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A Sublime Feeling In My GUT: Eric William Carroll’s Theory of Everything

“You must cast off these absurd confusions and rebuild your conception of reality before the Geocubic concepts will get past the automatic rejection that occurs as your mind filters information against criterion of consistency intended to protect you from confusions but resulting in locking you into misconceptions.” – from Geocubic Theory, by Tom Gilmore (1988) […]

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302 (NASA)

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302 (NASA)

“You must cast off these absurd confusions and rebuild your conception of reality before the Geocubic concepts will get past the automatic rejection that occurs as your mind filters information against criterion of consistency intended to protect you from confusions but resulting in locking you into misconceptions.” – from Geocubic Theory, by Tom Gilmore (1988) as excerpted by Eric William Carroll in Figure 2.2 The Span of Time

I’m entranced by the images from the Hubble Space Telescope. When I first encountered the photographs several years ago, I didn’t know all that much about how they were made or even exactly what I was looking at – they showed something far away and much bigger than I could really conceive. I’ve read descriptions of the space gases and nebulas captured in the images, but I don’t really understand the science in a meaningful way.

Yet, I haven’t been able to stop looking at these photographs.

My appreciation of the images is visceral, aesthetic. Elizabeth Kessler calls it the “astronomical sublime;” she connects it to ideas of the American West depicted in photographs and paintings from the nineteenth-century by people like Albert Beirstadt, William Henry Jackson, Thomas Moran, and Timothy O’Sullivan. This framework, this art-historical vocabulary, is the one I can use to process my experience of the Hubble’s photos.

Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16)- Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region (NASA)

Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16)- Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region (NASA). The stair stepping in this image is a product of its assembly from multiple sensors and views.

The sublime involves a sensation of wonder and awe so great it couples itself with fear and trembling. The nuances of this sensation have been worked out in many ways by many people, but most useful here is the explanation put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the sublime involves not only a coupling of awe and terror but also of reason – that is, the sublime resides not in the object itself but in the mind’s apprehension of it. He writes:

Thus the broad ocean agitated by storms cannot be called sublime. Its aspect is horrible, and one must have stored one’s mind in advance with a rich stock of ideas, if such an intuition is to raise it to the pitch of a feeling in which is itself sublime – sublime because the mind has been incited to abandon sensibility, and employ itself upon ideas involving higher finality.

In the end, he argues, it is reason that allows one to cope with this overwhelming experience of the boundlessness of existence. But I fear I am too much a product of the 20th century to plumb the profundity that is necessary to experience the Romantic Sublime firsthand. Luckily, there is another route to navigate my fascination with the Pillars of Creation and the Butterfly Nebula. Classic texts on the sublime often depict humanity in the face of such wonder in heroic fashion – say, Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1817). I, for one, will gladly take NASA’s Flyaround of the Hubble Space Telescope (1997) as our contemporary perceiver of the sublime .

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817

The Hubble images live in that liminal space between art and science, sensation and reason. Astronomers use various scanner arrays and sensors to assemble their research in ways that might be understood with the eyes. Hard scientific data is coded to color schemes and rendered accessible to sensory experience. We can use this crutch, this visualization of concrete data, to traverse the transcendent and grapple with complex concepts and abstractions that would feel insurmountable on their own.

Flyaround of the Hubble Space Telescope after deployment on this second servicing mission (HST SM-02). Note the telescope's open aperture door, (1997) (NASA)

Flyaround of the Hubble Space Telescope after deployment on this second servicing mission (HST SM-02). Note the telescope’s open aperture door, (1997) (NASA)

Grand Unified Theory (GUT) represents modern physics’ aspiration toward a model in which the fundamental forces of the universe might be merged into a single system of understanding. Such would be a big step in the direction of a Theory of Everything (TOE) which could explain, well…everything, or at least all the physical aspects of the universe. If looking at images of the cosmos invokes an aesthetic experience of the sublime, think of GUT and the subsequent TOE as its mental counterpart – a conceptual sublime.

It is into this space that artist Eric William Carroll sets off with his exhibition, G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Carroll uses the duality of scientific data and the way it is represented visually as his tools for tinkering with science’s attempts to address the sublime and answer the big questions – of being and the universe. In so doing, he is equally interested in moments when research is on the cutting edge of discovery, when it has been mistaken, and when it has turned out not to even really be science at all. Carroll’s installation pulls data universally, often from unexpected sources, in order to stretch both our understanding and experience of the world.

Carroll is primarily working with photographs, those he made as well as images appropriated from various archives and scientific publications.  In both kinds of pictures, Carroll reminds us, regardless of the scale of the scientific inquiries involved (e.g. whether they’re macro investigations out into the cosmos or micro investigations into subatomic particles), the work of research is done with the aid of some sort of visual apparatus. In this way, at least, photography — reliant as it is upon lenses and other technical devices — is a kindred endeavor, a fitting approach by which to undertake a close reading of scientific ideas.

Carroll’s installation presents us with a number of images and objects, nearly all denoted as “Figure” followed by a number – named as if images collected in the few color pages at the center of some academic tome, referenced elsewhere in the surrounding blocks of text in chapters before and after. But in Carroll’s work, the images stand alone; there is no larger text to inform and contextualize them. We have captions for them in the Figures themselves and wall texts throughout the gallery. But there is no grand expounding of themes for reference beyond the physical world from which the images come and the cultural language we already possess.

Eric William Carroll, G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2, 2014

Eric William Carroll, G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2, 2014

The center of the room is filled by two tables topped with charts of space and time – ostensibly two sides of the same coin. Figure 2.1 The Span of Space charts space from the size of the universe, 1025 meters, to the size of an electron, 10-20 meters. Objects made by Carroll or on loan from individuals and institutions anchor notable increments on the chart. The expanse of the universe is marked by a dangling model of the Hubble Space Telescope on loan from Lucas Lesser, whose paper and plastic model of the telescope earned second place at the St. John the Baptist Catholic School Science Fair. The Span of Space’s fraternal twin, Figure 2.2 The Span of Time, charts time from 1020 seconds, the age of the universe, to 10-25 seconds, the “lifetime of unstable particles.” At briefest end of this chart, Carroll’s set a toilet paper tube and tinker toy constructions of particle collisions within the Hadron Collider. These simple means of representation rest near to other, more complicated and precise instruments, such as an astrolabe and a dark matter detector.

Lucas Lesser, Hubble Telescope Model, 2014

Lucas Lesser, Hubble Telescope Model, 2014

Instead of framing these scales of time and space from the poles of their reach, Carroll centers both space and time with us – humanity. To that end, he represents the space of the human body with Otto Schmitt’s Electrolytic Phantom Torso (1951-55), on loan from the Bakken Museum. The center of the Span of Time is a single second, the “reaction time of humans;” it’s marked by a physical artifact, Kodak #2-A Folding Brownie, a gold-painted camera. He’s rendered a sense of space and time that extends infinitely from Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” as triggered by an electrified body. While Copernicus may have helped us shake free of the conception of the earth as the center of the universe, Carroll, in placing us at the center of his space/time tables, underscores that humanity is the unavoidable observer of all of these things. After all, why else would the acronyms of GUT and TOE be so corporeal?

Otto Schmitt’s, Electrolytic Phantom Torso (1951-55)

Otto Schmitt’s, Electrolytic Phantom Torso (1951-55)

Eric William Carroll, Kodak #2-A Folding Brownie, 2013.

