Bellagio Briefs

Some of the participants in the Bellagio Conference I organized with Benoit Mandelbrot in 2001 sent briefs in preparation for the conference.  Some of them are from scientists and others from artists.  They represent a collection of interesting points of view on the interface between art and science, a still on-going debate.

I am publishing them here because they add interesting dimensions to the debate.  In time I hope to have more material from the Bellagio Conference, held at the Rockefeller Conference Center there, on line and available.

Statements for the Bellagio Conference on Art & Science – Rockefeller Conference, Bellagion Italy, December, 2001 :

Benoit Mandelbrot, mathematician, Sterling Professor of Mathematical Sciences, Yale University

Art is far older than science, has greatly influenced it and has been greatly influenced by it, especially during some key periods.  Altogether, the scientists’ interest in art is perennial.  Moreover, diverse promising tools have refreshed it lately.  Some are new metaphors from mathematics or physics.  Others are instruments that yield images and patterns that used to be invisible as being too small or hidden in the skull.  How do these new tools affect the artist and art?  How do they help improve past discussions of art versus science?  What do they promise for the future?

Tor Nørretranders, science writer

My point is that often science and art explore the same aspects of reality, however using distinctly different methods and approaches.  Both of them learn a lot about the object, but often also ignore the lessons learned by the other.  However, humans inhabit a universe in which both scientific and artistic aspects of reality are pertinent, so we cannot afford to skip either tradition.  Therefore, we need them to collaborate more.  However, such collaborations will always be specific, object-oriented and pragmatic.  Thus very difficult to distinguish from traditional art or traditional science: Only better and richer.

Richard Brown, artist

The interface between science and art:
For me this question is rather like asking what is the interface between the left and right hemispheres of the brain – answer the corpus callosum. The interface is a conduit for communication of two very different and complementary functions.

Parallel ways of knowing (J. E. Bogen)

  • intellect     intuition
  • convergent     divergent
  • digital     analogical
  • secondary     concrete
  • directed     free
  • propositional     imaginative
  • analytic     relational
  • lineal     nonlinear
  • rational     intuitive
  • sequential     multiple
  • analytic     holistic
  • objective     subjective
  • successive     simultaneous

L-mode is the « right-handed, », left-hemisphere mode. The L is foursquare, upright, sensible, direct, true, hard-edged, unfanciful, forceful. R-mode is the « left-handed, » « right-hemisphere mode. The R is curvy, flexible, more playful in its unexpected twists and turns, more complex, diagonal, fanciful.

(from )

Scientists tends to be left brain and artists right brain orientated, with some people more brain-bound than others – giving rise to classical stereotype oppositions – dominant, rigorous, rational, inflexible scientist capable of persuasive analysis and argument and airy, woolly, emotive all-over-the-place artist incapable of communicating in written or spoken language!

So if there is an interface it is about alternating modalities of thought, using both sides of the brain – such as scientists who use right brain « holistic visualisation » to complement the serialistic, reductionist, analytical approach of the left brain. Likewise there are artists who are able to use left brain (scientific) methodologies in their artworks, be it computer programming, technical skills, rigorous scientific method in creating art media (glazes etc).
This also explains (to me) the differences and problems with communication between artists and scientists (especially the traditional opposites). People ought to be able to use both modalities equally whereas thanks to the split sci-art education system people are trained and encouraged to become brain bound oi you left brainers, analyse and reduce – and you right brainers get playing with the plasticine……And then there is peer pressure, scientists hang out with their fellow kind and likewise with artists, encouraging a division of language, expression and brain modality.

Michael Berry, physicist, Bristol University

At the start of the meeting, I listed four areas where art and science meet, in the hope that this would guide the discussion. It didn’t. Nevertheless, I think it would be helpful in any future meeting to focus on the topics listed below, separately and together.

I am aware that all the connections refer to influences of science on art, and not the reverse. The fact is that I know of no substantial influence of art on science (though there are might be numerous isolated examples). Please do not misinterpret this observation as a value judgement.

Theme 1.  Artists’ techniques from art and science
Art was dramatically influenced by the discovery of the mathematics of perspective  and by the  camera obscura; this has been well documented. In his recent ‘Secret knowledge’, David Hockney argues that large concave mirrors were routinely employed by renaissance artists, to a much greater extent than has been appreciated. And every development in colour chemistry was immediately exploited by artists; Philip Ball has explored these connections in a recent book. Illumination technology is exploited by James Turrell when he paints with light.

