Art Works Blog

New Art/Science Affinities

by Andrea Grover, Lead Author, New Art/Science Affinities, Curator, Intimate Science, Curator of Programs, Parrish Art Museum

For four months in the fall of 2010, I worked at a cozy desk in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) as a curatorial research fellow, hosted jointly by the Miller Gallery and the STUDIO. On a daily basis, students, faculty, and visiting artists would stop by my front-row seat at this frenetic concourse of technoscience dispatches.

The initial focus of my research was artists working in scientific or technological environments during the last five decades. The mid 1960s marked an explosion of interest in cross-disciplinary projects---the paring of artists with engineers, or the placement of artists in scientific or industrial environments---as exemplified by Nine Evenings: Theater and Engineering, Art & Technology (http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=1842) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Artist Placement Group, all initiated in the mid 1960s.

As I met with more visiting artists, faculty, and students at CMU, I began to uncover a new narrative---a tactile shift in discourse and practice between that moment and this one. While artists two generations ago were dependent on access to technicians, labs, computer time, or manufacturers to realize works of scientific or technological complexity, those I was presently meeting had far greater agency to conduct this kind of work themselves. Even ambitious endeavors such as independent biological experiments, materials research, and micromanufacturing can be conducted by today’s working artist---and not at a naive or removed distance.

Take for instance, the hallmark group Experiments in Art and Technology, founded in 1967 by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman with Bell Labs engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer to “match make” artists with engineers with whom they could realize projects of an ambitious technological nature. Projects that took these pioneers collectively months to accomplish---creating responsive environments or radio-controlled robotic devices---might now be done by an autonomous artist in a matter of days with a microprocessor and access to open source communities like openFrameworks. Likewise, the present-day proliferation of home-based and shared laboratories such as Genspace, a community biolab in Brooklyn, and hacker spaces like NYC Resistor  make it possible to bring once industrial or scientific endeavors into the domestic realm.

Contemporary artists working in scientific domains are heirs to the throne of the 1960s interdisciplinary milestones, and have much in common with the prevailing spirit of the 1960s avant-garde: the desire to incorporate everyday materials and include untrained and non-professionals in the creative process, and the refusal to participate in mainstream culture of mass production and consumption. It follows logic then that the practice has mostly moved outside rarified institutions and industries (the relationships were too complex and tied to capitalism and product-oriented economics), and into the hands of individuals and collectives (facilitated by networked communication which gave agency to maker culture, the open source movement, peer-to-peer sharing, crowdsourcing, etc.). From there, the types of activities exploded and yielded a variety of subtypes of Artists/Scientists/Technologists.

And unlike the rare polymath of the Renaissance, contemporary artists who operate across disciplines employ the expertise of the network: the network, not the individual, is encyclopedic. The Internet has provided unprecedented access to shared knowledge assets, materials, fabrication processes, microfunding, and audiences. Networked communication and open source culture have contributed to this shift from artists aiding science to doing science, and will ultimately impact the way scientific knowledge is acquired, utilized, and disseminated.

When I proposed my thesis to STUDIO Director Golan Levin he suggested I form a network of my own to test this out and told me about a newly developed technique for collaborative authoring called a “book sprint.” After reading up on the first book sprint, Collaborative Futures, which took place at transmediale in 2010, and speaking with one of the participants, Michael Mandiberg, I began whittling down a list of people I’d like to spend a week writing with---my dream team.

I ultimately had the good fortune to form a week-long hive mind with writers Claire Evans (musician, artist, and science blogger), Régine Debatty (we-make-money-not-art blogger on hybrid and technological art), and Pablo Garcia (architect and art history buff), and architecture-trained designers Luke Bulman and Jessica Young of Thumb. Each person brought a different strength to the table: Claire was a fast and competent writer who could digest and popularize scientific information; Régine had encyclopedic knowledge of more artists working in this domain than anyone on Earth; and Pablo could contextualize it all within a long view of art history. It was dumb luck that Luke and Jessica had seen a mention of the forthcoming “sprint” and offered up their services to design the book during the sprint (in essence, to “design sprint”). This final item was essential as it turns out to completing the book. Thumb’s ability to immediately synthesize our ideas into visual form fueled our writing and helped us organize a wildly divergent mass of materials.

All the while, Miller Gallery Director Astria Suparak, and STUDIO staff Marge Myers, Jonathan Minard, and Amisha Gadani, along with some dozen work-study students, provided us near around-the-clock feedback and companionship on our “research outings.”

We started the week with a graph and taxonomy that I presented, breaking down the various methodologies as I saw them at work in today’s art/science/technology projects. Each of these areas (more or less) became the subject of a chapter in the book. We used the simplest solution possible for collaborative writing: Google Docs, and for images we went directly to the artists or Wikimedia Commons and stored them using Dropbox. At the close of each day Jessica and Luke showed us “design rushes” of the content taking shape.

We tackled Maker Culture, Hacking, Artistic Research, Citizen Science, and Computational Art, wrote about more than 60 artists, and created a gigantic timeline that includes everything from the establishment of Radio Shack to Creative Commons and Kickstarter. We did this in seven days, with little sleep and lots of instant feedback from faculty and students at CMU, as well as artists who generously skyped into the conversation at a moment’s notice. The product of the sprint, New Art/Science Affinities is now out in the world and available as a free download or you can purchase a hard copy.

Our collective writing experiment mirrored the tactics used by many artists working across disciplines today, largely fueled by the Internet and access to once rarified information. We observed that artists are no longer operating on the periphery of research but conducting research themselves. And when artists become scientists, the lines of inquiry pursued become quite expansive.

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