Sunday, April 11, 2010

4/11: Visual Culture Today

Last Update: 04-11-2010 15:08:33

04-11-2010 15:08:33
Up until this point in the symposium we have looked at visual culture historically and asked the quesiton what was the intent of the artist? What was the impact? What was the context? Let us turn the same intense examination towards contemporary practices. On our panel we have a number of artists and illustrators. This is your time to shine! Please tell us about your practices and let's invite the scientists and cultural experts to respond and engage. In this thread we can also include visual culture in all of its manifestations including design and architecture to name only a few. How are thoughts of evolution manifested in visual culture today?

04-12-2010 02:22:01
JD's prompting question deserves the best fully layered response I can provide ---including intent and context in contemporary terms correlated to the past week's historical grounding. But first as a way of grounding myself in the symposium I approached it as a visual project by making a series of animated studies from high resolution still images.

Described on the index page as:

Paralleling the Visual Culture and Evolution Symposium over the past week I have created and collected these few webpages, words, and thousands of images shaped into animations all correlating the collective symposium thoughts with collecting, collection, human body, landscape, scientific glassware, a glass box-like vessel and frog bodies - while continually filtering the collected imagery for visual signs of interpreting evolution to reinterpret.

04-12-2010 05:38:16
In response to JD, I have included a selection of works from an exhibition called evolutionn that took place at the Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University (CT) and Steinberg Fine Art (NYC) in 2005-6. In these works (spilled oil, acrylic over digital prints) I reflected on the (unsuccessful) attempt to clean up the Exxon Valdez oil-spill with genetically-engineered bacteria. Some of the forms have been ‘mutated’ with a cellular automata program, and other areas incorporate photographic images of bacteria I and others had grown in a microbiology lab. They are printed over selections from patents, including Chakrabarty’s landmark 1980 bio patent.


04-12-2010 11:29:40
The large end of the funnel, manifesting artist driven ideas on evolution is as gigantic as the number of artists striving to question their work. So the volume of original art work on evolution varies from the obvious and overt to lost in the process. The art process itself evolves through natural selection. Some adaption works and is repeated to become part of a new generation of work.

The academic and science communities NAS has gathered here provide the most significant stage I have found for visual artists to create and present their work and ideas on evolution. So this network represents the small end of the funnel.

To a major degree Visual Art today has been hijacked by an art gallery market driven by the economy to produce safe products for consumers. So to define or even find evolution manifest in visual culture outside the academic community requires some judicial searching.

This vast sea of artists generally try, but do not fit into the gallery market resulting in an alternative network of artist driven exhibition spaces where evolution is addressed from all perspectives. By their egalitarian nature, these alternative spaces show a full spectrum of socially relevant visual art.

Visual art and artists mirror evolution in ways science cannot. As an example, a scientist's work is validated when another scientist can replicate the original science. Art looses validity when replicated.

04-12-2010 11:52:25
To set us off on a slightly different path to thinking about evolution as it figures in contemporary visual culture, I would like to suggest that we explore the evolutionary logic embedded and sometimes explicitly articulated by artistic and scientific explorations in bio-machinic interactions. There are a rich array of artistic works that could be cited to exemplify this including, most prominently, that of the artist, Stelarc who explicitly articulated his embodied interactions with and integrations of the machinic as attempts to both announce and go beyond the 'obsolete body'.

However, in the interest of getting us to focus on a different set of questions about evolution, I would like to propose that we discuss works that seek to enact associations between the biological and machinic so as to rethink and expand the mutability of both while signaling evolutionary continuities between them.

