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By Alex Tyrrell on

Colliding worlds: the advance of art-sci

Roger Highfield reflects on a Cheltenham Science Festival discussion about a new direction for the interactions between art and science directions

Half a century ago, there were the Two Cultures. Today many see the arts and sciences as being poles of a singular culture. But others believe that art, technology and science are starting to merge to create a new art movement they call ‘art-sci’.

That is the view of Arthur Miller of University College London, who has popularised this idea in his book, Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art, where he explores the quirky and fantastic results of this symbiosis at CERN, MIT Media Lab, Ars Electronica and more.

With Miller, the sound/video performance artist Paul Prudence, an internationally known audio-visual performer, and media artist Mike Phillips, Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts at Plymouth University, I discussed how the relationship between art and science has evolved, and where it is heading, at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival.

There is a long history of cross-fertilisation between science and art. The Science Museum contains many examples of how artists have found their muse in science, from the way Leonardo da Vinci used graphical techniques to show how the parts – ‘elementi’ – of machines  worked together, to the influence of photographic pioneer Étienne Jules Marey on the Italian Futurist movement.

Early scientific photographs expanded our field of vision during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Henri Becquerel’s images that demonstrated the radioactivity of uranium salts.

The Museum has inspired artists, such as Henry Moore, and worked with them too, from David Hockney to Thomas Heatherwick and Zaha Hadid.

Miller has studied the origins of creativity for decades and, for example, explored how Einstein and Picasso responded to the avant-garde, whose principal problem was to redefine classical intuitive notions of space and time. He argues that the annus mirabilis of Einstein and Picasso were connected:

“Einstein discovered relativity in 1905 because he thought like an artist. Two years later Picasso created his breakthrough painting les Demoiselles d’Avignon because he thought like a scientist.”

Miller believes that art-sci is the new avant-garde, producing works that ‘differ radically from anything that has gone before’. These range from a gigantic glass-and-chrome chandelier-like sculpture of the Big Bang, to how, to find new inspiration, nanobiologist James Gimzewski worked with an artist, to more provocative “bio-art,” which uses DNA and living tissue as raw material and features creations such as a rabbit implanted with the fluorescent gene of a jellyfish, and the artist who, after a transfusion of horse blood, claimed to have “the emotionalism of an herbivore.”

One issue of debate was whether this meeting of artists and scientists is more collision than collaboration. During questions, Prof Mark Lythgoe, Chair of The Times Cheltenham Science Festival, reminded the audience of a remark made by Lewis Wolpert, in The Unnatural Nature of Science, that art cannot contribute to science. Though Lythgoe believes this to be wrong, he admitted that evidence to the contrary was hard to find.

But, countered Miller, ‘the interplay is in fact blossoming’ and the 21st century has seen a merging of art, science and technology. Although he had been aware of this trend for some time, Miller first witnessed it in the flesh in 2002, when he saw an exhibition at the Whitney in New York of computer code as art. ‘Clearly something was going beyond interplay.’ The rise of big data, and data visualisation, is just one example of how the horizons of this work are expanding, he said, citing the work of Aaron Koblin who has turned flight data into images of gossamer networks.

As we continue to move beyond traditional ‘flat art’ such as painting, there are artists who now study mathematics, physics and coding, and he added that, through the rise of the smartphone, human experience is increasingly being moderated by machines. Indeed, one day, ‘we will be the machines’.

Paul Prudence, who blogs about his work, went on to tell the audience how, in the chilly vault of a deconsecrated church, he carried out an alchemical blending of geometrical images and sound to conjure up patterns that whirl and morph into black holes, and more, against a booming soundtrack.

Prudence described how he repurposes simulations from the scientific community – such as models of bubble formation – to turn them into art. He gave the Cheltenham audience a glimpse of this new aesthetic, as geometric forms clicked and span to an eerie soundtrack.

A taste of Paul Prudence’s work

As for where this explosion of data is taking us, Prudence said he can see the rise of increasingly bespoke art, shaped to the senses of the observer by algorithms, and the rise of holographic immersive art so that it is easier than ever to manipulate 3D space: ‘Just imagine the possibilities for voxel sculpting’.

Phillips continues efforts to use science to explore invisible worlds and has used nanotechnology – such as Atom Force Microscopy – to inspire his art. At the festival, he showed a “transcalar zoom from the outer edges of the known universe to a nano level”, ranging from the cosmically distant to the microscopically small, seasoned with various cultural references, from Fireball XL5 to the Hollywood movie, The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.

He gave a brief overview of other works include ‘Murmuration’, in which the audience is able to fly through an magnetic resonance imaging scan of his own body, along with a study of a mote of dust taken from his own eye. Last week, at Tate Modern, Phillips unveiled his latest work, This is Where we Are.

One problem confronting this movement, Phillips explained, is that language cannot easily describe many scientific concepts, notably those from quantum theory, such as entanglement. But when it comes to where art-sci is taking us, Phillips believes that, above all else, the relentless rise of artificial intelligence will be transformative.

During questions, Prof Tom McLeish of Durham University, a particle physicist with a religious bent, cited the American literary critic George Steiner who once wrote, “Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter.”

In the light of the discussion, perhaps it is art-sci that is best placed to reveal the narrative structure of the cosmos.