Eric William Carroll, Kodak #2-A Folding Brownie, 2013.

Surrounding these tables are a number of individual pieces and works in clusters on the wall, each with its own unique configuration of space and time. In the large Figure 26, a sunset or sunrise sits in the center of a star field; as Carroll says in the wall text, “that single moment is multiplied countless times as potentially millions of sunrises and sunsets occur throughout the universe at any given time.” The image of the Subaru Deep Field is actually a pasted-together composite of laser prints, reminiscent of the way the Hubble image would have originally been assembled from multiple views to complete a picture of the whole grouping of stars.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 26, 2014.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 26, 2014. This work calls to mind Carroll’s previous work, Atari Sunset (2007), also dealing with the ubiquity of sunset images, where he assembled photos of sunsets and landscapes together to create one large sunset, covered with a silkscreened checkerboard to give the sensation of pixelization.

The sunset image in Carroll’s Figure 26 comes from the Farm Security Administration archives. It’s worth noting, FSA images also often evoke the westward push during the Depression, toward what was perceived as a frontier of hope during a hopeless time. While that migration, in actuality, panned out for very few, the optimism long associated with the West has much in common with that sense of anticipation and curiosity which spurs deep looking into the frontier of the spacescape – the same aesthetic similarity that Kessler finds between Hubble and Timothy O’Sullivan .

Carroll’s use of such visual resemblances endows his work with an underlying fractal resonance relating the chaos and chance of the everyday physical world to the analytic, controlled environment of experiment. The images included in Figure 69, for example, share morphological and chromatic similarities that allow one to move from a “hoodie found in Golden Gate Park” to a “yawning cat” around to a “toroidal vortex in smoke” and then to “dust found on studio floor.” Carroll’s groupings aren’t hunting for patterns where none exist, but are rather like equations for connecting disparate phenomenological experiences. In order to see just how inclusive these perceptions can be, one needs look no further than the 20 images assembled in Figure 29. The list of identifiers for each of the component images ranges from Voyager’s “Golden Record” to a pluot; also included are an embryonic stem cell, the Calabi Yau Manifold, a doorknob, and Neil Peart’s drum set. The subject of his images is just as likely to have come from the breakfast table as from the far reaches of the universe. But regardless of their provenance, Carroll brings the images together in a way that makes poetic, if not scientific, sense.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 69, 2014

Eric William Carroll, Figure 69, 2014

Eric William Carroll, Figure 29, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 29, 2013

In Figure 28, a photograph of a hammer is delicately balanced from a board using a rope and a ruler. Adjacent, but slightly higher, so that the boards depicted in both images align, is an upside-down version of the same photograph — an improbable sort of hardware butterfly that  uses the photograph to destabilize physics.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 28, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 28, 2013

Carroll uses sometimes crude means to illustrate elegant scientific conceptions. The slinky of Figure 31 stands in for the Ricci curvature tensor, a geometric model related to the curvature of space-time. The tinker toys and toilet paper rolls of Figure 20 represent particle collisions within the Hadron Collider.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 31, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 31, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 20, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 20, 2013

Carroll’s way of thinking in this exhibition is infectious. See his juxtapositions and your mind begins flipping through its own catalog of like and unlike images, building other idiosyncratically significant relationships, extending his model. As I look at Figure 38 — a vellum print of an electron spiraling in a bubble chamber floating on top of the spiral of an Icelandic low pressure system — I am reminded of both my own crude grade school science experiment sending particles through a small cloud chamber and Hubble’s refined image of the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 38, 2014

Eric William Carroll, Figure 38, 2014

The Whirlpool Galaxy (NASA)

The Whirlpool Galaxy (NASA)

Albert Einstein famously said “God does not play dice with the universe.” And so, Carroll has made a portrait of Einstein comprised of black dice with white dots, increasing or decreasing the density of visible white to generate value in the portrait by rotating each die to the proper number of pips. It is a remarkable likeness for such a restrictive medium. The deviation within the portrait is in the eyes, where the pips are red, making the normally affable looking Einstein appear quite livid, as if he’s shooting lasers from his eyes. Maybe the acceptance of quantum physics has finally gotten to him.

Eric William Carroll, Einstein (dice), 2014

Eric William Carroll, Einstein (dice), 2014

Carroll’s latest Grand Unified Theory is impelled by the same search for meaning, wonder, and cosmic structure that fuels counterpart investigations by scientists. But rather than taking data from such inquiries and assembling them into tidy formulae, Carroll collects the materials of those scientific findings and their visual corollaries from everyday life, and he strings them all together into a wholly new and eloquent interpretation of that experiential data.

It seems appropriate that a 21st-century experience of the sublime might encompass both lofty and intimate scales of experience, linking the wonder of vastly distant star systems with small pleasure of fondly remembered childhood toys; the proximity of feeling connecting the near incomprehensible  complexity of quantum physics with the sense of defeat you feel when your popsicle splatters on the ground is similarly satisfying. There is an overwhelming and terrifying magnitude to these grand scientific ideas and, likewise, some comfort to be had in finding a way of understanding a semblance, if not the whole, of their meaning. Even if science cannot yet pin the idea down into an equation, maybe Carroll can help it along the way, supplying a visual understanding of cosmic design before the math gets worked out.

Related exhibition information:

Eric William Carroll’s G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2 is on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) galleries from July 18 to September 28, 2014.

Lex Thompson‘s photographic work focuses on manifestations of hope and failure in the American landscape.  With a BA in history from New College of Florida, an MA in Religion and the Visual Arts from Yale University, he continued his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he received a Masters of Fine Arts in Photography.  He is Professor of Art (Photography) at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN.  He is recipient of a 2010 McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photographers, a 2008 & 2011 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. His artwork is included in collections at the Getty Research Institute, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Stanford University, University of California Los Angeles, and Yale University, among others.

Chemistry is That Story by Flannery O’Connor

Below is the third and final installment of my “Chemistry for Art Folks” series, a subsidiary of your usual Art+Science posts here at the mnartists blog. Installment #1, “Chemistry is David Bowie,” is here. #2, “Chemistry is a Rothko,” is here. Thus far in these chemistry conversations, we’ve gotten pretty Neil deGrasse Sagan about how […]

"Grass Roots Square" by Do-Ho Suh (Korea/USA) at the square in front of Regjeringskvartalet R6

Grass Roots Square by Do-Ho Suh (Korea/USA) at the square in front of Regjeringskvartalet in Oslo, Norway. Photo: Helge Høifødt

Below is the third and final installment of my “Chemistry for Art Folks” series, a subsidiary of your usual Art+Science posts here at the mnartists blog. Installment #1, “Chemistry is David Bowie,” is here. #2, “Chemistry is a Rothko,” is here.

Thus far in these chemistry conversations, we’ve gotten pretty Neil deGrasse Sagan about how everything that ever was and ever will be is “star stuff,” the same atoms from the Big Bang arranging and rearranging, on and on, forever and ever and ain’t it grand?

But what does that actually look like? Let us leave the big picture hocus-pocus and talk about something with substance. Literally.

The difference between a bunch of atoms and an actual substance is the way in which those atoms are put together. Just like the words of a story, atoms are only as good as the structure into which they are set.

