Tuesday, April 13, 2010

4/13: All panelists, start your crystal balls

Last Update: 04-14-2010 12:08:43

04-13-2010 11:25:54
Because we have been following a more or less chronological order, because we are drawing near to the end of our time, and because it is subject on which we are all equally ignorant, I would like to start a thread about the future.

We have had some discussion of biomachines, of eugenics, and of sociobiology as a new eugenics. We also have groups such as the transhumanists and the Singularity University that are eager to use science and technology to essentially create a humanity that is healthier, longer-lived, more creative, and perhaps able to leap buildings in a single bound. Many of us are already wearing our technology, embedding artificial body parts, and ingesting our personalities. Synthetic biologists dream not only of recreating life as we know it and designing new organism from "biobricks," but of creating new systems of DNA that are built on different proteins. Is this evolution? Is it eugenics? Where do we see ideas about these developments in our visual culture? How are scientists, artists, philosophers, and others addressing our future options?

I know that there are a number of active threads still proceeding in parallel, but I would like to bring everyone together on this one.

04-13-2010 13:25:10
On the first time reading of Kevin's prompt "biobrick" read as bio-trick. Small type and aging eyes. But the analogy held. Biomachines, eugenics and sociobiolgy of our past predict a future of rationalized margins for the masses..

We see that fear of science manifest in mass media. First, second and third rate films of mad scientists and science gone awry may have started with the Godzilla era but continue to grow in correlation to bio-engineering. A current example: Repo Men The press right, left and center grasps at the sensation of science missing the substantial structure behind the headlines.

Dismissing the current fundamentalist religious views on evolution as simplistic overlooks an increasing divide between the educated including the marginal/uneducated and this astute level of academic philosophers gathered here.

EO Wilson and Wendell Berry are both heros to me. Consilience helped me to see how the arts and sciences could mesh and improve our understanding of our place in Nature through critical thinking. Frankly I struggled to comprehend it but gained immensely from the process. In "Life is a Miracle" Berry stood for the masses who reason faith as a magic visceral component of life. His views were simplistic and easy to comprehend. Even when not substantive Berry presented an argument based on his faith.

My faith lies in both art and science. Were I to create a symbolic deity it would be an Andrias japonicus,

So gazing into my crystal ball I see visual culture migrating away from rational thinking towards more sensationalism while science continues evolving to create ever more sensational "biobricks"

Andrias image from public domaine

Andrias japonicus image by Dante Fenolio copyright Dante Fenolio

04-13-2010 14:46:52
To add another “brick” to Tracy’s wall of ideas, let me quote from Fred Ritchin’s provocative article (“Failing to Harness the Web’s Visual Promise”) in the newest online version of “Nieman Reports” (Spring 2010). Ritchin notes that on the Web, “It is possible to think of photographs or even pieces of photographs as nodes that link to a variety of other media, what I call hyperphotography, rather than as images that are sufficient in and of themselves. In this way, the reader becomes much more implicated in the unfolding of a story when she has to choose pathways to follow as a means of exploring various ideas, rather than being presented with only one possible sequence.”

Substitute any type of “visualization” of science (drawing, chart, sculpture, painting) for Ritchin's word “photograph” and consider who will become “implicated” in the future in the unfolding of science’s visual narratives, and how the medium of communication will influence that involvement. Each may determine the consequent interpretation and use of whatever "biobricks' scientists create. An artist envisions her viewers; a writer imagines her readers; the “mass” media (films, television, comic books…) care only about numbers, the box office, the ratings, not the faces or names. Reach is all. The audience becomes an approximation rather than a listener. For scientists, artists, and anyone who cares about encouraging constructive public reception to science in the future (because what's the sense of science if it cannot be put to use?), the 21st century context of multiple pathways (tailored as well as mass-directed) represents both an opportunity and a terrifying challenge. Yes, I agree that the “divide” grows ever wider and deeper And what shall we make of the fact that it is doing so even as the number of nodes and opportunities for creative expression increase? And what if the margins become hardened or walled off? No crystal ball...only a small plea for a more organic approach to communication...one that incorporates understanding of the watershed as well as measurement of the water.