Theme 2. New arts arising from science
Familiar examples are photography, cinema, video, and electric, electronic and digital music.

Theme 3. Technology making art accessible
Printing made literature available to a wide public. Talbot’s invention of the photographic negative (as opposed to Daguerre’s photographs, where each exposure produced only one picture) made images similarly available. Now, Photoshop and similar image manipulation software, together with scanners and digital cameras, have dramatically accelerated this process. With a compact disk player, perfectly reproduced music can be heard in the world’s remotest places; this is possible because of the quantum technologies of the silicon chip and the laser: quantum mechanics has democratized music.

Theme 4. Art inspired by science
Felice Frankel’s images are modifications of direct representations of physical phenomena, produced by scientists or by herself. More metaphorical applications are made by those artists (Duchamps, Dali) who claim to be influenced by the ideas of, for example, relativity or molecular biology. In literature, scientific themes abound: in the novels of Martin Amis and Ian McEwen, the poems of John Updike, and the plays of Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn.

Linda Dalrymple Henderson, art historian, University of Texas at Austin

Some Initial Thoughts on the Interface Between Art and Science
As an historian, I prefer to think about specific historical moments of interaction between art and science, because “art” and “science” have meant quite different things at different historical moments.  In mid-19th-century France, for example, science operated according to a strict positivism that denied the relevance of anything inaccessible to the senses.  With the growing reaction against positivism by the 1880s and, subsequently, discoveries such as the X-ray and radioactivity beginning in 1895, the artist’s view of what constituted science changed radically.  Late 19th-century artists like Gauguin and early 20th-century artists, such as Picasso, Boccioni, and Duchamp, found a new “science” which was now pursuing invisible realities beyond the senses and which was very interesting to them.  In 1900 neither “art” nor “science” signified what it had in 1850.

With this caution in mind, there are certainly general issues that can be raised about the interface between art and science.  While not “the same” and not “completely different,” the two fields do share a number of characteristics.  Both ask questions and help us gain knowledge about the world around us.  Both involve creative invention on the part of the artist or scientist.  In recent years scholarship in the history/philosophy of science and other fields has led to a growing recognition of the highly creative role the scientist plays in “representing” or constructing nature, as opposed to traditional views of the scientist as the purely objective “unveiler” of nature’s truths.  Recognizing the important role of representation in the scientist’s work also gives us a new way to think across the art/science divide.

In our introduction to our forthcoming anthology From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art, and Literature (Stanford, 2002), Bruce Clarke and I have argued for a broader usage of the term representation in discussions of art (versus the traditional use of the term “representational” as the opposite of totally abstract).  In our view, the fact that “the sciences readily recognize visualization and imaging technologies as central to scientific representation serves us well in rethinking artistic representation as a process of making visible or inventing new combinations of forms or symbols to express a new concept.”  Recognizing every mark made by the scientist in the laboratory or the artist in the studio as a representation offers a new way of comparing the work of each.

Yet there is a significant difference in the way the fields of art and science operate over time.  While artists certainly do exist in a lineage of earlier art, which may well direct them to the questions they find interesting and wish to develop, an artist’s choice of problems seems less constrained than that of the scientist.  When a young scientist enters a particular field, the “big questions” needing research will most often have been defined in advance.  In addition, scientific work is testable and can be falsified or proven wrong in a way that can never happen to a work of art.  A painting may be a failure aesthetically, but it can never be “tested” in an experiment and proven “untrue.”

The interface between art and science is such an important field of study for the very reason that the two fields are alike and different at the same time.  Artists regularly respond to contemporary science, because it offers them the most up-to-date understanding of the nature of their world.  Science can be a great stimulus to the imagination of the artist, whether that artist understands a complex theory completely or not.  (In thinking about the interface between art and science, I am particular interested in the “interface” provided by popular scientific literature, which is, itself, a fascinating object of study.)  We know considerably less about the history of scientists responding to ideas from the realm of art, and yet that clearly has happened frequently as well.  A focus on the issues of visualization and representation should help us in the exploration of this worthwhile field of study in the future.  Obviously, each group has much to gain from the other and has a history of having done so.

Felice Frankel, science photographer, MIT

It’s difficult for me to define an interface between art and science because I am not sure there IS an intersection.  I think what we experienced in Bellagio was a fascinating beginning but I think we need to establish a common vocabulary before continuing to investigate whatever intersections exist.

For example, the word « evaluation » popped up a great deal and I think this is one place where the conversation  could begin to take form.  What artist’s consider « evaluation » is quite different from that of the scientist.