627px-Diamond_and_graphite

Pictured above are the molecular structures of graphite (right) and diamond. Both are made of exactly the same type of atoms — carbon. And what’s the only difference between that which universally besmirches the fingers of sketching school children and a “girl’s best friend” so structurally sound its second claim to fame is cutting other really really hard things? The only difference is arrangement. The simple rearrangement of their carbon pieces changes everything.

If that seems too simple to be true, consider this: In nature, the state of a substance is determined by chemical reaction, including the vagaries of energies like heat, electricity, pressure  and, maybe, the introduction of other chemicals. But as of recently, some such chemically complex changes come about through human manipulation. That is, rather than relying on a chemical reaction to rearrange the particles, we provide the mechanism for change.

Let’s look at those diamond (a) and graphite (b) structures again, this time in context of similar carbon structures:

557px-Eight_Allotropes_of_Carbon

Check out that fourth one, by the way (d); that’s Buckminsterfullerene, which is sometimes found in soot and is perhaps obviously named. But that last one (h)? That’s a carbon nano tube. We humans can make those – not via some removed chemical reaction, either. We get in there with teensy tiny nano tools and build those tubes, one atom at a time. And then we use them for stuff. We do similar work with drugs, too, building little molecular structures that will fit into our body’s receptors, just like they grab on to whatever chemicals are put in their path. So, the next time you hear your doctors talk about drugs, remember they’re talking chemistry, maybe even nanochemistry — basically man-made chemicals designed to work on that molecular (nano) level. Maybe we should call it mano-chemistry.

No, yeah, you’re right – we really shouldn’t.

Do you know that Flannery O’Connor story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find?If not, please, read it, I’m begging you. I’ll wait. I mean, not to build it up too much or whatever but — okay, I’ll be quiet. You go ahead.

Wasn’t that good?

So, imagine if O’Connor hadn’t started with that first tidbit about the grandmother’s contrarian opinion regarding Florida. Or, if she hadn’t followed that up with even more of the grandmother’s schadenfraude, then a little more, and (ohgodno, not more — oh yes) more, building grandmother upon grandmother, little by little, until (SPOILERS) the point at which she comes face to face with the ne’er-do-well, Misfit, and takes her fatal misstep, showing her true colors to be even crueler, somehow, than the cold-blooded killer who ends her life. Or, what if O’Connor had started the story with the Misfit then crammed him into a mass of grandmotherly details, upside down and backwards? Could we have found the Misfit to be as cruel as she? Would we have felt badly for her instead?

It would have been a story, sure, but not an equivalent one. It is structure that distinguishes O’Connor’s glittering gem from what would otherwise be penciled-in scribblings.

Chemistry is a Rothko

Below is the second of three installments in my “Chemistry for Art Folks” series, a subsidiary of your usual Art+Science posts here at the mnartists blog. The first, “Chemistry is David Bowie,” is here. If you like what you see, pass it on. So that we all may learn and, in learning, be free. Let’s […]

Poster image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Poster image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Below is the second of three installments in my “Chemistry for Art Folks” series, a subsidiary of your usual Art+Science posts here at the mnartists blog. The first, “Chemistry is David Bowie,” is here. If you like what you see, pass it on. So that we all may learn and, in learning, be free.

Let’s start this week’s metaphor about chemistry with another metaphor, because we’re feeling brazen.

What is it about feats of great physical prowess that so impresses us? From the high-wire walker to the human cannonball, the gymnast to the ski jumper, it’s not sheer strength that keeps them teetering on the right side of disaster. There’s something else. Ask any guru — from the old-school Buddhist to new-age craze variety, experts in money or fitness or relationships — and they’ll all likely offer something that boils down to this: Balance.

So it is with chemistry. It’s like riding a bike.

Last week, we rocked out to the fact that everything is a chemical and that, therefore, everything that happens is or involves a chemical reaction. When you think of a chemical reaction, I bet you think of those wacky chemistry experiments they show you at school assemblies*- and, hell yes, those are awesome. But you can add to that list almost anything that happens ever. A chemical reaction is just a change, a balanced change where the most basic elements (literally) are still there, before and after, albeit in a different order.

Remember this diagram from chemistry class?

Electrolysis_of_Water

What you’re looking at is the breakdown of water into its constituent parts, but that doesn’t matter. It could be anything – any chemical, any reaction. What matters here is that there’s a before and an after. The arrow in between, that’s the catalyst for change (energy of some sort, in this case an electric current – but, again, that doesn’t matter). The shape configurations you see before are different from those coming after, but you’ll notice that the atoms, the components, are all still there. Same atoms, same amount. That’s because according to the laws of nature (i.e. particle physics, chemistry, et al) any chemical reaction, no matter how violent, will wind up …balanced.  You get the same before and after, rearranged.

Just as important to the balance of the atoms’ number, though, is the fact that they are configured differently. The chemical that comes before will not be the same as that which arrives, post-rearrangement, after. Gosh, no, because if that were the case, nothing would ever actually happen.

If we humans could achieve such perfect balance, we would feel the same in front of a Powerpoint presentation as we do in our Barcaloungers, sure, but what fun would that be?

Think of chemical change like a Rothko. Is it symmetrical? No. Balanced? Yes.

Rothko_No_14

Mark Rothko, No. 14., oil on canvas. 1960. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

* Please note:  Some of the experiments featured in the linked video might be better characterized as magnetic experiments, which are also great and also have to do with atoms (and also magnetic chemistry is a thing, which is cool and great).

Chemistry is David Bowie

You know how when you’re really into something, you want to tell the world about it? Like that weird old Finnish movie, or that accidental ice cream topping, or that song that makes you want to kick trashcans out of pure lust? That’s how I feel about chemistry. For every person who’s walking around not knowing […]

Nari Ward, Den, 1999

Nari Ward, Den, wood, chain-link fence, metal pole, tacks, rug, wooden furniture legs. 1999

You know how when you’re really into something, you want to tell the world about it? Like that weird old Finnish movie, or that accidental ice cream topping, or that song that makes you want to kick trashcans out of pure lust? That’s how I feel about chemistry. For every person who’s walking around not knowing how great it is, an injustice has been done. And if you can’t imagine why I would possibly get all panty-tossy for chemistry, well then I especially want to talk to you.

This sudden need to evangelize doesn’t come from my spending more time in the lab with test tubes and goggles and Dmitri Mendeleev hair (I wish). It’s nothing so obvious, which is exactly what I’m on about. Rather, I spend my days studying how humans think about science, and my nights (and weekends and dreams) trying to figure out how to get humans to think about science – and it’s not easy. Chemicals don’t shoot their rabid husbands or go around in deer-hunting caps calling people “phonies”.

Or do they? 

I know, I sound like that jam band friend, like, “Just give me nine minutes to play you this track, it’ll be so worth it.” But that’s not my style. Three minutes, that’s my style. Better yet, three posts — give me three blog posts.

Post #1: Chemistry Did it First

Remember when you were young and you didn’t know better, and you heard David Bowie for the first time, and you were like, “This guy sounds like every other rockstar out there, I know where this is going.” But the reason you thought that? That familiar thing you hear in his songs? He did it first. That thing you think you’ve heard a million times already, he invented that. Or, if you’re old enough that you remember the beginning of David Bowie, you may notice that a lot of what he did he stole from Gospel. And a lot of Gospel came from West Africa, and, as Stevie Wonder once said to me, “We all come from Africa, don’t we?”

What I’m saying is chemistry is the mother-loving Fertile Crescent of science. Keep that in mind, because in a second you’re going to tune out when we get into the bit about atoms, and I don’t want that to happen. I want you here with me.