04-13-2010 14:52:15
To answer Kevin's question my insight is that "designing new organism from "biobricks" attests to the importance that bottom up practices and craft itself has acquired in modern science and in particular sciences using biotechnologies. This part of science and the element of practical knowldge is often invisible from the public image of scientific research. Artist's residencies in labs and sci-art collaborations, which as JD has noted both as a term and as field of policy for culture and science is closely linked to the important work that the Wellcome Trust has carried, it seems to me unpacks this other notion of what it means to do science, one that includes protocols and instruments, fascinating 'objects' in their own right. This lab based concept of craft is the inbetween space where artists and scientists meet in producing fantastically different 'things'.


04-13-2010 17:27:45
Let's say someone (someone from this symposium, perhaps) got hold of the technology and built an organism as an art project. Call it SciArt, conceptual art, political art, what-have-you. But it has no biomedical value. The only thing anyone's going to be cured of as a result of it is maybe tunnel-vision.

Is this acceptable? Under what conditions? Does it depend on what kind of nervous system it has? On who is funding the work? On where it is shown? On what happens to it after the "show"?

If it is not acceptable--as many people would say it is not--what does that say about public valuations of art, of visual culture, in contrast to science?

04-13-2010 18:22:12
The working title of this particular discussion forum, “the crystal ball,” represents a most challenging subject for discourse. In the 21st century (an era of information technology), the relationship between art and science has become, on a practical level, ever so much a professional partnership. Digital media, animation, graphic design, etc., have become vital illustrational components of scientific advancement today. This connection is no more evident than in the realm of biology. The down side of this situation, as mentioned by others in the panel, is (at least the appearance of) a relegation of art to the status of the “handmaiden” of science. On the up side, I would argue, more and more scientists are finding that the visual imagery revealed by the application of the technology of today’s art forms is heightening their awareness and appreciation of the beauty (and, yes, the “elegance”) of the natural world. Historically, technology (as the extension of scientific discoveries into our real everyday world) has always had an artistic bent to it. Let us not forget that the ancient root etymon techne is, in fact, the Greek word for “art.” Technology, if looked at properly, can stand as the medium where science and art can be reconciled on the knowledge-discovery landscape.

As epitomized symbolically in C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures (which, incidentally, enjoyed a celebrated 50th anniversary of its own last year), we often tend to see art and science as poles apart, with an “either/or” mentality, as opposed to the conjunction “and” – bearing the notion of complementarity. It is so enlightening and constructive to see the differing perspectives of such complementarity in the narratives of the panelists in this symposium! Some say that science is “objective” about Nature, while art is “subjective.” Not so! They both entail flowing, evolving, impressionistic, and relativistic representations of the world. Relativity theory has exposed space-time as a contorted, distorted, twisted, and fluid medium – rather much like a Dali painting. Quantum theory has shown the microworld to be indeterminate and imprecise, whereby the “observer” defines reality by the experimental way of looking at Nature. For example, material existence has a wave-particle duality, depending on the method of analysis. The expression “observer-created reality” is now part of the vernacular of physics.

The central theme of this symposium is “visual culture and evolution.” Perhaps we should ponder the implicit issue of visual culture in human evolution. After all, we might ask, is there a “Darwinian” union of the two?! Such a philosophical query leads down many lanes of thought, as one contemplates the metaphysical roles of “art” and “science” in human existence. My own training initially was in science (specifically physics), and, I suppose, scientific cognition is my default mode. We must distinguish the significance of “science and the individual human being” from that of “science and humanity.” Personally, I went into science (physics) because I was (still am) curious about the how the world works. Understanding a particular physical principle, or solving a mathematical relationship about a particular physical process, gives me goose bumps. However, “science and humanity” is altogether different. The scientific enterprise (and artwork, as well), many would argue, is just another side of our biological essence, i.e., who we are. Yes, science shows the way to the “understanding” and “knowledge” of Nature. The goose bumps of the individual scientist notwithstanding, such “knowledge” of Nature leads to “prediction” and, ultimately, to “control” of Nature. To what purpose? “Darwinian” thinking gives the obvious answer: the betterment of human society – rather the betterment of some human societies in competition with others. Yes, ‘tis true, that much of science is collaborative today (look at the author lists in papers in such journals as Nature and Science), but there remains competition – some would say that it’s in our genes. (And some would label it “social Darwinism.”) The history of science is tainted with the uses (misuses) of scientific knowledge in conflicts between nation states and in the destruction of the environment (not to mention the pillaging of natural resources from the non-industrialized, underdeveloped countries).

