RYAN GRIFFIS

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A review of AxS: At the Intersection of Art & Science
The Armory Center for the Arts
June 26 - September 4, 2005

Since the founding of the seminal Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) in the 1960s by Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver, the number of exhibitions, organizations and publications dealing with some kind of relationship between art and science has grown internationally. While it may be hard to think of a single event that has drawn the kind of public attention that EAT’s New York event “Nine Evenings” did in 1966, the quantity of new events suggest that science-related programming in the arts is on the rise. In the last few years, there have been numerable art exhibitions, publications and lectures that have focused on everything from geometry to biotechnology. Science-based corporations have even gotten into the art business, with companies like GlaxoSmithKline, through the Wellcome Foundation, financing and organizing art exhibitions on genetics and the discovery of DNA.
“AxS: At the Intersection of Art and Science,” a new exhibition at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, collaboratively organized by the Armory and the California Institute of Technology, presents the works of several contemporary artists whose practice often involves scientific research and tools. A mini-survey of sorts, “AxS” covers a broad range of concerns and aesthetics that one might expect to see in such a show. If there is a cohesive element binding the disparate works, it might be a concern for illustration and documentation, picturing scientific-looking imagery or using technology to point to scientific data, ideas and phenomena.
Pieces by Olga Seem and Eric Johnson both abstract natural forms, highlighting the order and structure visible in the organic and inorganic universe. Seem’s paintings, such as “Microcosm” (1998), present hybrid forms that could be mammalian, botanical or celestial in nature. Rendered in a pointillist-like fashion in earth tones, they take on a shimmering quality that contributes to their mysterious form. Likewise, Johnson’s masterfully installed mixed media sculptures make simultaneous references to biology, geology and quantum physics. His “Parallel Egress” (2005) bridges two walls that form a free standing room, creating two twisting translucent cavities on the outside.
More literal illustrations of observable phenomena are found in other works. In “Field Chart for Telescopic Work on Starlit Evenings” (2005), Russel Crotty presents the results of observations from his homemade Solstice Peak Observatory in Malibu as a series of drawings in a large sketchbook. Nancy Macko and Robert Valenza’s “Prime Horizons” (2005) uses video and wall decals to illustrate the occurrence and distribution of prime numbers. Comprised of a video projection of ocean surf and wall decals, “Prime Numbers” recalls the visual tactics deployed in the 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind” in which mathematical equations are transposed onto natural patterns. Similarly, Jim Campbell has created a “portrait of a portrait” of mathematician and information theorist Claude Shannon using a series of small LEDs and frosted glass. The blurry image of Shannon’s face fades in and out of clarity as the LEDs cycle through a pattern of “noise,” leaving one wondering what amount of order is necessary for image recognition. Where these works explore the poetics possible in the use of scientific imagery and tools, the work of Catherine Wagner documents the visualizing methods of science itself, looking at the synthetic images created by scientists to understand the world. The series of photographs displayed here, “History of Science” (2005), depicts 1950s era models - not unlike the ones used by many chemistry and biology students to recreate the structure of molecules - presented as laconic still lifes in antique cabinets.
In case we were to forget that scientific research is increasingly about changing the world as much as observing it, a few works in AxS take on the potential of science for transformation, both good and bad. The work of Karl Mihail and Tran T. Kim-Trang, known collectively as the fictional corporation Gene Genies Worldwide ™, documents the dubious development of a process whereby the highly ubiquitous toxin, perchlorate can be modified to become an “inoculation against terror.” Natalie Jeremijenko’s “Feral Robot Dogs” (2005) presents a humorous, yet functional way of identifying toxins in the environment with reverse engineered toy robot dogs. Jeremijenko, in collaboration with Robert Twomey, has also been working on a series of robots, like the mechanical water striders exhibited at the Armory, designed to mediate relationships between humans and animals.
Billy Klüver once said in an interview that he wanted EAT to be specifically thought of as an art and technology interface, not as a meeting between art and science. His reasoning was that art and science were two distinct, yet not competing, approaches to understanding the world - art explores what it means to be human, science is about understanding the mechanics of the physical world. While I don’t know about Klüver’s epistemological classification of art and science, there is something to fore-grounding concerns for technology. With the conflation of scientific research and consumable technology, evidenced by the massive financial infiltration of university research labs by various industries, the boundary between science and technology is becoming harder to define. This is a troubling phenomenon to many, especially scientists whose work reveals the negative impact our consumer lifestyles have upon our health and that of global ecologies. While AxS provides a space to both celebrate the investigative drive of science and critique the dark side of its applied forms, what gives me the most hope is the series of robot building workshops offered by CalTech engineer Ann Marie Polsenberg. The development of creative amateurs out of local teenagers seems one of the best ways to confront the commodity status of technology, re-imagining it as an inventive form of disciplined play. Hopefully, we can foster a role for art, and science, that is more than research and development for the next big high tech marketplace.