Art for science's sake (1 Nov 2012)

Uploaded by UCLLHL on 06.11.2012

>> This is part of my [inaudible] research,
and I've given it a slightly provocative title.
We usually hear about art from art sake.
Sometimes we hear about science for science sake,
but I really wanted was to start with a beat
of a provocative thought.
What can art really do for science.
And if you're somebody like me who has worked
on the connections between art and science
for a very long time, you might suspect
that there is something very interesting
about the parallel histories of art and science.
And there are some magical moments in history where art
and science really collide and beautiful things happen.
So this talk is about the beautiful things that happen
when art and science collide, and when artists actually manage
to genuinely contribute to the growth
of the scientific knowledge.
The underlying philosophical assumption in my work is
that there is a sense in which, if we go look at history,
art has actually genuinely contributed to the growth
of scientific knowledge.
And therefore, this is a bit of an invitation to artists
so that they can pay attention at those rare moments
in which art collides with science.
And it's also an invitation to scientists to keep an open mind
because we shouldn't really confine the boundaries
of science within science itself.
So what I want to do today is really test my claim
across three key moments, or three key sets of concepts,
that have characterized scientific practice.
And I want to look at how artists fed into this story.
One is the idea that much of scientific practice is
about idealizing and coming
up with idealized representations starting
from what we encounter in nature.
Another issue that I want to sort of look
at from the viewpoint of the contribution
of art is essentially the question of objectivity.
And we will see in a little bit how artists have really engaged
with the very idea that science gives us an objective picture
of reality.
And then the last step in my journey will be looking
at the challenges, very contemporary challenges
that come from the practice of visualizing large data sets.
This is something which is a big concern in contemporary science
and this is also one of the concerns that sort
of [inaudible] collaborations which are kind
of very timely art at this moment.
And I want to look at what kind of role should artists have
in this kind of process.
So I will start from my idea of how art has questioned the idea
that science is about idealizing,
and I need to start far away in time in the 18th century.
Some of you might be familiar with this image.
It's taken from one of the most famous anatomical [inaudible].
This is Bernard Siegfried Albinus.
And the [inaudible] the tables of the skeleton
and the muscles of the human body.
I'm pretty sure that many of you have come across this picture
because it has such an iconic status when we think
about anatomy as a [inaudible].
And I've always been very intrigued by this picture.
The skeleton, for one thing, looks so slender,
and this is exactly what Albinus was after.
He was looking for not my skeleton or your skeleton.
He was looking for the perfect skeleton.
So he's kind of wave going about representations
with essentially, we need to generalize
from individual instances.
And our anatomical tables, not to teach anatomy to students,
art essentially a way of teaching the ideal rather
than individual instances.
And this is how he phrases it.
He say, and all skeletons differ from one another not only
to the age, sex, stature, and perfection of the bones,
but likewise in the marks of strength, make,
and beauty of the whole.
I made choice of one that might discover science
of both strength and agility.
The whole of it elegant and at the same time not to delicate,
so as neither to show juvenile or [inaudible] and slenderness,
nor on the contrary,
an unpolished roughness or clumsiness.
In short, all the parts of it beautiful
and pleasing to the eye.
For as I wanted to show an example of nature,
I chose to take it from the best [inaudible] in nature.
So one of the representative ideas,
and a few scholars have been writing about this,
one of the representative ideas of 18th century,
especially anatomy, but [inaudible] to botany
for example, was let's collect individual instances and rather
than representing individuals with their imperfections,
let's just come up with deeper effect skeletons, deeper effect,
both [inaudible] skeleton.
Now, there are things that very few scholars say
about these representations.
And it's here that the collaboration between art
and science becomes crucial.
So Albinus was not drawing his own tables.
You find the tables are usually attributed to him, but in fact,
there was a very patient artist working together with Albinus.
His name was Jan Wandelaar.
He was -- he lived with Albinus for over 40 years.
And he spent most of his time actually being bullied
by Albinus, who was sort of trying to get him to come
up with the perfect skeleton.
There was a very particular method of going about skeletons,
so what Wandelaar was supposed to do was work
through a very complicated system of double grids
that would allow, eventually, several skeletons
so that all the individual specimens would be transposed
on this system of double grids would be drawn, first of all,
in life size -- in life size
and than transposed into [inaudible].