Call me a mystic, but I would aver that the stars were aligned propitiously on the astral plane in 2009 – with the coincidence of the multitudinous Darwin celebrations and the (lesser known) 50th anniversary of Snow’s The Two Cultures lecture (and ensuing book). What most folks (who haven’t actually read Snow’s book) don’t realize is that Snow was not simply presented a cultural divide between the arts (generally speaking) and the sciences per se. His “take-home message” was that we must heal the divide if we are to solve the global problems of under-education, poverty, and “rich vs. poor.” My hope (optimistic and altruistic though it may be) is that a more balanced return to the “arts” will save this biological species called Homo sapiens (sapientia – Latin for “wisdom”) from self-destruction. Snow’s directive is that, if we are to solve the global problems befalling humanity, it is not sufficient for us (the “intellectuals”) to convince one another; we must convince those with the decision-making power (viz., government leaders).

The eminent physicist/philosopher Henry Margenau (1901-1997), like many notable physicists of the “golden era” of physics in the 20th century, turned to Eastern philosophy/religion in the end. Margenau (see his book The Miracle of Existence, 1984) posited that we human beings, in both our scientific outlook and our artistic expression, have come full circle in our relationship with Nature. For, he said, “we look into Nature and see ourselves.” We need both art and science for us to understand our oneness with Nature.


04-14-2010 03:54:22
Just a quick post, really footnote to Nathaniel's point about cure and western science method. It comes from Feyerabend's Against Method where he poses the question how non western cultures and civilizations managed to develop cures and medicine outside the domain of western techno-science. He refers to the regions and cultures that today overlap with south america.

04-14-2010 03:55:56
Nathaniel, your question gets at the heart of how we value of our creations. I’m sure if we combed through the combined histories of science, technology, medicine, and mathematics we’d find plenty of examples of this “no value” perception many people have when encountering new, exploratory work (e.g., the Germ Theory of Disease). This Truizm hints at that reality.

If this hypothetical organism you’re referring to was not intended to have any practical biomedical value or merit –- meaning, its creator made no claims to that effect – then, many people who are knowledgeable about contemporary art would say it is acceptable...and meaningful as an experimental work. The organism, by design, served no apparent purpose other than testing the skills of the artist to see whether or not it was possible to create. Some might argue that’s a purpose with a tangible result.

To add another frame of complexity to this response: If the creator had built this organism to raise new and fundamental questions about biomedical engineering practices and/or biomedical ethics and/or biomedical applications — or anything that challenged the biomedical practitioners to rethink or expand a technique, research approach, or some design scheme — then that creative act would also be regarded as acceptable.

More to the point: Even if the creator aimed to use this novel organism as a way to cure a disease, or spark a discovery, or inspire a technological innovation -- but misses the target -- then that too would be acceptable. After all, is it any different than testing a hypothesis that “fails” the verification, or falsification, process (Popper, 1957 & 1965) in following the scientific method, and subsequently needs some re-thinking with new data. I think people are inclined to say that it was a “productive” experiment with a measurable outcome (i.e., it didn’t work). And that piece of information is also valuable in so far as it earmarks one experiment that needn't be repeated without further development.

From an artist’s perspective, this concern about “acceptability” may strike many in the arts as a moot issue -- especially in this age of Postmodernism, where many creators choose to blur or erase the line between The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Unlike the sciences and mathematics, there’s no standard criteria or canon of aesthetics for making, presenting and interpreting a “work of art.” Any medium is fair game (biological, chemical, nuclear, electronic, industrial refuse, air, light, etc.); any form of expression will do (from the subtle to heavy-handed; from the most sublime to the crudest), and any message (from the elegant to the vulgar). This is where the “interface” between the practices of art-making and science-making can get momentarily turbulent…like two jets flying in parallel formation, until one suddenly crosses the jet stream of the other -- startling everyone in the wake.


04-14-2010 06:47:12
No predictions here. Instead I offer a wish list for more art exploring the boundaries of human perception and focused on viewer subjectivity, more ecological consciousness, scientific and aesthetic examinations of collective consciousness and behavior through private meditations, more collaborative exploration of the full sensorium, continued challenges to ideas of biological and technological determinism, including the falsely-reductive flow-charts of ‘isms” in art history, and more support in every way for what the cognitive scientist Roger N. Shepard identified as the value of “unfettered artistic exploration.”

04-14-2010 07:56:55

Thanks for this thoughtful response. This thread has gotten me thinking about comparing the ethical dimensions of art and science.

