweet, bitter, salty. The scientists still don’t really know how taste works, but they know enough so that I can create a visual reference.”
Anna Dumitrius creates semi-abstract paintings inspired by microscopic images of Vitamin C, human cell biology and DNA. The “Vitamin C” series depicts the molecule of this commonplace supplement, which looks like an extra-terrestrial landscape.
Other artists explore under the skin. In the early 1990s, portrait artist Steve Miller began investigating new medical imaging technologies, such as MRI, sonograms, CAT scans and X-rays, to examine the “organic interior of the human body.” In 1993, he created a genetic portrait of the art collector Isabel Goldsmith, starting with her blood sample. Her blood cells were processed and the chromosomes then photographed as an abstract portrayal. In the same vein, artist Kevin Clarke depicted one man’s genetic code in his “Portrait of lames D. Watson,” the scientist whose work led to the discovery of the double-helix model for DNA.
Science has “always played a role in photography, but Sci-Art pushes that envelope as well. Carol Pfeffer pursues cameraless, non-representational photography to investigate “birefringence,” an optical effect that transpires when polarized light passes through stressed, translucent plastic/polymers, with a resulting brilliant display of color. The Canadian artist Michael Flomen created a series of photograms made by the bioluminescence of fireflies.
Medical research comes to the fore in the works by art(n). This Chicago-based collaborative has been exploring art-science boundaries since the 1980s. Its art combines photographic technologies with computer imaging to visualize the way biological processes–particularly disease and curative drugs–work. “We always collaborate with scientists to make sure the work has scientific integrity,” said Ellen Sandon The art(n) team has invented a 3-D photography form, “PHSColograms” (for Photography, Holography, Sculpture and Computer Graphics), to better visualize these micro-biological processes in images like “Cryptobiology,” whicla appears two-dimensional on the printed page but 3-D in a gallery.
Perhaps the quintessential 21st century artist-scientist is Ned Kahn, a recipient last year of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. Kahn’s palette includes fog, wind, light, fire, earth and other forces of nature. He has constructed a cloud atop San Francisco’s Moscone Conference Center and a fog bank at the city’s jail. He created a whirlpool vortex, a pendulum and a glass bead sand dune for an exhibit titled “The Turbulent Landscape: The Forces That Shape Our World.” Kahn’s signature piece, which has been exhibited at the Kennedy Center in Washington and the World Financial Center in New York, is a tornado made of fine mist.
“There’s a difference between what scientists do and what I do,” said Kahn. “Their questions are very specific; they’re looking for concrete answers. In my ‘experiments,’ I’m also asking questions. But I’m not seeking numerical answers; I’m seeking visual ones.”
Art for Science’s Sake
Although Sci-Art is in the vanguard today, the marriage of science and art isn’t precisely new. The ancient Greeks had one lone word, “techne,” to describe “art,” “handcraft” and “technics” or technology. Later, Leonardo da Vinci, who left a legacy of scientific and medical illustrations, mechanical drawings mad architectural renderings, may have been the first artist-engineer.
Art and science experiments were common throughout the 20th century by artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Nauru Gabo. By the 1960s, much American art was devoting itself explicitly to science and technology. Jean Tinguely collaborated with Bell Laboratories engineer Billy Kluver to create a self-destructing kinetic sculpture. Robert Rauschenberg’s work embraced science as an implicit and necessary part of the modern world. Kluver and Rauschenberg then established Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A..T.) in an effort to bring artists and engineers together to collaborate to create art.
Three decades later, artists and scientists are collaborating more than ever before. “There is a whole group of people struggling to make art and science an art form. I think art and science becomes more and more important as science becomes more and more important to saving lives,” observed art(n)’s Sandor. Yet, said Mahder of the Blue Room Gallery, “these artists tend to be marginalized. They are technophiles in techie-positions, and tend to make their art on the side.”
Nowlin agreed. “This work does not lend itself well into the art-business machine. R does not show well in galleries. So many of the artists involved in this don’t have galleries.”
At the same time, many Sci-Art practitioners arrive to the junction of art and science from scientific disciplines, rather than a fine-art education. As a result, they may not engage in the international aesthetic discourse of the day, leaving Sci-Art on the fringes of the fine-art world.
So when is a brain scan not just a brain scan? Perhaps when the artist Annie Cattrell collaborated with Dr. Mark Lythgoe, a radiologist and physicist, to produce 3-D resin and Plexiglas sculptures. The pair used brain scans that showed the aural and visual cortex responding to stimuli like watching television and listening to the radio. Then, using stereolithography, a process that creates a 3 D model from a computer image, Cattrell and Lythgoe made a sculpture that duplicated those parts of the brain.
As a scientist, observed Lythgoe, a brain scan amounts to holding someone’s life in your hands. But as an artist, he added, “to touch someone’s thoughts is an experience that makes you look at the world slightly differently.”
* art(n) Laboratory, (312) 432-1870
* Blue Room Gallery, (415) 282-8411
* Don Dixon, (562) 235-1338
* Sue Gollifer, S.C.Gallifer@bton.ac.uk
* Julie Newdoll,(650) 591-7999
* SIGGRAPH Art Gallery, www.siograph.com
* YLEM Organization, www.ylem.org
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