Art and Science as the Conjectured Possible

[...] In this manner, by demonstrating the logic in the creation of new technological forms and new identities, art articulates the primary task of the individual living in the age of new technologies: the construction of a living future (that is, a future that endows us with freedom), and not a dead, mechanized future that is being built without our participation.

From: Dmitry Bulatov

Today it is conventional to regard art as having begun to pay attention to science only in the twentieth century, particularly since the term “science art” appeared in this same period. Adherents to this point of view can be divided into two categories. Those in the first category believe that, in entering into engagement with science, art becomes “scientific,” acquires a framework and respectable standing which permit it to finally answer those questions that it has without success attempted to answer over the previous centuries. Those in the second category assert that art is capable of avoiding the influence of scientific-technological progress, and that any attempts to “scientificize” or “technologize” art will only do damage, distracting artists from solving the perennial problems of human existence.

Guy Ben-Ary, Kirsten Hudson

Guy Ben-Ary and Kirsten Hudson, In potentia, 2012. Reprogramming foreskin cells into embryonic (like) stem cells and further transformation them into neurons, iPS cells technology. Mixed media installation, courtesy of the artists. In collaboration with Stuart Hodgetts and Mark Lawson © 2012 Photo by Kuda Begut Sobaki

We can agree with neither point of view, because art and science have been connected to one another from the very beginning, and will continue to be so as long as man exists. This does not mean that art has been appointed as a kind of applied methodology for appraising the borders of scientific-technological knowledge, if only for the reason that, in contrast to science, art is constantly resolving the same set of (usually key) questions of worldview for which it is impossible to give a final answer. For all intents and purposes, the problems associated with art are of a special type: they relate both to the ultimate foundations of human life itself as well as to the universal means of describing that which transforms this life. If anything, this is a conceptual framework that is imbued with material content that reconstructs the structure of phenomena in relation to currently prevailing cultural-historical narratives. It is these narratives that desire the emergence of the New Man, capable of living and evolving in a constantly changing world. Therefore, in these new conditions, it will be necessary to have another look at these previously accepted ideas, and, to once again attempt to resolve, it would seem, the very same questions.

Art emerges when the process of the conceptualization of man and the world no longer justifies the expectations with which it is charged, expectations that imply the rendering of universal judgment. It appears in opposition to the surrounding reality as a means of stepping out from the framework of accepted cultural stereotypes, having defined the borders of reality’s adaptability. The suppositions that form the foundation of the scientific approach hold that the everyday world as it is observed is real, and that in it exists a certain order, one that science endeavors to understand and explain. These basic principles give rise to the indestructible faith of scientists in the ability of science to properly arrange both the methods for observing reality and the ways of operating that are based on these methods, all of this outside of any suggestion of the carnal and intellectual organization of the cognoscitive entity. Nothing here is said, of course, about the relation of these methods to the cultural context in which they form. Doubting these objective orientations of science, art endeavors to overcome the topography of external perspective and to build its own models of reality, going beyond the limits of that which seems objective and self-evident from the point of view of common sense. Accordingly, along with art arises a different attitude towards the world, one that, contrary to Occam’s razor, is expressed in the peculiar multiplication of entities “beyond what is necessary.” If in science the learning process unfolds in the space between the interior, mental world and the exterior, physical world, then, by means of artistic activity, man receives access to a new, symbolic dimension that comes into being through this very practice. Art, then, having the ambition to understand that which is, becomes a means of creation of new kinds of intellectual and practical activity. The studying of that which exists and the imagining of new forms – these are the two mutually conditioning sides of the artistic process.

Bill Vorn

Bill Vorn, DSM-VI, 2012. Robotic art installation that introduces creatures expressing symptoms of “abnormal” psychological behaviors. 2012 Photo by Csenge Kolozsvari

In organizing its picture of reality, art unfailingly attempts not only to isolate reality from the engines of everyday thought and perspective, but also to find the transphenomenal connections between these two, both in the perception of the surrounding world and in relation to what man should do. For man from the beginning has lived in the space of the mundane, and, having found the correlation between the “real” world and another, “authentic” state of individual experience, it is possible to sketch the horizon of human knowledge and behavior. But also, no less important a tendency for art remains the erecting of bridges between these worlds and the pictures of the world that is formed by science. This is of particular relevance in recent years, when the ever-deepening rift between the development of science and societal consciousness has become far too wide.

