Monday, December 19, 2011

Senses of Science

Four months ago I wrote a post about wonder in an attempt to sketch out the aspirational mood of this blog (or at least my sense of it). In six week increments since I’ve metaphorically returned to that mood and tried to make its implications more concrete by mapping out the actual directions that thinking about wonder and new lines of disciplinary mingling have led my own research: first, into the domain of science film, and second, into postulations about this genre within a critical category I called ‘the impossible image.’

So come December, I’ve decided to take the opportunity for reflection provided by the end of a calendar year and circle back to wonder, backlit by a sense of some things I’ve learned from this multi-directional conversation thus far. The hero of this post is an out-and-out iconoclast: the scientist and Surrealist filmmaker Jean Painlevé, whose six-decade career was devoted to the intertwining of science and art on every level. A biologist trained in the Laboratoire d’Anatomie et d’Histologie Comparée at the Sorbonne, Painlevé was an avant-garde photographer and filmmaker who penned countless texts, reviews, polemics, and manifestos; was politically active during and beyond the Second World War; and initiated a scientific film institute dedicated to supporting and disseminating science film well before the nexus of art and science was comprehended as a serious topic.

underwater bricolage: Jean Painlevé with his diving gear
"Everything is the center of the world. I'm forced to be multicentric."
Best of all, Painlevé is a humorist. His mesmerizing films and delicate photographs, chatty texts and sparking interviews give us a way to concretize a subtle quality of the aesthetics of wonder—the significance of pleasure in the strangeness and surprising beauty of the natural world. The mood of his contribution to the history of our topic seems to me perfectly encapsulated in Foucault's riff on discovery and the affects of wonder:
Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity is seen as futility. However, I like the word; it suggests something quite different to me. It evokes "care"; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental.
Jean Painlevé, Liquid Crystals (1978) color, sound, 16mm, 6 min.; audio composition by Philip Glass
 

Painlevé's Liquid Crystals, (above) gives us an abstract play of image against sound, light set against shadow, color against depth. It is a dynamic arrangement of discrete elements stretched across the surface of the screen in a manner that's intended to invoke the sense of an organic, evolutionary development. As we watch this film of regeneration by splitting, we’re given a mode of access—aesthetic, ‘unscientific’ access—to biology not as a codebook of rules, but as a sense of things: of the biological as mood, a set of sounds, forms, movements and forces involved in a process of intensely creative making and doing.

This is the kind of scientific interpretation that Painlevé stands for. His films about scientific topics do not illustrate their objects so much as show them to the viewer, offering up objects of wonder. Most importantly, and for this reason, they work as films. “Not every subject is suitable for a film,” he wrote in a manifesto titled Scientific Film, because “anything that distances one from the direct experience of something is mere counterfeit and should be avoided; nothing should be put on film that can be demonstrated either directly, on a blackboard, through a slide projector, with an epidiascope, etc.”

 "I started taking pictures in 1910 with a Brownie number zero. It was a Kodak, a square box. But before that, I had a little 4 cm x 4 cm thing that I used to photograph the sun directly. I was always taking pictures. I photographed anything and everything that seemed curious to me. It's like kids today who fool around with computers to see how they work."

We see this emphasis on direct experience turned into a slightly different direction in The Love Life of the Octopus (below). There’s a quality of suspense as we watch this anamorphic animal move between land and water—a sense of an encroaching event, and an aspect of the unknown in this encounter with a fundamentally other perceptual world. The film gives us time to study and contemplate the distinctive strangeness of the octopus' sliding-walking through a documentary style that narrates by description in showing us another world without stripping away its strangeness and mystery.


The Exploratorium, an art and science museum in San Fransisco, suggests that The Love Life of the Octopus is a good way to celebrate Valentine's Day. Personally, I find the artist's own anecdote about wooing an octopus an even more amusing background to the film: when an interviewer from Sartre's Libération journal asks Painlevé "Why did you go from making films for scientists to making science films for the public?" he offers the following rationale:
To convey my passion for the octopus. It was a dream I'd had ever since meeting one during a childhood vacation in 1911. In 1925, during an internship at Roscoff, I would bring an egg to this octopus at 11:00 every morning. She soon began to recognize me by my shirt. Whenever she saw me, she turned black; the three layers of her skin—blue, red, and green—would swell with pleasure. Then she went off to eat her egg. We got along very well.
But then one day, out of perversity, I brought her a rotten egg. She turned totally white. In extreme fury, an octupus's cells contract and the white of the underlying dermis appears. With one of her tentacles, she threw the egg back at me over the aquarium's glass window. She never greeted me again. Instead, she'd retreat to the back of the aquarium and turn white. I realized then she had a memory. This mollusk was as intelligent as a human.
To me, there is no difference between minerals, vegetables, and animals. They are all linked through evolution. There are parasites everywhere. Among humans: babies and old people. There are also temporary parasites: the ill and the crippled. I've managed to fit into both categories. All it takes is one atom to go and stick itself in 2-3 to become a parasite of a system. This is how we got gold, diamonds, oil, asbestos. It's a continuous evolution.
For Painlevé, the descriptive mode implies an ethical and political gesture inextricably wound into the meaning of science film, and its extrapolation of natural beauty. The Love Life of the Octopus is at once beautiful and strange, and the construction of this film plays with a dialectic, a tension between the attraction of beauty and the distance implied by an appreciation of otherness.

'Art,' that is to say, enters into the space between 'science' and 'nature' to make the descriptive, observational mode a kind of drama. In this moment science film is both science and film: the precision of the scientific gaze does not preclude lyricism or poetry.

So to end with an issue not irrelevant to blogs about art and science, theory and practice:
Libération: Your science films have three versions. Why?

Painlevé: Because audiences are different. This raises the issue of "vulgarization," or, to use the English word which I prefer, "popularization." A film dealing with scientific subjects always risks being too sophisticated for one audience and too superficial for another. The scientist knows his subject matter and is protective of it. But an ordinary moviegoer can't always rise to that level, which is perfectly understandable. So with my films, I made one version for scientists, a second for universities, and a third, which was shorter and set to music, for general audiences. You must sort out your audiences. But the real question is: is it your right to do this, or is it your obligation?

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