You’ve got the elements, right? The Elements, like on the chart in school. They’re sometimes called “chemical elements,” because that’s exactly what they are:  Each element is a chemical. The elements can combine to make even more chemicals, but alone, each is a chemical. So you know what that means, right? Everything is chemicals. You, me, VHS tapes, Steve Harvey, those aforementioned ice cream toppings – all chemicals. And those chemicals are made up of combinations of atoms, every atom being one of those elements*-  you being made of these elements.

Because there is no atom for You.

 The most basic part of You that can still be recognized as You, that’s your DNA (unless you’ve got identical siblings or clones running around out there that you haven’t told me about, and that would be weird. I thought we were friends). And your DNA? Also chemicals––four, to be specific (plus a slightly different one for RNA). Only when you grab a bunch of atoms from that periodic table, as though from some omnipotent menu, and get those chemical elements to “cooperate”, to join forces and become chemical compounds, and then, as chemical compounds to pair up to complete your DNA – only then do we find something that is You. Full of the you-ness that Michael Crichton could theoretically suck out of an amber-encased mosquito and clone into a park of Yous.

And the same way that atoms turn into to compounds that turn into your DNA? So it is with everything on Earth. Wait, no:  so it is with everything in the observable universe. When they do their thing, when elemental chemicals combine to become some chemical compound or another, that’s a chemical reaction. And when those compounds change from one chemical to another, that’s a chemical reaction, too. That’s how anything, everything happens, ever – from the Big Bang to Beatlemania to the transfer of this information between neurons in your brain right now: it boils down to chemical reactions, one after another, the same atoms rearranging and rearranging (except, kind of, for the ones we’ve chosen to explode from time to time, but that’s a story for another day), on and on forever, amen.

How can you not love that shit?

Let’s listen to it one more time.

*That’s why we call them “elements”, of course:  They are as basic as it gets. Like how earth, wind, fire and water are elements, only, you know, real. Because even Earth, Wind, and Fire are made up of chemicals, atoms of various types (including a whole lotta funk, whatever the chemical equation for that is**).

** Submissions for “Chemical Equation of Funk” are welcome.

Haptic Habit: The Art and Science of Hands

Before I took my first drawing class, I thought I was pretty good. I could even draw hands pretty well. And as every artist knows, they’re the most difficult of our lovely human parts to render. Even the good ones had to work for thousands of hours before their drawings of hands went from crumpled ginger […]

Robert Gober, Untitled, etching on paper, 1999. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Robert Gober, untitled, etching on paper, 1999. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Before I took my first drawing class, I thought I was pretty good. I could even draw hands pretty well. And as every artist knows, they’re the most difficult of our lovely human parts to render. Even the good ones had to work for thousands of hours before their drawings of hands went from crumpled ginger roots and flaccid udders to anything resembling the graceful instruments of dexterity that separate us from (most) other animals.

As weeks passed in class, I realized I had been looking at my hands all wrong. I’d been cheating, taking a shortcut:  I was outlining the hand when I should have been looking at the sum of shapes comprising the whole. That‘s how an artist thinks. Lo and behold, as soon as I started seeing the world around me in its constituent bits, my hands got better. More realistic. And this is why it’s so easy to get hands all wrong:  The very moving parts and counterintuitive facets that make them so hard to replicate on paper are exactly what make them so useful, so expressive.

Hands serve as the seat of the only one of our five senses we can actually see at work. Hands are, literally, an extension of ourselves.

Unknown artist, Australian rock art (Hand stencils and flying foxes), 7000 - 2000 B.C.E.

Unknown artist, Australian rock art (Hand stencils and flying foxes), 7000 – 2000 B.C.E.

Not only do our hands help us express the things we have learned, says linguistic anthropologist and learning expert Shirley Brice Heath, these appendages actually help us learn things in the first place. Research has shown that when humans learn language, we aren’t just learning what to call the things around us, we’re actually learning how to comprehend  our environment. In a similar way, when we use our hands to interact with the world, they build for us a sort of tactile vocabulary, a different way of apprehending the world around us that’s three-dimensional, spatial, structural.

“Our fMRI technologies enable us to learn what happens to our internal visual images when we grip, hold, or touch what we see,” says Heath. “We know that the haptic or hand-guided feedback that children gain when they grip the crayon, pencil, or charcoal enhances the act of mentally visualizing, of envisioning what lies behind or within the surface elements of what they view with their eyes.” Heath calls this “hand work,” and points out that it  not only proves useful for art, but is also of benefit to work in science (just one of the many ways in which art informs science and can strengthen scientific thinking, she says).

Let’s take the benefit of “hand work” a step further:  When you have a tactile experience of the world and then challenge yourself to represent that three-dimensional experience through the power of your hands, the cycle of learning is complete. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again:  Art-making is, like science, an attempt to understand, interpret, and explain the world.

Does that sound a little touchy-feely? Exactly.

Christian Marclay, From Hand to Ear, cast beeswax, 1994. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Christian Marclay, From Hand to Ear, cast beeswax, 1994. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Postscript: If our hands serve as an extension of our-selves, and tools are an extension of our hands, it kind of makes sense that we see tool-making in apes. That said, they have hands, but apes have yet to draw a convincing one.

Post-postscript: Tool-making has also appeared in “smart” animals like corvids (crows and ravens) and dolphins. But those animals use their tools as extensions of their beaks, which they use like hands. Same idea, minus the thumbs?

The Fibonacci Sequence: Life Imitates Art Imitates Math

By definition, nature does not produce art. But we like to say it does. A seascape so lovely you wish you could “hang it on your wall;”  the semblant choreography of a herd of antelope that looks like “poetry in motion;” a hot bod that appears to be “carved out of marble.” As you ponder […]

Aloe polyphylla, also known as Spiral aloe. Photo: Brewbooks (CC license)

Aloe polyphylla, also known as Spiral Aloe. Photo: Brewbooks (CC license)

By definition, nature does not produce art. But we like to say it does. A seascape so lovely you wish you could “hang it on your wall;”  the semblant choreography of a herd of antelope that looks like “poetry in motion;” a hot bod that appears to be “carved out of marble.”

As you ponder the weird and cyclical logic of the sentiments above, let us make the following assertion:  Art must be (hu)man-made. (This excludes dolphin, elephant, and pretty questionable dog painters from today’s particular discussion.) Yes, humans too are of nature, but let us say, for the sake of argument, that our work is one step removed. When nature inspires us, we re-present it in the form of art. And what if we are ourselves inspired, spontaneously, from the ether, only to have a parallel organic experience after the fact? (Is that really a thing?) If so, we coin the phrase, “Life imitates art.” (It’s a chicken and egg situation. If …we were chickens.) So nature doesn’t produce art, but it produces — well, most everything else. Could one apply the converse of the life/art quip to other disciplines?

Let’s try: “Life imitates Math.”

Many mathematicians and scientists regularly work with real numbers representing hypothetical situations. University of Texas biomedical engineers figured out how to use math to predict the existence of otherwise unknown cellular mechanisms. Mathematical astronomer U.J.J. Leverrier predicted the existence of the planet Neptune before it was officially observed, prompting its subsequent discovery via telescope. And theoretical physicists –– I mean, it’s in their job title. This idea is especially applicable to the mathematical contribution of one Leonardo Pisano (so renamed because he lived and became famous in Pisa, Italy), born Leonardo Fibonacci in 1170. Fibonacci’s status as a wealthy merchant’s son allowed him to travel the world studying under some of the best mathematicians of the time — in the Middle East, Egypt, Syria, Greece. As such, he was largely responsible for introducing to Europe Hindu-Arabic numerals, the number system that we now call simply: numbers.