In science, you have Institutional Review Boards, human subjects' guidelines, HIPAA, the Belmont Report, the Helsinki Agreement, and Nuremburg, not to mention Jeremy Rifkin et al, plus an entire academic discipline devoted to thinking about, policing, and bloviating over the ethics of biological research.

In art, what I'm hearing is, you have an ethical wild, wild west.

This could create some significant tensions in future art-science collaborations.


04-14-2010 11:24:02
Nathaniel, just a quick note in response: I apologize that my enthusiasm here has led me to break the speed limit and word count. But I felt compelled to add the following…

I trust you know that the arts have a similarly rigorous review process as the sciences. Although it tends to be far more subjective and less dependent on “empirical tests” of hypotheses, premises, suppositions, and so forth, they’re, nevertheless, often deep, insightful critiques by scholars, practitioners, and other professionals who take the work of these their review boards very seriously, and who try to be as impartial, or “objective,” as possible in their evaluations and assessments. I’ve sat on my share of these review boards on both sides of the fence, and, you’re right: we seek to understand and critique various qualities and characteristics of the process and product of the work in question.

Speaking for the arts (and I mean to include here all forms, expressions, media, processes and products), I can say there’s a wide array of aesthetic dimensions and characteristics of works of art that are taken into account. Whether or not the artist who created the work accepts the constructive criticisms and “value-judgments” is another matter altogether. Frankly, if artists did that throughout the ages—if they simply accepted these judgments bytheir peers and patrons and the cognoscenti—there’d be no break with the traditions of making, appreciating and developing art. There’d be no rich history of modern, contemporary, and postmodern art as we know it! Here, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism applies so brilliantly: “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

Art movements, like science movements, are largely “reactionary” in their responses to and interpretations of the limits our perceptions of truth & beauty; they’re also influenced by the reach and limits of our tacit and explicit knowledge, which we are the tools we use to know these things. The polymath and science historian, Robert-Root-Bernstein explores all this in his fascinating essay, “Beauty, Truth, and Imagination: A Perspective on the Science and Art of Modeling Atoms” (in J. Burroughs, ed. Snelson’s Atom. Catalogue for Novo Presents: Art at the Academy Exhibit, New York Academy of Science, 1989c, pp. 15-20).

Presumably, professional art reviewers and scholars are informed by a long history of evaluating and assessing works of art, which comprise the History of Art (Hartt, 1989). And these assessments addresses a veritable matrix of physical and conceptual properties (Gombrich et al., 1970; Goodman, 1976), symbolic properties (Langer, 1958), experiential properties (Dewey, 1934), properties of expression (Sircello, 1972), properties of “meaning” (Panofsky, 1955); properties of visual thinking (Arnheim, 1969; Klee, 1959 & 1969), properties of “interpretation and response” (Ackerman, 1982), properties of illustration versus interpretation (Schapiro, 1973), and so much more.

I won’t bore you with further details about the numerous facets of this phenomena we call “Art,” or wax on about why I love both the arts and sciences so profoundly, but I would like to leave you smiling with at least one humorous note that arcs back to my previous post and your excellent questions. It concerns our first impressions and second opinions of an artwork’s “relevance.” Please keep in mind as you read the following that, for me, A.r.t. encompasses All representations of thought. I elaborated on this in another thread, and it’s important to mention here because that broader definition is what I live by and embrace as a “truth” I cannot prove…

I once tried to read the introduction of my friend, Dr.Shai Haran’s book, titled The Mysteries of the Real Prime (Oxford University Press, 2001). I felt like I dove into an intellectual abyss…never to return again. I mean, pure mathematics is one of the most elegant forms of high art that’s so foreign to most people’s experience we have no way of relating it to our world. And yet, to the handful of deep math practitioners working on ”the Riemann zeta function and its adelic interpretation,” Dr. Haran’s symbolic language makes perfect sense. Here’s the overview, in a nutshell:

“The Mysteries of the Real Prime develops an arithmetical approach to the continuum of real numbers and unifies many areas of mathematics including: Markov Chains, q-series, Elliptic curves, the Heisenberg group, quantum groups, and special functions (such as the Gamma, Beta, Zeta, theta, Bessel functions, the Askey-Wilson and the classical orthagonal polynomials) The text discusses real numbers from a p-adic point of view, first mooted by Araeklov. It includes original work on coherent theory, with implications for number theory and uses ideas from probability theory including Markov chains and noncommutative geometry which unifies the p-adic theory and the real theory by constructing a theory of quantum orthagonal polynomials.”