One important trend in such investigations are those that explore plant - machine interactions. A key reference point for such explorations has been and continues the idea of plant movement which itself was measured and studied by Darwin in his book, The Power of Movement in Plants (1880). While the scientific study of plant movement and irritability through the careful measurement of their electric potential began in the late 19th century with the work of Jagadis Chandra Bose, it was not until the controversial work of Cleve Backster in the 1960s using lie-detectors to record plant galvanic responses to a variety of cues and the popularity of the Bird and Tompkins book, The Secret Life of Plants (1973) that artistic investigations of plant sensitivity began. The work of Richard Lowenberg and Tom Zahuranec in 1972 on plant music using galvanic skin responses of plants are particularly noteworthy pioneers. The peculiarly evolutionary aspects of this sensitivity was explored, I would suggest, with Eduardo Kac's 1994 work, 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding'. In this work a plant and canary were in remote dialogue through the internet where the canary's singing formed the cues for a plant's responses that were measured by an brain wave analyser and sent to the canary. I would suggest that Kac's work was exploring the possibility and emergence of cross-species communication systems. Another body of works worth considering in this discussion, is Masaki Fujihata's Orchisoid (2001) where he had created a plant-robot that used EEG recordings of plants to drive the robot. The notion of the 'Orchisoid' - this plant-robot - clearly suggesting the emergence of a new species of sorts.

04-12-2010 11:52:32
I’m intrigued with Tracy’s process. He is a collector and spends a great deal of time moving objects around, observing and making connections. The process of photographing objects and using them to create videos is an allusion to a naturalist’s proces of journaling - a process of discovery using the visual. I’m reminded of the debate that occurred between Stephen Jay Gould and Rosamond Purcell at MICA, one of the last times that Gould spoke in public before his death. Gould argued that an object/artifact without a label had no meaning. Purcell argued that there is visual meaning as well and that this can lead discovery. I think Tracy’s work reflects the truth in what Purcell argued. As an artist, Tracy is able to make and present discoveries that are personal and fantastical in nature if he desires, a luxury that he might not enjoy fully if he wore the hat of a scientist.

Tracy recently received notice that he will be the recipient of the Smithsonian’s fellowship program in 2010. As artist-in-residence he will be able to access a broad range of the museums many collections. This is an interesting point within the context of a discussion on collaboration because this program was designed as part of the Smithsonian’s overall strategic plan to find creative and effective ways to build bridges between the various collections. This applies not only to public exhibitions within the many museums within the Smithsonian complex but also for the curators who work in collections that are often located right across the street from each other but seldom know what is happening in the other “silo.” The artist acts a conduit of information between curators. In the same vein, I will mention that the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum has formed an advisory panel to begin incorporating art exhibits within the museum’s building. One only needs to look at the work of Bergit Arends, the full time art curator at the Museum of Natural History, London to see how effective this type of program can be.

04-12-2010 12:15:39
The works of art are richly imaginative, evocative and even critical (in the theoretical sense). But I wonder if we could broaden the discussion. As we all agreed, visual culture is more than just "art". In what ways does current evolutionary theory (after the population biology, molecular biology, and ecological turns)--and also older evolutionary ideas about adaptation, mutation, deep time, etc.--structure, influence, provide discursive logic for, other, "non-art" (or non-high-art) visual productions in our world today. I'm thinking about things such as product design, cuisine, advertisements, gardening, fashion, magazine and newspaper art, vernacular motion pictures (Avatar) and television shows (Survivor, Lost, forensic procedurals, etc.), video games.

04-12-2010 12:58:19
You are right to broaden the topic, Michael, and I hope to see a wide discussion on this Visual Culture Today thread. But I would be amiss not pointing out that visual art is a physical manifestation of Visual Culture that condenses and presents the other "things" you suggest we discuss.


04-12-2010 15:26:52
To follow Michael's call to expand the notion of visual culture to other objects and experiences as well as to maintain and extend the connection to my previous point about plant-machine interactions indicating interesting trajectories in evolution, I would like to point to three examples of 'techno-botanical' products:

- Click and Grow - - which enacts a plant machine interaction to enable the plant to 'proactively' (obviously raising questions of 'intentionality') and dynamically support its nutritive needs by machinic capacities it is connected to.

- Digital Pot - - that seeks to make evolve a pet out of a potted plant by providing the plant with a sign system that makes sense to and engages humans.

- Botanicalls - - a device that enables your potted plants to make its nutritive needs known by calling you on the phone when necessary.

While these might seem like rather trivial gadgets and gizmos, it is useful to remind ourselves such quirky products signal anomalies in our cultural and scientific reckoning with plants.

