Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies
11th May – 10th June 2017

This exhibition comprises a trilogy of interconnected works that examines the role of technology and data and how it relates to the human condition in an age of hyper information. In a world dominated by digital media and the instant accessibility of information, his practice crosses the boundary between art and science to reveal the paradox of the promise of infinite knowledge and an absolute vision against its impossibility due to the transient nature of human perception.

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

The Fundamental Units: The lowest denomination coin from each of the world’s 166 active currencies are photographed to vast scale using an infinite focus, optical 3D microscope. Printed to a size of 1.2 x 1.2 metres from files with over 400 million pixels, the hyper-real level of detail, beyond normal vision, reveals the material construction and make-up of the coin together with the marks and traces from their circulation and use as tokens of exchange.

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

A Planetary Order: This is a 3D scale model of the earth showing cloud cover from one single moment in time. Raw information from one second’s worth of readings from all six cloud monitoring satellites overseen by NASA and ESA is transformed into a physical visualisation of real-time scientific data that delicately outlines and profiles the clouds emerging across the sphere. The sphere, or globe, has no added colour, only the sculpted whiteness of the raw material that throws a maze of faint shadows across the structure.

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Text Trends: This looks at our perception of words and data when displayed in graphical form. Through animation, it uses Google data to explore the content generated by search queries and reduces this process to its essential elements: search terms -vs- frequency searched over time, presented in the form of a graph. The viewer watches the animation plot out the ebb and flow of search terms generated by internet users around the world. Pairs of words such as ‘now and later’ and ‘summer and winter’ play out matter-of-factly, with all the passion of a market index. Originally an animation, it has also been commissioned as a series of prints.

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

I Wanted to See All of the News From Today: collects everyday over 600 front covers of newspapers from around the world.

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Data Soliloquies, solo exhibition at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham

Argentea Gallery

Data Soliloquies, exhibition. Essay by Thierry Fournier

Data Soliloquies, exposition. Essai par Thierry Fournier

Opening invite

Argentea Gallery
28 St Paul’s SquareBirmingham B3 1RB
United Kingdom

Data Soliloquies, exhibition. Essay by Thierry Fournier

Martin John Callanan, Data Soliloquies

en français

In his short story “The Library of Babel”, published in 1944, the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges imagines the whole of human culture brought together in a labyrinthine library. The books it contains represent the obsessive organisation of all conceivable human thought, in every language and from its beginnings. The concept harks back to the idea that knowledge could ultimately be grasped in its entirety, leading to mastery and omnipotence.

The artwork of Martin John Callanan (Birmingham, 1982) inevitably recalls this literary allusion, but it is immediately clear that it illustrates the way in which our relationship with technology has exactly reversed the terms of its argument. In contrast to Borges, who imagined that all knowledge could be made visible in one place, Callanan acknowledges that today we live in a decentralised information network that irrevocably determines the way we live. When he describes himself as “an artist researching an individual’s place within systems”, the “place” he refers to does not describe an aesthetic relationship in the traditional sense, in which the observer is dissociated from the things observed; it assumes that we are inextricably connected with them.

The exhibition Data Soliloquies establishes a relationship between three works that are clearly complementary in this way. The sculpture A Planetary Order features a 3D scale model of the earth, on which a series of satellite data is combined to show the exact state of the Earth’s cloud cover on a given date. It stands on the floor, making it seem vulnerable, and demonstrates that a phenomenon that is so transitory, while at the same time represented by “hard” data, is fundamentally impossible to grasp, and always beyond complete human perception: technology has not overridden what is incommensurable. The printed series Text Trends is a statistical comparison of Google searches for pairs of words, from 2004 to the present. The self-referential nature of the relationships between the chosen words (winter/summer, buy/sell, etc.) and the fierce humour that emerges from them, reflect the expectations embodied in these statistics: they represent actual searches of users. Something that might be taken as a single measurement reveals itself to be also an oracle, whose performativity determines our behaviour. Lastly, The Fundamental Units is a series of images each of which shows the smallest value coin used in various national currencies, photographed using a 3D optical microscope at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, UK. These images are then expanded and printed in extra-large formats, so that they show the all traces of the handling they have undergone, and thus the paradoxical physicality of money, whose exchange is now entirely dematerialised.

Despite their power and clear visual precision, these objects sometimes appear cold, as if placed at a distance: the white earth, statistics, coins. They are the product of a conceptual, minimalist approach that emphasises protocol. In addition, they contain no trace of the artist: unlike other recent conceptual works which compare human physicality with repetitive systems, as in the case of Roman Opalka or On Kawara, Martin John Callanan does not introduce his own actions into his work, or only very rarely. Moreover and strictly speaking, it hardly matters if we know the positions of the clouds on a given date, the development of Google searches or the way in which the coins in our pockets have aged: in themselves these facts and these objects include nothing that would give them the status of an artwork. In that case, where do we get the feeling that these works speak so profoundly about ourselves?

It is at once clear that what these artworks have in common is that they talk about value, and its direct connection with the way generalised quantification has become the dominant paradigm and the universal criterion for representing and evaluating human affairs. Callanan also addresses the idea of value from a very specific point of view, namely an almost deliberate focus on representing totalities. An overview of his work reveals the consistency of that approach, seen even in their titles: every flight departure, every internet search, every war waged during the artist’s lifetime, all his actions when using software, every telephone number, the number of people who have ever lived, the number of days of his life, every newspaper front-page, every cloud present above the earth at a given moment, to visit the whole of London, and so on. This approach may seem simplistic but it selects precisely those phenomena to which our sensory experience never gives us complete access. Given that the world of data is characterised by the very fact that the global calculations performed by systems are beyond human perception, can artworks reverse that relationship?

We then see that each of these artworks takes a specific physical form, which reflects a profound knowledge of coding, networks and computing, applied to a wide range of forms: sculptures, prints, artists’ books, objects or performances. Using this vocabulary, Callanan offers a parallel set of “aiming devices” that connect the various totalities in order to show more clearly that we can never have complete control over them: having departure times appear briefly on a screen or a town crier proclaim the dates of wars; printing the clouds on a 3D sculpture that cannot be seen as a whole; demonstrating the performative nature of statistics and opinion polls and the physicality of money, or creating a publication that cannot be read due to its enormous scale. Each of these situations creates a paradox: they open up a divide between, on the one hand, the promise of omniscience and a totalising vision, and on the other, its impossibility, due to the inevitably fugitive and local nature of human perception. It is in this gap, this falling-short, that the agency of Callanan’s works resides.

In this way, by creating a very specific relationship between these successive stages –value, totality, promise and falling-short – Callanan reveals what we expect from these representations. It is a question not so much of value itself, than the desire for value; less one of totality than the dream of totality, less one of control than of what eludes it. All of these issues bring us back to the human condition, its desires and its limitations. This is where we find the poetic but also the profoundly critical aspects of a body of work that brings us face to face with the multiple manifestations of the infinite, only to assert our inability to embrace it. The artwork also emphasises the radically futile nature of all approaches that place an excessive emphasis on technology. What differentiates us from the “systems” invoked by the artist is that we also find meaning in things we do not understand.

This brings to mind the writer and critic John Berger, who showed that one of the specific characteristics of art is not to represent things in themselves but to identify the way we see them, enabling us to interrogate the ways in which that experience is formed and determined, including politically. At a time when many projects facing the issues raised by digital cultures fall into the trap of the figuration (of data, artificial intelligence, surveillance and so on), Martin John Callanan assumes the vain character of such an approach and positions himself at a point where his research leads us to a vertigo. With his characteristic modesty, with his works, their “data soliloquies” and the way they suggest that we would never seize them, he illuminates the specificity of the human’s condition vis-à-vis the immensity of the world.

