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Art & Science

To take a one week course on Art, Science and the Sacred with David Peat

see also: Art and the Environment

Peat's interest in art dates back to his student days, and even earlier when he was taken by his aunt, as a young child, on regular visits to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. This interest is not simply about the possible relationship between art and science but involves more general questions about the significance and meaning of art, how it functions in different societies, the way it reflects human consciousness and our perception of the world, its role as an aspect of human creativity, its changing values and deformations in Western society as opposed to those societies that do not possess a word for "Art", the ways contemporary movements in art may anticipate the directions in which society and human consciousness are moving, and finally the great mysteries, the constantly visited but never exhausted qualities, of artists like Cezanne.

Over the next few years Peat will be visiting and revisiting this topic of art in a series of essays that will be added to these pages. He will also be continuing his discussions and dialogues with artists including Anish Kapoor, Anthony Gormley, Siraj Ishar, Cornelia Parker, Bruce Gilchrist, David Andrew, Ansuman Biswas, Lynn Cohen, Janine Antoni, Marina Abramovic, Todd Watts, Susan Derges and others. (Several of these interviews have been audiotaped and it is possible that transcripts may at some future time be made available on this Web page.)

See also Art and Science Discussion Forum

Contents:
Art & Science
Visual Codes
Photography & Science
Other Issues



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Art and Science

The currently, and highly fashionable, topic of "Art and Science" raises some interesting questions. It is generally argued that, historically, art and science arouse out of the same ground, or that a time existed when they were not considered to be distinct pursuits. Then, it is said, European culture began to give a special position to the artist, the notion of "genius" was born and the products of art increasingly became commodities for purchase and ownership. Around this time, art and science also began to separate and exhibit quite different methodologies, products and social functions.

On the other hand, while today art and science may have become separate and distinct it is also true that artists have always shown an interest in science and technology. Indeed, there have been remarkable parallels between movements in art and revolutions in science (Kepler's ellipses and the elliptical structures of the Baroque, Newton's experiments with the prism involving light entering a room via a narrow aperture and the Dutch interest in the way light enters domestic interiors, the notion of quanta of light and Seurat's pursuit of pointillism, the idea of coordinate patches in relativity and the spatial dislocations of Cezanne, the unity of space and time in relativity and Cubist succession of temporal views across space....the list goes on.

It is also generally said that the interaction between art and science flows in one direction, that artists become interested in science, its methods and concepts, and incorporate them in loose ways within their own work, but that science gains little to nothing from art. On the other hand it is interesting to note that, in the list of connections above, a revolution in art generally precedes that in science by a decade or so. But how is this possible? How can science be influenced or changed by what artists do? Is there a direct causal connection, or are artists antennae to the future who anticipate the general changes in thinking that will eventually enter science? (Stravinsky argued that "the artist is not ahead of his time, the public are behind theirs.)

It may also be the case that art helps us to visualize the world and that new ideas and concepts in science only become "real" as they are projected into visual mental models - ie when they are "seen" within the theater of the mind. Thus, when changes in art influence the way we "see" the world, they inevitably exert an influence on the way science "sees" nature.

The English painter Patrick Heron has argued that art determines the way we see the world. Without some form of artistic representation, he says, our visual experience would be a buzzing confusion. Thus, when movements in art change so too does our perception of the world. Heron's statement is a strong one and seems to imply that human consciousness changes along with artistic revolution. In this it is similar to the "strong" statement of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis in linguistics - that language determines the way we see the world. But what Whorf and Sapir really said is that language and our perception of the world and inexorably linked - not quite the same thing. So does art really determine the way we see the world, and do movements in art reflect changes in human consciousness - or is the whole thing more subtle and less causally linked?

At all events "art and science" is now a hot topic and therefore open for analysis and questioning by those, like myself, who are naturally suspicious about trends and fashions and want to ask, "What is all this really about?" Are the supposed links between the two genuine, or no more than loose but attractive metaphors? Is the approach of the artist in any way similar to that of the scientist? Is a marriage of these two fields possible or even desirable? In the end, is this debate no more that hot air and is what really matters the idiosyncratic friendship and dialogue between an individual artist and an individual scientist? Or is something vitally new emerging that will embrace both art and science?