04-12-2010 17:43:02
Re Gunalan's post on techno-botanicals (quoting Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy): "!!?!?!!"
(Seriously, nice to see these "gizmos" produced as examples of visual culture. But I wonder if we're not straying from the agenda. In what ways are these "evolutionary"? Or, as I argued in a previous post, is evolutionary discourse (broadly conceived) now so vast as to encompass nearly every performatively innovative human production?)


04-12-2010 18:25:14
Dear Gunalan and Michael,
Here's another "techno-botanical" for you. It's a piece that I fabricated from repurposed housewares and LED lights. It was a project exhibited in an exhibition at Exit Art in NYC, entitled "Corpus Extremus+." Many of the usual "bio" artists also participated in show, including our colleague Paul Vanouse. My mission was to grow vegetables in the gallery by using red and blue LED lights. The harvest was green, green beans in fact, appearing , however, in hues of fuschia. As an homage to NASA, and the practice of Astroculture, I think every home should have one. So much for a green revolution.

04-12-2010 19:16:13
Re Michael's incredulity as to the connection between the techno-botanical gadgets and evolutionary theory, my point was to see these in connection to the discourses that see bio-machinic hybrids as constituting emergent and/or evolutionary developments, I referred to in my earlier post. I do not think there was any suggestion that any innovative creation constitutes evolutionary discourse, but hybrids that purport to enhance the capacities of biological entities and machines by their mutation do indeed draw on the tropes of evolution.

04-12-2010 20:02:15
Hello Gunalan,

I wanted to give some historical background on plant senstitivity and art. The Symbolist Redon created fantastic and melancholy plant-humans inspired by the work of the botanist Armand Clavaud who sought sensate plants that could be connected to the animal kingdom (in the search for origins). This work in plant physiology entered literature as well as in Michelet's La montagne (1868) in which he writes poetically about a type of algae that "becomes man" through "love" (reproduction, some forms of algae having sperm and ova) for several hours a day under the effects of light. Scientific research on plant sensitivity drew on many things--animal and plant protoplasm/sarcode being found to be similar, plants and animals now being found to have similarities in respiratory and metabolic systems, etc. There is a chapter in my Redon book that deals with this. The contemporary model of the brain by Ribot traced evoution of the mind to plants where parallels were drawn between tropism in plants and reflexes of the spine and lower brain stem. This too was influential.

Art nouveau artists were profoundly influenced by ideas of plant senstivity and energies , especially in the "whiplash" forms. (See the Horta in a past post). Surrealists made use of plants like the venus fly trap, at least in one case installing them in an exhibition.


04-13-2010 17:10:20
J.D. emailed kindly asking me to contribute something to the dialogue. At such a high level of discourse I’m not sure I have anything intelligent enough to add.

So instead, I will contribute a few images from my current project with leaf cutter ants (Atta colombica). I just returned from six weeks in Costa Rica lying on my belly filming and photographing. This is my third trip. If there is a relationship to science in what I’m doing, it is perhaps that the poor field biologist is also sweating it out on the jungle floor being bitten by their subject (and being pooped on by the howler monkeys).

The colony I was filming was attacked by its larger neighbor. Isn’t that always the way? My team lost, but in the meantime I did manage to get some pictures of the mini-gladiators locked in epic battle.

04-14-2010 15:01:47
I am delighted to follow Catherine's kindred spirit post. Sweaty field work is where all this collection of thought originates. Her images are intensely exhilarating. Plus we were both in the exhibition I'll describe below.

JD's observations on my work are appreciated of course but astutely he made the connection with Steven Jay Gould and Rosamond Purcell whose individual and collective works are deeply influential to the current of art science merge. Their book Crossing Over in particular affected me.

In the Visual Culture Today concept I will describe an exhibition installation project In Dayton Ohio Nov 2009 through Jan 2001 I had the honor of participating in, Benjamin Montague curated an exhibition titled Reflections on Darwin an hours drive north of the Creationist Museum. My contribution to the well rounded exhibition was an installation presenting a collection of artifacts collected specifically for the installation. All the artifacts were catalogued and presented on a two story tall scaffolding allowing viewers to interact with the scale of presented collection. The title for the installation. On the Scaffolding of Collecting obviously alludes to Darwin's publication but also to collecting and interpreting from real objects. The visual signs of life we often choose to step over and dismiss.

From here, like Catherine, I'll let the images speak:

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