art:science::?!:!?

by jdbatson

It's a colored brain. Image by Zeynep Saygin.

It’s a colored brain. Image by Zeynep Saygin, courtesy of MIT’s Koch Institute.

When I see an art+science event announced, I brace for disappointment. Usually I go anyways because I’m curious to see the failure mode. Which will it be?

1. Art loosely inspired by science (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Einstein’s relativity and everything is chaos man).
2. Science *as* art (a colorized photo of a cancer cell, a video of a chemical reaction).
3. Art as an illustration of science (a drawing of a cell or a nucleus, a rendition of a particle collision).
4. Science as a means of production for art (I took data from cosmic rays and ran them through five algorithmic filters to make this soundtrack, or EEG traces to color a print).

3 and 4 are inoffensive, but don’t warrant special treatment. They are just sharing best practices and tools. MIT’s Koch Center displays images which might be tarred as 1, but their press talks about the connection between science and engineering, not science and art.

Anyway, it was a great relief when this morning’s panel at swissnex began with the choreographer Gilles Jobin laying out an axis:

<———————————————————————————->
illustration                          coherence                               inspiration

In coherence, there is some part of the art piece which directly corresponds to a scientific concept. Like in a good metaphor, a part of one thing is precisely aligned with a part of another, but neither whole is subordinate.

Jobin came to San Francisco by way of CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, the most intricate engineering project ever. (Sorry iPhone.) He spent three months as a resident artist, talking with particle physicists and engaging in his own movement research. I think the dance he subsequently produced does occupy that middle ground.

A dance produced by an artist-in-residence at CERN. Movement premised on atomic dynamics. Can you see that residue?

Jobin is primarily concerned with the generation of movement, and took from the physics a few conditions (or algorithms or formal exercises) to set his dancers. For example:

-Positively charged particles repel, and deflect before collision. (In fact, all physical forces act ‘at a distance’; direct contact is an illusion of the macroscopic.)
-Molecules are constantly vibrating
-Magnetic fields cause atoms to align

A long residency gives time for subtlety, to get beyond the pat explanations which scientists tend to give the public. Take the magnetization of iron. In a chunk of metal, every atom spins in some direction (the direction of a spin is the axis of rotation, think of the earth). The usual story is that turning on a magnetic field whips all the atomic spins into alignment, pointing uniformly, say, to the right.

– – – – –

– – – – –

But the field actually induces a preference, a mere statistical tendency for the atom to wobble in one way.

– / – / –
– \ – – \

The idea of a tendency getting turned on and then amped up over time is more physically correct and more kinetically interesting.

Jobin was also surprised to learn that physicsts think about kinds of symmetries. He had previously thought of symmetry as a binary idea; a thing is symmetric or not. (Mathematicians classify symmetries too; eg: there are exactly 17 kinds of symmetry possible in repeating planar patterns like Turkish tiles or Navajo blankets. I’ve been meaning to do a sweet html5 illustration of this, we’ll see if future Josh gets his ish together.)

In 2012, installation artist Julius von Bismarck was the (first) artist in residence at CERN. As part of his duties, he hosted a few interventions with the locals. First, he had a “coffee in the dark” discussion, where in a pitch-black room physicists talked about how they imagine the shapes of the things they study. Ten dimensional symmetry groups, subatomic particles, etc. He also taught an art-school-in-30m class, where after a brief discussion of form and style the participants had to make a piece which he then subjected to a scathing critique (“cheesy, naive…”). A taste of his own harsh training. Jobin, for his part, decided to infiltrate the library extremely slowly. For 3 hrs dancers were glacially rolling across the floors and slowly sliding along the bookcases. Hardly anyone noticed.

Physicists can be rather disinterested in people. The universe is made of particles moving according to certain laws; earth is an incidental mote in the cosmos. Showing a photograph of the CMS detector at CERN, a physicist said “to get an idea of the size of the 14,000 ton detector, look how small the human being working on it appears.” The concern with the invisible and impalpable, with the long time, is different from that of the choreographer; no feelings! (Also, no aesthetics…have you ever seen a slide from a physics preso?) For Julius, who lives in the incestuous Berlin art world, inhabiting a place where human concerns were secondary was just like whoa.

It seems to me like the primary benefit of interdisciplinary interaction is those moments where you realize that other people pay attention to different parts of the world, sort of like the benefit of travel. By spending time with people whose givens and goals are different than yours, your mind opens up. The point of studying abroad is not to take the language you learn or contacts you make and start some international business or translation service. I have yet to write any math poems, but spending years in close quarters with a poet did change me.

Lately, I’ve been doing some dancing and hanging out with dancers. Different modes of interpersonal communication, different things to look for, that click-click-click feeling of accessing a new dimension of being. (I mean dimension literally. Separating the motion of the core from the hips and the shoulders adds a degree of freedom. The phase space of the human skeleton is about 200-dimensional.) Will that affect my mathematics directly (maybe working on algorithmic dance, like Cunningham choreo, or moduli problems of jointed rigid bodies)? Possibly, but that feels like the minor effect. It’s just improving my life, and I can’t help but think that the place in the of the mind where ideas are born is becoming more fertile. It’s sort of like meditation: the benefits of regular meditation for a host of physiological, emotional, and mental indicators are well-documented, but it’s not like you need to work on something about or inspired by meditation.

The cool thing about the CERN artist residency is that they are investing in the growth of the artist as a person, and trusting that it will lead to better art. The US Fullbright programs are similar in spirit; it seems like they deliberately avoid asking you to execute the ostensible project.

Next step: who is going to fund three months for a scientist to visit Jobin’s studio? Have you seen the way those people move?

Coda: Another piece of Julius von Bismarck that I’m kind of in love with is called Punishment, in which the artist whips nature.

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