Where are we in art-science?

Jiayi Young

Assistant Professor, Department of Design, University of California, Davis

Keywords: art-science, technology, science, collaboration, emerging, nano, scale, astronomical, Technarte, funding

Technarte 2015 Conference, Los Angeles
December 10 – 11, 2015, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, CA
Technarte: Fusion of art, science and technology, LACDA, Los Angeles Center of Digital Art

With slight variations in meaning, the term art-science (Born & Barry 2010), artscience (Edwards 2008), art/science, art+science, or art|science, has largely been used to refer to the practice of integrating artistic aesthetics, theme, medium, tools and processes with that of biological and physical sciences and technology. [1, 2, 3] Today, art science technology collaborations constitute a contemporary global trend in which artists and designers work collaboratively with frontier areas of science and emerging technologies to create works that represent the unique synthesis enabled only by this particular method of collaboration. This mode of collaboration, with its virtually unprecedented freedom to explore and to apply groundbreaking specialized science and technology, aims to promote new possibilities in art; however, as a philosophical dilemma, also provokes the question of funding challenges required to support such lofty efforts.

Over the course of the past two decades, an extensive network of committed players have formed to contribute to a vibrant worldwide community designed to harvest this ingenuity. The scope continues to expand. These players include academic programs and institutions, industry leaders, professional journals and publications, non-profit organizations, conferences, festivals, and public outreach efforts. Technarte is one of such entity that hosts conferences to showcase work in this field, and to provide artist residency programs in places such as the Antarctica and the Observatory of Roque de los Muchachos. The organizational body for Technarte is Innovalia Association, a Spain-based independent private R&D partnership of the Associated Research Lab, which represents an industry alliance providing solutions in the areas of tourism, communications, security, transportation, aeronautics, manufacturing & energy. Since 2006, the Technarte International Conferences on Art & Technology has been organized annually in Bilbao, Spain. The 2015 conference, along with an exhibition at LACDA, was held for the first time in the United States. Director Jon Astorquiza kicked off the conference, speaking on risk taking, and society’s role in investing in innovation, as playing a critical role at the forefront of art/science collaborations that deeply fuse the essence of both artistic and scientific processes. Below I highlight some examples of featured artists at the conference and the exhibition.

Frederik De Wilde is a transdisciplinary artist from Belgium. He presented a wide range of work that included the growing of Nano juice around structures, swarm robotics, light and kinetic performances, and generative design. His most recognized work is a collaboration with NASA, and with Professor Pulickel Ajayan (Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering) of Rice University, creating a type of Nano engineered material which he calls 99,9% NanoBlack. (Fig 1) Grown out of carbon Nano tubes, this material absorbs all visible light, as well as some frequencies of infrared. De Wilde cans this material, and then creates square black paintings with titles such as Hostage, with the intention that these “blacker-than-black” paintings prove to be so dark that their volume disappears. In 1961, Ad Reinhardt described his Abstract Painting as being “A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, … trisected (no composition), … no–contrasting (colorless) colors, … which does not reflect its surroundings—a pure, abstract, non–objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self–conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art (absolutely no anti–art).” These qualities are also seen in De Wilde’s Hostage, where he synthesizes technological advances with material inquiries to intensify the relationship between “an object that is self-conscious” and the spectator. In the context of our media and electronic device oversaturated present-day society, De Wilde’s black paintings attempt to create an absolute darkness where not even light can escape in order to bring back the private and the personal. De Wilde claims that his work also references such speculative work as Piero Manzoni’s 1961 Mierda de Artista, where the cans provided a way for the artist to express an idea of “fetishisation and commodification of his own body substances”. [4] De Wilde’s exploration of material and form is prolific. His praxis of art-science also extends into the realm of radioactive glow, subatomic particles, geometry and behaviors, and 3D printable data structures.

Fig. 1. Benhaz Farahi, Caress of the Gaze, 2015, 3D Printing, SMA Actuators, Facial Tracking Camera. © Behnaz Farahi/Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom, Elena Kulikova.

Fig. 1. Benhaz Farahi, Caress of the Gaze, 2015, 3D Printing, SMA Actuators, Facial Tracking Camera. © Behnaz Farahi/Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom, Elena Kulikova.

