RYAN GRIFFIS

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Fielding Questions: Notes on the Fieldworks Symposium

In an April broadcast of the radio program "On the Media," ABC News editorialist John Stossel was asked why he had invited well known fiction writer Michael Crichton to appear on one of his programs to discuss science and the global warming debate. The exchange ended like this:

On the Media's Brooke Gladstone: "In December, you featured novelist Michael Crichton on 20/20, and you praised him for contradicting something most people believe and fear. You went on to say that environmental organizations are fomenting false fears in order to promote agendas and raise money. Why use a fiction writer to refute the scientific community?".

John Stossel: Because he's famous, and he's interesting, and he's smart, and he writes books that lots of people read, and I could interview the scientists for 20/20, but more people will pay attention when this particular smart fiction writer says it.
( http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/transcripts_040805_skeptic.html )

This particular exchange is interesting to consider in light of debates around all manner of cultural and scientific developments, including stem cell research, evolution, sex education and energy production just to name a few. What makes this interesting to me is the visible and unashamed collision of claims to truth with tactics of representation. Stossel recognizes that the global warming debate is constructed as a "he said, she said" debate, so truth claims are only as valid as the prominence of the person making them, not the verifiability of the claims themselves. Likewise, the "other side" often points to consensus as verification.

This discussion was in the back of my mind when I attended the Fieldworks symposium just a month later. Organized through a collaboration between Departments of Art, Art History, Geography and Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, Fieldworks was designed to discuss "the emerging relations between geographic sciences and artistic production" found in the work of certain contemporary practitioners. From the preliminary program, it was apparent that the two-day event would attempt this exploration through both creative works and traditional discussion.

The first event included a video screening and audio performance within the space of UCLA's Hammer Museum. Heather Frazar, a recent graduate in cultural geography from UCLA and one of the organizers of the conference, presented "Core Matters," a video narrative of the Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two core sample. This sample of ice, the deepest ice core record of the Northern Hemisphere at more than 3000m ( http://arcss.colorado.edu/data/gisp_grip/document/gispinfo.html ), was traced from the site of its recovery in remote Greenland to its residency in an archive at the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, Colorado, where it is parceled out for research. By focusing on the language, images and instruments through which this object of inquiry is understood as one containing "information," Frazar reveals how scientific knowledge is produced, distributed and differentiated from other kinds of knowledge. The difference, for example, between the way the core sample is treated by the technicians collecting it as a material artifact and those preserving and distributing it as a container of knowledge illuminates the process of transformation that occurs as material becomes information.

Following the screening, the LA-based sound artist/activist collective Ultra-Red ( http://www.ultrared.org ) performed a site-specific audio intervention. Called "Silent/Listen," the performance began with an interpretation of John Cage's famous silent composition "4'33"," used here to invoke ACT-UP's famous "Silence=Death" slogan, redirecting attention away from the phenomenological experience of the space and toward experiences that may not be seen or heard in the moment, yet are ever present as we move through any space as an HIV positive or negative (or somewhere in between) identity. After the scripted silence, pre-arranged participants were invited to a table to speak of their ongoing battle with the personal and political ramifications of HIV and AIDS. These speakers' stories, both deeply personal and polemic, were recorded and mixed into an increasingly complex montage by the members of Ultra-Red, highlighting key phrases within ambient and discordant soundscapes. This technique has been used by the collective before, especially in their collaborations with activists in LA's fair housing struggles. While it may seem to stretch Fieldwork's thematic to the point of breaking, Ultra-Red's practice has been well defined by the group as site-specific and has consistently tackled perceptual and political conditions as inseparable properties of space. In this context, the performance, perhaps arguably, offers a challenge to a science of geography that does not account for its role in the distribution of housing and health care and especially people.

The next day, formal presentations set the stage for discussions about the developing exchange occurring between the sciences and aesthetic production. The presentations ranged from artist and architect Laura Kurgen's analysis of declassified satellite images to examine the political implications of imaging technologies and information networks ( http://www.princeton.edu/~kurgan/ ) to Canadian draftsman Juan Geuer's anecdotal narrative of his experience as an artist and researcher among geophysicists ( http://www3.sympatico.ca/fred.mrg/ ) and Trevor Paglen's summary of his performative research on the "black world" of the US Military's classified defense programs ( http://www.paglen.com/pages/projects/nowhere/index.htm ). One common thread to all of the presenters, aside from the whole geography thing, was their deliberate transgression of recognized academic fields, while still maintaining a rigorous relationship with them.