Which brings me to probably one of the more important challenges in the discussion, the question of the definition of « art. »  In order to encourage a conversation about the intersection between art and science, each of those needs to be defined first.  I was impressed by the fact that much of the discussion about art addressed the work of the older masters.  I would be curious to hear how the scientists present at the conference responded to the newer definitions of « art. »

Steina Vasulka, artist

Artist and scientist start from the same premise, an obsessive thought they convince themselves that once implemented, the world is changed forever. Though this initial process goes from rapture to torture and back, it provides the individual with an internal dialog, a luxury rare in other walks of life. This is a kinship most artists and scientist recognize in each other.

There are differences though:

The prominent recognized artist announces a new project: It is going to match in grandeur the greatest masterpieces of the past, a challenge to both Picasso and Mahler.

His institute immediately allocates a salary, a couple of assistants, a secretary, a roomy warm studio and all necessary supplies. And now when the project is finished, it is being hailed in mainstream media as a breakthrough art. There is a thorough coverage on all the cable art channels and PBS’s weekly art program is dedicating a whole hour to the artist as well.

The scientist is also celebrated by the society. He hustles for his tools, lucky if he can find an unheated shop with a few light bulbs hanging on strings from the ceiling. His admirers and colleagues, usually equally destitute assure him of the validity of his project, a project that will challenge the basic concept of all theoretical work done in his field in the last quarter century. So off he goes happily waiting on tables, driving a cab or being a doorman, working all evenings long into the night and of course through weekends.

This scientist might dream of awards on the scale of the Nobel price, awarded great artists, but though he gets an occasional honorary doctorate and various other important recognition, there never seems to be any money involved. Even upon the completion of his thesis, after the world eagerly embraces the work, he somehow neglects to share in the profit.

Given all of this, it seems odd how the scientist plunges right ahead into the next project. With the same sense of elation, he again engages in that internal dialog, surely this time he is going to change the world, create beauty, an elegant though infinitely complex theory.

I sat spellbound listening to these fabulous people.  How we should meet and listen (and talk) more often.  How futile it is to think there is a « next » stage, where we all collaborate like crazy.  Where I have seen collaborations is where the scientist is very art oriented and the artist well versed in science, and then I only know of a handful.  This was a luxurious format, but there might be a validation to open these kind of conferences to a public, so enlightened people at large can see the similarities and differences, take their minds into these two most radical realms of human thinking and forget Wall Street for a moment…..

Marlene Dumas, artist

The differences between art and science (and the similarities)

Science is the discovery of natural laws, even if one knows it’s not absolute and also deals with belief systems as in art.  It shows changes as time changes; but there is a belief in progress.  One scientist can prove another wrong.

Art is the invention of artificial perspectives.  There is no progress, only diversity.  One artist does not prove another one wrong, although he can prove him less.  Art is not a higher activity than science.  It just has as different emphasis.

Both deal with beauty but not everything that is beautiful is art.  Nature is indifferent to our value judgments.  Art only exists because of our ability to make aesthetic value judgments.

Both disciplines deal with creativity.  Creativity involves the ability, among other things, to make the unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated things or situations.  All problem solving involves creativity.  But that does not mean that every creative person is either an artist and/or a scientist.

Art often deals with the deliberate removal of a context while scientists work inside a context.  The one tries to make a law while the other tries to deny the laws. (Both are impossible in the end.)

A pretty pattern or picture made by either a scientist or an artist (whether it be by hand or high technological means) isn’t enough to be called art if it doesn’t challenge the existing cultural politics of the image.

Why this conference is so important is that Foresta has the insight to acknowledge and create the right site for our future cultural affairs.  As nature (and the real) becomes more artificial and artists become more interested in process rather than objects, the alliance of art and science is of utmost importance if we want to survive, and also, survive gracefully.

Barbro B. Johansson, neurologist, Wallenberg Neuroscience Center

Some thoughts about art and science interphase.

There are creative as well as less creative individuals both in science and art.  Much medical science today is not very creative and clinical science is often of a character than in industry would be called product evaluation.  In basic neurosciences many old questions can now be answered because of the technical development rather than because of new ideas.  Already Einstein said: ”our age is characterized by perfecting the means while confusing the goals”.

When it comes to creativity, I do not think that there is any basic difference between creative scientists and creative artists.  As I mentioned in Bellagio, I think Santiago Ramón-y Cajal, who represented both sides, expressed it excellently in « it is good to know the names of all the flowers in the world but it is even better to create a new flower” (my translation).