And this was a process that was frustrating, probably,
very mathematical, very precise.
And at some point, Albinus in actually coming
up with these very --
the illustrations of this very atlas, just becomes fed up.
And there's a really nice passage reported
by Albinus himself, in which he and Wandelaar essentially says,
well, now we've done the skeletons.
How about the backgrounds because you see,
if we squeeze a massive rhino in the background of the clay,
the light on the skeletons will look so much better.
And he got his way, and this is why you find a skeleton combined
strangely enough with a massive rhinoceros in the background.
Note that the date of these plates is 1747,
and there was a massive fascination for the rhino,
which was considered an exotic [inaudible] at the time.
And it turns out that that rhino,
whose name is actually Clara in [inaudible] in 1727,
that rhino is just one big representation of something
that Wandelaar was really obsessing about.
So I did a little bit of digging, and it turns out that
in 1727, so that is exactly 20 years before the completion
of the tables off Albinus' anatomical tables,
Wandelaar had been drawing and obsessing about the rhino.
This is a page from a Dutch book written
by Peter Colb [phonetic] an explorer who had gone
to explore the Cape of Good Hope and the [inaudible] in the Cape
of Good Hope and he came back with these huge reports
about what the rhino looks like.
And he and Wandelaar in 1827 had actually been commissioned
to reproduce the illustrations of the translation of this book.
What Wandelaar is asked to do is draw a rhinoceros in the style
in which the rhinoceros was usually portrayed,
and this is a tradition that goes all the way back to Judah.
If anyone is familiar with Judah 15:15 image of the rhinoceros,
you will spot -- I see people nodding, which is great --
you will spot very clear similarities,
especially so what Judah did with his representation
of the rhinoceros was the roughness of the skin
of the rhinoceros was somehow transposed into an armor.
And that's because perceptually
that was probably the most the simplest way to think
about roughness of the skin of the animal.
And then what Judah does, which Wandelaar does
in this particular picture is he places a [inaudible] horn,
which is clearly in indication of the fact that people
at the time had no sense of the distinction between
and England rhino, which has only one horn,
and an African rhino which has two horns.
So coming across a description
that says the rhino has two horns,
people were slightly at a loss.
And so where do we place the second one?
Well, on the neck somewhere where it fits.
Now, what happens with this illustration is
that when Wandelaar is commissioned to make this kind
of illustration, he specifically requested
to do a Judah-like picture
because that's what people were used to at the time,
except that he looks at the description and says, well,
hold on a second, this is not quite right.
So in fact, he comes up with two pictures, okay.
One is this one, the rhinoceros as it had commonly depicted,
and the second is this one.
The rhinoceros according to this description,
where the rhino has two horns, both in the right place
and has rather smooth skin.
>> Now this is before the time in which Lanaros [phonetic] came
up with the appropriate classification of the Indian
and African variety of rhinos.
So this is very important point in history
where an artist actually comes up with a very important piece
of [inaudible] an insight, if not evident,
that really contributes to the growth of science.
And it's exactly these so --
Wandelaar's obsession with the rhino and what is
in the background of the plates
of Albinus' illustration has a really nice and interesting
and glorious story which has to do with things
that don't necessarily appeal in the foreground of the paintings.
And it still tells the story about the collaborations
between artists and scientists eventually resulted
in productive insights, even for the purposes of classification.
And I'm pretty sure that if we go
through all the tables we can spot things that have to do
with the background and that clearly evidence
that Wandelaar just didn't simply listen
to what his scientist was telling him,
but he actually intervened in the paintings.
The added interesting thing in this particular painting is
that it was completely against what Albinus wanted to achieve.
Albinus wanted to achieve the ideal skeleton.
And what Wandelaar does is,
he places in the background a particular,
not an ideal rhino, okay.
And this is really interesting
because this is how an artist sidesteps the kind of criteria
that were really part of what scientists were trying to do
with their representations.
And Albinus thinks that he needs to apologize about his,
so in a matter of place in his anatomical [inaudible] just
after the tables, he says, we conclude this table in the eight
by exhibiting in the background the figure
of a female rhinoceros that was shown to us at the beginning
of the year 1742 being two years and a half old
as the keepers reported.
Her name was Clara.
She was two hears and a half old.
She was definitely not an ideal rhinoceros.