Benhaz Farahi, an Iranian designer/architect, is a doctoral student in Interdisciplinary Media Arts and Practice at USC School of Cinematic Arts. Having earned two Master’s degrees in Architecture, her doctoral work primarily is concerned with interaction design as it relates to wearable technology and interior-built environment. In particular, her inquiries include the relationship between the human body and the interactivity between motion and emotion. Her 2015 work titled Caress of the Gaze (Fig 2) is a collaboration between Autodesk, Pier 9 and MADWORKSHOP. Designed by Farahi using an actuation system, the team created a 3D-printed feather-like shawl equipped with a camera that controls the feather movement on the shawl to recognize and respond to the gaze of the other, much like goose bumps emerge from pores, or courtship ritual in birds. With this work, Farahi hopes to prompt the rethinking of the relationship between our bodies and the surrounding environment. Also of importance was using the latest 3D printing technology to enable the concept, in order to allow the fabrication of composite materials with varying flexibilities, combining different material properties and densities to be deposited in a single print run. In her explorations of the interactive built environment, Farahi’s 2014 Breathing Wall 2.0 seeks to explore the empathetic relationship between emotion and dynamic architectural space. Through a Leap Motion enabled gestural interface, emotion can be expressed through hand gestures to morph the physical space in which the user is enclosed.

Fig. 2. Benhaz Farahi, Caress of the Gaze, 2015, 3D Printing, SMA Actuators, Facial Tracking Camera. © Behnaz Farahi/Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom, Elena Kulikova.

Fig. 2. Benhaz Farahi, Caress of the Gaze, 2015, 3D Printing, SMA Actuators, Facial Tracking Camera. © Behnaz Farahi/Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom, Elena Kulikova.

Alessandro Scali is an Italian artist with a degree in Modern & Contemporary Literature from the University of Torino. For 15 years he worked in the fields of advertising, design, and digital art. Scali sees himself as a creative researcher and a Nano artist working on atypical and multi-disciplinary projects at the intersection of art, communication, technology and culture. [5] Since 2006, he has created artworks that are in the scale of micrometers and nanometers. I find his 2007 work titled Actual Size significant (Fig 3). The artwork in the exhibition is nothing but an ordinary inkjet print framed in a black frame. It is tinted in maroon/brown with the map of Africa in the center. Contrary to what one might imagine, the print is not an “enlarged” version of the Nano image. The Nano image itself is visually invisible even under an optical microscope. It can only be understood (not “seen”) as collected data when electrons bounce off of the surface of the image. The invisibility of the artwork challenges the notion of what constitutes visual art; the invisibility of the content of the image, as Scali describes it, “… is an infinitely small Africa, measuring 350 x 260 nanometers. It represents a continent so big on maps but invisible to politics and public opinion.” Shortly after the conception of the piece, Google announced the Google Lunar XPRIZE – a $30 Million prize purse as incentive for space entrepreneurs to create a new era of affordable access to the Moon and beyond. [6] The mission is to land a Nano Museum, the Moon Ark, on the surface of the Moon in 2017. [7] As one of the competitive teams, Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotic Institute is planning to send a rover to the Moon this year that would carry the Moon Ark. The team’s founder is legendary roboticist and founder of Astrobotics, Inc., William L. “Red” Whittaker; Scali is one of the artists invited to contribute Nano artwork to the Moon Ark project. It is Google’s hope that the Lunar XPRIZE will result in cost-effective and reliable access to the Moon’s rare metals and beneficial materials to be transported back to Earth, and to explore ways to expand the human race into outer space. Chairman and CEO of XPRIZE, Peter H. Diamandis, claims that “It is only with a commercial mindset and commercial technologies that we will achieve a long-term vision of space commercialization and industrialization.” [8]

Fig. 3. Alessandro Scali, Actual Size, 2007, Nano Lithography, © Alessandro Scali.

Fig. 3. Alessandro Scali, Actual Size, 2007, Nano Lithography, © Alessandro Scali.

In addition to new and emerging artists relevant in this discussion on the international stage, Technarte LA 2015 also invited renowned artists such as Jennifer Steinkamp, whose work has long been a touchstone for large-scale projection installations employing synchronized panoramic projection and/or VR technology to alter our sense of phenomenological perception, motion and architectural space. During her talk, she showcased her decades worth of work dedicated to experimenting with technology such as computer animation and new media to enable immersive environments that rely upon the exchange between physical space and illusionistic space to blur the roles of the viewing subjects and the art objects. Her 2011 Madame Curie, was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. The site-specific video animation responded to Steinkamp’s recent research into atomic energy, atomic explosions, and the effects of these forces on nature. This research culminated in an ambitious seven-channel, synchronized projection that rendered realistic animations of flora drawn from a list of over 40 plants mentioned in Marie Curie’s biography written by her daughter, Eve Curie. Not surprisingly, Time Square Arts’ Midnight Moment, the public art program of the Times Square Alliance, currently features Steinkemp’s Botanic (Fig 4). “Planted” in the mega commercial center of the world, Botanic’s plasticized flowering condolence plants float inside of rigid cubic frameworks of gigantic screens; blown in the wind is an eerie juxtaposition between nature and man-made architecture.

