Essays
Published in A fine line, Cornerhouse Manchester, ISBN 0948797681

Viewed from the side

Peter Ride

In the play Insignificance by Terry Johnson, Marilyn Monroe enacts the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein. Marilyn is overcome with excitement at discovering that Einstein is in New York at the same time as she is there filming the Seven Year Itch. She steals away after shooting the famous skirt-billowing-up scene to confront him in his hotel room. There, with a bemused Einstein (who has no idea who she is) perched on his bed, she acts out her demonstration of relativity with the assistance of various props like flashlights, toy trains and a paperback novel. Enthused, Einstein congratulates her on her understanding. But no, she tells him that she doesn’t understand it, she just learned how to explain it: she is an actress. Einstein frowns and tells her, to her disappointment, that there is no point in learning if you don’t understand.

As the play goes on it becomes clear that there are fleeting connections and missed opportunities and that it is not possible to understand all things all the time. Knowledge can be fleeting and understanding is not an absolute thing, it is relative and affected by the circumstances surrounding it. For the audience watching the play, some of the same sensation is there also. Some people would be completely familiar with Einstein’s theories and so the scene is just an amusing demonstration for dramatic purposes. But for others, Marilyn’s enactment made information that was previously incomprehensible suddenly tangible. The actress rushing across the room pretending to be a train speeding through the night to Pittsburgh and flashing a torch at an oncoming toy train, put flesh on an intellectual construct. However, once the curtain had come down, the audience might be left to ponder, like Marilyn, how much they actually knew: that certainly they had experienced something, but how complete was their knowledge? Yet they might also ask themselves, even if their knowledge was incomplete, was not the richness of what they had experienced itself valuable?

Marilyn’s position is not dissimilar to the position of artists and audiences in art projects which centre on scientific concerns. Just as in the play, there is in arts projects a delicate balance between the gaining of knowledge and communicating through experience. Sometimes the balance tips solidly to one side, sometimes to the other.

Often there is an apparent sub-text to arts and science projects. Many arts projects operate within, or raise, a series of questions: some are very specific and others might be described as questions that are part of the context in which the work is located. They deal with a range of things from very exact scientific concerns to very generalised issues. But one of the generalised questions often deals with the nature of knowledge: not only asking what we may specifically understand about a particular issue but considering how the process of understanding actually works.

Art projects rarely make it their primary concern to explain complex information. Instead they operate within a subject field, or context, which may lean hugely upon scientific concerns (or concerns from another discipline) and they often create an environment in which the audience is challenged, compelled or intrigued into questioning what they are experiencing. Part of the attraction of an arts and science project for an arts audience is that an artist can both bring important ideas within reach and give them a particular twist and resonance within ongoing cultural concerns. The delicate position of the artist, however, is in determining how to negotiate the balance of the two sides: so that the audience can be assured of having enough knowledge to comprehend the purpose and the questions behind the work without finding the work to be ‘illustrative’ or ‘educational’.

Grace Weir’s work is very interesting in this respect. As a member of the audience, one does not need to know about Relativity to be moved by Around Now, where the viewer is placed in between two aerial points of view, on one side circumnavigating a cloud and on the other looking outwards from the same moving position. Nor does one need specific information to be tantalised by Déjà vu , where two people are momentarily part of the same event but have different perceptions of it, even different time-scales. The characters’ lack of connection is poignant, and the work speaks to an audience through a cinematic language that references brief encounters and missed opportunities as much it references theories of time and space. However, in the gallery, Weir employs a deliberate strategy to underpin her work through the documentation of conversations she has with her collaborator, astrophysicist Ian Elliott. The conversations give the audience a way to access the scientific base of the work, yet are neither pedagogic nor heavy-handed. In effect, this is a demonstration of an artistic and curatorial strategy that enables the audience to approach the artwork laterally and understand it from an intellectual position, and which gives an extra dimension to the metaphors that she has drawn on in the installation itself.

Weirs’ work also demonstrates how an artwork can use visual metaphors to convey information. Not only does the cloud, and similarly the moving car and the stone skipping over water in Déjà vu, offer representations that the audience can relate to, but they tie very specifically into the scientific principles being explored. As such, they align the audience’s lived experience of the world with scientific knowledge and theories. Many artists use metaphors in their work but a project like Weir’s, where there is a background of specific knowledge to the work, requires metaphor to be both the doorway through which the audience might acquire that knowledge as well as the way to experience the artwork in itself.

Other artists working with science often illustrate similar strategies, and their individualistic approaches are often intriguing as they bring together complicated layers of metaphor that make subtle suggestions rather than offer obvious connections. In his installation Tide (2001), Luke Jerram, set out to make work which explored the gravitational pull of the moon on the earth, addressing cultural as well as astro-physical concerns. The resulting artwork was an audio installation that drew on measurements of the lunar gravitational pull to provide a signal that controlled an audio installation. In a darkened room the audience encountered three beautifully modelled tripods, each holding aloft a spinning glass bowl, partially filled with water. In each, the water level very gradually rose and fell over the period of twenty-four hours, and as it did a sound emanated, caused by vibrations from the glass bowl, like a wine glass singing. Standing in the middle to the installation, the audience were given the sense that they were hearing gravity; that they were aroused to something they constantly experienced physically but didn’t often contemplate.