With the variety of the beast [inaudible] agreeable
than any other ornament resulting from [inaudible],
the figures adjust in a magnitude proportional
to the human figure contained in the two tables.
So there is a sense in which the scientist says, it is acceptable
to have this animal here because it respects the proportion.
However, it is a particular and not an ideal representation.
So this is my first -- the first part of my study
about how artists productively challenged a lot of the concepts
and ideas that scientist take for granted,
and that had a very productive effect, not the least
because it was essentially the combination of the skeleton
and the rhino the made Albinus a representation being one
of the most characteristic and anatomical representation
for over a hundred years.
So that really dominated anatomical training
for over a hundred years.
I want now to move to a different set
of ideas associated with the practice of science,
and I want to move a little bit more forward in time.
I want to move to the time that has often been described
as a time -- the time of the birth
of the concept of objectivity.
This is the time in which somehow photography
in particular, but a lot of other recording instruments,
made their first appearance in science.
And the historians Laura Dustin and Peter Gallason [phonetic] is
in a really interesting book called Objectivity,
trace the history of the concept of objectivity,
and they really place it, place its birth essentially more
or less in the middle of the 19th century which was a time
in which scientific instruments, recording instruments,
became part of very ingrained in the practice of science.
Laua Dustin and Peter Gallason tell us that one type
of mechanically produced image, the photograph became the emblem
of all aspects of known interventionist objectivity,
and we will see what this mean in a second.
This was not because the photograph was more obviously
faithful to nature than handmade images,
but because the camera apparently eliminated
human agency.
So the claim that Laura Dustin
and Peter Gallason are making is essentially that appearance
of recording instruments make somehow images less manmade
and kind of involved the role of objectivity to the machine.
The general idea there is we have the machine.
We can do without sort of human agency in the picture.
And one thing that these two authors do is --
these historians do is eventually look at instances
in which their [inaudible]
of objectivity is essentially associated to the idea
of the machine eliminating agency.
I think the story is a little bit more settle.
And it's a lot more complicated.
And there's a really nice interesting story
that Laura Dustin and Peter Gallason tell us which has more
to do with the connections between artistic photography
and scientific photography.
So what you have with the better photography is scientists are
really claiming the arrival of the first [inaudible] type
as a new eye at the disposal of the physicist.
This is how it was initially presented.
Now we've got the mechanical eye.
We can do away with our human imperfections,
our human limitations, we've got the machine that does it for us.
But at the same time,
while scientists were claiming the arrival of photography
for various purposes, artists were actually reacting
to it quite -- in a quite polemic way.
This is a beautiful piece published in a journal called
"Camera Works", and we will go back to this journal
in one moment, in which the pictorial is photographer Edward
Steichen is explicitly making fun
of these scientific attitude.
And this is one of my favorite quotes
in the whole history of art and science.
Steichen says, "Some day there may be invented a machine
that needs but to be wound up and sent roaming over hill
and dale, through fields and meadows, by babbling brooks
and shady woods -- in short,
a machine that will discriminatingly select its
subject and by means of a skillful arrangement of springs
and screws, compose its motif, expose the plate, develop,
print and even mount and frame the result of its excursion,
so that there will remain nothing for us artists to do
but send it to the Royal Photographic Society's
exhibition and gratefully receive the Royal Medal."
So what Steichen is saying is,
you scientists are really thinking that you can get
to this idea of objectivity but look, there is a lot --
there are a lot of other things that come and fit
into the practice of photography, and so the metaphor
of the machine that does everything by itself.
Steichen belonged to a whole group of artists
who called themselves pictorialists photographers.
And the kind of the way in which a pictorialist photographer
would go about photography was
by intervening directly on the plates.
And general thinking there was photography is an art needs
to be sort of understood on an equal ground
as painting, essentially.
And there is also sense in which the subjectivity
of the artist was an explicit element of resistance
to the objectivity preached by the scientists.
So what the pictorialists would do, really,
was show that here is what we can do
with your objective images.
We [inaudible] them and they're not objective anymore.
Who tells us that the image
from the camera is actually an objective image
and there is no agency intervening?
So what you have at the beginning
when photography makes it
on the historical theme is a polarization
between the scientific understanding of photography
which it did not last long,
but for a while was a very strong approach.
Here is the machine and we can do away with human agency.
