Ebbs and Flows in Art and Science
The moon is our biggest mover of liquid, pulling at the seas with its gravity to create the rising and falling of the tides. Its 28-day cycle of waxing and waning has continued for billions of years, helping shape the earth and the life that has sprung from it. These cycles of equal length recur throughout biology across species, often linked in some way with the serious matters of eating, mating, and menstruating. The cycle time is something of a stamp, reminding us of our modest, water-bourn origins. Yet we have left the seas and even the planet; we’ve visited the cold grey sphere in the sky that has so shaped us, and returned.
Humans can achieve such feats thanks to math and science, and the lunar visit in 1969 makes historical alliteration with the very beginnings of scientific inquiry. The pioneering Thales of Miletus planted an important seed when he became the first person to accurately predict a solar eclipse in the 6th century BC. Thales, who Aristotle referred to as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition, insisted on describing natural phenomena through observations and geometry as opposed to mythology. The predictable eclipse, which anyone could see in the sky, provided an obvious and dramatic vindication of the power of reason over belief in the supernatural.
Understanding the moon requires science, but the meaning of the moon is incomplete without the poetry, song, and ceremony of the centuries, including belief in the supernatural. Art helps science resonate, and visa versa. They are not opposing, binary forces of truth or artifice. That is, as long as artistic creativity is understood as the signature of a civilization, the imprint of a particular time with its own set of beliefs and standards of beauty. Art, as Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) described it, is an “infinitely complex focus of human experience.” The factors conferring meaning to it are forever fluctuating, in a cacophony of cultural developments that only accelerate with new technologies that connect us and expand platforms of expression. Science, in contrast, has its fluidity in developing new subfields, techniques and instruments, but it is navigated by a constellation of fixed values and practices.
Waypoints for this navigation were established by figures like Thales, Su Song, and Galileo; but the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687 was perhaps the closest thing to an early and complete map of the branching and flow of scientific thinking. It detailed the laws of motion and gravitation and established by example methods of inquiry and confirmation that helped pave the way towards contemporary scientific practice. And yet, even as the map is drawn, coming into better focus and taking on higher resolution, like zooming into a Google Earth interface, scientists find ever more subsidiaries and eddies as well as more ways to see them. Consider the discovery of Plate tectonics, which meteorologist Alfred Wegener described as early as 1912, but was not accepted as knowledge for five decades. The theory eventually revolutionized the Earth sciences with its explanatory and predictive power, used to describe a diverse range of geological phenomena and advance studies in fields such as paleobiology and paleogeography.
To explain such revolutionary change, Thomas Kuhn argued that science undergoes paradigm shifts during which fundamental alterations to basic practices in a discipline are suddenly accepted, and the new “normal science” takes hold. Acceptance of the fluid movement of the continents attached to plates floating on Earth’s magma was such a transformation, enabled by new instrumentation and subsequent analysis that could confirm Wegener’s much earlier ideas. So it also went with General Relativity and Quantum Theory. This processes of change implies fluidity similar in character but different in structure to that which generates new forms of art. Many artists would deny that they work under unifying hypotheses or fundamental laws, but the ebb and flow of change in art, of anomalous works accumulating and eventually redefining the standard, would be familiar to Kuhn.
The Salon de Refuses in 1863 in Paris delivered such a Kuhnian paradigm shift, in which the acceptable techniques, themes, and subjects of painting in France expanded. The intense attention and even ridicule of the art world effectively legitimized a break away from tradition by artists including Courbet and Manet. Abstraction, photography, video art, and performance art followed similar paths of rejection giving way to an expanded definition of art. More recently, the ascendance of artists such as Kara Walker, Banksy, and the activism of the Gorilla Girls mark another shift, the blending of identity politics and institutional critique as accepted, even commodified art practice. It would seem the art world is thus comfortable in being both in on and the butt of the joke simultaneously, perhaps only as long as the audience shows up and the collectors keep buying.