Thierry Fournier
Aubervilliers, April 2017

Thierry Fournier is a French artist and curator. He also co-directs the curatorial research group Ensad Lab Displays. He lives and works in Aubervilliers.

Translation Imogen Forster

en français

Data Soliloquies, exposition. Essai par Thierry Fournier

in English

Dans sa nouvelle La Bibliothèque de Babel publiée en 1944, l’écrivain argentin Jorge Luis Borges imagine la totalité de la culture humaine exposée dans une bibliothèque à l’architecture labyrinthique. Les livres qu’elle rassemble contiennent toute la pensée imaginable, dans toutes les langues et depuis les origines, obsessionnellement mis en ordre. L’ensemble évoque la promesse d’accéder enfin à la totalité de la connaissance, à travers le rêve d’une maîtrise et d’une toute-puissance du savoir.

Si le travail de Martin John Callanan (Birmingham, 1982) évoque immanquablement cette image littéraire, c’est pour constater aussitôt qu’il témoigne de la manière dont nos relations à la technologie en ont précisément renversé les termes. À l’inverse de Borges qui imaginait que l’ensemble du savoir puisse être visible en un seul lieu, Callanan prend acte que l’humain contemporain est pris dans un réseau d’informations décentralisées qui conditionnent en permanence son existence. Lorsqu’il se décrit comme « an artist researching an individual’s place within systems » (un artiste explorant la place de l’individu parmi des systèmes), la « place » qu’évoque l’artiste ne décrit pas une relation esthétique au sens classique qui dissocierait l’observateur des objets observés : elle prend acte que nous sommes pris dans leurs logiques.

L’exposition Data Soliloquies met ainsi en relation trois œuvres dont les propos sont particulièrement complémentaires à cet égard. La sculpture A Temporary Order figure le globe terrestre en impression 3D à petite échelle, sur lequel est gravé l’état exact des nuages à une date donnée, obtenue par la combinaison de séries d’images par satellite. Posée au sol, comme vulnérable, elle met en évidence qu’un phénomène aussi fugitif, même figé et représenté par ses données, demeure radicalement insaisissable et continue à échapper à notre perception : la technique n’a pas désactivé l’incommensurable. La série d’impressions Text Trends montre quant à elle des statistiques comparées de paires de mots issues des requêtes sur Google de 2004 à nos jours. Le caractère tautologique des associations de mots choisis et l’humour féroce qui s’en dégage (été-hiver, acheter-vendre, etc.) témoigne des attentes que reflètent ces statistiques : il s’agit bien de requêtes formulées par des utilisateurs. Ce que l’on pourrait prendre comme une seule mesure est aussi un oracle, dont la dimension performative conditionne nos comportements. Enfin, The Fondamental Units est une série d’images montrant chaque fois les plus petites unités de pièces de monnaies internationales, photographiées au microscope électronique au National Physical Laboratory de Teddington (Royaume-Uni). Ces images sont ensuite démesurément agrandies et imprimées sur de très grands formats, révélant alors toutes les traces des échanges dont elles ont été l’objet – et, par la même, la physicalité paradoxale d’une monnaie dont les échanges sont aujourd’hui entièrement dématérialisés.

Malgré leur force et leur précision plastique évidente, ces objets sont parfois froids, comme mis à distance : globe blanc, statistiques, pièces de monnaie. Ils héritent d’une approche conceptuelle et minimaliste qui privilégie les protocoles. En outre, toute trace de l’artiste en est absente : par opposition à des démarches qui, dans l’histoire de l’art récente, ont confronté l’humain et sa corporéité à des systèmes répétititifs, comme celles de Roman Opalka ou de On Kawara, Martin John Callanan – à de très rares exceptions – ne met pas en jeu ses propres actions. En outre, à strictement parler, peu nous importe de savoir quelles étaient les positions des nuages à une date donnée, de connaître l’évolution de requêtes sur Google ou encore comment vieillit la petite monnaie : ces faits ou ces objets en eux-mêmes n’évoquent rien qui les rapprocheraient du statut d’une œuvre. Comme extraits du monde, ils semblent être des objets trouvés dans un champ de données. D’où nous vient alors le sentiment que ces œuvres nous parlent aussi profondément de nous-mêmes ?

Le premier constat qui émerge alors est que ces œuvres ont toutes en commun de parler de la valeur, qui interroge directement la manière dont la quantification généralisée s’est imposée aujourd’hui comme paradigme dominant et comme critère omniprésent de représentation et d’évaluation de l’humain. Callanan convoque en outre cette notion de valeur à travers une perspective très spécifique, qui est de viser presque systématiquement la représentation de totalités. Un regard sur l’ensemble de ses œuvres témoigne de la constance de cette démarche, que l’on retrouve même dans leurs titres : toutes les partances de vols, toutes les recherches sur internet, toutes les guerres pendant ma vie, toutes mes commandes sur un logiciel, tous les numéros de téléphone, le nombre de tous ceux qui ont jamais vécu, le compte de tous les jours de ma vie, toutes les unes de la presse, tous les nuages présents en un instant au-dessus de la Terre, voir tout Londres, etc. Cette démarche de all-everything pourrait sembler simpliste mais elle sélectionne justement des phénomènes auquel notre expérience sensible ne nous donne jamais totalement accès. Alors que le régime des données se caractérise justement par le fait que des totalités calculées par des systèmes échappent à la perception humaine, des œuvres peuvent-elle renverser cette relation ?

On voit alors que ces projets déploient chaque fois une matérialité spécifique, qui témoigne d’une connaissance approfondie du code, du réseau et du numérique tout en embrassant un très large répertoire de formes : sculptures, impressions, livres d’artiste, objets, performances… À travers ce vocabulaire, Callanan propose autant de dispositifs de « visée », qui relatent des totalités pour mieux mettre en évidence l’impossibilité de leur maîtrise : faire fugitivement défiler les horaires de vols sur un écran, faire déclamer les dates des guerres par un crieur, imprimer les nuages sur une sculpture en 3D dont la perception globale est impossible, démontrer le caractère performatif des statistiques et des sondages, mettre en évidence la matérialité de la monnaie, créer une publication devenant illisible par son échelle gigantesque, etc. Chacune de ces situations crée alors un paradoxe : elle ouvre un gouffre entre d’une part la promesse d’une omniscience ou d’une vision totalisante, et d’autre part son impossibilité même, due au caractère irrémédiablement fugitif et local de notre perception. C’est dans cet écart, dans ce manque, que réside fondamentalement l’agentivité de ses œuvres.

Ainsi, par la relation très spécifique que Martin John Callanan élabore entre ces paliers successifs – la valeur, la totalité, la promesse et le manque – il met en évidence ce que nous attendons de ces représentations. Il ne s’agit pas tant de la valeur, que du désir de la valeur ; de la totalité, que du rêve de la totalité ; de la maîtrise, que de ce qui lui échappe. L’ensemble nous ramène à la condition humaine, à son désir et et à ses limites. Ici se revèle la dimension à la fois poétique et fondamentalement critique d’un travail qui nous place face à de multiples manifestations de l’infini pour pointer immédiatement notre impossibilité à l’embrasser, en même temps que le caractère radicalement vain à cet égard de toute démarche techniciste. Ce qui nous différencie des « systèmes » qu’évoque l’artiste est que nous trouvons aussi du sens dans ce que nous ne comprenons pas.

