The Shifting Terrain of Art and Science
By Paige Hirschey | September 26, 2022
This is part of the Art Museum’s ongoing series of Virtual Spotlights centred on our collections, exhibitions, and projects. This Spotlight complements the exhibition Drift: Art and Dark Matter, on view until October 7, 2022. Curated by Sunny Kerr, and produced by the Art Museum, Drift is a residency and exhibition project generated by the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the McDonald Institute, and SNOLAB. Click here for details on how to visit the exhibition.
In 1979, the German science educator Martin Wagenschein wrote an essay that cut to the heart of one of the anxieties of early space exploration. Before the first rocket ever left our planet’s atmosphere, several philosophers had begun to express concern about what it might mean to have the physicality of our closest celestial neighbour confirmed in “concrete, all too concrete fact.”[i] Their fears about what going to the moon could mean for humanity were apparently realized in Apollo astronaut James Lovell’s remarks, paraphrased by Wagenschein, that “the moon is a cold and lifeless world of black and white and grey” and his subsequent questioning of “how all those poets and composers came to say so many romantic things about it.”[ii] Throughout his essay, Wagenschein attempted to show what he considered to be the error of Lovell’s judgement. He concluded that lunar exploration had not diminished the wondrous vision of the moon, as Lovell seemed to imply, it simply introduced a new facet to our understanding of it.
Wagenschein’s line of reasoning echoed Gaston Bachelard’s earlier claim that when the scientist gazes through the lens of a microscope or telescope they are not emotionally affected—as he presumes a layperson would be—because “a scientific worker has a discipline of objectivity that precludes all daydreams of the imagination.”[iii] Both Bachelard and Wagenschein felt there was a distinction between the world seen through the cold, objective lens of the scientist and that viewed through the impassioned eye of the artist. Indeed, Wagenschein went as far as to suggest that there were, in fact, “two moons.” Ideally one could access either moon in the appropriate context, but, at least for him, the views themselves were completely incompatible with one another. “The poet doesn’t look at the moon as an object,” Wagenschein argued, “[h]e looks at the moon physiognomically, as one would look at a countenance that ‘looks back at us,’ a countenance belonging to the sky with its clouds and stars.” When one attempts to view the moon in a “spatial, physical or astronomical way […] the countenance dissolves.”[iv]
Wagenschein’s distinction between the scientific and artistic “moons” was that the former was physical, material, and “real” while the latter was a reflection of the viewer’s individual perceptions. In the middle of the last century, this sense of a rift between the measurable, physical (but never felt) world of the scientist and the sensual, aesthetic (but somehow immaterial) world of the artist reached a crescendo as the scientist’s tools and theories led them to conclusions farther and farther afield of our shared “common sense.” Hannah Arendt summarized this anxiety when she wrote in 1958 that “The modern astrophysical world view, which began with Galileo, and its challenges to the adequacy of the senses to reveal reality, have left us a universe of whose qualities we know no more than the way they affect our measuring instruments, and—in the words of Eddington—‘the former have as much resemblance to the latter as a telephone number has to a subscriber.’”[v]
Nevertheless, as artists have become more interested in, and in some cases, involved with the work of modern scientists, the distinction between the “two moons” [vi] and the perceptual universes they inhabit has become increasingly difficult to ascertain. To which moon did Yoko Ono refer when she implored the readers of her 1953 Smell Piece II to imagine sending each other the scent of the moon? Or the Scottish artist Katie Paterson when, in 2007, she used a pre-satellite communications technology to “bounce” Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” off the cratered lunar surface? Artists have long sought to understand, communicate, and allow their viewers to experience the far reaches of the known universe through their senses, oftentimes by borrowing information and techniques from the sciences. Charles Ross’s massive pyramidal earthwork Star Axis (which was begun in 1976 and, as of this writing, remains incomplete) will allow the viewer to experience the earth’s axial precession, a 26,000-year-long cycle normally imperceptible to a human viewer, by walking up a tunnel at its base. Many of Nancy Holt’s public installations from the 1970s and 80s employ precise solar alignments to give viewers an embodied sense of planetary perspective. Finally, all of the artists in the present exhibition have collaborated with scientists at the Nobel Prize-winning SNOLAB, whose research is dedicated to learning about the mysteries of dark matter, an entity that is theorized to make up some thirty percent of the universe but whose existence has so far been confirmed only by its gravitational effects. These artists clearly do not accept Wagenschein’s division between the detached scientific and affective artistic lenses, but what does it mean to engage these perceptions simultaneously? What can be achieved by troubling the distinctions between art and science? Naturally, every artist has had their own motivations, but we can begin to trace some shared sensibilities.
