Armed and dangerously provocative...

August 5, 2005

Is science the new art, asks Sian Ede, as she reveals how artists are taking inspiration from the lab to find new ways to explore the world

Contemporary scientists often talk about "beauty" and "elegance". Artists hardly ever do. Scientists weave incredible stories, invent extraordinary hypotheses and ask difficult questions about the meaning of life. They have insights into the workings of our bodies and minds that challenge the way we construct our identities and selves. They create visual images, models and scenarios that are gruesome, baffling and beguiling. They say and do things that are ethically and politically challenging and shocking. At the risk of adding to Private Eye 's list of neologistic claims, one is bound to wonder whether science is the new art.

As arts director for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, I have been encouraging artists to engage with science. It is a rewarding challenge. Artists don't "do" prettification, product or propaganda for the public understanding of science. But they can engage with science and create images that suggest alternative ways of seeing. If art is "about" anything, it is a reflection of human experience in complexity. It emanates from an inventive individual with a sideways view on things, communicating with vigorous visual acuity and daring, its intellectual content, like that of poetry, conveyed through hints and ambiguities. And, at a time when scientific progress is in the ascendant, its discoveries and pronouncements need to be placed in contexts where they can be seen quite differently, where ideas can be expressed with a poetic or abstract succinctness and always in a questioning and compassionate spirit.

There is much in contemporary science that can stimulate art's flexible, intuitive and visceral response to the world, such as new explanations for the structures and processes of the human mind and body and the subsequent implications for revisions in what we think of as human nature. There are startling new technologies and ethical controversies. I believe it is important to examine how far the pendulum is swinging away from the cultural and linguistic relativism that for almost a century has predominated in the theoretical discourse, underpinning approaches to the arts and humanities, and how far it is moving towards a universalist belief system and approach, as promoted by the new sciences, especially those concerned with the evolution of the mind.

"The single human voice telling its own story can seem the only authentic way of rendering consciousness," the novelist and critic David Lodge has written. Scientists may be to able to explain how the brain works in terms of mapping the cortex or the function of neurotransmitters. But they cannot convey how experience feels to us as individuals. Nevertheless, endeavours to understand the matter of mind and consciousness increasingly show it to be depersonalised. How far can we claim to possess a unique sense of self, of individuality or identity, if so many of our mental processes are innate or automatic?

The Australian performance artist Stelarc believes the human body to be obsolete. He has declared that: "We are at the end of philosophy and human physiology... we have never had a mind of our own, we often perform - involuntarily, conditioned and externally puppeted." In other words: "Bodies are both zombies and cyborgs." His art is to demonstrate ways of extending the concept of the body through an application of various new technologies. Clunky robotics dominates soft and sentient flesh and electronic wizardry interferes with the neural transmissions involved in the brain's motor control.

Stelarc has created a prosthetic "third arm", equipped with a variety of joint movements that are triggered remotely. When he performs with this attached to his right arm, his left arm is also wired up to respond to off-site commands. Watching his body obey stimuli outside its control is as entertaining as stage hypnosis but makes one reflect on how far and how many of our supposedly autonomous actions are automatic.

Stelarc now intends to create a third ear from his own cartilage and bone marrow, which will be grown in a laboratory. He planned to place it beside one of his natural ears but this would interfere with the nerves in his cheek. Instead, the ear will be cultured on his arm as a permanent part of his body. He hopes to fit it with a sound chip that will emit words when people approach. As a performance artist dealing with the interface between man and machine, Stelarc may not have the blockbuster impact of the Terminator movies, but he has a cottage industry mad-inventor appeal, which makes him amusing and thought-provoking.

Scientific images of human cells or brain-scans were remarkable the first time they were used in works of art. Helen Chadwick's squelchy internal organs intertwined with flowers, fur or hair, and human embryos set like jewels presented images that posed radical questions about the nature of self, of beauty and femininity. Marc Quinn's 2001 Genomic Portrait of Nobel prizewinning geneticist Sir John Sulston features bacterial colonies of cells, each of which includes a segment of his subject's cloned DNA - he is his DNA. But you can't make this witty gesture twice, or else a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, where the portrait is hung, would become dreary.

X-rays, brain scans and the double helix have become commonplace icons in advertising and popular journalism - artists need to be more inventive. And claims by the science community that their swirling, colour-clashing representations of cells or chaotic systems are aesthetically rich seem to miss the artistic point. The late biologist Stephen Jay Gould has called science images "loci for modes of thought" and for artists the "thought" will relate to the quest for multiple ways of interpreting what it feels like to be human rather than the search for a harmonious picture or an indication of absolute meaning.

The politics of science may present a particular challenge to artists who don't want to make work that is simply issue-based and to scientists who may be afraid that important arguments might be devalued by lightweight irony or by an interpretation that appears to be less than rigorous.

The work of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger has caused immense controversy. She creates aquarelle paintings of jewel-like bugs bearing deformed features, apparently as a consequence of increased atmospheric radiation in areas particularly affected by the fall-out from Chernobyl or from other sites near functioning nuclear power stations. Hesse-Honegger trained as a science illustrator and knew enough to form hypotheses about the increasing prevalence of adverse mutation.

Some in the science community have been incensed by her claims, pointing out that mutation and radiation are normal in nature and that no conclusions should be drawn without undertaking a controlled study. Hesse-Honegger does not believe this is possible, even if the huge resources - let alone the political will - were available to undertake such an investigation, because there is nowhere on earth unaffected by radiation after decades of atomic testing and nuclear power generation.