On peut penser ici enfin à l’auteur et critique John Berger, qui relevait qu’une des spécificités de l’art est de ne pas représenter les choses en elles-mêmes mais bien le regard que nous portons sur elles et, par la même, de pouvoir questionner les enjeux de sa formation et de sa détermination (y compris politique). Au moment où, en prise avec les questions ouvertes par la culture numérique, de nombreuses démarches tombent dans le piège de la figuration (des données, de l’intelligence artificielle, de la surveillance…), Martin John Callanan assume ici l’impossibilité radicale d’en venir à bout et s’installe là où cette recherche ouvre sur un vertige. Avec la pudeur qui le caractérise, par ses œuvres, leurs monologues de données et l’incapacité qu’elles évoquent de nous en emparer complètement, il éclaire ainsi la spécificité de la position humaine face à l’infini du monde.

Thierry Fournier
Aubervilliers, avril 2017

Thierry Fournier est un artiste et curateur français. Il co-dirige également le groupe de recherche curatorial EnsadLab Displays. Il vit et travaille à Aubervilliers.

in English

New Directions in the Philosophy of Science (The Philosophy of Science in a European Perspective)

The Future of Objectivity
Dr Chiara Ambrosio, UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies

New Directions in the Philosophy of Science (The Philosophy of Science in a European Perspective)

New Directions in the Philosophy of Science (The Philosophy of Science in a European Perspective)

New Directions in the Philosophy of Science (The Philosophy of Science in a European Perspective)

New Directions in the Philosophy of Science (The Philosophy of Science in a European Perspective)

New Directions in the Philosophy of Science (The Philosophy of Science in a European Perspective)

New Directions in the Philosophy of Science (The Philosophy of Science in a European Perspective)

This volume sheds light on still unexplored issues and raises new questions in the main areas addressed by the philosophy of science. Bringing together selected papers from three main events, the book presents the most advanced scientific results in the field and suggests innovative lines for further investigation. It explores how discussions on several notions of the philosophy of science can help different scientific disciplines in learning from each other. Finally, it focuses on the relationship between Cambridge and Vienna in twentieth century philosophy of science. The areas examined in the book are: formal methods, the philosophy of the natural and life sciences, the cultural and social sciences, the physical sciences and the history of the philosophy of science.

Hardcover: 788 pages
Publisher: Springer; 2014 edition (20 Jun 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 3319043811
ISBN-13: 978-3319043814
Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.5 x 4.8 cm

Ecocinema Theory and Practice, Sean Cubitt

Ecocinema Theory and Practice

Ecocinema Theory and Practice

Ecocinema Theory and Practice

Ecocinema Theory and Practice

Ecocinema Theory and Practice is the first collection of its kind—an anthology that offers a comprehensive introduction to the rapidly growing field of eco-film criticism, a branch of critical scholarship that investigates cinema’s intersections with environmental understandings. It references seminal readings through cutting edge research and is designed as an introduction to the field as well as a sourcebook. It defines ecocinema studies, sketches its development over the past twenty years, provides theoretical frameworks for moving forward, and presents eloquent examples of the practice of eco-film criticism through essays written by the field’s leading and emerging scholars. From explicitly environmental films such as Werner Herzong’s Grizzly Man and Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow to less obvious examples like Errol Morris’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the pieces in this collection comprehensively interrogate the breadth of ecocinema. Ecocinema Theory and Practice also directs readers to further study through lists of recommended readings, professional organizations, and relevant periodicals.

Stephen Rust (Editor), Salma Monani (Editor), Sean Cubitt (Editor)
Hardcover: 344 pages
Publisher: Routledge (27 Sep 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0415899427
ISBN-13: 978-0415899420
Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.1 cm

Image Politics of Climate Change: Visualizations, Imaginations, Documentations, Birgit Schneider, Thomas Nocke

Image Politics of Climate Change: Visualizations, Imaginations, Documentations [Paperback] Birgit Schneider (Editor), Thomas Nocke (Editor)

Image Politics of Climate Change: Visualizations, Imaginations, Documentations [Paperback] Birgit Schneider (Editor), Thomas Nocke (Editor)

Image Politics of Climate Change: Visualizations, Imaginations, Documentations [Paperback] Birgit Schneider (Editor), Thomas Nocke (Editor)

Scientific research on climate change has given rise to a variety of images picturing climate change. These range from colorful expert graphics, model visualizations, photographs of extreme weather events like floods, droughts or melting ice, symbols like polar bears, to animated and interactive visualizations. Climate change graphics have not only increased knowledge about the subject, they have begun to influence popular awareness of global weather events. The status of climate pictures today is particularly crucial, as global climate change as a long-term process cannot be seen. When images are widely distributed, they are able to shape how the world is thought about and seen. It is this implicit basic assumption of the power of images to influence reality that this book addresses: today’s images might become the blueprint for tomorrow’s realities. “Image Politics of Climate Change” combines a wide interdisciplinary range of perspectives and questions, treated here in sixteen interdisciplinary case studies. The author’s specializations include both visual practice and theory: in the fields of climate sciences, computer graphics, art, curating, art history and visual studies, communication and cultural science, environmental and science & technology studies. The close interlinking of these viewpoints promotes in-depth insights into issues of production and analysis of climate visualization.

Birgit Schneider (Editor), Thomas Nocke (Editor)
Paperback: 388 pages
Publisher: Transcript Verlag (15 Mar 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 3837626105
ISBN-13: 978-3837626100
Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 14.8 x 2.8 cm

Data Soliloquies book review on Furtherfield by Pau Waelder

Book review by Pau Waelder – 03/02/2010

Data Soliloquies is a book about the extraordinary cultural fluidity of scientific data

Data Soliloquies
Richard Hamblyn and Martin John Callanan
London: Slade Press, 2009
112 pages
ISBN 978-0903305044

Although much has been said about C.P. Snow’s concept of a “third culture”, we haven’t actually reached an understanding between the spheres of science and humanities. This is caused in part by the high degree of specialisation in each field, which usually prevents researchers from considering different perspectives, as well as the controversies that have arisen between academics, exemplified by publications such as Intellectual Impostures (1998) in which physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont criticise the “abuse” of scientific terminology by sociologists and philosophers. Yet there is a growing mutual dependency of both fields of knowledge, as the one hand our society is facing new problems and questions for which the sciences have adequate answers and on the other scientific research can no longer remain isolated from society. Some scientists, such as the astronomer Roger Frank Malina, have even argued that a “better science” will result from the interaction between art, science and technology. Malina presents as an example the “success of the artist in residence and art-science collaboration programs currently being established” [1], and considers the possibility of a “scientist in residence” program in art labs.

Data Soliloquies

Our relationship with the environment is certainly one of the main problems we are going to face during this century and it is also a subject that brings up the necessary communication between science and society. The UCL Environment Institute [2] was established in 2003 to promote an interdisciplinary approach to environmental research and make it available to a wider audience. While being representative of almost every discipline in the University College London, it lacked an interaction with the arts and humanities. This gap has been bridged by establishing an artist and writer residency program in collaboration with the Slade School of Fine Arts and the English Department. Among 100 applications, writer Richard Hamblyn and artist Martin John Callanan were chosen for the 2008-2009 academic year: Data Soliloquies is the result of their work.