Lois Lane, Untitled (Hand), oil, graphite on canvas, 1982.

Lois Lane, Untitled (Hand). Oil, graphite on canvas, 1982. Photo: Walker Art Center

Although Fibonacci’s most important contribution to math is arguably his work with square numbers, he is best known for a certain sequence that now bears his name. It was the first recursive number sequence Europeans had ever seen, that is, the first sequence of successive numbers whose order can be expressed by a formula (now common in IQ tests and SATs). The Fibonacci Sequence is simply:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55… and so on.

The pattern, in case you missed it:  Each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. The discovery seems innocuous enough, right? In fact, it first appeared buried in a collection of several findings, as a quaint little story problem illustrating the proliferation of rabbits. But in the 1800s, after French mathematician Edouard Lucas officially named Fibonacci’s Sequence as such, scientists started noticing occurrences of it in the actual natural world: in the spirals made by the growth of sunflower seeds, or leaves around a stem. Even the genealogy of male bees fits the pattern.

Which immediately tempted scientists to make grandiose assumptions about the greater meaning of the sequence. The ancient Greco-Roman notion of the golden ratio connected to Fibonacci’s work; scientists and artists alike began to see perfect, universal math in everything from snail shells to tsunamis — even when it was a stretch.

Art history is lousy with traces of Fibonacci’s influence — some founded, some not. His fan following speaks to our desire to find answers in nature, and to involve ourselves with those . Do we like Fibonacci sequences because they occur in nature, or do we like the idea that Fibonacci sequences occur in nature because we like Fibonacci sequences? The truth is likely somewhere within the process, the math. Building on itself, onward and outward.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Grid I, oil on canvas, 1918. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Grid I. Oil on canvas, 1918. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

A Lesson from the Cuttlefish: Art Disguised as Science

Is what Ryuta Nakajima doing art disguised as science? Or, maybe the other way ’round? Cuttlefish and other cephalopods (squids, octopus, and nautiloids) are among the most cognitively complex animals in the mollusk family––other members being shellfish and snails. They’re also one of nature’s most gifted visual mimics:  They have the remarkable ability to change the […]

IMG_2004

Ryuta Nakajima, Amburghese di cuore (no. 4) – photograph of cuttlefish atop Haida Sitting Eagle Crest Design by Freda Diesing, 1977

Is what Ryuta Nakajima doing art disguised as science? Or, maybe the other way ’round?

Cuttlefish and other cephalopods (squids, octopus, and nautiloids) are among the most cognitively complex animals in the mollusk family––other members being shellfish and snails. They’re also one of nature’s most gifted visual mimics:  They have the remarkable ability to change the chromatic characteristics of their skin to perfectly match a wide array of environments. But increasingly, science tells us that processes by which cephalopods change their skin coloring is an intentional, cognitive response, as related to the animal’s “thoughts” and “feelings” as its physical surroundings. Multimedia artist Ryuta Nakajima has incorporated the scientific study of cephalopods into his work for many years, and recently spoke with me about his experiences.

Maggie Ryan Sandford

You’ve been working almost exclusively with cuttlefish for some time now. How long do you think this will last?

Ryuta Nakajima

Yeah… I think it’s gonna be a lifelong quest. Just because the behavior and biology of cephalopods is not yet known, really. Out of the 450 species of squid, we can probably observe on a regular basis… what — four or five? The aquaculture of squid is so costly, and most of them (in the wild) aren’t around [us] — they’re so deep underwater you can’t get to them without a submersible or an remotely operated vehicle (ROV). That giant squid that was filmed last year: they ended up with 24 minutes of footage, and that’s all we have on it. So, there’s so much work to be done, just trying to figure out what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Sandford 

How did you get started in this area of study?

Nakajima

I always liked meeting researchers, so I would always read up. I would read the marine biology [texts] as art books. And a few years ago, my daughter really got into the PBS documentary about cuttlefish, “Kings of Camouflage.” We would sometimes watch that, you know, two-to-three times a day. I realized, “Hey, this is kind of what I’m doing as an artist.” You know: Identifying environmental information and putting it out there as an artificial object. That was a weird, humbling experience for me — like, “Huh, this is kind of a crazy little parallel happening here.”

So, I did a little research, and I found out more about cephalopods actual neurological systems, and the physical system of how their “pixels,” chromatophores, actually get lined up in layers. I was a layer painter, so I thought, “Wow, how I’m organizing my images is very similar to that biological system. Sooo, then I went and asked my wife, like, “Hey, is it okay if I have a squid in the house?” And she said, “Go ahead. Why are you even asking me? You’re gonna do it anyway.”

I started with what I thought would be easy. I thought, “I’ll get a tank, I’ll put it in the tank.” But then I realized it’s almost impossible to get these guys [squid]. I mean, right now, in the United States, only a few labs have successfully raised cephalopods in significant numbers. In the world, maybe, like… ten. I landed onto the National Resource Center for Cephalopods (NRCC) in Dallas, Texas, who had been supplying all these animals for all the labs in the United States. And the director of that program said, “It’s not possible for you to have squid at your house in Minnesota.” [Laughs] But he said, “I like your proposal, I like what you’re doing. Why don’t you come to my institution and work on your project here as a visiting scholar?” And I said, “Well, that sounds fantastic!” So, I went down and brought all my lab equipment down there and started working with their lab animals.

And that was the first time got to actually work with scientists on a project. At the beginning, I was only thinking about it as this cool, funky project, using this weird animal. I figured I’d do some photo or video piece about it, and move on to different things. But since then, I’ve become so involved… and I wanted to do more research on the science.”

Sandford 

And it just spiraled outward from there.

Nakajima

[Laughs]. Yeah. Well, unfortunately, that lab closed, so I had to find a different lab. In Okinawa, Japan.

Sandford 

Which is a longer trek.

Nakajima

Yes.

Sandford 

Tell me more about the layer painting technique you mentioned.

Nakajima

It used to be called “transparent painting,” and later it was called “layer painting” — a style done by this German painted named Sigmar Polke. Basically, you use different layers of images, superimposed on top of each other, to get to the final outcome of a painting. It was a very popular way of organizing pictorial space in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and later it became the basis for Photoshop and Illustrator, and ultimately, maybe even music and video editing software. That’s the kind of painting I was doing.

And in cephalopod skin, chromatophores work similarly. The animal has different layers of these different colored “pixels.” Once they connect to stimuli, by pulling on these muscle fibers, something like ink sacs [called chromatophores] expand. That’s how they make the body change color. And these chromatophores are sort of layered on top of each other; they’re not in the same strata, they’re in different zones. Certain chromatophores, expanding next to each other, will make the whole body change color, for instance, make the cuttlefish look more orangeish, say. It is very similar to computer graphics — very similar to the kind of layering techniques we use in many different creative activities, actually.

Sandford

Funny, how humans think we invented that.

Nakajima

I think it’s part of evolution, you know? Humans are not bystanders to this whole system on Earth. We’re really well connected in there.

