Monday, September 26, 2011

Moving images, everywhere

A few years ago the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris opened a large public exhibition titled Le Mouvement des images (The Movement of Images) -- information and images here. The Centre Pompidou is France’s National Museum of Modern Art, covering both the 20th and 21st centuries, and it boasts one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of film and moving image art.

Le Mouvement des images was based on a straightforward but quite radical premise: that the art of the 20th century should be re-read through the cinema experience. What this implied was a reconsideration of assumptions about the relation of art and technology to include not just film and photography, but also the traditionally plastic arts: painting, sculpture, drawing. In short, the exhibition was “a redefinition of the cinematographic experience widened to include all the visual arts.”

The strength of the Pompidu’s collection meant that the exhibition’s curator Philippe-Alain Michaud had an opportunity rarely available to curators and academics - he was able to work directly from the museum’s holdings to literally re-organize the canon of modern art relative to the idea that the filmic and ‘static’ arts both reflect a technological influence. For example, in relation to series of drawings made by Picasso several minutes apart in 1970, the artist is quoted as observing “It’s the movement of the painting that interests me, the dramatic effort from one vision to the next.” Taking a dynamic principal like movement as subject tends to alter the painting’s emphasis from fixity to flux.

I mention Le Mouvement des images because it seems a good example of a perspective from within the arts relevant to the interdisciplinary interests of this blog. In part, this is because Michaud understands film to be something far more pervasive than Hollywood blockbusters: he defines ‘cinema’ in a way that includes the moving images that are a ubiquitous part of our daily life, including those on the internet, on iPhones, webcams, and in scientific laboratories.

Part of my interest in the specific art/science crossover comes out of the observation that moving images are an increasingly integral, even methodological component of contemporary scientific research. Some of my current reading on the topic goes so far as to suggest that filmic tools like live-cell imaging are changing biology by introducing a dynamic imaging process into the heart of the scientific method. In that vein, it is probably not a coincidence that a couple of Shaun and James’ recent posts have involved links to films - of animation by stop-motion, by cell structures, and by particles.

So if it seems viable to revise the history of Modern art from the point of view of dynamic images, can we extend that perspective to science? I’m curious about the perspective on film as a research tool from the other side of the art/science equation.

Image credit: Gerhard Richter, Halfmannshof (1968), Offset print on lightweight cardboard. Based on a photograph taken by the artist from a moving train.


  1. This is an interesting topic. I fully intend to take the time when I have it in a week to give some more fledged (though not fully fledged) thoughts.

    In the meantime, if you're looking for beautiful moving images from cosmology that have been used for science, look no further than the millenium simulation... (the videos below basically show what we expect the distribution of dark matter in the universe to look like)

    The zoom in zoom out view:

    The flying through view:

    These should definitely be watched in HD to get the full awesome. In the fly through view, each bright dot is a galaxy cluster (with 1000s of galaxies in it). In the zoom in view, the most zoomed in just manages to resolve galaxies (with 100 billion odd stars in them). Yes, Earth is very insignificant.

    While these videos themselves haven't been used for science, they do look amazing and also help one get a sense of what the numbers are telling you when you compute them.

  2. Very interesting! I'm curious about the reasons for creating visualizations like this - is it intended to communicate to non-physicists, or are there ways that theoretical relies visualizations of the kinds of movements that the numbers are describing?

    I also coincidentally ran into this link today, from a Berkley neuroscience lab:

  3. So I posted the basics of the following on facebook, but it quickly got lost in the depths of newsfeed land...

    If you're reading this and you know of examples of where cinema has been used in science, please do add a comment letting us know of them. This works better the more engagement there is. As well as providing your own examples, you'll see everyone else's great examples.

    Then a discussion of the implications can develop... here and in future posts.

  4. The following are less visually impressive than the millenium simulation, but perhaps more impressive over all.

    They are, effectively, stop motion films of photographs the Hubble Space Telescope took over more than a decade of stars that are in the process of being formed.

    One of the videos:


    Look at the timestamps of the video! According to Earthly times, stars don't form all that quickly.

  5. Hi Michelle, so I still intend to give this a more serious thought... possibly even in the form of a follow up post, but I'm running behind schedule in real work so I'll give you a quick response now because I might be a while.

    I honestly don't know the specific reason the film of the millenium simulation was made, but I can say that watching it does improve my physical intuition regarding the distribution of structures in the universe. And I do work on the large scale structure of the universe so it isn't just that it helps outsiders... the numerical results coming from the millenium simulation are very relevant to my work.

    But it is only an intuition it gives me, not facts. It allows me to form hunches. Physics is an incredibly numbers based science and often these hunches are wrong when you sit down and calculate the numbers. The eye can be very deceiving and judging two things to be similar by eye can lead to wrong conclusions. This is especially true when the actual quantities involved can differ by less than .001% (or one part in 10^5).

    Intuition is still important though because it guides us in choosing what calculations to do. Calculations take time (sometimes a lot of time, years even) so enhanced intuition is very useful so that you don't waste time.

    I wouldn't be surprised if at the heart of, the decision to make a film of the millenium sim was simply that some clever member of the collaboration thought it would be really, really, cool to visualise it and went with it. The added benefits that people like me get from the added physical intuition and that *everybody* gets from the sheer awesomeness of those films would of course have also been driving factors as to why they went through with it in the end. And you're right, those videos definitely help popularise the simulation and impress the public.

    Actually, I've just remembered the following two films. They are the equivalent of the millenium simulation films but for ordinary matter (stars and galaxies) in the real universe:

    zoom out view: (you see the cosmic microwave background at the end, which is all just electromagnetic radiation)
    fly through view:

    The millenium sim videos are more visually impressive because we don't need to deal with pesky real world issues there. But the SDSS (Sloan Digital Sky Survey) ones above are the distribution of matter in a piece of the actual, real, bona fide, universe we inhabit.


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