For one, this work can help dispel the dangerous idea that science is a purely objective discipline capable of describing our world “as it is.” This has been the predominant (though not undisputed) understanding of the scientific worldview since the Enlightenment. It suggests not only that there is a world that exists independently of our perceptions of it but that it is possible to observe this world as if from the outside—at least so long as we are able to access the disinterested attitude of the scientist. The hegemony of this idea has historically led to the discounting of other ways of knowing. Though our society embraces art, poetry, and myth, the knowledge they impart is too often treated as an expendable supplement to the “real” knowledge of science.
Ironically, scientists have themselves shown that this perception of their discipline may be incompatible with the nature of reality. The physicist-cum-philosopher Karen Barad has addressed this at length in regard to their concept of agential realism, a theory that draws on quantum physics to posit that the disembodied perspective upon which scientific realism depends is fundamentally impossible to achieve—we are always part of the nature we attempt to study.[vii] As Barad and many of their peers have specified, however, this challenge to the prospect of pure objectivity does not equate to a wholesale discounting of modern scientific achievements.[viii] These critiques do not suggest that shared knowledge is impossible; instead they propose an opening up to experiential and metaphorical practices as equally necessary, albeit different, ways of knowing.
Perhaps the key distinction comes down to Jason Hoelscher’s recent differentiation between purposive information and aesthetic or “fuzzy” information.[ix] Purposive information, the type generally preferred in the sciences, is composed of numbers, symbols, and technical language whose informational content—at least to the trained eye—is immediately discernible and, ideally, unambiguous. The informational content of art, on the other hand, is typically “fuzzy” in the sense that its meaning is never fully fixed. Different people will come away with different readings, and an individual’s own interpretation may evolve over time. Aesthetic information is preferred for describing the moon of the artist and poet, but when it comes to studying the makeup of the moon’s dusty surface or the arc of its orbit, Western society still relies nearly exclusively on the purposive languages adopted by the sciences.
This has not always been the case; the trenchant Western division between functionality and aesthetics is neither necessary nor universal. Fuzzy information has been deployed in Indigenous epistemologies for millennia (commonly, for example, in the form of mythology), and Romantic scientists experimented with aesthetic techniques throughout the nineteenth century.[x] Mimetic experiments—which reproduced the effects of natural phenomena but offered little in the way of workable data—enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the field of natural philosophy, and luminaries like Goethe, Shelley, and Blake advocated for the use of poetry in science instead of the increasingly technical language that was then becoming the norm.[xi] These methodologies have long since been abandoned by professional scientists—purposive information has proven to be a much more effective tool for precise modelling and accurate prediction—but, by opening our minds to new or dismissed ways of learning, artists can help show us that it is possible to gain knowledge of the world around us in ways that make us feel awed by, connected to, or, to use Jane Bennett’s phrasing, “enchanted” by our vast web of existence rather than alienated from it.[xii]
Above all, these collaborations can help us come to terms with the sheer strangeness of discoveries like dark matter that challenge our inherited ideas about the universe. While historically aesthetic epistemologies have been limited to happenings that could be experienced firsthand, in recent decades there have been increasing attempts by artists to engage with those exotic phenomena that, to use Arendt’s phrasing again, “we know no more than the way they affect our measuring instruments.” Dark matter is a perfect example of such an entity insofar as it is completely imperceptible to the human sensorium. Yet, as the artists in the present exhibition demonstrate, it is because of, not despite, its unfamiliarity that it is such a potent substance for what Donna Haraway calls thinking-with.[xiii] By weaving purposive information about dark matter with aesthetic insights, these artists compel us to reevaluate what we know and open our minds to previously unimagined possibilities. And as scientists continue to encounter phenomena that demand new models, new data, and even entirely new modes of thought, the urgency and possibilities of these interdisciplinary engagements will only grow.