If she is seen as sensationalist as a scientist, as an artist Hesse-Honegger is taken seriously and the Swiss Federal Office of Culture has supported her exhibitions and international tours. Confined to galleries, her artworks may appear to be less provocative, but if politicians won't support science that is not profitable, the debates must be held somewhere.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has explained how our mental and physical processes are inextricably linked and how our emotions and feelings underpin all our thoughts and actions so that even rational debate is founded on emotion. Who better to provoke informed discussion than artists properly exposed to science? Environmental art is provoking much interest but not in the old tradition of nature worship. For example, many of the newly commissioned poems in the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation's vigorous anthology Wild Reckoning , provoked by the 40th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's radical environmentalist book Silent Spring , emerged from collaborations with scientists.

Finally, there are the philosophical differences that relate to the nature of knowledge itself. Is there an implicate reality "out there" waiting to be discovered, independent of the observer's mental state? Is it all, or at least partly, a construction of the human mind, phenomenologically and linguistically determined and therefore unfixed, and - whether we are conscious of it or not -always viewed in accordance with the prevailing values and beliefs of particular times and places?

In the introduction to It Must be Beautiful , an anthology of the great equations of modern science, editor Graham Farmelo, a physicist and science writer, states: "Much like a work of art, a beautiful equation has among its attributes much more than attractiveness - it will have universality, simplicity, inevitability and an elemental power."

How different is the mind-set of those engaged in the discourse of the arts and humanities, where the experience of life is uncoordinated, dislocated, contingent and incomplete? A postmodernist might invert Farmelo's axiom thus: "Much like a work of science, a work of art represents both more and less than a simulacrum of pleasure - it is foregrounded by the values relative to the value-maker, attests to multiple layers of possible meaning, is inevitable only in that it privileges the mores of a particular culture at a particular time in history and, within its shifting temporary context, it is ripe for continual reinterpretation and validation."

Scientists may scorn such casuistry and "cultural relativism", but some of them make the opposite mistake of trying to sweep together physical and metaphysical inquiry into one wholesome theory. A number of popular science books end with a final chapter in which the authors, having addressed the material world, express a heartfelt desire for what the biologist Edward O. Wilson calls "consilience" or "unity of knowledge". This was a consummation also devoutly desired by the late Gould, who hoped to "mend and mind the misconceived gap between science and the humanities". The theory of memetics has been devised as a cultural counterpart to genetic theory and many evolutionary psychologists believe they can explain art simply in terms of its adaptational purpose or as a universal response to symmetry and asymmetry in nature, outside any cultural context. Well-meaning though such intentions are, they overlook the fact that many different groups of people in the world seek a "unity of knowledge" and a mending of "misconceived gaps". But they seek such unity on their own terms, through religious beliefs (spiritual, fundamentalist or otherwise), through varieties of totalitarian rule or, paradoxically, through visions of anarchy and disorder.

Sometimes there is no meeting place. Indeed, it is biologically healthy to live in two cultures. We need always to take note of the constructs and thought experiments of our times and keep testing them, reconfiguring models, images, hypotheses, myths, stories and even jokes. For if we're not prepared to wonder what it's like to see things from an entirely different point of view, to imagine impossible scenarios and adapt to unknown circumstances, it may spell the end of the human race. The arts and humanities constituencies can see the benefit in sometimes pursuing a quest for rigorous objectivity, taking all variables and risks into account, as in the best scientific inquiry, and they welcome new philosophical insights, technologies and ethical questions.

By the same token, scientists can respect difference, personal opinion, the idea that there may be multiple interpretations and that a uniquely individual sensuous description or a flagrant invention may be as true a version of reality as a peer-reviewed set of averages. Indeed, pioneering scientists have always challenged the status quo, operating through guesswork and intuition sometimes more than through deductive logic. But both are valid, neither is exclusive. Artists are beginning to find science irresistible and they want to present their response to it in unexpected ways.

Sian Ede is arts director of the UK branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Her book Art and Science is published by I. B. Tauris, £42.00.

Maurice Riordan

The birds in Nunhead Cemetery begin
Before I've flicked a switch, turned on the gas.
There must be some advantage to the light
I tell myself, viewing my slackened chin
Mirrored in the rain-dark window glass,
While from the graveyard's trees, the birds begin.
An image from a dream survives the night,
Some dreck my head refuses to encompass.
There must be some advantage to the light.
You are you I mouth to my shadow skin,
Though you are me, assuming weight and mass -
While from the graveyard's trees, the birds begin:
Thrush, blackbird, finch - then rooks take fright
At a skip-truck and protest, cawing en masse.
There must be some advantage to the light
Or birds would need the gift of second sight
To sing Another year will come to pass!
The birds in Nunhead Cemetery begin,
There must be some advantage to the light.

Maurice Riordan: "The poem was prompted by looking at the phenological charts of The Woodland Trust (which record seasonal change in the UK). It occurred to me that the signs of spring, which are traditionally so heartening, can nowadays seem ominous indicators of climate change. Some of the birds in the poem sing out of season."

Extract from Wild Reckoning: An Anthology provoked by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring , edited by John Burnside and Maurice Riordan, and published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, £7.50.

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