IMG_20772

Ryuta Nakajima, Amburghese di cuore (no. 6) – photograph of cuttlefish atop textile fragment from 18th-century China

Sandford 

I’m especially interested in hearing about your process for the pieces where you placed the cuttlefish onto reproductions of classic works of art.

Nakajima

In those, I focused on the aspect of the geometry that’s going on in those classical works. There’s a symmetry within the design. People think of camouflaging as randomness. But actually, camouflaging is symmetrical. That’s what I was going for in those photographs, artistically. Scientifically, it’s completely different. Scientifically, I’m fascinated by the fact that certain patterns the cuttlefish “have” can actually mimic those relatively complex patterns. That’s kind of weird because they’re, first of all, colorblind. And secondly:  It turns out these very highly achieved artworks are not… so highly achieved. [Laughs] It turns out that natural elements can actually mimic them, and can do a pretty good job at it, too. I mean, whatever we think we’ve constructed — after however many hundreds or thousands of years of human history — turns out to be just a permutation of something found in nature. And it’s the recognition of those permutations that we’re calling an artwork. I think that’s why we find things beautiful.

And then, I’m starting to realize that the cuttlefish are using value patterns that are much more complex than anything [that would qualify as] simply camouflage. Certain patterns are used for communication, maybe even communication with other species. There’s all kinds of information  flying out of their bodies. We keep finding new chromatic components: I’ve found about 50 components within cuttlefish myself [see below]. If we do just simple math to calculate — what are the maximum of pattern combinations to be made? — it turns out to be millions of possible combinations. But within that, they’re only using about 17 or 18 patterns for camouflage. So, all these other components: What are they used for? That’s what I’m working on right now, trying to identify where and how and when those other possibilities are coming from. There are some pattern combinations so rare, I’ve only seen them twice in five, six years. Those are tricky ones, because we can’t really assess or isolate what the trigger was. Is its appearance an accident, or what?

"fear response"

Cuttlefish exhibiting a rare “fear response” coloring, possibly a reaction to the Piet Mondrian print seen in the background. Photo courtesy R. Nakajima.

Sandford 

That’s exciting.

Nakajima

Yeah. We’ve seen all kinds of crazy things, like we just found that cuttlefish pass this three-red-dot pattern from one arm to the next, going over to the other guys’ [arm].

Sandford 

Coool.

Nakajima

It’s true. It seems to be happening between two juvenile males. When one shows that pattern, it then makes the other guy so crazy. [Laughs]

The model that’s in the exhibition [larger reproductions below], that’s from a time when, originally, I tried to get quantifiable data for the pattern responses we were seeing. So, I would take one component and paint it on the model, and show that model to the actual cuttlefish and see how the animal responded to that pattern. I have a series of, I don’t know, ten different patterns painted on the same model. And I’d show each one to different cuttlefish and see if they had a body pattern response from that, or a motor response, or a postural response from what they were seeing.

Installation detail of Ryuta Nakajima’s "UMWELT" - Ako Roshi 39+8 (Forty-seven aspects of cuttlefish body patterns), 2013 Epoxy resin, Swarovski crystals, metal studs, lacquer, acrylic, enamel print

Installation detail of Ryuta Nakajima’s Umwelt exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Ako Roshi 39+8 (Forty-seven aspects of cuttlefish body patterns), 2013. Epoxy resin, Swarovski crystals, metal studs, lacquer, acrylic, enamel print. Courtesy of the artist and the MIA.

Sandford 

So, are you publishing? I mean, this sounds… like actual science.

Nakajima

I mean. I think… it is. [Laughs]

Sandford 

“I think I’m doing science”?

Nakajima

Yeah, definitely. I’ve cowritten a paper “Observations of schooling behavior in oval squid Sepioteuthis lessoniana in coastal waters of Okinawa Island,” and I’m working on another, hopefully coming out next year. I really didn’t want to be one of those artists that latches onto images that scientists create — would be basically using cool equipment, ripping it off and decontextualizing it, and then showing it to art audiences under the pretense that the images are mine. I really didn’t want to do that. There’s no value in that kind of gesture, I don’t think.

Sandford 

You mean that art-world thing of talking about something, when you could just look at it and learn about it and decide what it means from the facts.

Nakajima

Exactly. I mean, some of those images are incredible because of the technology behind them, that’s essential to those images. There’s a value to that, and I think that value belongs in science. Recontextualizing the image doesn’t really contribute anything new. I wanted to be able to stand on the same platform as these scientists who had been working on these projects, and really have a meaningful dialogue with them––coming from a different field and sort of balancing them, both science and art, together. I want to be able to do art work that is also scientifically valuable.

I actually went to one of the biggest international scientific conferences on cephalopods, the Cephalopod International Advisory Council (CIAC) in Brazil, and presented my work. And that was really fun. I think I was the first artist ever to present at the conference. [Laughs]

Sandford 

What has it been like working with scientists? Has it taught you anything about their world, and about the art world?

Nakajima

Both artistic and scientific activities are so tied up in finances. Those guys, a lot of the really amazing guys spend most of their lives writing grants. So much, that they don’t get to do their real work. And in order to get a grant, they can’t be too experimental, or too crazy; they have to walk on a very safe, paved road. And then their activity’s being judged off of how many articles and papers get published, and the impact factors, and so on and so on. Again, that makes them very conservative. For artists, its a different kind of scale, but it’s a very similar situation where a lot of creative activities get shackled by this idea of finance and [the need to] support themselves. From the artist’s perspective, we’ve always been poor, so… [laughs]. But scientists have post-docs and whatever [other education and research] they have to pay for — and you need an entire team to do that. So, for me, the collaboration has also been an interesting discovery as to how their system works, the peer review system — all of that.

And I think –– especially for the graduate and undergraduate students at the lab — I can hop through a problem a lot faster than they can. Meaning:  They’ll think about the project and set up experiments and conduct the experiments and get the data of their results, and the whole process will take about a year. But, for me, if I’m only thinking about the artistic process, I go: “Okay I’ll set up this variable and that variable, and if it doesn’t work in the way that I was imagining, I can just ditch it and move on to the next thing.” Which they just can’t. So, I can try a lot things faster, which shows me earlier what has the most potential ––”I’ll get into this thing a little bit deeper.” That’s how I work — it’s a little more schizophrenic. There’s a level of responsibility in the history that scientists live in that makes it impossible to hop like that. Their attitude is just: I’ll put one page on top of this whole pillar of work.

But it’s been a blast. I’ve been having so much fun with these scientists –– I feel so glad that they’re okay with me being in their field. [Laughs] It’s been really great because of the level of concreteness, tangible results involved:  Here’s the work, here’s what we’re gonna do, and here’s what the results will be.

Another difference, I’d say, is maybe accountability. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. A lot of artists can talk about things as if they’ve invented them, as if they’ve invented some thought without any regard for the history of that idea, who might have thought it before them. But in a scientific paper, every word has to be accountable to who first coined it. I think that the level of responsibility going along with the subject matter one is passionate about is just good practice. Rather than everything being so intuitive, this pretense that what we do as artists is something that comes from within, just ours, and that we’re justified to lay sole claim to it. I don’t think that’s the case. Working with scientists, that is something that has become clear to me. It’s a different approach to thinking about knowledge, where it comes from, I guess.

Other than that, I think the work of art and science is very similar: it’s persistence and passion about a project, staying with it, and getting your results done.