Bioart practices, as difficult as they are to nail down, are somewhere on the frontier between anomalousness and mainstream. They largely stand apart from the contemporary art ecosystem; what emerges from it has resisted collection, wide disbursement, or commercialization. Not entirely, of course, but bioart practices are akin to performance combined with lab research, characterized as they are by immediacy of experience, fluctuating sensorial stimulation, iteration, rot, the occasional pathogen, and even death. This is to say it is more of a practice and process, less a beautiful-thing-making enterprise. At its best, it is much like the moon: belonging to no one and everyone, opaque but full of fluctuating meaning, and free for all to see.
Work in the exhibition Fluid Matter helps to advance some of the shifts described here while defying others, and celebrates the collaboration between Dutch life scientists and artists facilitated by the Bio Art and Design Awards of 2016. This program of funding and exhibition is in its sixth year and is building a community of curious and motivated artists, scientists, and designers. This community is helping to overcome the inherent difficulties of collaborating across fields, of managing the differences in language as well as in working methods and objectives.
Among the winning projects on display is Haem by Cecilia Jonsson, who worked with Rodrigo Leite de Oliveira from the Netherlands Cancer Institute and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital in order to collect iron from donated human placentas. This work concentrates the labor of dozens of births and elevates the organ as a platform of exchange, the earliest meeting point between new and existing life. The small iron object at the center of the work gives the entire presentation intense gravity, lending it an aura akin to a religious relic. The work offers tensions in layers of opposing feelings: the fear of being lost and the comfort of knowing your way, as well as the pain of labor and the pleasure of giving life.
Tame is to Tame, artist Pei-Ying Lin partnered with Miranda de Graaf from the Department of Viroscience at Erasmus University. For this work the human-virus relationship is reframed, from a kill-at-any-cost model of aggression towards a more collaborative and nuanced exchange. This is conceived as a new and original kind of dance, following the musical cues of evolution. A manifesto sets a starting point: “The forgotten parts of virus-human interdependence are nonetheless as crucial as the warfare. Viruses evolve, and we evolve with them.”Indeed, there is evidence that retroviruses have not only left their genetic fingerprints long ago with our ancestors, but that they helped propel, albeit indirectly and unintentionally, our evolutionary development into modern humans.
Designers Lilian van Daal and Roos Meerman partnered with Renée van Amerongen at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences at the University of Amsterdam to create Dynamorphosis. This project merges the invisible biological process of the body with 3D printing, with attention to biology’s ability to self-assemble, transfer substances, and maintain equilibrium. Their exploration tests the potential of such systems as formal and functional inspirations, focusing mainly on the intestines, breasts, and lungs. These are systems that create, process, and require fluids in their functioning, working constantly but rarely considered.
These three projects are joined by several other artists, some of whom have participated in the BAD Awards in previous years. This group includes Ana María Gómez López who experiments with cross-species cooperation in a surprisingly personal and literal way with her work Inoculate that involved growing a small sprout in her tear duct. Memory Stone and Spit Crystal, works of Inés Cámara Leret, reflect on geological time, fossilization, and privacy. Also exhibited is Plastic Reflectic by Thijs Biersteker, an interactive, kinetic installation that is like a dark oracle, materializing the idea that we are slowly becoming plastic as our oceans become rife with refuse. The work reflects the visitors movements back to her, implying a sense of both responsibility, in creating pollution, and the power to do something about it.
Landscape Within from studio Burton Nitta is a speculation on how human digestion will need to be augmented and complemented in a near future as heavy metals and other pollutants further penetrate the food chain. The project Spark of Life by Teresa van Dongen presents a lamp that channels the electric current from the metabolism of microorganism to produce light, a blending of domestic appliance with pet. For Genesis by Xandra van der Eijk, we witness ongoing research into the behavior of bacteria that can slowly change environments at the scale of vast landscapes, as seen in eerily beautiful aerial photos of polluted mines and lakes. Finally, BS&T by Tarah Rhoda concentrates the liquids that define human exertion, anguish, and sadness into pellets adrift in glass, a whirling, watery poem of materialized emotion.
The works in Fluid Matter cover a wide range of practices and intentions, yet all are motivated by sincere admiration of scientific practice and inflected with an amateur’s love of the new and unknown. The combination of aesthetic experiences they present underscores the idea that fluidity is a defining characteristic of the biosphere, the sciences, and the arts all. They pull and push one another gently, drastically and in often-unexpected ways, like bodies in orbit always nearing equilibrium but never reaching it.