Despite “belonging” to the field of art and humanities, neither Hamblyn nor Callanan are strangers to science and technology. Richard Hamblyn is an environmental writer and historian who has developed a particular interest in clouds, and Martin John Callanan is an artist whose remarkably conceptual work merges art and different types of media. This may be the cause that Data Soliloquies is by no means a shy penetration into a foreign field of knowledge but a solid discourse which presents a richly documented critique of the apparently ineffective ways in which scientists have made society aware of such a crucial problem as that of climate change. The title of the book has been borrowed for a term that Jon Adams, researcher at the London School of Economics, coined to refer to Michael Crichton’s novels, who uses “scientific” facts to give his imaginative plots an aura of credibility. With this reference, the authors state that the way scientific data is presented actually constitutes a narrative, an uncontested monologue: “…scientific graphs and images have powerful stories to tell, carrying much in the way of overt and implied narrative content (…) these stories are rarely interrupted or interrogated.”[3]

As the amount of data regularly stored in all sorts of digital supports increases exponentially, and new forms of data visualisation are developed, these “data monologues” become ubiquitous, while remaining unquestioned. In his text, Hamblyn exposes the inexactitude in some popular visualisations of scientific data, which have set aside accuracy in favour of providing a more eloquent image of what the gathered evidences are supposed to tell. On the one hand, Charles D. Keeling’s upward trending graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, which according to Hamblyn is “probably the most important data set in environmental science, and has become something of a freestanding scientific icon”[4], or Michael Mann’s controversial “Hockey Stick” graph are illustrative examples of the way in which information displays have developed their own narratives. On the other, the manipulation of data in order to obtain a more visually effective presentation, such as NASA’s exaggeration of scale in their images of the landscape of Venus or the use of false colours in the reproductions of satellite images, call for a questioning of the supposed objectivity in the information provided by scientific institutions.

Data Soliloquies

In the field of climate science, the stories that graphs and other visualisations can tell have become of great importance, as human activity has a direct impact on global warming, but this relation of cause and effect cannot be easily determined. As Hamblyn states: “climate change is the first major environmental crisis in which the experts appear more alarmed than the public” [5]. The catastrophism with which environmental issues are presented to the public generate a feeling of impotence, and thus any action that an individual can undertake seems ineffective. The quick and resolute reaction of both the population and the governments in the case of the “ozone hole” in 1985 points in the direction of finding a clear and compelling image of the effects of climate change. As Hamblyn underscores, this is not only a subject for engineers: “the reality of ongoing climate change has yet to be embraced as a stimulus to creativity –in the arts as well as the sciences– or as a permanent and inescapable part of human societal development” [6].

Data Soliloquies

Martin John Callanan took upon himself to develop a creative response to this issue, and has done so, not simply by creating images or objects but by depicting processes. He states: “I’m more interested in systems –systems that define how we live our lives” [6]. A quick look at his previous work [7] will show how appropriate this statement is: he has visited each and every station of the London underground, collected every command of the Photoshop application in his computer, officially changed his name (to the same he already had), gathered the front page of hundreds of newspapers from around the world and engaged himself in many other activities that are as systematic and mechanical as ironic, poetic or simply nihilistic. During his residency, Callanan created to main projects. The first one, Planetary Order, is a globe in which the patterns of the clouds on a particular date (February 6th, 2009) have been sculpted. The artist composed the readings of NASA’s cloud monitoring satellites in a virtual 3D computer model, which was then laser melted on a compacted nylon powder sphere at the Digital Manufacturing Centre at the UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. The resulting object is a sculpture, an artwork more than any sort of model in the sense that it develops a discourse beyond the actual presentation of data. An impeccable white sphere textured by its subtle protuberances, the globe evokes the perfection of an ancient marble sculpture while presenting us with an uncommon view of the Earth, covered with clouds. The clouds, which are usually erased in the depictions of our planet in order to let us see the shapes of the continents (the land which is our dominion), become an icon of climate change and the image of an order which is, in all senses, above us. Callanan freezes the planetary order of clouds in an impossible map, a metaphorical object which appears to us as a faultless, yet fragile and inscrutable machine.

The second of Callanan’s artistic projects is the series Text Trends. Using Google data, the artist has collected the number of searches for selected terms related to climate change in a time range of several years (from 2004 to 2007-2008). With this data, he has generated a series of minimalistic graphs in which two jagged lines, one red and the other blue, cross the page describing the frequency of searches (or popularity) for two competing terms. The result resembles an electrocardiogram in which we can see the “life” of a particular word, as opposed to another, in a simple but eloquent dialogue of abstract forms. Callanan has chosen to confront terms in pairs such as “summer vs. winter”, “climate change vs. war on terror” or “global warming”. Simple as they may seem, the graphs are telling and constitute and visual summary of the book whilst suggesting many other reflections. The final conclusion is presented in the last graph, in which the perception of climate change is expressively described by the image of a vibrant line for the word “now”, much higher in the chart than the flat line for the word “later”.

Pau Waelder

[1] Roger Frank Malina, “Leonardo Timeshift“, Ars Electronica Catalog Archive.

[2] UCL Environment Institute.
[3] R. Hamblyn and M.J.Callanan. Data Soliloquies, 14.
[4] R. Hamblyn and M.J.Callanan. Data Soliloquies, 25.
[5] R. Hamblyn and M.J.Callanan. Data Soliloquies, 47.
[6] R. Hamblyn and M.J.Callanan. Data Soliloquies, 66.
[7] Martin John Callanan’s personal website. http://greyisgood.eu/

Review originally published on FurtherField

Ecocinema Theory and Practice (AFI Film Readers)

Data Soliloquies recived a brief mention in Ecocinema Theory and Practice by Stephen Rust, Salma Monani, Sean Cubitt

Publication Date: 26 Sep 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0415899437

Ecocinema Theory and Practice is the first collection of its kind—an anthology that offers a comprehensive introduction to the rapidly growing field of eco-film criticism, a branch of critical scholarship that investigates cinema’s intersections with environmental understandings. It references seminal readings through cutting edge research and is designed as an introduction to the field as well as a sourcebook. It defines ecocinema studies, sketches its development over the past twenty years, provides theoretical frameworks for moving forward, and presents eloquent examples of the practice of eco-film criticism through essays written by the field’s leading and emerging scholars. From explicitly environmental films such as Werner Herzong’s Grizzly Man and Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow to less obvious examples like Errol Morris’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the pieces in this collection comprehensively interrogate the breadth of ecocinema. Ecocinema Theory and Practice also directs readers to further study through lists of recommended readings, professional organizations, and relevant periodicals.

Data Soliloquies extract: Clouds

In their role as climate change canaries, clouds are both more prevalent and closer to home than Arctic ice-caps or polar bears. Cloud patterns have long been read as short-range weather indicators, but more recently they have begun to be seen as longer term climatic signals. Their messages are far from clear, however, and so far little is certain about the roles that clouds are likely to play in shaping future conditions on earth.

Will clouds turn out to be agents of warming, veiling us in an ever-thickening greenhouse of emissions, or will they end up saving the day by reflecting ever more sunlight back into space? These, it turns out, are far from simple questions, and cloud behaviour continues to offer serious impediments to understanding future climates, since a change in almost any aspect of clouds, such as their type, location, water content, longevity, altitude, particle size and overall shape, changes the degree to which clouds will serve to warm or cool the earth.