See also Art and Science Discussion Forum

Related Essays:
Art & Science: Marriage or Illicit Liaison
Caravaggio's Supper: Picture Frames and the Nature of Human Consciousness
Catalogue Essays for David Andrew
David Bohm, Paul Cezanne and Creativity
Escher, Maurits Cornelius (1898-1972)
New Lamps for Old
Photography and Science
Bohm-Biederman Correspondence



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Visual Codes

Once, while visiting MIT, I was told that more than 50% of what we see was already present in the brain. The world we picture as being outside ourselves is, in large part, a construction of consciousness, built out of memories, anticipations, contexts and the various cognitive strategies of the visual cortex. Present people with a photograph or painting and, depending on the context, their rapid eye movements will scan different areas of the image in order to extract quite different information.

In vision, light falling onto the rods and cones of retina where it is converted into signals that travel along the optic nerve to the brain. Yet this traffic is by no means one-way for it is constantly being met by a flood of signals traveling down to the retina from the visual cortex. Along the optic nerve these flows of signals are meeting, filtering, comparing and structuring. Likewise the brain is constantly sending signals to the eye telling it to move and change focus in order to gather more information. Vision is prehensile, active and not passive. In a similar way on reaching the visual cortex these filtered and processed signals are dealt with by distinct regions - some clusters of brain cells search for edges and boundaries, moving bars, fields of color, areas of movement, etc. It is even possible for the brain to "zoom in" on detail by causing part of an image to fall on that region of the retina that is particularly dense in receptors (the yellow spot) and likewise capable of greater discrimination and resolution within the visual cortex.

What has this to do with art? Art, from its inception, is less to do with mimesis, or attempting a photographic record of a single instant of seeing, and more to do with writing in a Visual Code. Artist have always know, in an intuitive and feeling way, as well as in their researches, about the human strategies of seeing. The Dutch painters knew, for example, that our perception of color changes in twilight, or dark rooms, long before the psychologist. (In bright light the cones are capable of color discrimination while in low level illumination the more sensitive rods show a world without color. In twilight both systems contribute to produce the changing sense of color values portrayed by Dutch artists.)

Painting involves the adoption of a variety of Visual Codes which make use of the strategies of perception, playing with them, tricking them, subverting them, and so on. Rather than attempting pure representation artists are concerned with gestures, marks, colors, tones, contrasts and so on - an entire Visual Code - that engages the various ways we see the world. And maybe more than this, art and its visual codes are also concerned with the changing context of consciousness in which perception takes place.

The history of art is the story of the way codes develop and interact with other pictorial codes, for example, with heraldic uses of color, visual codes for the emotions and feelings, social maps and so on.

It is here that an interesting connection with science can be made, for science also uses a series of codes to represent the world, or rather to represent the underlying dynamical patters of natural phenomena. To take one example, both art and science are concerned with establishing codes that refer to spatial structure and spatial relationship.

Just as a series of Visual Codes are used to structure our perception of the world so too linguistic codes structure communication, relationship, organizations and society.

Related Essays:
Caravaggio's Supper: Picture Frames and the Nature of Human Consciousness
Catalogue Essays for David Andrew
Escher, Maurits Cornelius (1898-1972)
New Lamps for Old
Photography and Science
"That Obscure Object of Desire"



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Photography and Science

Since its inception, photography has enjoyed a close liaison with science and technology. The medium itself was developed in the 19th century though the experiments of enthusiasts who were both professional artists and amateurs of science. Soon after its inception photography was being employed by artists like Manet and Degas. Likewise scientists enjoyed its ability to catalogue and portray detail as well as for its seeming objective look.

Over the decades photography often came to the aid of science in displaying both the microscopic and the cosmic, arresting fast processes and creating images though non-visible wavelengths. At the same time scientific developments extended photography's tools right down to the present day with digital imaging and computer processing.

Contemporary photography also has the ability to reflect our world back to us; a world of surfaces, reflections and new ideas about reality. In regard to science it is able to inform, critique and imagine. The essays below comment on various aspects of contemporary photography and its relationship to science and society.

Related Essays:
New Lamps For Old
Photography and Science: Conspirators
"That Obscure Object of Desire"



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Other Issues

Peat has been discussing, with Anish Kapoor, the questions "where is the art", "in what space does the art work take place"? And, with Anthony Gormley, what is "the space within" where the art work takes place, "the dark space beyond dimension, beyond up and down, beyond good and evil, yet containing them all"? Over the past few years he has also been engaged in dialogues with Jungian analysts on the relationship between creativity, inner space and the way both artists and therapists engage in their work. How does creativity emerge out of the body? How are movements in art related to transformations within human consciousness? And what relevance do these questions, as well as those of traditional aesthetics have for contemporary art and art practice? And why is that word "beauty" heard so much in contemporary physics and mathematics, yet has become marginalized from art criticism? Indeed, does beauty in science have anything to do with beauty in art? And do notions of perception, representation, transformation and creativity have any correspondence between art and science?