And then you've got the artists resisting on the other side,
going like, well, actually, there is a lot of human agency
in photography, and we really want to bring that to the floor.
But what I'm interested in is actually a photographer
who has been praised for the objectivity of his photographs.
His name is Alfred Stieglitz, and he is quite well known
as the father of modern avant-garde photography
and the father of photography as a form of art in its own right.
Now, I became intrigued in Stieglitz and his practice
because I stumbled on this particular quote,
which is from Milos Dugious [phonetic], a very famous
and influential critic at the beginning of the 20th century.
Dugious says, "The desire
of modern plastic expression has been to create
for itself an objectivity.
The task accomplished by Stieglitz photography has been
to make objectivity understood.
For it has given it the true importance of a natural fact.
Stieglitz in America through photography has shown as far
as it is possible the objectivity of the outer world."
Now, what was really strange and what really puzzled me
when I first came across this quote, is why would an artist,
an art critic, at the time
in which photography was open reacting against the objectivity
of scientific photography,
why would an artist make a claim like this.
So I started digging a little bit, and again,
I stumbled on something which was quite a revelation
that is what Stieglitz was thinking
about was a very complicated notion of objectivity which was
in fact grounded in scientific practice,
and it was a lot more sophisticated
than with got the camera and that's what we need,
and it was also a lot more complicated than we are artists,
we can do what we want with the photographs.
What Stieglitz comes up with is an idea of straight photography
which was his main achievement.
And straight photography is essentially photography
as the result, non-modified print, which is the result
of a process of experimental inquiry.
And this is again one of the magical moments in which ideas
from art and ideas from science collide
and produce a really interesting not only scientific
and artistic concept, but also a concept which is useful
in philosophical terms.
So this is one example of what Stieglitz means
by straight, unmodified print.
This is a photograph which has been extremely influential
in the history of photography and in the history
of art it's called the Steerage, and usually historians
of art talk about this picture as a picture about class,
a picture about with political implications,
and without wanting to deny the political
and social implications of this photograph
which have been explored quite broadly anyway,
what I want to say is that what is captured here is essentially
a product of experimental inquiry in Stieglitz sense.
It turns out that Stieglitz did not come up from one day
to another with this idea that we should not modify our prints
and we still -- that photography is still the process
of a trained observer.
In fact, again, part of my digging led me to find
out that actually Stieglitz had had a quite thorough
scientific training.
He had been a pupil of Vogus Hoffman in the 1880s in Berlin.
And Hoffman is one of the most important figures
in the transition from analytic to synthetic chemistry.
He is also one of the major figures behind the introduction
and discovery and introduction of Aniline Dyes
which were essential to the development
of photography itself.
Stieglitz had also been a student for a short time
of Hermann Volgal who had been one of the main proponents
of photography as a science in its own right.
What he says is that photography should be put
on an equal ground the science of photography as chemistry
and physics more broadly.
Now, what these two scientists had in common was, of course,
a strong emphasis on the kind of technical side of photography,
which is pretty much what allowed Stieglitz to come
up with brilliant experimentation
such as this one.
This is one of the first photographs which was --
the first night exposure photographs, okay,
which was an extremely difficult procedure at the time,
and the kind of play of lights
in this photograph shows extreme skill on the part
of the photographer, okay.
So there was a sense in which Stieglitz technical background
and the underpinning of science
in his technical background was one of the ways in which art
and science converged in his practice.
But I want to go beyond that.
So what both Hoffman and Volgar
as scientists were very much promoting was a whole ethos
of the laboratory.
So Hoffman was one of the first people who brought chemistry
out of the lecture room and straight into practice
into laboratory practice.
And he construed practice as learning together,
observing the same things and negotiating those observations.
And so what you have, is a whole.
And Volgar was pretty much endorsing
that mode of working as well.
So in, for example, Stieglitz, students' paper by Stieglitz,
really praises Volgar's practice for the emphasis
on the community based ethos that emerges
in a laboratory context.
So this is what really, I think,
influenced Stieglitz' idea of objectivity.
Not so much the kind of science underpinning photography,
but the fact that science is about collective observation.
It's about a particular ethos in which people spend a lot
of time together within a laboratory and they kind
of absorb the kind of training of the eye and coordination
between eyes and hands.
And it is not a coincidence that Stieglitz himself later
on called his galleries his experimental stations.