As is so often the case with climate science, research yields apparently contradictory results. On the one hand, for example, many climate scientists believe that continued surface warming will cause increased water vapour to rise from the oceans, leading to an overall increase in cloud formation — while on the other hand, particularly in warmer latitudes, an increase in the water vapour content of our atmosphere could see large convective cumuliform clouds building up and raining out far quicker than they do at present, thereby leading to a net decrease in the earth’s total cloud cover. Low-level stratiform clouds, meanwhile, tend to shield the earth from incoming solar radiation, but recent research has shown that such clouds are more likely to dissipate in warmer conditions, thus allowing the oceans to heat up further, and causing yet further stratiform cloud loss. Scientists currently have no idea which of these outcomes is the most likely, nor do they really know the kind of long-term influences that either is likely to have. Even if, for the sake of argument, it’s assumed that overall cloud cover will increase as the surface of our planet continues to warm, it remains unclear what kind of clouds (and thus what kind of feedback mechanisms) are likely to predominate.

For instance, high, thin clouds, such as cirrostratus, tend to have an overall warming effect, as they admit shortwave solar radiation in from above, while bouncing longwave back-radiation (reflected from the sunlit ground) back down to earth. Any increase in cirrostratus cloud cover would therefore add another warming mechanism to our climate. In contrast, however, bright, dense cumulus clouds serve to cool the earth by reflecting incoming sunlight back into space by day. At night, these same clouds tend to exert a slight warming effect, by absorbing or reflecting back-radiation, but their overall influence is a cooling one, especially when their summits grow dense and white. So, in theory, an increase in high, thin clouds would amplify the global warming effect, while an increase in low, dense, puffy clouds would have a contrary cooling effect — which is why cloud-whitening has recently been advanced as a geo-engineering idea for mitigating the effects of climate change, with salt water to be sprayed from thousands of ships in order to create brighter and more reflective clouds over the oceans. In reality, of course, things are never that simple, and clouds have always had an interesting habit of behaving in unpredictable ways.

For example, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, all commercial flights in the United States were grounded for several days, leaving the skies contrail-free for the first time in decades. The result, according to a comparison of nationwide temperature records, was slightly warmer days and slightly cooler nights than were usual for that time of year, the normal night/day temperature range having increased by 1.1 degrees C. According to the climate scientists who worked on the data, this was probably due to additional sunlight reaching the surface by day, and additional radiation escaping at night through the unusually cloudless skies. At first sight this might seem counter-intuitive, for surely the kind of cirriform clouds created by the spreading of aircraft contrails are straightforward warming clouds, the kind that allow sunlight through, while bouncing back-radiation down to the lower atmosphere? Surely an absence of contrails ought to have an overall cooling effect?

But contrails are a lot more complicated than that, because when they are in their initial, water droplet, stage they are denser than natural cirrus clouds, since they are created from two distinct sources of vapour: the moisture emitted by the aircraft’s exhaust, and the moisture already in the atmosphere, all of which is condensed into a turbulent mixture of large water droplets and ice crystals, seeded on the solid particulates present in the exhaust plume. At first, this young contrail behaves more like a fluffy low-level cloud, reflecting sunlight back into space, and exerting a short-term localized cooling effect. But if persistent contrails start to spread, they thin out into cirriform cloud layers, which can often cover large areas of sky. Their overall effect then reverts to a warming one, consistent with the known behaviour of natural cirriform clouds.

MartinJC1
Image taken from NASA / Contrails over the southeastern U.S. January 2004

The picture is complicated yet further by the time of day that the contrails form and spread. If contrails spread during the early morning or late evening, they can exercise a slight cooling effect, due to the angle at which sunlight is reflected off the ice crystals into the upper atmosphere. At night, by contrast, all clouds, including contrails, can only exert a warming effect, since there is no incoming sunlight to reflect into space. Any increase in night flights is therefore likely to raise temperatures on the ground: and that increase is already well underway. In fact, the projected warming effects associated with the rise in night flights are in the region of a 0.2-0.3 degrees C hike per decade in the United States alone — and this figure does not include the other warming effects of aviation, such as increased CO2 emissions and local ozone formation. Of course, much about contrail science remains new and uncertain, and little about these man-made clouds is understood entirely, especially when it comes to the skies above the developing world, where flights are becoming increasingly prevalent. But the difference between the skies above busy flight corridors and those above sparsely flown areas is clearly visible from space. Whether aircraft of the future will need to change the altitudes or times of day at which they fly in order to modify their contrail formation is a matter of current speculation; as David Travis, the atmospheric scientist who led the post-9/11 contrail research, has pointed out, ‘what we’ve shown is that contrails are capable of affecting temperatures. Which direction, in terms of net heating or cooling, is still up in the air.’

Equally up in the air, albeit at a far greater distance, are noctilucent clouds (NLCs), the changing patterns of which have become apparent over the past two decades. First observed and named in the 1880s, NLCs were once the rarest clouds of all, but not only are they now appearing far more often, they also shine brighter than they did before, and are observable from increasingly lower latitudes. According to one hypothesis, NLCs are being formed from plumes of space shuttle exhaust jettisoned into the earth’s upper atmosphere, where neither water vapour nor dust nuclei are common natural occurrences, and therefore these clouds’ increased appearance (an increase of 8 percent per decade) is due to a proportionate increase in space shuttle traffic. Other research, however, points to the fact that extreme cold is needed to form icy clouds in environments as dry as the mesosphere, 50 to 80 kilometres above the earth’s surface, where temperatures as low as -130 degrees C are normal.

MartinJC2
Image taken form NASA / Noctilucent clouds

Strange as it may seem, the increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases that have contributed to raising temperatures on earth are also serving to create colder conditions in the earth’s outer atmosphere. This is because greenhouse gases trap much of the longwave surface radiation that has started its return journey back out into space. With less thermal energy able to escape from the lower atmosphere, the upper atmosphere is thereby growing correspondingly chillier. So could the observed increase in noctilucent cloud formation be due to mesospheric cooling, the lesser-known counterpart to global surface warming; and might their increased brightness be due to larger ice crystals being formed from a high-altitude influx of water vapour from the warming layers below? After all, NLCs have only been in evidence since the 1880s, the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, so it is possible that they will turn out to be yet another anthropogenic phenomenon — if so, the visible impact of human activity will have extended much further into our fragile atmosphere than we could ever have previously suspected. Whatever the secrets of these mysterious clouds, it is hoped that the AIM (Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere) satellite, which was launched by NASA in April 2007 on a mission to study NLCs at close range, will be able to provide some answers to these questions.

Viewed from ground level, clouds are short-lived localized phenomena, undergoing rapid alterations as they pass overhead; when viewed from space, however, their individual movements are subsumed into large-scale formations that range slowly across the earth’s surface, connecting vast tracts of land and sea through enormous geophysical processes. Seen from space, what from earth is merely an indistinct bank of stratocumulus cloud, becomes part of a visible planetary order. It was this dual perspective that led Martin John Callanan to produce a terrestrial cloud globe, entitledA Planetary Order, the many technical challenges of which were worked through and overcome during his residency at the UCL Environment Institute.

