Sunday, April 15, 2018

Blinded Me With Science

What is science? Commonly described as a methodology (observations, hypothesis, experimentation, verifiable and falsifiable results, peer review, and repeatability), you may also find vague notions of truth seeking, a way of understanding the natural world, and even a cataloguing of facts. Defining science can be as unsettling as defining art, in part because there are things we call science that others say are strictly not science. Economic or political science come to mind, or even technology born out of the application of scientific knowledge to a technical problem.

Although defining science can be challenging, science is commonly conceptualized as something abstract, not intuitive, and a product of reasoning intellect. This conception lies across the spectrum from the common conceptualization of art as a matter of the heart, of passion, of the sacred. I'm reminded of Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded me with Science," a song and video I first experienced as a twelve year old. Although Dolby referenced science and technology in much of his music, the combination of visuals and song in this most popular American release contains the essential conception of science as dissociated from our essential drives and matters of the heart (or body). It's silly, sure, but it also reflects and reasserts the binary conception in our popular culture that distances science from the arts.

Recently I was speaking with an arboretum colleague about the art work I am planning for at Cedar Creek Ecological Science Reserve. Like many at the arboretum, she is well-versed in several arenas of scientific knowledge, reads about the efforts of scientists, but when asked when the last time she read about art, the answer was, "not at all." I didn't find this at all surprising because, as in Dolby's video, affairs of the heart do not require study. It is often said of art that you know it when you see it or, like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder, but we don't get to choose the science we like.

With this binary as a backdrop, I contemplate how to integrate visual art with scientific research in my work here at Cedar Creek. Two practices come to mind. One is the photograph -the scientist at work, the microscopic image, the macro, the clear and close observation of study and the studied that the camera and lens make possible. These images are more often illustrative of scientific work or subjects and do not convincingly come off as art. The other practice is the graphical representation of data and the sometimes fantastic abstractions such data constructs. Although convention may dictate the parameters of data display, these constructions can take myriad forms that may find aesthetic overlap with the visual production of artists.

Above is a graphical representation of the seasonal food group dynamics of Cedar Bog Lake by Cedar Creek's foundational ecologist (more specifically, limnologist) Ray Lindeman. Ray was working on a quantitative analysis of total energy consumed and released in a closed system (in this case, a kettle lake). He wanted to understand and possibly visualize the dynamic interconnectedness of all biotic and abiotic forms within it. In the following quote, all underlines are mine.

"Raymond was grappling with the intellectual challenge of representing the complex and messy natural world -- many details of which he knew all too well -- as a clean, abstract concept amendable to further calculation, analysis and comparisons. His interpretation imposes a severe symmetry and an almost artistic formality on the ecosystem. Visually, it emphasizes the essential unity and interdependence of the biotic and abiotic realms. Others were writing about the entire ecosystem and thinking about organizing different components into a logical and coherent fashion, but Raymond was the first to provide a quantitative accounting of all of these components in a single ecosystem, which allowed him to search for pattern within them." - from Raymond Laurel Lindeman and the Trophic Dynamic Viewpoint by Robert W. Sterner, University of Minnesota

Ray Lindeman's data graphic on the left is suggestive of my friend John O'Connor's artwork, an example of which is on the right. John creates absurdly fantastic graphs that bridge the manic accumulation of sensory, linguistic, and numerical data with the pandemonium of an elucidating mind. The goal isn't to represent data, but to exhume our immersion within it; not to create order from external choas, but to externalize the chaotic. Lindeman, in search of an encapsulation of a biodynamic system, developed graphics that tend to create order, more than reveal it, out of the need to read an inundation of quantitative data, to find connections and possibly draw conclusions. In the practice of science, data graphics are meant to be read, but art is intended to be experienced.

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