This is a report, again, from Marios Desias [phonetic]
who says that it should be remembered
that the Little Gallery, which Stieglitz,
the name of Stieglitz' gallery, is nothing more
than a laboratory, and experimental station
and must not be looked upon as a art gallery
in the ordinary sense of the term.
So what you have there is a collective group
of photographers who are really thinking about the practice
of photography as a process of experimental inquiry
within an experimental intersecting,
and experimental station
or a laboratory rather than an art gallery.
And this is one of the reasons, I think, at least this is one
of my conjectures, this is one
of the reasons why Stieglitz eventually managed
to bring a lot of very conceptual avant-garde
from Europe to the states, he kind of prepared the reception
of nice connections between art and science
that informed a lot of modernism.
And that is what gave Stieglitz the possibility
of seeing the potential into modernist art
in the very first place.
This is also somehow what for Stieglitz becomes --
there is more to photography
than just capturing an image, okay.
So what you have is reports
about how he takes his photographs.
Here he is commenting on a photograph that had been taken
in a massive snowstorm in 1897 in New York.
And he says, "In order to take pictures by means
of the hand camera, which is one of the innovations of the time,
it is well to chose your subject regardless of figures
and carefully study the lines and lighting.
After having determined upon these, watch the passing figures
and the wait the moment in which everything is in balance
that is satisfies your eye.
These of the means hours of patient waiting."
And he did wait for at least a couple of hours in the snow
to take some of his most famous snowstorm photographs.
And when I think about the kind of attitude of self-sacrifice
for the sake of photography that Stieglitz seems to display,
I cannot avoid thinking about the stories
that philosophers know quite well
about how Sir Frances Bacon died in the freezing cold
for the sake of the experimental metal.
There is a very common rhetoric there, we do something
for the sake of science and that implies a certain amount
of self-sacrifice.
This is clearly a rhetorical mode that is taken from science.
So rather than straight photography
as objective photography,
here you have a very interesting problematization of what counts
as objectivity, and if anything
for Stieglitz objectivity is the result of a process of judgment
that comes from trained eye,
trained eye in a laboratory context.
And I want to move on to my last case study,
which is a case study I'm very attached
to because it belongs to UCL.
It's a very UCL type of enterprise.
So I want to move to more modern times,
and I want to think a little bit about what it means nowadays
to visualize large data sets and what kind
of role artists can play in that.
So this is an artwork code [inaudible] and it was made
by an artist who is based here in at this late school of art.
It was a result of an artist in residence program
at the UCL Environment Institute.
And what this artwork is about is essentially a visualization
of cloud patterns that covered the Earth on a specific day,
second of February 2009 at six o'clock sharp, okay.
So what the artis did was he collected numerical readings,
He collected raw data from various satellites,
cloud monitoring satellites, from NASA
and the European Space Agency, and then he, from these data,
he created a 3D model and the 3D model was printed
and here is his artwork.
What this artwork is about is in one sense the kind of fragility
of our environmental system construed as a system.
But it is also how do we give a physical form,
how do we actually visualize data that are considered
to be sort of numerical or huge data sets that need to sort
of find an image in order to become concretely valuable.
And what I like about this project,
and what I think is really important about this project is
that it really addresses the question
of are there any raw data?
And does the quantity of data,
which is now a very important issue in scientific practice,
we've got this huge data sets,
and once we've got the huge data sets, we've got everything.
As long as we've got quantity,
then we can solve all the problems of the world.
Well, this artwork really challenges the idea
that quantity of data gives our scientific enterprises their
validity, okay.
And you know, really brings to the floor the fact
that data always interpreted according to certain practices
and according to the kind of purposes,
scientific purposes that we have.
And this is how -- so this artwork became the very iconic
image of a book that [inaudible] just the title,
I think is brilliant.
And this is how Martin Cannon [phonetic] working
with Richard Humbling [phonetic] during their artist
in residence program, this is how they described the aims
of this book.
They say [inaudible] reflects the ways
in which scientific graphs
and images often have powerful stories to tell carrying much
in the way of overt and implied narrative content.
But also that these stories
or narratives are rarely interacted or interrogated.
And that is where I see the role
of the artists nowadays being particularly important.
