just draw me a map

5th October, 2007

Last year I heard Gregg Bordowitz give a talk and at one point he quipped about how disinterested he has become in artists engaging in what they claim is research.  He spoke about his time as a studio assistant for Joseph Kosuth and how Kosuth had often expressed the idea of art aspiring toward the condition and rigor of science.

At the time I bristled at that comment, feeling that research could certainly be carried out by artists and that suggesting otherwise was banishing art to the margins of modern culture, because we all can conduct research and the more of us engaging in and sharing our research the more detailed our understanding of the world becomes.  The boundaries separating science from art were impeding a deeper understanding of our experience.

Well, I love making art and enjoy studying research.  Whenever I make a new piece I inevitably benefit from the research of someone I’ve never met, and whose name(s) I will probably never know – if I’m building something electronic, working on a scent, traveling somewhere to install something, etc., but I have come to think that research is some concrete act with protocols, methods, goals, and happy accidents (I’ve been looking at Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, lately and he suggests that many scientific discoveries were, in fact, accidents that occurred while researchers were exploring something else – he cites Viagra as such a [happy] accident.  To me, the fact that these accidents occurred under controlled circumstances by actual researchers suggests that while one researcher’s specific hypothesis may be flawed, the process of scientific inquiry seems to nevertheless produce useful results – intended or otherwise).  I feel that by engaging in the study of other people’s work and by working myself in a cross-media/ensemble of actions style I am integrating the fruits of a real researcher’s research into my work and providing whoever encounters the resulting piece an opportunity to experience the integration of, for example, science and art.

Telling you that I am engaging in research, either explicitly or implicitly (the look, feel and form of a piece suggesting the work is visualizing/sonifying some data) is misleading and complicates the experience and ultimately confounds the mind.  I really don’t like that at all.  I don’t follow scientific methodology, I don’t do double-blind experiments, for example, and publish papers on my findings that include detailed instructions for another researcher to re-create and test my data.  Those, as I understand it, are significant aspects of what research is. Creating a Flash application, for example, that looks like some kind of map and claiming that map visualizes some ‘data set’ you’ve harvested and then not providing details to recreate your work and earnestly study it means, to me, that you are posing.  Sorry.  We now have many design tools at our disposal that can create the look and feel of research without any actual research present.

I am fortunate to be on the advisor’s panel to a local science center that includes numerous scientists and researchers.  During a meeting last Spring we were shown an animation created by a leading university about the inner workings of the body on a cellular level.  The animation, replete with what sounded like a score composed by John Williams, looked marvelous.  At the conclusion some members of the panel applauded.  Several members of the panel did not applaud and instead expressed concerns that the animation was inaccurate in regard to some essential elements of cellular interactions within the body.  Specifically in regard to the copious ‘open spaces’ within the body as portrayed in the animation.  One scientist referred to the animation as potentially dangerous for young learners because it looked too much like proper science – and would embed faulty images in a young mind that could ultimately complicate further study.  The same person went on to say that such images, for the same reasons, could only slow down public assimilation of current and future understandings.  He then expressed his love and belief in art, and a wish that artists would be artists, and to express their understandings of scientific data metaphorically, and to then have science centers present those metaphoric understandings along with accurate images of scientific facts.  His thinking was that both are equally important.  I thought that was a fine idea.

I’m in favor of integration of experience, but I feel that when artists create visualizations/sonifications of what amounts to questionable data (I’m speaking about artists whose work is clearly and intentionally about some data, yet the data is inscrutable, un-repeatable, too personal, mysterious, otherwise useless, etc.) and that is the sole intention of the project, they are, in effect, working to further complicate our experience and understanding and probably squandering resources and time to do it.  It also occurs to me that inscrutable info-art fetishizes the idea of knowledge = power, and falsely places the artist in an imaginary power position in the context of ‘actual’ researchers and scientists, and the audience in the position of those subservient to the imperial and ever so complicated data-set.
Any culture prizing, hoarding, and essentially worshipping information about seemingly every aspect of our experience, as we seem to, must feel, deep down, that they don’t know very much.  It is as if the digital patina is making us forget all of the heuristics (the rules of thumb) that we have collectively come to know (without explicitly having to learn them) about being human over the past 10,000 years, and we are clumsily trying to re-learn everything.  How often have you experienced a digital work and thought later how fundamentally simple the premise was yet how complicated and resource intensive the implementation?  Perhaps artists can work to maintain the availability and presence of that diverse body of heuristic, collective understandings and in so doing provide a balance to the reams of useful but increasingly alienating and often complicating information piling up all around us.  Just my opinion.

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