Modern science raises a multitude of questions that require philosophical and artistic conceptualization. This applies to various fields in the natural sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, etc. – and also to a whole array of disciplines in the humanities. But in the pages of this book we would like to concentrate on those directions in science and technology that carry possibilities for constructing a new, “postbiological” reality. The representatives of thought in the humanities long ago became used to concepts with the prefix “post-” (post-structuralism, post-industrialism, Postmodernism, etc.), connecting to them clear-cut subjects. In all of these words, the “post-” element is coded: it points to a kind of hyper-familiar form that extends outwards, one to which the code is unable to assign a name, but can only limit its former meaning. In the conditions of postbiology, such a limiting is superimposed over the basic criterion, according to which the essence of the biological is identified. In accordance with this criterion, the existence of this essence and the speed of its evolution are given by the physical inseparability of the genotype (the information about a species) from the individual itself. The postbiological (or technobiological) individual, on the contrary, conjoins in itself the characteristics both of the living organism and the product of technological manufacture. The aggregate of these attributes allows this individual to achieve an ultra-high speed of evolution by rendering the information about its reproduction outside the boundaries of its body. However, despite such a rigorous definition, in this book we will discuss postbiological conditions in the wider sense, keeping in mind the various technological modes that transfer the human being (or any other biological organism) to a more intense form of existence, one that cannot be achieved through any natural means. We would not prefer to discuss in the foreword the ways in which these transformations and transitions will take place, nor do we wish to discuss whether researchers are addressing the capability of the natural sciences to transform biological material, the cultural-semiotic amplification of the psychological machinery of the human being, or the influence of the infrastructure of the technological order that controls our development and evolution. Here what matters to us is not so much the ways in which the ideas of the authors of this book – however much they may differ – are mutually distinct, but what unites the points of view that they defend.

Seiko Mikami

Seiko Mikami, Eye-Tracking Informatics, 2011-2012, interactive installation. The Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM], image courtesy of the artist. © 2010 Photo by Ryuichi Maruo.

In their reflections, practically all writers agree that today the majority of developed countries have entered the phase of the modern society, a phase characterized by the markedly strong influence of science and technology on society. In these conditions science changes its classic, research-oriented character, fusing ever more with various new technological appendages. Science starts to play not only a role in forming humans, one that in all times and places supposed that scientific knowledge would continue to develop, but also entrusts itself with the function of literally transforming human biology. Truly, despite having already become accustomed to living under conditions in which serious scientific discoveries have become almost a part of everyday life, we will still have to confront the fact that the main directions of the technological sciences of the twenty-first century – robotics, biomedicine, nanotechnology and cognitive science – represent a qualitatively different degree of the scientific and technological development of society. The convergent development of these technologies, and their deep interdependency with modern conceptual modalities and models, together make unheard-of and profoundly powerful instruments for the transforming of man and the environment in which he lives. For all intents and purposes, what we are talking about here is the creation of a fundamentally new construction of the sense of technobiology, about going beyond the limits of natural restraints that are founded on the basic laws of nature. First and foremost, this relates to man himself, to his psychological and biological structures.

Joe Davis

Joe Davis, Bacterial Radio, 2011, bacterially-grown platinum / germanium electrical circuits on glass substrates. Research project, courtesy of the artist. © 2011 Photo by Joe Davis.