Say what?! When people would ask Shai what he and his colleagues did with this stuff, this creative genius would simply shrug his shoulders and sigh, “Nothing. We just play games with it. Game Theory.” The point is: No one knew what to do with it. It was even more abstract and alien and disconnected from our everyday reality than the most bizarre synthetic organism imaginable. The public tends to dismiss this Extreme Math, because it’s “not of this Earth.” All that changed, however, the day the Defense Departments of the world started applying pure math for more than Game Theory; or, rather, variations on the theme of Game Theory.

I suppose that’s the way human knowledge grows…by our higher awareness of nature’s ways. Ultimately, ”ideas are always in the air,” as Leonardo da Vinci once observed. We just have to be open to seeing every aspect of nature anew—and then, questioning what we see continuously…while enlarging our field of view and vision of what is possible.

One final related note: When I reflect on the evolution of James Clerk Maxwell’s four major equations that enabled us see and define the deep connection between electricity and magnetism united in the properties of light, I realize that scientists and mathematicians alike have been engaged in the same process of creative-critical thinking which artists have flowed with for eons by instinct, intuition, research, and a leap in logic and not just blind faith in luck: We’re all slowly opening the aperture of our imagination to see farther, deeper—and, hopefully, more wisely—than ever before.

This equation appears on my favorite MIT T-shirt that I'd purchased as a graduate student many years ago; I appropriated it and digitally manipulated it in Adobe Photoshop purely for inspirational purposes :)

04-14-2010 11:47:50

It is easy to see the arts as a wild wild west atmosphere unencumbered by the bureaucracy of self imposed limitations like the ethics committees governing biological research. But consider the full spectrum of art and science and our historical grounding of alchemy, we have matured in comparable umbrella like forms. Science can be done outside the umbrella of review boards as well as art done outside the umbrella of credibility. Science can create monsters. Art can too. But art done under the umbrella of science bureaucracy will be subject to the same ethical restraints.

Bringing art/science collaboration under the umbrella of science is a way to lessen these tensions.

But the tensions that will inevitably arise from the merge can be significant to consider. They can be signs of irregularities and natural selection can follow.

04-14-2010 12:08:43
Well said, Tracy. And right on...

04-14-2010 13:15:51
Brilliant stuff, Todd and Tracy--many thanks.

I was being terse and provocative about the wild west--really, I just meant in terms of what would be accepted in terms of bio-engineering for aesthetic purposes. Thus, bringing an art-science project like building an organism under the science umbrella would preclude pretty much all of Todd's earlier possibly "acceptable" versions of the experiment. And if it were done under the art umbrella, there would probably be a splinter PETA group--"People for the Ethical Treatment of Art"--vandalizing art studios.

But your expositions on the larger questions of ethics in art are fascinating. With the math example, Todd kind of looped us around to the other thread on elegance. This is fun!


04-14-2010 15:13:29
On a pedestrian note, following up on Tracy Hicks's observation that "second and third rate films of mad scientists and science gone awry...continue to grow in correlation to bio-engineering" and just about every other technological advance. Here's a prediction, with respect to art/science visual culture--as the sophistication of computer-generated imagery increases and removes the constraints of the physical world, the power of the entertainment mass media to define the reality increases as well (e.g., communication devices on board the 1969 Starship Enterprise influenced the design of the first mobile phone--

http://propbuzz.blogspot.com/2005/10/how-props-of-star-trek-influence-our.html--not a biobrick but a "brick-like device" nonetheless...).

04-14-2010 17:49:04
Please walk on through here May. Your point is good and appreciated.

Thanks for the accolade, Nathaniel, Just keeping up with you Todd, Marcel and all these brilliant folks is a tremendously fun stretch for me. Your wild west analogy was/is appropriate. It resonates in the art world. The art world is wild west free wheeling and can be obtrusive to be sure. That is part of the strength of art in the big broad picture. But to continue this perpetual metaphor that picture is also the large end of the funnel. The small end we are talking about here is under the umbrella of credibility.

Unlike peer reviewed science, art stands above the high water line in current culture only by the veracity of the artist and with the credibility of those who( circling back to Marcel's post) find the watershed, Knocking art from its base of credibility is more easy than stopping well meaning science from re-altering the environment after previous generations of scientifically proven alterations have gone awry that we see in the current global warming solutions and debates.

quoting Marcel:
"...only a small plea for a more organic approach to communication...one that incorporates understanding of the watershed as well as measurement of the water."

