Sunday, 18 October 2009

Strange and Charmed - Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts

by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

bought this in Portugal

Martin Kemp - column in Nature: Structural Institutions: The 'Nature' book of art and science (Oxford Uni Press, 2000)
Arthur I Miller: Insights of Genius: Imagery and creativity in science and art (NY, Copernicus,1996)

Arts Catalyst
The Laboratory - Ruskin
Wellcome Trust
Gulbenkian - Two cultures programme

Good open assessment about art can show how a continually renewed vision of the world leads to new metaphorical forms of expression to assist us in the continuing human struggle to understand, explain and improve our lives. If we see differently, we might think differently and act differently.

The complete freedom enjoyed by artists to make what they wish of any subject is a curse as much as an opportunity. Solely responsible for their work, they can fail miserably and have to harden themselves in the face of flippant or casual judgements. Scientists have to get used to a highly charged competitive ethos but they work in teams and they are less vulnerable as individuals, even though they face the risk that years of research may be rendered useless if another team publishes its results first.

Thinking and visualising are not mutually exclusive activities and the term 'visual thinking' has been coined to represent a mode of perception and understanding which is quintessentially beyond logic and words. The significance and weight of 'visual thought' can be gauged by the number of instances in science where a set of images derived from the world of sense perception has been replaced by 'artificial' visual images, and even more so by models, which go on to generate their own reality. Thus geological maps, at a macroscopic level, and models of the atom, at the opposite end of the scale, have come to exert extraordinary explanatory power precisely because they are easier to deal with than nature itself. Some might even claim that visual thinking is the most important form of understanding, so that science's crowning achievement - the formulation of explanatory theories - becomes an exercise far more akin to the process of making a picture than formulating a sentence with rational language.

A content-addressable memory allows us to recall our knowledge of a recognised item, it allows us to recollect, literally to collect again, the information we possess regarding the object before us. Importantly for art, this information includes any emotional associations that we carry with us. [...] All these associations are learned by experience, encoded in some of the million billion connections, known as synapses, that join together our 100 billion brain cells. It is because our knowledge is stored in the pattern of connections between cells that the study of such highly interconnected brain systems is called 'connectionism'.

Superficially, one could claim that both art and physics have some similar areas of interest. Both explore the physical nature of materials but their reasons for doing so are different. Physics analyses; art makes, or manipulates in unusual ways. In respect of contemporary physics however - quantum theory, relativity and cosmology - there are potentially close connections because both are concerned with questions about the ultimate nature of reality. Both are concerned with how we see ourselves in relation to nature, whether as objective observers or as subjective participants.

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