The striving of modern science to know, and, in so doing, to conquer a whole series of natural laws forces us to recall Goethe’s famous maxim, “strib und werde”: die and be renewed, fade away and be. Or, to put it in modern terms, this striving presupposes an effort to take possession of the postbiological “person-making” (in other words, the endless profound interweaving of the living and the non-living, of the artificial and the natural, etc.), an ambition that, as is well known, is one of the elements of the culture of these modern times. But if this is so, then it follows that science, as a means of understanding the surrounding world and for the pronouncing of universal judgments about modern times, is connected not only with the human being, but also with the space of the potential make-up of the human being. In this situation, the proliferation of the newest technologies, ones that personify the inevitability of the transformation of the sense of post-biology, creates immense possibilities for the manipulation of this space. The boundaries between the biological and the abiological disappear, a multitude of identities takes form, and our body acquires the attributes of a drifting hybrid. New barriers to human freedom appear, as does the necessity of rethinking this freedom. The traditional polemic about what it is that we see, about what is beyond this apparition, about the relationship of consciousness to the surrounding world, gains momentum, for with the help of the newest technologies arises the possibility of fabricating the world on а physical level.

Tuur Van Balen

Tuur Van Balen, Pigeon d’Or, 2011, research project. Transformation of excrement of feral pigeons into a useful cleaning agent. Courtesy of the artist. © 2011 Photo by Pieter Baert

Approaching these and many other questions is hardly possible, in our view, without considering the experience of science art – the direction in modern art whose representatives use the latest technologies, research methods, and conceptual foundations in creating their works. Here the object of interest is those scientific-artistic and social practices which, first and foremost, enable the combination of languages and tools of “physical” description, on the one hand, and the individual-psychological description typical of the humanities, on the other. Such a correlation of material and semiotic elements becomes possible by using in modern art the concept of information, which allows not only formal, but also subjective-probabilistic descriptions. The transfer of information implies the possibility of expressing both individual meanings and values, as well as – by virtue of the encoded embodiment of the information in the material carrier – the reproduction of the physical conditions (spatial, temporal, and essential) of its representation. Such integrated possibilities of technological art make themselves strongly felt in various interdisciplinary fields, ones that facilitate the combination of technobiological and biomedical research in unified artistic models. But that which incontrovertibly defines the paradigm shift in modern science art is the possibility not so much of making material the individual message on one or another physical carrier, one that possesses the properties of growth, variability, self-preservation, and reproductivity (these, in fact, being current areas of focus for NBIC disciplines), but of elucidating, by means of unique strategies, the message of the medium itself, by virtue of the new properties of that which manifests its own autonomous and “nonhuman” dimension. To what degree can the intercommunication of science and art can be paradoxical? What are the possibilities for the diffusion of the latest generations of technology? How should the nature of the compulsion that forces man to participate in the establishing of technological systems that, in the long run, may surpass him, be understood? All these questions are the topic of numerous discussions in the artistic community.

James Auger, Jimmy Loizeau

James Auger, Jimmy Loizeau, Afterlife, 2009, the harnessing of the chemical potential of the human body through the application of a microbial fuel cell. Mixed media installation. Image courtesy of the artists. © 2009 James Auger, Jimmy Loizeau

Modern science and the world that has come into being with its help – this is the challenge for technological art. It is apparent that the current perspectives for human existence are in many respects connected with the question of what role art and philosophy are capable of playing in the conceptualization of the created technological world and axiological orienting in this world. Each time we contemplate the latest work of art, we inevitably must ask ourselves a question about its ontological qualities in relation to the nature of the technological. Does the given concrete work of art contribute to technologically approving conditional subordination and manipulation, or does it at first affirm the version of dehumanizing reality that is unfolding before our eyes, and then subtly abolish this law, offering the viewer a more complex permutation of rules? Such a practice bears witness to the abilities of the artist – and, in the end, the viewer himself – not simply to endow technological space with cognitive or aesthetic content, but, above all, with existential content. In this manner, by demonstrating the logic in the creation of new technological forms and new identities, art articulates the primary task of the individual living in the age of new technologies: the construction of a living future (that is, a future that endows us with freedom), and not a dead, mechanized future that is being built without our participation.

 

Translated from Russian by Kevin Reese.

This text is the introduction to the book: Dmitry Bulatov (ed.), Evolution Haute Couture. Art and Science in the Post-Biological Age, Part 2: Theory, Kaliningrad: BB NCCA, 2013. Additional info: postbiology@gmail.com; Website of the Part 1: http://videodoc.ncca-kaliningrad.ru/eng/

 

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