Describing this in visual terms helps me but we have to get in this water more to find the depth.

Tying these threads together is aspirational. I look forward to meeting and hopefully working with Marcel at the Smithsonian this summer and fall. And hope to meet more of you in the not too distant future.


04-16-2010 00:32:34
To All “Crystal Ball” Gazers & Futurists…

it would be a shot of inspiration to hear your responses to these basic questions (and by all means please add your own):

How can we use art-science-technology to help children constructively cope with their FEARS of the future? What do they fear most? What would help remove these fears?

Today, many kids experience chronic anxieties as though their minds were constantly on “Red Alert,” which we hear echoing throughout the airports of the world, further stressing our nervous systems. Ever since we crossed the 2000 threshold, our “futurephobias” seem to be escalating—catalyzed by the events of 9/11, which blasted tons of angst-ridden reports into the atmosphere from the media that are still rumbling around the world.

As I recall, my own central nervous system felt like the anxious fella in this primal drawing (see below). Never mind that this drawing was done decades ago; it still feels like the future to me! Bruce Schneier’s book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World (2003), offers some comfort in understanding the situation; however, that’s short-lived. As you read Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2007), you realize why our nation feels paralyzed dealing with these radical events, such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; Power implores us to intervene and remain committed to preventing these sickening human catastrophes.

During the 1980s, at the height of our nuclear “M.A.D.ness” (Mutually Assured Destruction), Dr. Helen Caldicott, a pediatrician at Boston’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center, had interviewed scores of kids of who felt as though they had no future…that we’d all gotten lost in the Forest of Progress...

To find our way home again, I'd recommend reading Jonathan Schell’s sobering book, The Fate of the Earth (1983). In the last chapter of that book, Part III: “The Choice,” Schell writes: “Two paths lie before us. One leads to death, the other to life. If we choose the first path—if we numbly refuse to acknowledge the nearness of extinction, all the while increasing our preparations to bring it about—then we in effect become the allies of death, and in everything we do our attachments to life will weaken: our vision, blinded to the abyss that has opened at our feet, will dim and grow confused; our will, discouraged by the thought of trying to build on such a precarious foundation anything that is meant to last, will slacken; and we will sink into stupefaction, as though we were gradually weaning ourselves from life in preparation for the end. On the other hand, if we reject our doom, and bend our efforts toward survival—if we arouse ourselves to the peril and act to forestall it, making ourselves the allies of life—then the anesthetic fog will lift: our vision, no longer straining not to see the obvious, will sharpen; our will, finding secure ground to build on, will be restored; and we will take full and clear possession of life again. One day—and it is hard to believe that it will not be soon—we will make our choice.” (p. 231)


“I See You.” Those three words sum up one of the more memorable messages of James Cameron’s film “Avatar.” But there’s a historical reality behind that wise expression that’s worth recounting here for all the reasons we’re participating in this Visual Culture and Evolution Forum.

When you open Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (1994), right up front you’ll read: “Among the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to “hello” in English, is the expression: Sawu bona. It literally means, “I see you.” If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying Sikhona, “I am here.” The order of the exchange is important: until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence.

This meaning, implicit in the language, is part of the spirit of ubuntu, a frame of mind prevalent among native people in Africa below the Sahara. The word ubuntu stems from the folk saying Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu, which, from Zulu, literally translates: “A person is a person because of other people.” If you grow up with this perspective, your identity is based upon the fact that you are seen—that the people around you respect and acknowledge you as a person.” (p.3)


One of 37 multi-colored serigraphs on Arches 300gm paper, 16” x 24” Hand-written text reads: What do we want to evolve towards as an intelligent species growing free but directionless...

Ink and collage on paper; 18” x 24”

Bruce Shanks, Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist, The Buffalo Evening News (2-12-54 & 2-28-74)


04-16-2010 19:05:14
I was moved by Todd’s last commentary, as well as by the visual images he showed. I also liked his combined terminological usage of “art-science-technology.” In fact, it was Todd’s evocative book Breaking the Mind Barrier: The Artscience of Neurocosmology (1990) that first got me into the habit of combining the words as one.