In addition, during lectures, seminars and tutorials while Peat was "scientist in residence" at St. Martin's School of Art, London; Ruskin College, Oxford and art schools in Bristol and Brighton; a number of themes emerged.

  • Language, Representation and Reality
    The physicist Neils Bohr believed that physics had reached the limits of what could be said about the quantum world -"we are suspended in language so that we don't know which way is up and which is down". Art is also questioning the whole notion of representation and the limits of what can be said or shown.
  • The Participatory Universe
    Cezanne stressed the nature of time and participation in the act of looking and making- sitting beside the river bank he would move his head and note the way the scene changed. His paintings reflect this notion of temporal participation and the sense that his paintings act as "the consciousness of nature". Quantum physics emphasized that we live in a participatory universe in which acts of observation disturb the cosmos. Artists are also interested in works which stress participation on the part of the viewer.
  • Process versus Object
    Much contemporary art is about process and removes emphasis from the finished object or gallery installation. Likewise physics is changing its focus from objects in interaction into pure process.
  • Liminality
    Much art is to do with edges, limits, that which is just coming into manifestation, or vanishing, evaporating, evading capture. In this way art resonates with the quantum world in which existence is fleeting, a constant process of manifestation and annihilation.
  • Space, pre-space and inner space
    After sixty years of uncomfortable co-existence quantum theory and general relativity remain to be united in a meaningful way. Thus some physicists are becoming interested in questions of pre-space as structures out of which could emerge some deeper theory that, in suitable limits, leads to quantum theory and relativity. Similarly, general questions about space are being asked in art. Anish Kapoor is concerned with the placing of the art object in space. "Where is the art" he asks? Within the stone, the eye of the viewer or in a space between? Anthony Gormley visits 'the dark space, rarely visited, beyond good and evil, beyond dimension, yet containing them all". Many artists are currently concerned with pre-space, that zone that exists before gesture, marking and event - the gallery space, canvas, field in a landscape, inner space of the body, cityscape. Related questions about the origin of space, and the nature of pre-space are being asked in physics. Siraj Izhar has spoken of his Fashion St area as being a "pre-space" that will become marked by events and work in progress.
  • The changing nature of Matter in Physics
    Matter vanishes into patterns of energy and information. This resonates with the current debate in art about presence, representation, and the role of the object.
  • Chaos theory, self-organization, strange attractors and chance
    Are the laws of nature given, or do them emerge out of non-linear processes of self-organization? Questions of chaos, self-organization, creativity and the role of chance have always been present in art.
  • Meta Theories
    Cosmology, superstrings etc. involve "theories about theories about theories" that are remote from direct physical test. Such theories increasingly rely upon aesthetic appeals to economy, fittedness, etc. In this sense, criteria from art are beginning to rub shoulders with those of science.
  • Beauty and Aesthetics in science
    "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics" The concepts of beauty, elegance, etc. are widely used in mathematics and physics but have fallen out of fashion in art. What is the role of beauty in art? And is beauty a necessary criterion of correctness in science given that some biological systems and organisms are considered, by biologists or doctors, as inefficient and poorly designed?
  • Evidence in art and science
    Richard Long walks across a field creating a temporary track in bent grass. Andy Goldsworthy throws colored mud into a river or builds a spiral icicle at dawn. Yves Klein sells a portion of empty space - a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility - and then throws half the gold he has obtained for the sale into the River Seine. In what sense do such works exist, - as documents, or memories?. In general all we have is the photograph, taken at the moment of the event. Such photographs have a curious ontology. They are not the work itself (art), yet neither are they representation of the work. This hovering ontology is also found in science - as in the evidence for an existence of elementary particles or singular events such as the Big Bang. After all, a photograph taken from an elementary particle accelerator is not strictly a "photograph of an elementary particle", neither is it strictly "the path of an elementary particle". But rather evidence having a curious ontology, it is evidence that a process has taken place, a process of intervention and observation. The "evidence" of a Richard Long walk is ontologically the same state of suspension as the "evidence" of an elementary particle.

Related Essays:
Art & Science: Marriage or Illicit Liaison
Catalogue Essays for David Andrew
Creativity: The Meeting of Apollo and Dionysus
Photography and Science


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