As Tide, the title of the piece, suggests the water within the glass bowls was not only a means to generate the audio aspect of the work but associated the installation with the rise and fall of the oceans, of tidal flow caused by the moon. However, while the work could be experienced as a sculptural or generative-audio work without any background or scientific information, it is arguable that it would have been a diminished experience for the audience. The work was not a conceptual piece but a work that had a particular relationship to science. The artist’s strategy in this case was to deconstruct the physical processes that enabled the sculptures to work. Therefore he included, as part of the installation, the measuring device that extracted data on the gravitational pull of the moon and the switching mechanism that controlled the mechanics of the sculptures. This was supplemented by a screen display illustrating high and low tides and the relative position at that time on the tidal chart. Through these means, the audience not only were able to cite the work, and what they were experiencing, connecting it with information about lunar gravity, but they were also able to see the work as a theatrical piece that operated live through a sequence of processes.

In work such as Luke Jerram’s, processes can be demonstrated as a physical sequence of stages or components, and often in artworks processes may be made transparent to reveal the means through which the artist has made the work. However, as Grace Weir alludes to it, process in a work about science is often about a deepening intellectual engagement; sometimes it is a solo journey of discovery, but sometimes it is collaborative. As Weir’s pieces suggest, her conversations with Ian Elliott about theoretical physics are part of the process of her engagement with Einstein’s theories and her exploration of the way we can understand time and space.

One of the compelling aspects of art and science projects is the way that both artists and scientists are increasingly interested in pushing the role of collaboration. As such, they are making work that draws on cutting edge and sometimes highly controversial theories or discoveries. In such cases it is necessary for the art-work to not only reveal something of the scientific concerns but also to demonstrate the collaborative process. More than documenting a series of intellectual exchanges, the work needs to show how the exchange of knowledge is being built upon by each partner and how each partner has taken that back to their studio or laboratory where it has influenced their theorising or art practice. Often innovative collaborations appear organic and made up of complex threads of exchange and reflection. Research by the Creativity and Cognition Research Studios at Loughborough University has demonstrated how such collaborations take shape by placing ethnographic observers alongside artists and scientists, and through their records, notebooks or documents of the collaborations the multi-layered processes are revealed.

Artist Jane Prophet has been working since 2002 on a long-term collaborative project, Cell, with liver pathologist Neil Theise, mathematician Mark d’Inverno and artificial life programmer Rob Saunders. She speaks of a primary need to ‘get the science right’ as a way of ensuring that there is viable underpinning to an interdisciplinary collaboration that brings together many different strands of knowledge and practice. The collaboration explores new approaches to understanding stem cell activity and suggests that there may be new ways to understand the complexity of human biology. The team are working to develop a computer-based model of the scientific principles being explored, so that this can become the core of the project from which many outcomes, artistic and scientific can be developed. The model, which defines the scientific principles through mathematics provides a conceptual structure as well as a practical one, and from it many metaphors can emerge which are appropriate for the different contexts and outcomes.

The use of a model, like a metaphor, can also provide an access point for the audience. It can enable an artist to isolate particulars from scientific information and represent them in different forms. In the same way that Luke Jerram used data from the lunar gravitational pull and re-represented it as audio, an artist can find an appropriate metaphor that condenses and enriches an aspect of the information they are working with. Digital processing, of course, has made this viable and created a new aesthetic. Artists like Jac Ox, working at the Creativity and Cognition Research Studios, have taken complex scientific data and rendered it into highly visual landscapes: terrrains that are ‘flown over’ on the computer but give a highly charged emotional impact. In some cases the data can be directly accessed or extracted, but in others it is less transparent, the aim being not to give the audience a direct connection to the science but to allow them to understand the relationship between the art work and the scientific information.

Through these lateral approaches audiences can gain complex understanding of very complicated fields of knowledge, but not necessarily in obvious ways. They may not be able to expound on a scientific basis, but knowledge, and the value of knowledge, is more complicated than that. Grace Weir, talking about her work has said that sometimes an artist can understand the underlying concepts but it may be only for a brief period of time. Knowledge sometimes seems to fluctuate, not just because of our ability to retain it, but because we reflect on it differently in different contexts. However, this is not a limitation, this is one of the reasons why art works can be powerful and moving. They challenge the presumption that there is absolute knowledge that is immutable, they defy closure and create ambiguities. Like Marilyn Monroe in Insignificance acting out the theory of relativity, the performance does not guarantee knowledge, but it makes us think about how we understand our individual and collective world.

References:
Terry Johnson, Insignificance published in Johnson Plays 1, Methuen, 1993
Luke Jerram, Tide, first exhibited At Bristol 2001, documented @ www.da2.org.uk

Research by the Creativity and Cognition Research Studios at Loughborough University is documented in Ernest Edmonds and Linda Candy Explorations in Art and Technology, Springer 2002.

Jane Prophet, Cell, speaking at Approaching Aurora symposium, July 2003, documented at www.carte.org.uk

Grace Weir in conversation about her work with Francis McKee, September 2003.