“Fear” is such a powerfully emotive concept. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the primal instinct of fear is “good” (i.e., ensuring survival of the species in the competitive struggle for existence). Unbridled fear, though, can be maddening, self-destructive, and even homicidal. Channeled or controlled fear, the psychologists will also tell us, can be potentially “good” (again, in the “Darwinian” sense of the word). Alas, so much of our fears today are conditioned by subliminally “creative” forces around us. As Todd addresses, how do we use Artscience to help our children deal with their fears of the future? Well, to begin, I would argue that we must guide our children through a “de-conditioning” process directed at the following influences: 1) Many of the fears that our children (and we adults) face are instilled by the news media, via their self-serving “creative” usage of visual imagery and technology. Sensationalism rules the news media, especially in the West; and changing the societal effect of the media barrage entails battling a corporatocracy that defends itself simply by retorting that it is “giving the consumerist populace what it wants.” 2) Perhaps more “creative” in its manipulation of public fear are not-so-benevolent government leaders, who (in the midst of today’s global conflicts) practice the politics and policies of “fear” as a means of steering public opinion. Open-mindedness and discernment of the multiculturalism of truth are vital. 3) Technology divorced from Artscience is manifest today. The addiction to (and dominance by) technology per se represents a clear and present danger (see Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology [1992]).

Todd closes with a lesson derived from the linguistic character of human interaction seen in some African tribal cultures. I learned similar lessons from my Native American ancestral heritage in the Appalachian region of the USA. I am part Cherokee, through lineages from both maternal and paternal sides of my family in that part of the country. My mother’s family passed along to me, my siblings, and my cousins, many stories and teachings of Cherokee life (which, in turn, were passed to them by word-of-mouth). One particular aspect I found touching at an early age: So I learned, should a stranger approach a Cherokee tribe and ask “Who are you?,” the response would be (in the native tongue) “I am a human being.” (The word “Cherokee” is not a native expression; it is a corruption of a term applied to this tribe by early European colonists.) As I have later found, many other Native American tribes have a similarly humanistic linguistic identity. I have made every effort to pass along this and other Cherokee stories to my children.

As working artists/scientists, as educators, and as parents, we must strive to instill in our children (and in our students) the motive power of Artscience in the self-fulfillment of human curiosity and imagination, as well as in defining our oneness to each other and to Nature. It is only fear of the unknown that is the worry.


04-16-2010 23:01:27
I’m glad this crystal ball thread is still active, I had intended upon responding more. Particularly, I was happy to see Assimina bring Feyerabend into the discussion as his work opens up possible methodological contributions by the arts to science that I wish there was more time to discuss.

I’d like to add another thought about our expectations for how artists might increasingly engage the biosciences. I’m inclined to think that some of the stronger future works will deliberately eschew the powerful iconic forms we might expect.

The Vacanti mouse in 1997, made me understand that scientists (and/or visualization staff) were fully capable of creating totally seductive spectacle that could be read metaphorically, hyperbolically, and generally misinterpreted into varied urgent discussions. Thus, I don’t predict that the best biological or techno-scientific art since this will be that which tries to compete with such science-fiction imagery or indeed icons, but rather that which more humbly takes our thoughts in a different direction. If the Vaconti mouse fundamentally misled, making us believe that Frankensteinian transplantation had been achieved, I feel the most important new art may opt to take us away from such a spectacle. Oron Catts had an interesting way of describing this non-sensational practice as based in “the aesthetics of disappointment”.

… but I don’t want to end my response with the word “disappointment”, so I’ll end by thanking everyone for contributing so many thought provoking ideas!!!



04-17-2010 11:42:05
Rick, thank you so much for your incredibly thoughtful responses and reflections here…They give me hope… Honestly, I got choked up reading them…clearly, I’m not sanguine about our collective future. I wish I didn’t feel the weight of Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s intuitions about the human race, but I do. We seem destined to “succeed” in misunderstanding one another, because we “fail” to take the time to learn and grow from the richness of our diverse cultures’ unique perspectives that have shaped our individual philosophies of life.

On a positive note, in the discussion forum on “Visual Culture Today,” I proposed something constructive and optimistic [because I am, by nature, optimistic] that would enable us to “grow this conversation,” as the environmental artists Newton & Helen Mayer Harrison would say. Hopefully, the proposal will resonate with others, too…

Paul, thanks for reflecting further, too. It's always challenging to gaze into the future and not fear what we may see staring back at us.... I only wish we all had more time to gather our thoughts and suggestions. There’s so much refreshing material on all these threads to weave new worlds of wonderment!

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