MartinJC3
MartinJC4
Image by Martin John Callanan / A Planetary Order (Terrestrial Cloud Globe), 2009

‘Unlike Richard, who’s got a huge fascination with clouds, I’m more interested in systems — systems that define how we live our lives’ (MJC). Showing the earth’s cloud cover from one second in time, the shimmering white cloud globe freeze-frames the entire operation of the global atmospheric regime, and highlights how fragile the environmental (and informational) systems are that operate across the world. For the globe is created from raw information, being a physical visualization of real-time scientific data. One second’s worth of readings from all six cloud-monitoring satellites that are currently overseen by NASA and the European Space Agency was transformed into a virtual 3-D computer model, which was ‘3-D drawn’, or rather, laser melted, at the Digital Manufacturing Centre at the UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. It was the largest object ever created by the Digital Manufacturing Centre, and it took two full days to build, the delicate outlines and profiles of the clouds emerging slowly as the laser carved gently across the compacted nylon powder surface of the sphere.

Unlike most of NASA’s own data visualizations, the globe features no added colour, only the sculpted whiteness of the raw material that throws a maze of faint shadows across the structure. From out of these shadows, in the right angles of light, emerge the global cloud patterns taken on 2 February 2009 at 0600 UTC precisely, and, under them, the implied outlines of the continents below, seen as though glimpsed through mist, or rather, through the mystifying quantity of atmospheric data that is currently being collected from the silent fleet of satellites in orbit some 36,000 kilometres out in space — an increasingly hertzian environment, where an electronic Babel of satellites, radio signals, text messages and security frequencies vibrate with an invisible stream of man-made weather. Though far from earth’s surface, we have nevertheless made it back to something resembling Borges’s 1:1 scale Map of the Empire, for, by taking a single second’s worth of transmitted information, our entire world has been made anew, pristine, white, and wreathed in the haze of an artificial atmosphere, held aloft like the fossilized egg of a long-extinct species that is about to be brought back to life from a single rescued strand of DNA.

This Guest post by Martin John Callanan forms part of the discussion in the urbanTick series on Ecological Urbanism.
It is an extract from the book Data Soliloquies, commissioned by UCL Environment Institute

Text Trends newspaper: Environmental

Text Trends newspaper environmental

The second issue of Text Trends newspaper, looking at environmental data, will be available in limited numbers from 14 January 2013 at The Open Data Institute.

Over the past twenty years, global climate change has emerged as the overarching narrative of our age, uniting a series of ongoing concerns about human relations with nature, the responsibilities of first world nations to those of the developing world, and the obligations of present to future generations. But if the climate change story entered the public realm as a data-driven scientific concept, it was quickly transformed into something that the ecologist William Cronon has called a ‘secular prophecy’, a grand narrative freighted with powerful, even transcendent languages and values. And though climate science can sometimes adopt the rhetoric of extreme quantification, it also — as has been seen throughout this book — relies on the qualitative values of words, images and metaphors. This can even happen simultaneously: during the discussions that led up to the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report of 2001, for example, a room full of scientists discussed for an entire week whether or not to include the three-word phrase ‘discernable human influence.’ Only three words, perhaps, but three extremely potent words (both qualitatively and quantitavely speaking), that between them tell a vast and potentially world-altering story.

Martin John Callanan’s ongoing Text Tends series offers a deadpan encounter with exactly this kind of quantification of language. Using Google data the series explores the vast mine of information that is generated by the search engine’s users, each animation taking the content generated by search queries and reducing the process to its essential elements: search terms vs. frequency of search over time, presented in the form of a line graph.

In the online manifestation of the Text Trends animations the viewer watches as the animations plot the ebb and flow of a series of paired search terms keyed into Google over the last ten years by Internet users around the world. In the case of the environment sequence featured here, pairs of words such as: ‘nature’ — ‘population’; ‘climate’ — ‘risk’; ‘consensus’ — ‘uncertainty’; ‘Keeling curve’ — ‘hockey stick’, spool out matter-of-factly, like a live market index, allowing the implied narrative content of these word comparisons (along with their accumulated cultural and emotional baggage) to play themselves out before us. In contrast to the hyperinteractivity of emerging news aggregators and information readers, Text Trends explores our perceptions of words presented as connotation-rich fragments of continually updated time-sensitive data.

As an investigation into both the generation and representation of data, Text Trends offers a visual critique of the spectacularization of information, a cultural tic that continues to generate the endless roll of statistically compromised wallpaper that surrounds so much public science debate, and which our book — Data Soliloquies — has in large part been about.

Richard Hamblyn
original version published in Data Soliloquies, UCL Environment Institute, 2009. ISBN 9780903305044

ISSN 2051-6126
ISBN 9781907829086

Why scientists should care about art

Johanna Kieniewicz on Plogs

Last week, I attended an environmental science conference with an evening reception that featured a short talk on art/science collaborations in the context of environmental science. The talk was followed by a musical performance – inspired by the fragility of peatbog environments – after which I overheard a scientist mutter “What was that? That better not have had research council funding.” He was not the only one; I heard similar sentiments expressed by several others as I walked to dinner.

On some level, I was disappointed by this response, but I wasn’t really surprised. Despite great progress amongst those who are ensconced in the world of science communication to the idea of collaborations between scientists and artists, this is something that many scientists still don’t “get”. Other researchers are openly hostile, and certainly think that scientific research organisations have no business funding this type of work.

To be fair, these are not necessarily the attitudes of people who are disinterested in art — I’d be willing to bet that a fair few of those who walked away from the performance muttering about scientific research council funding being wasted on the arts also have memberships at cultural institutions. That said, whilst being consumers of culture, few scientists really see themselves as having much of a role in its creation. In an increasingly competitive funding landscape, does it really make sense to spend research money on an art project? Does engaging with the arts mean that they are less serious as scientists?

Here, I’d like to make an argument that art is good for scientists, and that there are many reasons they shouldn’t be quite so afraid of letting artists loose in their laboratories.

Data monologue or dialogue? Data Soliloquies is an interesting book, produced by a former artist in residence at UCL, looking at environmental data in a cultural context.
Understanding the Cultural Context of your Research

Hot issues, such as climate change may not be subjects of contention within the scientific community, but it seems clear that the science is not being communicated in a way that has the necessary impact. Although art cannot directly communicate science or change minds, it can create a space for dialogue around difficult issues. Few scientists are likely to deeply consider the role of narrative in their work or the visual impact of their images, but for reaching society as a whole these are vitally important.

Artists are also likely to ask questions that scientists might never think to ask (because they are, well, thinking like scientists). A recent AHRC funding call (see, scientists there is some money in this!) posits that a sophisticated understanding of cultural values, rights, religions, and systems of belief is essential for understanding some of the complex legal, ethical and regulatory policy issues raised in several emerging areas of science and technology. Scientists aren’t trained in this (and that’s ok) — but it is important to engage with people who think about these issues in a different way.

Becoming a better communicator

In my view, art inspired by science isn’t necessarily about the communication of science—it is a response to science. In leaving the scientific arena where it is all to easy to use technical jargon, working with artists can make you rethink the way that you communicate your research. How can you convey the complexity of the problem, while also making it accessible?

A scientist who participated in the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart programme, was reflected on their experience in the report on that programme, saying “Through my PhD I learned to talk in a particular way, write in a particular way. Because of that I lost a piece of myself. Through working with [X] I found the way to become the real me, rather than this slightly objective scientist that I had become. I found my voice, which I had lost because of the scientific process.”

Becoming a better researcher

Artists examine problems from different angles and engage with information in a different way from scientists. Some might see this as a deficiency, and to be fair, you wouldn’t want to conduct science in an un-scientific way. However, I would argue that particularly in the area of scientific visualisation, there is a great deal to be gained for scientists who engage with artists.