Fig. 4. Jennifer Steinkamp, Midnight Moment Times Square May 2016. Botanic, 2015-2016, © Jennifer Steinkamp.

Fig. 4. Jennifer Steinkamp, Midnight Moment Times Square May 2016. Botanic, 2015-2016, © Jennifer Steinkamp.

Technarte LA 2015 also brought in notable artists such as Joaquin Fargas (Argentina) (Fig 5) who creates hermetically sealed ecosystems to remark on the fragility of our planet, and Patxi Arajo (Spain), whose work ranged from computing using neural oscillators, to meticulously rendered generative particles. Los Angeles based artists Nova Jiang and Cameron McNall of Electroland also discussed their work in the public realm utilizing participatory open systems and new media sensor-based interactivity.

Fig. 5. Joanquin Fargas, Big Brain, 2013-2015, © Joanquin Fargas.

Fig. 5. Joanquin Fargas, Big Brain, 2013-2015, © Joanquin Fargas.

The arts disciplines exist based on the premise of being able to think outside the box and carry out exceedingly creative human activities. The collaborations mentioned above leverage the arts’ unique ability to ignite creativity under the most unlikely circumstances, to frame problems in order to challenge the status quo, and to inquire about the obscure in order to materialize bold ideas and experimentations. The speaker lineup at Technarte truly exemplifies the infinite possibilities that lie ahead for art-science collaborations.

As we further our endeavor in this extraordinary field, it is equally important to consider the complexity that exists in the funding puzzle that enables these increasingly more ambitious objectives in scale and scope. Undoubtedly, harvesting the interface between art, science and technology, now represents a significant trend in research-based universities and private innovation sectors alike. Their activities attract and thrive based upon satisfying a dynamic range of funding objectives to serve research, teaching, and outreach requirements. In addition to Technarte, the list of such entities would include UCLA’s art|sci Center, the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), Zero1 San Jose, Science Lab, and Ars Electronica to name a few. On a theoretical front, the model of art-science collaboration would embrace bold and daring experimentation and give researchers unparalleled opportunities, tools and resources, as well as the freedom to take risks and make discoveries; however, as seen above, the prevailing funding structure for such efforts is multidimensional and also begs an amplified, age-old question of what it means to capitalize on creativity and how to reconcile the paradox between freedom of artistic expression and corporate bias when “it is the hand that feeds you”. As we plow deeper and deeper in this direction, we await to see how this paradox unfolds in the many years to come.

References

  1. Arizona State University art/science Official Web Site, “Art/Science, Collaborations, Bodies, and Environments,” 2016, accessed March 15, 2016, http://artscience.arizona.edu/research-sites/waterwash.
  2. University of Puget Sound art+science Official Web Site, “Art|Science: Art + Science” 2016, accessed March 15, 2016, http://www.pugetsound.edu/news-and-events/arts-at-puget-sound/artsci/.
  3. University of California Los Angeles art|science Official Web Site, “Art|Science” 2006, accessed March 15, 2016, http://artsci.ucla.edu/TEST/?q=home.
  4. Tate Official Web Site, accessed March 15, 2016, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/manzoni-artists-shit-t07667/text-summary.
  5. Alessandro Scali Offical Web Site, accessed March 15, 2016, http://www.alessandroscali.net/#!cv/c24lf
  6. Google Lunar XPrize Official Web Site, “Google Lunar XPrize,” 2016, accessed March 15, 2016, http://lunar.xprize.org/
  7. The Moon Arts Project, The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, College of Fine Arts, Carnegie Mellon University Official Web Site, 2016, accessed March 15, 2016, http://moonarts.org/.
  8. Google Lunar XPrize Official Web Site, “Google Lunar XPrize,” 2016, accessed March 15, 2016, http://lunar.xprize.org/about/why-the-moon.

Bio

Jiayi Young is a new media artist/designer. Her work concerns with the critique of popular culture, social and environmental practices, cultural assimilation and the place of the self in the effort to locate and perceive ourselves as we attempt to balance technology with questions about the human condition.
www.sifting.org