[i] C.P. Snow, “The Moon Landing,” Look (26 August 1969): 72.
[ii] Martin Wagenschein, “Two Moons?” translated by Jan Kees Saltet and Craig Holdrege, The Nature Institute (2007) <https://www.natureinstitute.org/article/martin-wagenschein/two-moons-unabridged>. Originally published as “Die beiden Monde,” Scheidewege 9, no. 4 (1979): 463-475. Notably, the question mark in the English title is not present in the original German.
[iii] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places, translated by Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994): 156.
[iv] Wagenschein, “Two Moons?” unpaginated.
[v] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998): 261.
[vi] I first discussed Wagenschein’s essay in relation to modern art in my unpublished master’s thesis, “Towards a Phenomenology of Outer Space: Intersections in Art and Astronomy” (2015).
[vii] See Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
[viii] See, for example, Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010): 2-38.
[ix] Jason Hoelscher, Art as Information Ecology: Artworks, Artworlds, and Complex Systems Aesthetics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021): 1-16.
[x] For further discussion of the role of mythology in Indigenous epistemologies and its relationship to western science, see Gloria Snively and John Corsiglia, “Indigenous Science: Proven, Practical, and Timeless,” in Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, Book I, ed. Gloria Snively and Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams (Victoria B.C.: University of Victoria, 2016): 80-93.
[xi] See Amanda Jo Goldstein, Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017): 7-31.
[xii] For a thorough discussion of Bennett’s notion of enchantment and its ethical implications, see Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). I discuss the relationship between aesthetic and purposive information in relation to art-science endeavours at greater length in my forthcoming dissertation, “At the Frontier of the Impossible: Reimagining the Legacies of György Kepes and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies” (2022).
[xiii] See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press): 34.
Banner Image: The waxing gibbous Moon is pictured from the International Space Station as it orbited 263 miles above the Pacific Ocean near the island state of Samoa and the U.S. territory of American Samoa, Jan. 23, 2021. Credit: Roscosmos.
Image 1: View of the Moon out a LM (Lunar Module) window. Apollo Lunar Surface Journal Contributor Danny Caes writes, “The two major craters in this photograph are Chaplygin (just left of centre), and Schliemann (below centre).” Apollo 13 mission, April 11–17, 1970. Scan courtesy NASA Johnson Space Center.
Image 2: Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774–1840), Two Men Contemplating the Moon, ca. 1825–30, oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 17 1/4 in. (34.9 x 43.8 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) 2000.51. The Met Open Access Program.
Image 3: Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin stands at the Lunar Rover, with Mt. Hadley as a backdrop, in this image taken by Dave Scott at the end of EVA-1. Newly-processed from NASA Photo ID AS15-86-11603. Apollo 15 mission, July 26 – August 7, 1971. Scan courtesy NASA Johnson Space Center.
Image 4: Nadia Lichtig, Dust (Reinigungsarbeiten) 1, 2020, photogram on paper.
Image 5: William Blake (British, 1757–1827), For Children. The Gates of Paradise, Plate 11, “I want! I want!”, 1793, print, etching and line engraving on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1978.43.1494.
Essay text by Paige Hirschey. Edited by Hana Nikčević.
Paige Hirschey is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University of Toronto, specializing in artists’ engagements with science from the 1960s to the present. Before coming to the University of Toronto, she earned her MSc from the University of Edinburgh in Art History, Curating, and Criticism. She is currently completing her dissertation, “At the Frontier of the Impossible: Reimagining the Legacies of György Kepes and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies,” under the supervision of Professor Mark Cheetham.