|Hiroshi Sugimoto, Surface of Revolution with Constant Negative Curvature, 2008|
I’m interested in abstraction as a real issue for creative collaborations between art and science. As I wrote in my last post, science habitually turns to orders of abstraction and mind-bendingly variable magnitudes of scale when it turns to mathematics; but ‘abstraction’ also has a very specific meaning for art, and especially modern painting. So what happens when you put these two kinds of abstraction — mathematical and aesthetic — together?
Mathematics: A Beautiful Elsewhere was an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris late last year that put leading mathematicians and artists into contact with a open collaborative brief. The curator quotes the mathematician Alexandre Grothendieck to describe the exhibition’s aim as offering visitors “a sudden change of scenery.” The show was unusual enough to elicit some thoughtful response, not least a long interview with David Lynch, who contributed a film. "If you think of cosmology, you picture colourful nebulae; with neurology, intricate brain scans," notes the New Scientist. "But what does mathematics look like?" The answer is, implicitly, abstraction. The Nature review was a bit more curmudgeonly, accusing both the artists and the mathematicians of insufficient or obtuse communication. Other pieces in the show included included a live video feed from the CMS and ATLAS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Geneva: a groundbreaking-everyday kind of experiment which this reviewer — an astronomer — describes as "the mathematical word made flesh." For another commentator, the dominant theme was mystery:
Mystery is perpetuated not only within the pieces and puzzles themselves, many of which are initially impenetrable to the mathematically untrained. It also lies more fundamentally within the very essence of the subject under examination. The message runs clear throughout: mathematics is in itself a mystery, the truth of which may never be attained.
Talking with Shaun recently about fractals and the questions they raise — are they art? are they science? Does the mathematical basis and quality of endlessness make this an 'aesthetic' or a 'natural' object? — reminded me of the persistent problem of vocabulary for the desire to talk across these particular disciplinary lines. In a book titled What is Philosophy?, a collaboration between a philosopher and a practicing psychoanalyst, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari express the problem in this way:
When philosophy compares itself to science it sometimes puts forward a simplistic image of the latter, which makes scientists laugh. … Paul Klee’s vision was certainly more sound when he said that mathematics and physics, in addressing themselves to the functional, take not the completed form but formation itself as their object. … If philosophy has a fundamental need for the science that is contemporary with it, this is because science constantly intersects with the possibility of concepts and because concepts necessarily involve allusions to science that are neither examples nor applications, nor even reflections.
|Ulam’s Spiral, in The Room of the Four Mysteries, part of a film by Beatriz Milhazes.|
It strikes me that Mathematics: A Beautiful Elsewhere is an attempt in the right direction at a real space of collaboration — the kind of thing that Deleuze and Guattari would call taking "not the completed form but formation itself as [its] object." This is for a couple of reasons. One, the sheer range of works and collaborations in the show. Each is a sincere attempt to bridge the gap through multiple types of visual languages, and in a range of different media, and no individual piece can claim to individually crack the problem. This variety is an important part of making the viewer aware of the potential heterogeneity of the art/science matrix. By comparison, the CERN residency picked only a single artist following a wide call for proposals, which is a relatively pre-determined approach that is more likely to fall into the trap of fixating on artistic personality.
Second, Michel Cassé — an astrophysicist and a co-curator of the Mathematics show — put a range of experienced specialists together, gave them an open brief, but required the outcome to take the form of an art exhibition. This is a useful constraint for a topic so predisposed to wander into the literally ineffable. And so, for all the occasional accusations of impenetrability by the critics, this is an approach to disciplinary collaboration that I hope we see more of in contemporary art: process-oriented, carefully conceptualized collaborations that are not just flashy "allusions to science" but that prioritize the actual objects, methods, and incipient discourses that might fail, may communicate only partly, but begin to construct the common vocabulary.
|Live video feeds from experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Geneva|