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 […]
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?
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.
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).
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, 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 especiallywant 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.
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.
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 thegoodones 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.
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 tocomprehend 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.
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?
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)
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. 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, somenot. His fanfollowing 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.
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 […]
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?
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.
How did you get started in this area of study?
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.”
And it just spiraled outward from there.
[Laughs]. Yeah. Well, unfortunately, that lab closed, so I had to find a different lab. In Okinawa, Japan.
Which is a longer trek.
Tell me more about the layer painting technique you mentioned.
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.
Funny, how humans think we invented that.
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.
Ryuta Nakajima, Amburghese di cuore (no. 6) – photograph of cuttlefish atop textile fragment from 18th-century China
I’m especially interested in hearing about your process for the pieces where you placed the cuttlefish onto reproductions of classic works of art.
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?
Cuttlefish exhibiting a rare “fear response” coloring, possibly a reaction to the Piet Mondrian print seen in the background. Photo courtesy R. 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].
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 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.
So, are you publishing? I mean, this sounds… like actual science.
I mean. I think… it is. [Laughs]
“I think I’m doing science”?
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.
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.
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]
What has it been like working with scientists? Has it taught you anything about their world, and about the art world?
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.
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.”
Ben Vautier, FluxboxContaining 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
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.”
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-ups, Dark 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, Black Curve, oil on canvas, 1962. Photo: Walker Art Center
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: […]
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. 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.
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. Club, Paper 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.
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.
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.
Consider the Euphorbia, some species of which closely resemble our southwestern American cacti, but which are more closely related to the poinsettia.
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.
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.
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).
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: here, here, and here. Weschler responds to his readers in kind, with new convergences of his own. The urge to pattern-finding is infectious.
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?
I’m going to tell you a story because it’s the human thing to do. And yeah, this story is autobiographical, but I only tell it to see if it strikes a chord in you. Like: “Have you been in my shoes? Do you recognize these shoes? Can I try on your shoes? Those are way-cool and […]
Dinos and Jake Chapman, Year Zero (1996), from the exhibition Selections from the Permanent Collection, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, December 8, 1996 to April 4, 1999. Copyright 1998 Walker Art Center
I’m going to tell you a story because it’s the human thing to do. And yeah, this story is autobiographical, but I only tell it to see if it strikes a chord in you. Like: “Have you been in my shoes? Do you recognize these shoes? Can I try on your shoes? Those are way-cool and I bet they make you jump high.”
When I was a junior at a small liberal arts school which shall remain nameless, I had two life-changing conversations. To be honest, they weren’t so much conversations as shutdowns — brief and dismissive encounters, like when a bully slaps the lunch tray out of your hands — the sort of “conversation” that leaves you with little comeback and covered in ketchup.
But they mobilized me. I was pursuing a degree in English and biology at the time, and I naively thought the disciplines spoke to one another. You know, because we’re all just looking for answers.
Dorit Cyprus, On the Nature of Experience. C-print, 1990. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.
One day in 20th-Century American Lit, I offered up a science-oriented analysis of a William Carlos Williams poem. No matter how you feel about the man’s literary work, Willie Twotimes was undeniably a man of both science and the humanities. He was a poet, but also a family doctor — the kind of doctor who used to visit people in their very own beds, hold his stethoscope to their laboring chests and, presumably, try not to think about death (as poets are wont to do). I don’t remember the details of my disquisition, but I do recall clearly the change in my classmates as I leaked un-literary vernacular onto the discussion floor. I remember their lifted chins and nose-long glances that meant, in college-speak, You don’t know what you’re talking about. (Our fearless professor sat back to let us battle it out.)
One fellow student who shall remain nameless blurted: “Do you really think that science has to do with any of this?”
This? I thought. My heart sank. This… meaning life?
Mieko Shiomi, Spatial Poem (No. 4). Off-set lithography on paper, 1976. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.
Shift your view, if you would, to a biology classroom elsewhere on that campus, another day, not long after. I had presented — well, I thought — on the subject of sperm whales. I’d even managed to slip in a joke or two. I mean: sperm whale, c’mon. They call them that for a reason, and it’s not an unfunny one.
Eadward Muybridge, Baseball, Batting Plate #274 from Human and Animal Locomotion. Collotype on paper, 1887. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.
I’m not one to haggle over grades — really, truly — but when our presentation scores came back, I was surprised to find a little minus sprouted from the A like a skin tag. I asked why. I couldn’t help it. My professor, who shall remain nameless, shifted and cleared his throat. “Humor really has no place in a scientific presentation,” he said.
And this time, instead of sinking, my heart ignited with defiance. No place? (What?) Why not? After days of watching classmates dryly point at population diagrams, it had never occurred to me that lightening the load for my audience for the sake of better communication of information might be frowned upon.
Ranjani Shettar, Invitations (detail). Cloth, resin, synthetic cotton, 2000. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.
If minds accept the ways and teachings of art just as readily as they accept those of science, and vice-versa, new things can happen: it’s always valuable to include more points of observation in any field of view.
My thoughts exactly. And we are not alone. In 2011, neuroscientist Daniel Margulies of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences founded a cross-disciplinary brain imaging contest (the idea for which started as a joke in a bar, I’ll have you know). As he explains to Scientific American:
We wondered, ‘What could we do that would bring everyone to the table, even artists?’
Indeed. It’s just that spirit of what if which illuminates the commonalities between art and science. To put it all in an overly simple equation: science=knowledge=understanding=communication=art.
Even Albert Einstein (that violin-playing softie) addressed this notion:
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.
Bringing art and science into conversation together fecundates each, and a bounty of knowledge results. I’m going to try and do just that, right here, from time to time.
What about you? Game to join me? Are you willing to let your peas and carrots mix?
John Waters, Blue Plate Special. Color chromogenic print, 2011. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.
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. Club, Paper 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 Revolver magazine’s recent “Write Fight,” and is part of the bimonthly storytelling group Rock Star Storytellers. More at MaggieRyanSandford.com.