Sometimes and this is somehow the conclusions that I want
to draw from all my case studies,
sometimes there is a sense in which the role of art
in especially in art and science collaboration is very similar
to the role of philosophy of science, which is the field
where I do most of my work.
And in both cases, what you find is the philosophers as much
as artists challenge, disturb, and criticize what all the kind
of concepts that scientists take for granted.
And I think even just questioning the rhetoric
of data is an important step forward considering the data --
the idea of data is such a foundationally issue
in scientific practice.
So with this I want to conclude, and I want to say
that if we go all the way back and we look at history,
what we can derive from that history is
that artistic visualization has often served as critic.
I don't want to make a blanket cover for that.
I don't want to say that all art should be critic of science,
but we have now come to terms
that art has political implications,
and we are happy with that.
And that art actually has --
can do something when it comes to political issues.
My suggestion is why not thinking about the same thing
with respect to scientific practice.
And this is much more important issue if you think
about the ways artists in residence programs go nowadays,
and about how artists be relegated in the corner
of a laboratory often counts as an artist in residence program.
My idea is that we should probably cherish the critical
role of art when there is a particularly magical moment
when art and science collide.
So what I want is I want to first tell the healthy role
of controversy and history tells us that there were many
so we should look at history a lot more.
I want to -- I want my argument to be both descriptive
of artistic and scientific practice,
but also a normality one.
We should encourage artists to take this critical role.
And I want to go beyond the idea of art as a meer tool
for illustrating science.
So one of my favorite artists once upon a time said,
Pablo Picasso once upon a time said that "art is not made
to decorate apartments" and to that I would like to add
that maybe art is not made to decorate laboratories, either.
So in both cases, there is a sense
in which art can have a strong critical role and my idea
of artistic visualization as critic aims to foster
that critical role and promote it.
Thank you very much.
[ Applause ]
>> Well, thank you very much, Kiana [phonetic],
very interesting indeed.
It's time for a few questions.
It's open to the floor.
[ Silence ]
>> The one in the back there.
>> Sorry for my bad English.
You says that the critical role of artist is more important
than designing role because he play huge role
in the designing shape of modern technology.
It's more important critical role than everyday work.
>> Well, I mean, critical role can be embedded
in the everyday work of an artist.
I mean, I'm thinking about the poor Jan Wandelaar.
He was doing that for on a daily basis for a good 40 years,
so I think there is a sense in which that can be part
of the daily work of an artist.
What I really want is to raise awareness
about that critical ability of art because that is really one
of the strong points of artistic practice.
And sometimes artists do it
without necessarily being aware of that.
So what I would like to bring to everybody's attention is
that we should probably cherish that critical role rather
than thinking that it's part of our daily practice
and so whether we think about it or not it's okay.
>> In the front here, did you have a question?
>> I was just going to ask, why should science listen to you?
>> Oh, oh, oh.
Because scientists are worried about a lot of the same things
that artists are worried about.
So when it comes to data visualization what often happens
is that scientists to reach out for artists, okay.
And then when you ask scientists what's the role
of art in your practice?
They say, well, that's just an artists' impression
of what we're doing.
So I mean, there is this kind of tension especially nowadays
between artists really looking for new modes
of visualization -- scientists really looking for new modes
of visualization and then denying the role
of artistic practice because after all,
it's just artistic practice.
And what I want, again, is raise awareness even
in the kind of field of science.
But there is a very genuine contribution available there,
and that we should probably open up the boundaries of science
to kinds of practices that fit into it
and that contributes to its growth.
>> There's a question here.
>> I'm looking at the epistemological content
of the last statement.
>> Uh-huh.
>> And I'm wondering if art can act as a tool
in that it is an avenue to modality and by that I mean,
it opens up realms
of possibility otherwise not seen necessarily
in just scientific practice.
>> Definitely, and that's a really nice philosophical spin
on that but definitely there is a sense
in which having a challenge so if you are worried
about the validity of scientific knowledge, okay,
I wouldn't be worried about art undermining the validity
of scientific claims, okay.
On the contrary, what you have is an opening up of new avenues
that is beneficial to the growth of science.
>> [Inaudible] actualizations but possibilities.
>> Possibilities, definitely, definitely.
>> In the interest of time, unfortunately, I think I have
to arrest the questioning just at this point.
But it's been a very interesting and nicely philosophical talk.
Thank you very much.
[ Applause ]