Scientific ideas that have led to breakthrough within a particular field are often not logically derived from pre-existing knowledge.  Creative individuals can generate remote associations and combine ideas that were not previously associated with each other.  However, artists may be more free to chose a personal perspective in their work.  A scientist has a question, gets an idea, forms a hypothesis and then has to test the hypothesis and evaluate if the data obtained are consistent with the hypothesis.

I imagine that artists have a wider choice of how to express and present their ideas and questions and the spectator has to interpret and evaluate their work.  That is why I find art so interesting – we can evaluated it and appreciate it from our own perspectives which results in a personal experience which is different between individuals because all our brains are different.

Marlene Dumas and I had an interesting discussion about how people in different countries evaluated the same art in various ways and how it can be an inspiration to an artist to get a feedback from other cultures than their own.  Of course scientists get many ideas by discussing with each other but it is more restricted and you need to have a certain background common knowledge.  Common to creative scientists and artists is – as I see it – that they are goal oriented, want to express something and search for an answer (in contrast to the less creative artists who can be satisfied with being decorators).

William Furlong, Director of Research, Wimbledon School of Art

The interface between art and science resides in the concepts, processes and outcomes that are central to open ended exploration and innovation.  Undoubtedly the key issue is that of ‘new knowledge’, which more often than not occurs where there is no prescription, strategy or procedural set of rules.  The pattern leading to new knowledge is more that of intuition, informed hunches and combinations of existing elements outside of conventional paradigms or established models.  At their leading edges, art and science do not conform to existing expectations or preoccupations, but rather challenge them by proposing new configurations, insights and realities.

This characterisation therefore creates difficulties when it comes to teaching these subjects.  The actual ‘end point’, which is represented by the ‘new knowledge’, can not be taught because at the time it can not be predicted as a logical extension of what has come before.  In fact contemporary critical commentary will often dismiss examples of emerging new knowledge precisely because it does not conform to what has come before.  Acceptance will also undermine existing models and be read as ‘relegating’ those involved in their realisation.

Because art and science are inextricably bound up in belief systems involving knowledge, insights and understandings it is not surprising that the status quo is often challenged when new knowledge occurs.  Defining the precise way in which the new knowledge occurs is therefore illusive.  The possible answer resides in the artists and scientists mind where a complex amalgam and interaction between; existing knowledge, (and combinations of); a re-thinking and interrogation of that existing knowledge; an intention to search for and explore new territories without constraint or boundaries; to discover new solutions and a recognition when new knowledge occurs.  This process is often speculative and tentative and can lead to ‘failure’.  Art and science proceeds as much through what could be regarded as failure, or by what is rejected, as through success and the willingness to recognise and embrace it.

Peter Weibel, Director, ZKM

Interfacing Art & Science

Thesis I: The Methodology of Art & Science
Art and Science are linked on a level of methodology.  Contrary to C. P. Snows famous dictum of the « two cultures »  our thesis is: Art and science are parallel universes which communicate with each other, which converge, which are permeable.  Not only science, but also art has to be accepted to be a method, though normally the opposite is believed.  Science is characterized by its methodological approach, art is believed to be unmethodological.  Art is the country of absolute freedom, contingency, individual eccentricity etc..  This is the basic claim of our thesis: art and science can only be reasonably compared, if we accept that both have a methodological approach, even if their methods are different.

Especially since the Renaissance visual arts had to come up with a methodological foundation to be taken seriously.  In the beginning, geometers have been painters and the methods of architecture, visual arts and geometry, based on perspective, looked very much similar and therefore similarly scientific.  But in the course of the evolution, the methods of science and arts have diversified as well as in the arts and in the sciences and between the arts and the sciences.  Science and art became in the age of the Industrial Revolution completely different domains and (after Hegel) different steps in the evolution of mankind.  So it seemed even unreasonable to speak of art as a method, not to say a scientific method.

Artists are attracted to the methods of science, because they feel the structural similarity to the methods of art.  On the basis of the different methodologies and their parallels and differences art and science should be compared.  When we speak of convergence between art and science, we mean the methodological convergence.  On this level not only art may be influenced by science, but also science may be influenced on the level of methods by art.  Art lives from a tolerance of methods, of a diversity.  In his book from 1984 « Science as Art » Paul Feyerabend discovered the analogy between the plurality of styles, described by the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl, and the plurality of methods he wanted in science.  Riegls aesthetic relativism corresponds with the cultural relativism of today, with Feryerabends wish for plurality and diversity of methods in sciences.  Tolerance of methods is the link between art and science.

