Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Welcome and Symposium Overview

JD TALASEK, Director of Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences (CPNAS):

Welcome to the second online discussion entitled Visual Culture and Evolution.

As the director of Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences, it is my honor to welcome this distinguished group of panelists who represent a wide range of disciplines. I’m certain that the diverse perspectives of the experts gathered for this event will make for a lively and informative discussion.

In 2004, I began talking with David Yager (founder of the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (CADVC) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)) and Symmes Gardner (current director of CADVC) about the need for an open forum between experts across disciplines. The conversation was triggered by a touring exhibition they were hosting at the time, Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution curated by Marvin Heiferman. This seminal exhibition brought together many of the leading artists who were (and still are) working within the nexus of art and bioscience. Yager and Gardner shared with me some of the criticisms they had received from scientists. Scientists’ main complaint was that they wanted an opportunity to respond to the work artists were creating on the subject of science. We began thinking about the possible benefits of such an exchange What insights could be shared? This idea to provide a platform for discussion across disciplines gave birth to our first symposium; Visual Culture and Bioscience (facilitated by Suzanne Anker in 2007). Because important work was happening in this cross-disciplinary field around the world, we decided to hold the discussion online, overcoming geographic and financial barriers. By hosting the discussion online, leading figures in the fields were able to participate without a major disruption to their work, research, and practices.

Now, after a year of events celebrating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his book, On the Origin of Species, we are gathered here, at least in a virtual sense, to discuss the relationship between visual culture and evolution. As Eduardo Kac mentions in one of the two interviews recorded to open this symposium, discussion across disciplines is beneficial but it seems almost arbitrary that there is an emphasis these days on art and science when there are a constellation of disciplines that shape our changing culture. Yet, it remains arguable that no other force has shaped our culture more than the advances made in science and technology. Is it even possible to imagine our world without the concept of evolution? Equally important is the way that elements of visual culture (in all of its manifestations) work to impact our perception, understanding, and attitudes towards the world around us. This is fertile area to explore.

I would like to thank our partners in the project, the CDAVC at UMBC and Johns Hopkins University’s Masters in Museum Studies Program. I am also grateful to our panel of advisors who have helped bring us to this point: May Berenbaum, Michael Sappol, Barbara Schaal, Barbara Stafford, Rick Welch, and David Yager. I am indebted to Kevin Finneran for his willingness and enthusiasm for facilitating this discussion.

Most importantly, I want to express appreciation to all of the panelists who are lending their insight, time, and expertise to this project. Thank you. I look forward to an energetic and insightful discussion.

SYMMES GARDNER, Director of the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (CADVC)

The Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (CADVC) is very honored to be part of the Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences' second online symposium entitled Visual Culture and Evolution. Bases on the dynamic interplay of voices found in its predecessor Visual Culture and Bioscience, we anticipate an extremely informed and lively discussion. The 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth offers an unparalleled opportunity to examine how we currently view evolution from a cultural and philosophical standpoint as well as scientific. The CADVC would like to thank the Masters of Arts in Museum Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University for supervising the technical aspects of the online symposium. We would also like to thank JD Talasek, Director of the Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences and Kevin Finnerin, the symposium's moderator and Editor in Chief of Issues in Science and Technology at the National Academy of Sciences, for their ongoing efforts in organizing this online symposium. The CADVC looks forward to working closely with both of them in ultimately producing a publication of the proceedings for its Issues in Cultural Theory series. The tentative publication date for the book Visual Culture and Evolution is scheduled for April, 2011.

PHYLLIS HECHT, Associate Chair, JHU Museum Studies

On behalf of the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program, I would like to join JD Talasek and Symmes Gardner in extending a warm welcome to all of the distinguished panelists and participants of the online Visual Culture and Evolution symposium. We are honored to be a co-sponsor of the symposium with Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences (CPNAS) and the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (CADVC), University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and pleased to be able to provide the online platform for this exciting conversation. I would like to thank CPNAS and CADVC for inviting us to be part of this provocative multidisciplinary forum. The themes of the symposium are particularly relevant to our JHU Museum Studies program as we focus on the theory and practice of museums in a changing technological, social, and political environment. We emphasize technology, global perspectives, and collaborations throughout the curriculum, as well as the possibilities of museums as agents of social change. The online format of our program allows for a dynamic exchange and diverse perspectives between faculty and students around the world. This symposium reflects a unique application of this technology and we are delighted to be able to share our online learning environment with you. I look forward to the upcoming discussions on topics so critical to creative collaborations between art, science, and technology today.