Cross-discipline research, especially between the humanities and technology-based sciences has become something of a holy grail in academia (in the US, at least), as both sides seek to capitalize on new funding sources in an increasingly privatized funding environment. One of the targets of Fieldworks is the accepted definition of the "field" itself, i.e., the boundaries that compartmentalize knowledge into discreet regions that must be defended. University departments now routinely offer joint degrees, and many art programs have dissolved the traditional walls between media. This may seem like an academic problem, and perhaps it largely is, but when Business Journals assert that "the MFA is the new MBA," the paths of commerce and academia don't seem so divergent ( http://www.latimes.com/extras/careereducation/brush_wsuccess.html ).

In this competitive climate, where notions of a science free from commercial influence have all but disappeared, the distinction between making something of value and merely illustrating or understanding reality has become all-important. The production of illustrations -- representations of different phenomena designed to reveal something about them -- is now merely one step in the development of commercially viable goods. For the physical sciences, it is a matter of not just reading and interpreting the world, but of making something from interpretations, whether it's a new pharmaceutical product, a faster computer processor, or hydrogen powered cars. While art may not feel the same pressure toward utilitarianism, the historic struggle of the aesthetic avant-garde to move beyond illustration, whether one looks at modernist abstraction or tactical media, is a provocative parallel development.

One of the comments made during the open discussion pointed out that as social science moves more towards cultural studies (developing a critical language of its own histories and languages), art seems to be moving toward invention-oriented and empirical methodologies typical of the physical and social sciences. In the work of Paglen, Kurgen, and many of the speakers at Fieldworks, observational instruments that are considered to be within the domain of science - statistics, geology, astronomy, physics - are used toward creative ends not exactly familiar to their origins, but not completely alien to them either. The tools of observation and recording, considered illustrative in the hands of science, become generative in the realm of art, where the "performance" of the instruments is itself a final "product." The comment mentioned above about social sciences moving towards cultural studies, made by a geographer, may be true within high academia, where science is indeed becoming more self-conscious and critical, but perhaps it also has some resonance with the further commercialization of research within universities, where the "scientific method" is applied to test the marketability of a particular research venture. While the geographer most likely intended to reference the growing numbers of science scholars, like Bruno Latour, who are creating a critical theory of science, it could be argued that science and art are becoming complimentary methods of production, both situated in terms of "markets."

How does all of this impact upon daily life and cultural contexts broader than museums, classrooms and conferences? Well, Michael Crichton appearing as an "expert" on climate change may be one instance. The example of John Stossel citing Crichton as both an expert and a popular figure, is what Bruno Latour might call iconoclastic. For Latour, iconoclasm - the renunciation of religious iconography - is used to describe the process (in Western society) of destroying and creating images in a cyclical search for truth. In this sense, images can be understood as instruments that point to what is not immediately visible - and understanding that encompasses satellite photography as much as religious icons, despite major differences in how such images relate to notions of information (see: http://www.ensmp.fr/~latour/expositions/001_iconoclash.html ) Crichton can be seen as an iconoclast (or Stossel for using him), as he keeps the distinctions between knowledge production and social conventions intact while destroying images that seem to represent that distinction - namely that of specialized experts. Images that are assumed "empty" vessels of information for scientists, such as photographs of fetuses or of the planet Earth, can become weaponized icons in fierce ideological battles. And representatives of the scientific community, in attempts to keep the distinction between truth and social invention in tact, are finding themselves on the front lines of battles over such images and their constructed meanings.

This concern for iconoclasm lay just below the surface of my experience of the discussions framed by Fieldworks. While there was certainly much to celebrate in terms of the diversity of practices and the ability of artists and scientists to blend and stitch together innovative methods for observing and imagining reality, I wondered if this collision could escape the confines of professionalism. In many ways, it appears that these collaborations between disciplines were taking up the role of producing illustrations and questions about our surroundings that was once expected to be played by an "autonomous" science. But, what is to prevent any interdisciplinary effort from become just another, and potentially more obscure, guarded dialogue? The question for me is how to replace the "fielded" expert with interdisciplinary and amateur knowledges--without following an iconoclastic program that seeks to destroy established fields only to replace them with new, interdisciplinary ones, in a search for more accurate and descriptive methodologies. In other words, how can the field be expanded without leaving the position of expert open to Michael Crichton?
The Fieldworks Art-Geography Symposium was held at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, May 5-6, 2005
http://www.fieldworks.org/index.htm