Thesis II: Art & Science as social construction
Art and Science meet and converge also in their social construction.  Both, the artist and the scientist are actors in networks of interaction, the systems of art and science.   These two sub-systems do not only observe the world and the society, but also, as observers of second order, observe their methods of observation and make these observations the subject of new observations.  Yet artists and scientists are not simply confronted with the rules, the selection, the censorship etc. of institutions and the market which they observe: the institutions and the market are integral elements of these actant-networks.  The self-analysis and observation of the network is a precondition of the scientific and artificial production process.

« Translating » is what actant-networks, art and science, do : they translate observations, skills, instruments etc. into statements in line with a particular argument.  Culture as place of production and archive of knowledge and meaning bases on this translation.  Art and Science are social defined tools of these processes of translation: « Nothing is, by itself, either knowable or unknowable, sayable or unsayable, near or far.  Everything is translated. »  The artwork and the scientific result is produced within a network of the most different social network and depends in the end on a social consensus, which is formed and shaped by the developments in the arts and sciences.

Margaret A. Boden, University of Sussex
The Creative Interface Between Art & Science

The distinction between creativity in art and in science doesn’t lie in the generation of novel ideas.  Each of these domains employs the same three forms of creativity in coming up with new concepts (I call them combinational, exploratory, and transformational creativity: Boden 1990, 1994).  Rather, the distinction lies in the.ul evaluation of the novel ideas, once they’ve been generated.

Science insists on empirical testability and confirmation, because it is in general a realist enterprise. It seeks to identify and describe the structure of possibility inherent in the real world, assumed to exist independently of human beings.  It also seeks to state the nature of the possibilities that are actually realized.

Art isn’t realist in this sense.  Even the most ‘faithful’ and detailed still-life painting isn’t describing reality so much as reminding us of it, or drawing our attention to it in ways that otherwise might not have occurred.  The same is true of ‘realist’ literature and drama – with an added emphais (usually) on particular social/personal values held by the protagonists. Moreover, much art isn’t representational in this sense at all.  Even cubist painting isn’t, despite its grounding in (multiple) ‘real’ points of view.  And abstract art is yet more distant from realism.

However, both art and science can draw on the other for sources of ideas and inspiration.  So, for example, an artist can give human meaning and aesthetic sensibility to a ‘dry’ scientific finding or theory.  And a scientist can be prompted by art to look more closely at, and to understand more clearly, some real phenomenon in human minds or the natural world in general.  The degree of closeness, or ‘match’, in either case can vary.  In the most satisfying ‘sci-art’ interfaces, the parallels are relatively coherent, or systematic.

Finally, sci-art isn’t the same as tech-art, just because science isn’t the same as technology.  Being excited by the technical possibilities of a new tool, and exploiting and exploring these possibilities for artistic purposes, isn’t at all the same as being excited by a scientific theory and trying to express, or parallel, this in aesthetically acceptable terms.  Too often, these two projects are confused with each other.

Don Foresta, art researcher

Art and science are two very different things but today to talk about art and science as some sort of tandem is as misunderstood as it is fashionable. Artists don’t do science and scientists rarely make art.  The goal of each is very different even though there are philosophical parallels between them particularly in the kinds of questions they ask.  In the last 100 years of evolution in Western culture, both have had enormous impact on how we have redefined reality.  Changes that have taken place in both have profoundly transformed our society’s operational schema with both contributing to an emerging pattern of how we see and understand.

My approach to the discussion is through art with a strong influence from science, but in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp who, when describing the century’s early artistic debates recounted that « at the time, we argued intensely about the 4th dimension and non-Euclidean geometry.  Most people thought about these questions in a passionate but non-professional way.  And in spite of our misunderstandings, these new ideas helped us break away from conventional ways of thinking. »  Throughout the century, the ideas put forth by art and science have been extremely unconventional and the two have interacted in ways not always obvious, providing new metaphors, new patterns for defining the future shape of our culture.

The space where the two touch is where their models of representation overlap.

I am convinced that the new metaphor of our civilisation emerging from the work of artists and scientists throughout the 20th, and now beyond, is the interactive network and its fractal geometry, the coming geometry of our imagination.

Frantisek Kupka: “The forms of nature seen objectively.  That is not the concern of the plastic arts.”