KEVIN FINNERAN, (moderator):

Welcome to the Symposium on Visual Culture and Evolution. We have an outstanding roster of artists, scientists, historians, philosophers, cultural critics, and curators who will be exploring this topic from a wide variety of angles over a vast expanse of time.

The discussion will follow a roughly chronological order. We'll start with a general discussion of what we mean by the concept of evolution broadly defined and what is encompassed under the rubric of visual culture. The panelists will then discuss some of the deep historical origins of ideas about evolution and the expression of related themes in visual culture.

We will then focus on the 19th century to develop an understanding of the cultural and intellectual climate in which Darwin was doing his groundbreaking research and thinking. The publication of "On the Origin of Species" in 1859 will be our next landmark. What was the immediate reaction within the scientific community? Did the discussion of evolution make its way immediately into general discourse? Was there any immediate response apparent in visual culture?

Ideas about evolution continued to ripple through the society throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. We will spend several days discussing how the concept of evolution permeated numerous aspects of intellectual life, and we will of course be focusing on the dynamic changes that took place in visual culture during this period and considering how artists, architects, photographers, filmmakers, and others incorporated, reacted to, and influenced thinking about evolution. The final 3-day period will explore what is happening today and where we might be heading. Technological developments are creating new media, more people are contributing to visual culture in a variety of new venues, and some artists and scientists are experimenting with collaborative projects. We can't predict where the discussion will go at this stage, but we are confident that the collective energy and creativity of the participants will open new avenues of discussion as well as exciting speculation about what we might be seeing in the future.


Let me take the opportunity to thank the NAS and CADVC for sponsoring this discussion bringing together artists and scientists in the same discussion forum.

I myself am a scientist, an astronomer, but heavily involved with artists that work with science and technology.

A few observations:

a) There are few fora where artists and scientists find themselves in the same professional context where practionners are treated as professionals with the ability to contribute significantly to the practice of the other. Only too often scientists expect artists to help on communicating science, illustrating science or marketing science - rather than contributing to the doing of science and creating a new cultural context for its development.

b) The asymmetries are numerous. It is my impression that there are more artists with a general contemporary science culture, than scientists with a general contemporary arts culture. Generalizations are dangerous but I would observe;

= artists in residence in scientific laboratories are proliferating
= there are no/few scientist in residence programs in cultural institutions (examples ?)

In JD's opening statement, he makes the comment that scientists want the opportunity to comment, respond and engage with the work of the artists. This forum is a good example of the new ways the scientific community can engage more deeply in the underlying issues, and the Darwin topic is a good one because it has had such a huge cultural impact.

Pioneering art-science-technology artist Roy Ascott is fond of saying that it is Science that is in trouble in our societies today, not the Arts. Looking at the statistics on creationist beliefs in the USA would support this assertion.

In any case= thank you to the organizers.

*image by Tracy Hicks

Monday, March 8, 2010

Our Online Discussion

Visual Culture and Evolution
Online Symposium

April 5-7 The Origin of Evolutionary Thinking and the Role of the Visual
April 8 -10 The 19th and 20th Century: Evolving Ideas in Science and Visual Culture
April 11-13 Scientific Advancements, Research, and the Development of New Aesthetics
April 14 Wrap Up, Conclusions and Catch Up

This is the public access site to the online discussion. The discussion will take place here from Monday, April 5 through Wednesday, April 14, 2010. Please come back here at that time. You can find more information about the event and a list of participants at or by visiting

The content and opinions from the symposium speeches, presentations, blogs, wikis, and/or feeds reflect those of the authors and presenters, and are not those of the organizing institutions that include: the National Academy of Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Johns Hopkins University; or any of their affiliates or schools. The organizing institutions neither endorse nor oppose the content and opinions from the symposium speeches and presentations, or the opinions of the authors and presenters.