Chiara Ambrosio, Lecturer in the History of Science at UCL, argues that art offers an opportunity for dialogue and a critique of science. When scientific data sometimes seems like a monologue, art can produce a dialogue. Artists may not – indeed, probably should not – directly challenge the way that science happens or is conducted, but they can raise questions about the purpose of the science and present different ways of looking at research outcomes.

It’s fun

Clearly, engaging with artists is not something to be done if you don’t also think that it would be fun. Artists aren’t particularly interested being a part of a scientist’s ‘outreach’ box-ticking exercise, or in being relegated to a dusty corner of the lab from which to quietly observe the scientists going about their business.

I am not so naïve that I believe that having an artist in the lab is something that all scientists should do, or even most. But I do think that more scientists should have an open mind to this approach, and be encouraged to engage with them in the right context. Far from being an impediment to scientific progress, it can be a way of making your science more relevant, more impactful, and hopefully a bit more fun. In my next post, I hope to highlight a few examples of how it happens in practice when artists actively work in labs alongside scientists.

Johanna Kieniewicz on Plogs

Art for science’s sake, UCL Lunch Hour Lecture, 1 November 2012

Art for science’s sake, UCL Lunch Hour Lecture, 1 November 2012
Dr Chiara Ambrosio, UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies

For centuries, scientists have sought help from artistic practice as a visual aid. This lecture will explore case studies from the 18th to the 21st century, to show that artists have often participated in the growth of scientific knowledge by disturbing and questioning concepts that scientists take for granted. Would current artist in residence programmes benefit from adopting a more sustained critical role, in light of this history?

Related post by Johanna Kieniewicz ‏from the British Library: Why scientists should care about art

Studies in Temporal Urbanism: The urbanTick Experiment (Data Soliloquies)

Studies in Temporal Urbanism: The urbanTick Experiment (Data Soliloquies)

Chapter from Data Soliloquies included in Studies in Temporal Urbanism by Fabian Neuhaus

This book is very much about what the name urbanTick literally says, about the ticking of the urban, the urban as we experience it everyday on the bus, in the park or between buildings. It is about the big orchestrated mass migration of commuters, the seasonal blossoms of the trees along the walkway and the frequency of the stamping rubbish-eater-trucks. It is also, not to forget, about climate, infrastructure, opening hours, term times, parking meters, time tables, growing shadows and moon light. But most of all it is about how all this is experienced by citizens on a daily basis and how they navigate within this complex structure of patterns. The content of this book is based on the content of the urbanTick blog between 2008-2010. One year blogging about this topic brought together a large collection of different aspects and thoughts. It is not at all a conclusive view, the opposite might be the case, it is an exploratory work in progress, while trying to capture as many facets of the topic as possible.

Hardcover: 283 pages
Publisher: Springer; 2011 edition (4 Aug 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9400709366
ISBN-13: 978-9400709362
Product Dimensions: 15.5 x 2.3 x 23.5 cm

Merkske at London Art Book Fair, Whitchapel Gallery, 21–23 September 2012

London Art Book Fair

Merkske will be with Slade Press for the fourth edition of The London Art Book Fair at the Whitechapel Gallery, it takes place from the 21–23 September 2012.

Merkske published Text Trends: Though Text Trends, Martin John Callanan deals with the spectacularization of information. Using Google data he explores the vast search data of its users. An animation takes the content generated by search queries and reduces this process to its essential elements: search terms vs. frequency searched for over time, presented in the form of a line graph, 16 of which are reproduced in this book.

Future Climate Change

Chapter 27, of  Future Climate Change is from our book Data Soliloquies, pp. 23–43.

In recent years, future climate change has increasingly been recognized as one of the most important issues of the twenty-first century, challenging the very structure of our global society. No longer just an abstruse scientific concern, it prompts difficult choices for both individuals and governments. Moreover, it is of the first importance to those working in disciplines such as climatology, engineering, economics, sociology, geopolitics, local politics, law, and global health.

Future Climate Change
Edited by Mark MaslinSamuel Randalls
Published December 13th 2011 by Routledge – 2,064 pages
Hardback: 978-0-415-56981-1

ARTISTAS EN EL LABORATORIO O EL PUENTE ENTRE LAS DOS CULTURAS

Pau Waelder for laboral centro de arte

Hace unas semanas, el centro Arts Santa Mònica de Barcelona inauguró la exposición“Pensar Arte– Actuar Ciencia (Think Art – Act Science)”, una muestra colectiva de proyectos de artistas que han realizado una residencia de nueve meses en institutos y departamentos de investigación científica suizos, dentro del programa artists-in-labs, una iniciativa que surge de la colaboración entre diversas instituciones:  Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK, Institute for Cultural Studies in the Arts ICS y Federal Office for Culture (FOC). Comisariada por Irène Hediguer, la exposición explora las múltiples dinámicas de las colaboraciones vividas en los laboratorios entre los artistas Hina Strüver y Mätti Wüthrich, Ping Qiu, Sylvia Hostettler, Christian Gonzenbach, Pe Lang, Pablo Ventura, Claudia Tolusso, Alexandre Joly y Wenfeng Liao y científicos de diversas disciplinas.

Como indica Hediguer, el objetivo del programa artists-in-labs, que empezó como un programa piloto en 2003 y desde entonces ha invitado a 28 artistas a colaborar con laboratorios de investigación científica en Suiza, es “promover la comunicación entre arte y ciencia (…) la creación de un nuevo espacio en el que podrían producirse encuentros, conexiones y conceptos.” Este reencuentro entre arte y ciencia se ha ido haciendo a la vez visible y necesario durante el pasado siglo y cobra fuerza como uno de los aspectos esenciales de la cultura del siglo XXI.

Es conocida la separación entre las “dos culturas” que describió en 1959 el científico y novelista inglés Charles Pierce Snow en su conferencia titulada The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. En ella declaraba que las ciencias y las humanidades eran incapaces de entenderse: “dos grupos polarmente antitéticos: los intelectuales literarios en un polo, y en el otro los científicos. Entre ambos polos, un abismo de incomprensión mutua; algunas veces (especialmente entre los jóvenes) hostilidad y desagrado, pero más que nada falta de entendimiento recíproco” [1]. Más tarde, en 1963, el propio Snow reconsideró algunas de sus ideas y vislumbró el potencial de una “tercera cultura”, que mediaría entre las dos primeras. Este concepto fue recogido por John Brockman en su libro The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (1995), que marcó una fuerte influencia precisamente en un momento en el que los países industrializados se encontraban en plena “revolución digital”. Si bien el encuentro entre arte, ciencia y tecnología es cada vez más extenso y fructífero, cabe señalar que la “tercera cultura” no se ha consolidado plenamente: siguen existiendo diferencias y barreras entre las diferentes disciplinas, y por ello programas como artists-in-labs buscan “crear puentes”, como indica Hediguer.

Josep Perelló, comisario del espacio Laboratorio del Arts Santa Mónica, compara este encuentro entre artistas y científicos con el principio de acción y reacción de Newton: por una parte, “la investigación del artista puede verse fuertemente influenciada por las maneras de proceder en la investigación científica. El método científico privilegia la observación, que da la coherencia o el contraste entre teoría y experimento”; por otra, “la presencia del artista visitante fuerza una reacción no planificada por el científico. Obliga al científico a explicarse más allá de sus códigos y lenguajes sin mediadores, en la distancia corta. En cierta manera, el científico tiene que salir a escena, debe dramatizar, simplificar, exagerar y, sobre todo, vivificar todo su pensamiento abstracto para convencer y cautivar.” Ambos profesionales establecen así un diálogo en el que las diferencias, en vez de crear barreras, pueden generar un enriquecimiento mutuo.

