Review | New Art/Science Affinities

New Art/Science Affinities is available for purchase through print-on-demand service Lulu, or for free download via the Miller Gallery website

New Art/Science Affinities
Contributors: Andrea Grover, Régine Debatty, Claire Evans, Pablo Garcia, Thumb Projects
Published by: Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University + CMU STUDIO for Creative Inquiry
Available for purchase from Lulu.com or free download via the Miller Gallery website

The conversation between art, science and technology is one we take very serious here at the PLI, and partially out of necessity for a feeling of a lack of discourse, which is why we were so happy to receive New Art/Science Affinities in our inbox this week.

The format for NA/SA is worth noting alone; created during a process termed a “book sprint”, the writers and designers sat together over the course of a week in February 2011 and wrote this book. As noted in the introduction, this is a modern phenomenon, where the information, tools and resources can be pulled into a single room.

Before I go into too much detail, I need to state my reviewerly position; my problem with art writing is thus:

1)   Pieces are short and shallow; they don’t go near the deeper, more intricate issues that make an exhibition/work/performance/artist compelling.

or, 2)   Written pieces are too long; the writing becomes boring as shit and the exhibition closes before your damn essay is done being written. Often the amount of coverage an exhibition/work gets is directly proportional to the amount of funding it has received. Big money does not make compelling art.

or, 3)   Writing about a visual is medium is like trying to clutch a bar of soap in the shower: the harder you try to grasp it, the easier it slips out of your reach. The visual becomes secondary to the written interpretation of it, and neither work is better for it.

Subvert! Paul Vanouse

New Art/Science Affinities  acknowledges the limitations of the form; it does not flaunt high ambitions; it does not aim to be the definitive text on Art and Science, nor does it try to position itself as curator, critic or taste-maker of any kind. Instead, and I applaud the creators for this, NA/SA treats itself as an editorial primer, a barometer of a movement in art that has a multitude of sub-groups and communities but is largely disinterested in constructing a larger mythology.

In the introduction to the book, the team gives a brief history of art/science affinities and its role in the contemporary art world, then goes onto pose a question, a problem for us as readers to keep in mind as we go through the chapters:

“[C.P.] Snow argued that if the so-called two cultures (science and the humanities) couldn’t manage to find a way to communicate or at least overcome their pretensions long enough to respect one another—then the great findings of science and the great works of art would never get the discourse and celebration they deserve. Without a shared language,the frameworks that intellectuals were building on either side of the chasm would only serve to perpetuate the ideology of their own disciplines without adding to the whole.” (Introduction, 8/9)

Program Art or Be Programmed: Jer Thorp

The book then divides into six chapters/themes/areas of study the writing team investigates: Program Art or Be Programmed, Subvert!, Citizen Science, Artists in White Coats and Latex Gloves, The Maker Moment, and The Overview Effect. These frameworks read more like YouTube categories than fields of critical inquiry, but I like that; it reminds me that said “fields” are hand-drawn lines anyways. NA/SA is not overwhelmed by ego; after briefly stating the definitions of their terms and making an argument for it, the writers transition into their case studies, a well-curated, though by no means comprehensive, exhibition of trends in contemporary art/science collaborations.

Some of the “rockstars” make it into this (Tissue Culture and Art Project, Phillip Ross, Kathy High) and some don’t (Critical Art Ensemble) but that is not imperative to the work. The art projects are used as illustrations of a trend in art/science collaborations – for example, SymbioticA and Tissue Culture and Art Project are key figures in the history of both art/science partnerships, as well as having formalized residencies for artists to do science-as-art research and receive decent public funding to do so. The work of Tissue Culture and Art Project, illustrates that when given access to material and intellectual resources, artists can be tremendous collaborators in the discourse surrounding an area of research.

Also present are sparse essays and interviews with key artists in each area of research. These works are more personal, showing in some cases how the artists position themselves within their discipline (Adam Zaretsky) to functioning as near manifestos for production (Golan Levin). The inclusion of interviews and artist statements is a way for the team to include the personal “I” without sounding too pedantic. It contributes to the over-all effect of the work being a snap-shot of an art movement at one particular time.

Symbiotica/Tissue Culture & Art Project: Victimless Leather

NA/SA closes out with the essay “The Intermediary: The Scientific Evangelist” by Jonathan Minard and Michael Pisano. The “Intermediary” is a communicative position, from which expert scientists seeks to bridge the gap between their discipline and public understanding. Intermediaries of our century include Carl Sagan, Rachael Carson and David Attenborough, amongst many others. Perhaps in broader terms the Intermediary might be a revamped public intellectual, someone who is more Carl Sagan than Noam Chomsky. In addition to detailing some of the greater works of the Intermediary, from Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” to Attenborough’s “Plant Earth”, Minard and Pisano also state an imperative:

“Media is now omnidirectional, interactive, navigated as much by its consumers as by its creators. Gone are the days in which a simple book or television program might reach a vast audience: today, the constant growth and diversification of our vast multimedia palette calls for a new hierarchy of specialized practitioners.”  – Jonathan Minard and Michael Pisano, 158/159

By bringing discourse on science, you allow the bridging of the two cultures to happen democratically, in a public forum where basic understanding can be had and thorough understanding cherished. As snapshots go, this book is already out of date – the brief discussion of Foldit has been pre-empted by game-player articulation of the HIV retrovirus last month; but as books go, this publication is a successful collaboration of writers and designers. NA/SA could and should be a model for how art writing can be thorough, engaging and relevant, while still contemporary to the subjects it discusses.

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