Fearless symmetries

Sciences and the arts are re-entering each other’s orbits in a burst of boundary-blurring creativity, Arthur I. Miller observes

October 25, 2012



Credit: Miles Cole


Sciart - science-inspired art - still retains something of the cachet of the underground, but it now seems poised to emerge into the light of day.

Take, for example, this year’s Ars Electronica, the leading annual festival of digital art, which took place from 30 August to 3 September in Linz, Austria. It was overflowing with participants and spectators eager to see the latest electronic art, including Seiko Mikami’s breathtaking installation Desire of Codes, a room filled with robotic search arms, sensors and video feedback, sweeping the viewer into another universe of being.

In London, the latest in GV Gallery’s regular shows of sciart has just opened. Graphite features works such as Anais Tondeur’s photographic installation travelling back 350 million years to the formation of a vein of graphite in central France. Meanwhile, pioneering work is being done by Goldsmiths, University of London students, among them Paul Prudence, who in a recent show combined otherworldly sound with whirling gyroscopic images evoking the fourth dimension.

More and more frequently, artists and scientists are working together to create intriguing and spectacular works that transcend categorisation.

In Albrecht Durer and Leonardo da Vinci’s time, there was no “art” or “science” as such. As science developed, however, the two moved further and further apart, forming the “two cultures” famously described by C.P. Snow.

But 20th-century developments in relativity theory, quantum physics, electronics and biotechnology have brought about an increasing interplay between art and science. This began with Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, who between them pretty much invented the 20th century. Einstein thought like an artist and Picasso like a scientist.

In 1905, Einstein had no quarrel with the equations of physics. His problem was the way physicists interpreted them, leading to asymmetries that, in his view, were not inherent in nature. His response was to look for a minimalist aesthetic that would eliminate them. It was these aesthetic discontents that inspired his theory of relativity.

Two years later, Picasso saw that developments in science, technology and mathematics were the key to a radically new way to represent nature, based on a new aesthetic - the reduction of forms to geometry. His response was Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which contains the seeds of Cubism, the most influential art form of the 20th century.

Among the artists who followed, many produced work that was influenced by relativity or quantum theory: Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitsky, Salvador Dali and other Surrealists, not to mention Jackson Pollock, whose drip technique paintings were illustrative of (then still to be named) fractal theory.

The next great leap forward was an actual collaboration between an artist and a scientist. In the early 1960s, New York artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Tinguely were looking for ways to incorporate electronics into their art. They teamed up with electrical engineers from the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and the result was a major show held in 1966 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. It was hugely successful, and led to the formation of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), which aimed to foster further collaborations between artists and scientists.

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, art and science collaborations declined as counter-cultural movements linked science and technology with the “military-industrial complex” and the Vietnam war. But in the 1990s, dramatic developments in biotechnology, bristling with ethical questions, threw up a new and exciting topic for artists. Funds from bodies such as the Wellcome Trust helped attract collaborations with scientists.

Art movements influenced by science have burgeoned ever since. We now have sonic art, interface art, information art, physics art, mathematics art and algorithmic art, and the list is still growing.

These are all examples of science-influenced art. But can there ever be art-influenced science or, better still, works combining art and science, making images that reflect a new aesthetic - a third culture, in which art and science fuse?

Such multifaceted work is currently most prominent in design technology. The work of Ken Perlin, a professor of computer science at New York University and director of its Media Research Lab, includes pure mathematics, physics and computer science. He formulated a theory for generating more realistic animations using complex mathematics, and the work won him an Academy Award. When I asked him whether he considered himself an artist or a scientist, his reply was, “Neither. I’m a researcher.” Interviewees at other media labs say the same thing. The very labels “artist” and “scientist” are becoming irrelevant.

Probing the world beyond sense perceptions is a key issue for artists as well as for scientists and, in the end, requires a fusion of the methods of art and science. We live in a highly complex and visual world that can only be understood through both. So the third culture will lead to a new understanding of culture and even of life itself, essential for taking on board the rapid changes of the 21st century. It will also require radical changes in education, beginning with a curriculum that trains students in both art and science.

We must leave our minds open and let our imaginations roam. After all, even just 30 years ago, who would have foreseen that science, technology and art would be as they are now, with the boundaries between them rapidly blurring?

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