El punto de encuentro entre arte y ciencia, como indica Cornelius Borck, es la tecnología: “La tecnología es la comunicadora, el eslabón perdido y la relación material entre entre arte y ciencia.” Borck indica además que el encuentro entre arte, ciencia y tecnología “no es simplemente un reencuentro feliz que mejora su entendimiento mutuo, sino más bien el lugar en el que se generan la transformación, el cambio y la adaptación.”

El recientemente fallecido profesor Stephen Wilson señalaba a su vez en un artículopublicado hace unos meses que la digitalización proporciona un lenguaje común (una “lingua digica”) para este encuentro entre las dos culturas:

“la digitalización ha cambiado la manera en que almacenamos la información, accedemos a ella y la compartimos. Pero la revolución digital también ha tenido profundas implicaciones conceptuales tanto para científicos como para artistas. Los científicos han tenido que reinventar procesos y descubrir nuevos tipos de manipulación de datos, mientras que la digitalización de la imagen y el sonido ha conducido a nuevas formas artísticas […] A la vez que ha influenciado a las ciencias y las artes por separado, la digitalización ha comportado cambios en la naturaleza de las colaboraciones entre disciplinas […] Existe un lenguaje común que promueve una conexión inmediata entre ambos grupos de especialistas.”

Un ejemplo histórico del encuentro entre arte y tecnología es 9 evenings: Theatre and Engineering, una serie de performances organizadas por el artista Robert Rauschenberg y el investigador de Bell Laboratories Billy Klüver, que tuvieron lugar en Nueva York, en el edificio del 69º Regimiento de Infantería del Ejército de los Estados Unidos (conocido como el Armory), entre el 13 y el 13 de octubre de 1966. Rauschenberg y Klüver reunieron a 10 artistas neoyorquinos y 30 ingenieros de los laboratorios de Bell Telephone para desarrollar estas acciones, entre performativas y teatrales, en las que se emplearon por vez primera recursos tecnológicos como el sónar, la transmisión inalámbrica, la televisión de circuito cerrado o la proyección de vídeo en creaciones artísticas. Ambos grupos trabajaron durante 10 meses para desarrollar el equipo empleado en las performances, no sólo como apoyo técnico sino como parte integral de cada pieza. Como indica Klüver, este encuentro debía no sólo aportar nuevas herramientas de creación a los artistas sino también aportar cambios a la tecnología:

“Yo creía que los artistas influenciarían a los ingenieros y así cambiarían la tecnología. Por supuesto, me refiero a que el artista trabajaría con los ingenieros y eso cambiaría a los ingenieros.” Pero al mismo tiempo el propio Klüver señala las limitaciones y las diferencias de intereses que marcan las disciplinas: “Yo no soy un artista –no sé nada de arte, de veras. […] Simplemente no me interesa la estética del arte. Así que los artistas querían hacer obras, y yo quería ayudarles. Pero no me meto en juicios artísticos. Es decir, no me interesan – los artistas querían que fuese a ver su trabajo y dijese «esto es maravilloso» o  «¿no es genial?». Yo decía: «no quiero verlo; todo lo que quiero saber es qué problema tienes.»” [2].

Las palabras del ingeniero revelan hasta qué punto pueden ser diferentes las intenciones de cada parte.

Con todo, las relaciones entre artistas, científicos e ingenieros no dejan de ser fructíferas. Además de las que se llevan a cabo en el programa artists-in-labs cabe destacar iniciativas individuales como la de la joven artista Katie Paterson, quien explora en su trabajo el paso de tiempo y la evolución de la naturaleza y el cosmos. Sus obras se presentan como instalaciones, vídeos y piezas escultóricas dotadas de una fuerte carga poética y en las aparentemente no ha intervenido la tecnología; sin embargo, en el proceso de su creación la artista ha colaborado con diversos centros de investigación y laboratorios que le han ayudado a obtener la información necesaria o han fabricado los dispositivos necesarios para una determinada pieza. En unaentrevista, Paterson explica su relación con los científicos que han colaborado en sus proyectos:

“He tenido mucha suerte al trabajar con científicos que han sido receptivos a mis ideas. A veces me han recomendado a una persona concreta, pero la mayoría de las veces he enviado un email sin más referencias y he esperado que todo fuese bien. Las relaciones que se crean son tan importantes para mí como el trabajo que se crea, y gran parte de ese trabajo surge de diversas conversaciones. Conversaciones acerca de todo tipo de cosas, desde la calidad de la luz de la luna, encontrar la manera de controlar un rayo, enviar silencio al espacio exterior o convertir un grano de arena en isótopos.”

La experiencia de Paterson demuestra que es posible para un artista establecer contacto con científicos e iniciar una colaboración incluso sin la mediación de un programa de residencias, pero también son cada vez más numerosas las iniciativas que facilitan este tipo de encuentros. Un ejemplo de ello es el UCL Environment Institute de Londres, establecido en 2003 para promover un acercamiento interdisciplinario a la investigación medioambiental, haciendo ésta más asequible para el gran público. El instituto tenía relación con otros departamentos de la Universidad, pero no con las artes y humanidades, por lo cual se estableció en 2008-2009 un programa de residencia para un artista y un escritor.

El escritor Richard Hamblyn y el artista Martin John Callanan fueron escogidos para la primera de estas residencias, que ha dado como resultado Data Soliloquies, un libro y una serie de obras que tratan acerca de la manera en que se divulgan los datos recogidos en las investigaciones acerca del cambio climático. Proyectos como éste demuestran tanto el valor divulgativo que el trabajo de los artistas puede tener para la investigación científica como la posibilidad de que una mirada “externa” pueda elaborar una crítica que lleve a reconsiderar algunas de sus prácticas.

En una conferencia del festival Ars Electronica en 2004, ante el reto de pronosticar cómo sería la sociedad, la cultura, al tecnología y la ciencia del futuro, Roger Frank Malina propuso dos posibles resultados de la relación entre arte, ciencia y tecnología: la “opción débil” y la “opción fuerte”. La opción débil supone que la interacción entre artistas y científicos o artistas e ingenieros dará lugar nuevas soluciones para los problemas de la ciencia o la ingeniería, tal vez una “ciencia mejor” o una tecnología mejor en la que los artistas actúan como conexión entre el ámbito de investigación y la sociedad.

La opción fuerte comporta que por medio de estas interacciones emergerán una ciencia y una tecnología “diferentes”: se hará necesario desarrollar determinadas tecnologias o bien resolver otros problemas científicos, por medio de nuevas metodologías. La “tercera cultura”, por tanto, supondrá una transformación de las dos anteriores, e incluso en unos años, propone Malina, “veremos nuevos programas de «científico en residencia» en los laboratorios artísticos para acelerar el proceso de redirigir la ciencia hacia nuevas direcciones conectadas con las necesidades sociales de 2029″ [3].

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[1] C. P. Snow, Las dos culturas y un segundo enfoque, Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1987, pp. 14, 24.

[2] Edward Shanken, “I Believed in the Art World as the Only Serious World That Existed. Interview with Billy Klüver, 1996″, en: Dieter Daniels y Barbara U. Schmidt (eds.). Artists as Inventors. Inventors as Artists. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2008, 177-178.

[3] Roger F. Malina, “Leonardo Timeshift 1959, 1969, 2004, 2029″. Ars Electronica Archive. <Leonardo

Pau Waelder for laboral centro de arte

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