Related exhibition information:

Ryuta Nakajima‘s exhibition, Umwelt, is on view in the MAEP galleries of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through September 29. For more information, visit http://www.artsmia.org/index.php?section_id=67.

The Draw of Dark Matter

The name says it all. Literally and metaphorically, dark matter (the counterpart of dark energy) possesses a mysterious and undeniable attractiveness, a certain je ne sais quoi. And I invoke the literal meaning of that perfectly piquant French phrase, too — because when it comes to dark matter, no one really “knows what.” Even NASA’s […]

The name says it all. Literally and metaphorically, dark matter (the counterpart of dark energy) possesses a mysterious and undeniable attractiveness, a certain je ne sais quoi. And I invoke the literal meaning of that perfectly piquant French phrase, too — because when it comes to dark matter, no one really “knows what.”

bv-fluxbox

Ben Vautier, Fluxbox Containing God. Plastic box with collaged, printed paper label, ca. 1966. Photo: Walker Art Center.

Even NASA’s website features a charming and easy-to-read explanation that admits “more is unknown than known …”, calling dark energy, largely “a complete mystery.” Basically, math tells us that there’s more mass in the universe than we can actually see. So the matter we can’t see? That’s dark matter. And a certain energy needs to exist for the universe to expand in the way that math and our high-powered telescopes tell us it does, but we’re not exactly sure how it happens. That’s dark energy. The “dark” label refers literally to what we can’t see, but also to the void in our specific understanding of those processes. “Dark” is something of a placeholder, then, meaning: “as yet undefined matter and energy that’s out there in the universe making the universe do what it does.”

It was the 1930s when astronomer Fritz Zwicky coined the phrase “dark matter,” yet it’s only in the past year that we’ve begun to see hints of hard evidence for its existence.  Well, maybe — scientists continue to disagree. But if we’re being honest, isn’t that mystery precisely why the average person is so fascinated by the idea? It’s attractive, the notion of the unseen something, yet to be revealed. It’s confounding, potentially dangerous. Sexy, even.

I recently had an online chat with a friend about the study of dark energy that might have read similarly if we’d been talking about a crush, some brooding beauty leaning on a matte black Dodge Challenger, smoking cigarettes and playing hard to get.

me:  Ben, I’ve been spending too much time with dark energy and I’m exhausted. Is it all bullshit? Sometimes I think it’s bullshit.

ben:  i think it is

yes

at the edges

at a certain point someone’s just making things up and justifying them with math

and then you discover no one actually knows what gravity IS

and you’re just like, “What do you mean you don’t know what [gravity] is? How do you do the math?”

they say: “It’s just a thing that happens, the math just describes the thing happening, in the way we consistently see it happening. That’s all gravity is. The habit of shit to drift together.”

“THATS ALL YOU GOT? WHAT THE HOLY FUCK?”

me:  Thrilling, yet a little heartbreaking.

For a long time I thought it was just quantum physics I couldn’t trust,

until dudes started making some of it HAPPEN in THE LAB

At which point, they’re all, “OH, JUST KIDDING, THE MATH ITSELF CHANGES––

SOMETIMES. SOMETIMES.

SO, YEAH. Deal with it, babe.”

I feel so manipulated.

And this is where I have to check myself because it circles back around to:  But, like, what do we even really KNOW, you KNOW?

Which is unacceptable.

At this point “ben” sent me a video of Werner Herzog speaking, as he does, on the insanity that may spring from the futility of life.

Cornelia Parker, XXX, ©Tate, London, 2013

Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, wood, metal, plastic, ceramic, paper, textile and wire, 1991. ©Tate, London, 2013

When the art world reaches over into science and pulls out a subject to examine, the end result may not resemble the math or the hard physics. But it can still nail the essence of scientific concepts and give form to feelings that “dark matter” elicits. Take Dennis Feddersen’s threatening installations of the same name:  immense bodies, themselves unidentifiable, amass around our mundane objects. As the viewer, we experience in the work locations that we recognize, and yet don’t — a humbling, apt reminder of the powerful, ever-present forces of nature that we can neither name nor control.

Or consider Amanda Nedham’s bestial mash-upsDark Matter I and Dark Matter II. Similar to Feddersen, Nedham imagines ravenous, over-sized creatures that are both familiar and impossible, seemingly spit out from another dimension. Her dark matter conjures the simultaneous experience of danger and awe evident in the science.

The role of the observer becomes especially important in interactive pieces like those in Dark Matters, at the University of Manchester. The show deals with the deceptively simple notion that darkness and shadows hide the truth, distort our understanding of the origin and identity of what it is we see. But this, too, applies to the astronomical definition of “dark.” Check out the last line of the review. Then watch yourself watch the video.

Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, Black Curve, oil on canvas, 1962. Photo: Walker Art Center

Art and the Right-Brain Fallacy

When science integrates itself into our culture so fully that people talk about their neural functions over the water cooler, that’s the greatest. Unfortunately, science sometimes gets muddled up with pseudoscience/outdated science/science that has been misrepresented by the media. The left-brain-vs.-right-brain conversation, sadly, is of the latter ilk. You know the conversation I’m talking about: […]

Katharina Fritsch, Gehirn (Brain) detail, plaster, paint. 1987/1989. Courtesy of  the Walker Art Center.

Katharina Fritsch, Gehirn (Brain). Plaster, paint. 1987/1989

When science integrates itself into our culture so fully that people talk about their neural functions over the water cooler, that’s the greatest. Unfortunately, science sometimes gets muddled up with pseudoscience/outdated science/science that has been misrepresented by the media. The left-brain-vs.-right-brain conversation, sadly, is of the latter ilk.

You know the conversation I’m talking about: the oft-cited belief that the right hemisphere of our brains controls the more creative, conceptual stuff, while the left brain controls more of the concrete, computational stuff. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is.  The brain works with far more specificity than anything that could be described as “stuff.” For years now, researchers have engaged in an uphill battle to rid the world of this tidbit of right brain/left brain misinformation. And now, there’s some hope that it will soon be laid to rest with the results of a recent comprehensive, many-brained study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The findings:  Imaginative and logical brain functions alike call upon many areas of the brain, in both hemispheres. (Details here, if you want to get brainy––note the line describing the “flow state” neurology of rappers and improv jazz musicians.)

It’s a cooperative effort. And isn’t that a beautiful thing?

Egon Schiele, Two Figures

Egon Schiele, Two Figures. Watercolor, charcoal on paper, 1917

So, how did that erroneous story become entrenched as conventional wisdom in the first place? Did our scientists lie to us? Or is the lay audience just so sheeply that we’ll run with any easy explanation we’re fed, without question? How should we feel about this revelation about the way we think, that bridges the presumed gap between logic and emotions?

While big-picture frameworks, like our personalities, aren’t determined by a single hemisphere, it is true that certain brain functions only occur in half of the brain at a time. That fact just doesn’t mean what we want it to mean. If you have a moment, watch this 11-year-old video about the differing roles of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In it, you’ll see Dr. Mike Gazzaniga administer a series of tests to a patient who has had the two hemispheres of his brain surgically separated. Tests like this made Dr. Gazzaniga famous, and were groundbreaking in our understanding of brain function. They also sewed the seeds for right/left-brain mythology.

