Thursday, September 01, 2011

In search of a third culture

Here is my latest Crucible column for Chemistry World. I’ve also written a Chem World blog about the ASCI exhibition, which shows some of the images.

Sciart – the clumsy label commonly attached to collaborations between scientists and artists – means many things to many people. Some, like the physicist Arthur I. Miller who has written about the conceptual connections between relativity and cubism, see it as a way of bridging the Two Cultures divide that might ultimately produce a ‘third culture’ in which art and science are not separate endeavours. Others, such as biologist Lewis Wolpert, are sceptical that it is more than just a fad that allows artists to misappropriate scientific ideas, and that science stands to gain nothing from it.

Recently the French physicist Jean Marc Levy-Leblond, who has a deep appreciation of contemporary arts, launched a stinging attack on the whole genre in a book pointedly titled La science (n’)e(s)t (pas) l’art (Editions Hermann, Paris, 2010), in which he criticizes the naivety of most sciart discourse and argues that the most artists and scientists can realistically hope for are platonic ‘brief encounters’. Although not intended as a riposte, a forthcoming book called Survival of the Beautiful (Bloomsbury, 2011) by musician and animal-song specialist David Rothenberg certainly offers one. Rothenberg argues that we should take seriously the possibility that there is an aesthetic sense at play in nature – for example in the way female peacocks and bower birds react to the elaborate displays of males – and that this can speak to our own artistic sensibilities. He asserts that, despite Wolpert’s claim, it is possible to find cases of science having benefitted from art. And he devotes considerable space to a discussion of chemists’ visual language, instincts and aesthetics by Roald Hoffmann, who developed these themes in his book The Same and Not the Same (Columbia University Press, 1995).

The arguments will doubtless continue. Levy-Leblond is right to ridicule some claims of finding ‘art in science’ – he calls fractal imagery ‘techno-kitsch’, and is critical of scientists’ attachment to an old-fashioned notion of beauty, which for chemists seems archaically tied up with Platonic ideas about symmetry. And it’s true that some of the most successful interactions of art and science, such as Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, did not arise from any self-conscious process of enticing artists and scientists into the same room. But if we let a thousand flowers bloom, some are likely to smell good.

That’s evident from a new exhibition of digital art organized by the New York-based Art & Science Collaborations, Inc. (ASCI), a veteran of the sciart (or as they prefer, art-science) field which was formed by artist Cynthia Pannucci in 1988 to ‘raise public awareness about artists and scientists using science and technology to explore new forms of creative expression’. This is ASCI’s thirteenth annual digital-art competition, and this year it celebrates the International Year of Chemistry. ‘Digital2011: The Alchemy of Change’ called for submissions from artists and scientists to ‘show us their vision of this deeply fundamental, magical enabler of life called chemistry’. A selection of the entries will be displayed at the New York Hall of Science from September to next February.

The results are nothing if not eclectic. All of the images have been created by digital manipulation – sometimes of photographic images, sometimes purely computer-generated. Their occasionally colourful, ‘decorative’ quality would doubtless be dismissed by Levy-Leblond as more ‘digital kitsch’. Others place gleaming ball-and-stick models of molecules against images of supernovae and other cosmic phenomena in a way that puts me in mind of the graphical abstracts of JACS and Angewandte Chemie – not by any means unpleasant, but hardly inspiring art. Still others explore the artificially enhanced textures and colours of crystals, flows, precipitates, decay – images that have intrigued many artists in the past, and which raise again Rothenberg’s question of whether nature ‘is more beautiful than it needs to be’.

I enjoyed most of all the images that seem to push up against the limits of what is knowable, expressible and visualizable in chemistry. The alchemists felt those limits keenly and resorted to allegory and metaphor, as Andrew Krasnow does with his bizarre ‘bartender’ mixing up the coloured oxidation states of vanadium. Robbin Juris uses cellular automata to conjure up collages of ‘i(c)onic bonds’ that look simultaneously like pages from a quantum-theory textbook and cubist abstractions. David Hylton’s pearlescent forms put me in mind of the surrealist Roberto Matta, who was himself interested in quantum physics. And Julie Newdoll’s schematic ‘molecules’, developed in association with biochemist Robert Stroud, are like strange symbolic machines whose workings remain obscure.

It’s a shame to have to single out just these few. The exhibition should offer a thought-provoking view of how chemistry looks from outside, and why it is still a rich stimulus to the imagination.

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