If you’re watching, be wary as you marvel. Dr. Gazzaniga’s groundbreaking experiments clearly illustrate the difference in hemispherical function in Joe-the-test-subject’s brain, but they don’t speak to everything each hemisphere is doing. Gazzaniga, though a leader in his field, paints his conclusions for the viewer with broad strokes — saying that the left brain is where “the action” is, advising not to “leave home with out it.” You can’t blame him, really: Gazzaniga seems to admire the work Joe’s left brain is doing in his lab, and he rounds up his assessment of that hemisphere accordingly, giving it credit for general systematization of incoming stimuli and for the task of making sense of information. And Gazzaniga is also a human, fired up about his test’s recent success. The way he paraphrases the left brain’s overall activity is much like Joe’s explanation for why he chose, say, a bell to represent music, in response to one of the test’s questions.

That’s just the left brain doing its job, making connections. And, as we now know, even the left brain is subject to emotional influence.

Arakawa, Detail Of..., oil on canvas, 1969. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Arakawa, Detail Of…, oil on canvas, 1969

P.S. Gazzanigo’s test actually proves that Giuseppe Arcimboldo needed both hemispheres of his brain in order to paint like he did. I’m reminded of the bag lady, Trudy’s “soup/art” bit about Warhol from Lily Tomlin’s Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Did I tell you what happened at the play? We were at the back of the theater, standing there in the dark, all of a sudden I feel one of ‘em tug my sleeve, whispers, “Trudy, look.” I said, “Yeah, goose bumps. You definitely got goose bumps. You really like the play that much?” They said it wasn’t gave ‘em goose bumps, it was the audience. I forgot to tell ‘em to watch the play; they’d been watching the audience! Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things…that just knocked ‘em out. They said, “Trudy, the play was soup…the audience…art.”

Maggie Ryan Sandford is a science journalist, fiction writer, performer, and media producer who has devoted her life to promoting widespread scientific literacy. Her work has been published in Slate, Smithsonian, mental_floss, the Onion A.V. ClubPaper Darts, Revolver, Thirty Two, the Indiana Review online, McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals, and she has appeared at the Walker Art Center, the Seattle Art Museum, the Minnesota Institute of Arts, the Guthrie Theater, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre NYC, and on National Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television. She was named champion of both Literary Death Match 100 and Revolvermagazine’s recent “Write Fight,” and is part of the bimonthly storytelling group Rock Star Storytellers. More at MaggieRyanSandford.com and @Mandford on Twitter.

Parallel Lives: How Our Minds Track Patterns to Make Order from Chaos

Biologists have this term, “convergent evolution.” It describes the phenomenon wherein organisms end up sharing similar characteristics even though they are evolutionarily and genetically disparate. Wings are the classic example:  Birds, bats, and insects all have them, utilize them to feed, nest, and go about their lives. But each animal evolved separately into flight – sometimes […]

Edward Arceneaux, House Upside Down. Graphite, gouache on paper, 2000. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Edward Arceneaux, House Upside Down. Graphite, gouache on paper, 2000. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Biologists have this term, “convergent evolution.” It describes the phenomenon wherein organisms end up sharing similar characteristics even though they are evolutionarily and genetically disparate. Wings are the classic example:  Birds, bats, and insects all have them, utilize them to feed, nest, and go about their lives. But each animal evolved separately into flight – sometimes in different environments – but for the same basic reasons.

Or, consider the body shape of a dolphin relative to that of the prehistoric ichthyosaur and to that of a shark. Dolphins are mammals, ichthyosaurs were aquatic reptiles, and sharks are fish. But there’s no denying the similarity in their sleek bodies, sharp dorsal fins, and toothy beaks. All three (1) live in the water and (2) hunt. They’re shaped accordingly, by coincidence, and not by relation.

Dolphins, Ichthyosaurs, Sharks. Images from the public domain.

Dolphins, Ichthyosaurs, Sharks. Images from the public domain.

Consider the Euphorbia, some species of which closely resemble our southwestern American cacti, but which are more closely related to the poinsettia.

Consider the aptly named Hummingbird Hawk-Moth.

Now, without letting yourself get too mystical, consider the lovely convergence in the shapes of neurons, root systemssolar systems, and the internet.

Our human minds are naturally wired to find patterns, and to desire explanations for those patterns, and to make order from chaos by finding (or creating) patterns of our own. That also explains why it’s fairly easy to find convergences in art. In fact, our doing so is necessary to the work of both artist and curator.

John Baldessari, Embed Series: Oiled Arm (Sinking Boat and Palms). Two black-and-white photographs mounted on paper board, 1974. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

John Baldessari, Embed Series: Oiled Arm (Sinking Boat and Palms). Two black-and-white photographs mounted on paper board, 1974. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Take the modern interpretation of a vintage carnival banner below (via):  A shapely, exotic woman poses with her genitals exposed, calmly and repeatedly penetrating herself with the tools of her trade. It seems obvious to compare her to the famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in which Pablo Picasso depicts solemn-faced prostitutes from Carrer d’Avinyó in Barcelona, posing mundanely.

allegora_0 Les_Demoiselles_d'Avignon

Banner artist Marie Roberts has likely allowed Picasso to influence her work on some level (it would be hard for any contemporary artist not to). But she could also feasibly argue a convergent evolution of aesthetic: Painters of turn-of-the-20th-century carnival banners had a vested interest in aligning themselves with the “primitive” and mysterious – themes which Picasso, too, explored during his so-called “African Period,” of which Les Demoiselles was a cornerstone. (On the other hand, both Roberts’ and Picasso’s work would have “evolved” from West African indigenous art, in this scenario, so the pieces share a common ancestor after all.)

I admit that I fixated on the idea of convergences after sustaining several deep cuts in a bike accident, this past week. My friend, a nurse, advised me to track possible infection by marking the perimeter of any redness with a pen, then seeing if the inflammation grew or shrank. Immediately, I thought of how Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character employs a ring of wire to measure the movement of the encroaching planet, Melancholia, in Lars von Trier’s 2011 film of the same name. No matter what you think of von Trier, or his film, this seemed a lovely confluence of science (the medical gauge, that is, though it was implemented via the artistic action of line-making) and art (the film, though it was built upon a scientific base as shoddy as the twigloo its protagonists erect to protect them from inevitable destruction).

everything that rises

There’s something deeply satisfying about such convergences of art and science––the really organic ones, which seem to have evolved separately, but in so doing reached the same conclusion. A few years back, art historian Lawrence Weschler published Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences,  an engaging compendium of the juiciest among these parallels, drawn from the gamut of disciplines and natural occurrences. His publisher, McSweeney’s, launched a contest to celebrate its release, inviting readers to submit their own convergences. My favorites in those entries easily bridge the gap between the so-called left (computational) and right (creative) brain: herehere, and here. Weschler responds to his readers in kind, with new convergences of his own. The urge to pattern-finding is infectious.

Consider yourself warned:  Once you start to look for convergences in the wild world around you, it could be difficult to stop. Even the irreligious may be tempted to find meaning in everyday things: a new species of monkey in a botched fresco of JesusJane Russell in a piece of toast.

Keep your wits about you. Don’t go looking for answers. Just let cool things hold hands with other cool things, like the microscopic tardigrade or “water bear,” and Jose Eduardo Nasello’s sack cloth caricature of Gerard Depardieu. If there’s any meaning to be gleaned at all among them, perhaps it’s just that age old saying:  There’s nothing new under the sun. Even so, there sure is a lot under the sun. Why not bask in the in-between?

 

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