Essay written for my MSc in Science Communication. The brief: describe an artwork and how it relates to the world of science. I decided to take a slightly skewed approach, and propose an artwork of my own.
Views on a storm – a proposed installation
A storm approaches. Immense billows block the light, sheets of rain lash the landscape. Flashes of light illuminate the clouds from within. A chill wind drives it forward.
Take the imposing sight of a dark, towering cloud, brimming with lightning and dispensing rain and hail. Ancient peoples interpreted them as manifestations of the anger of the gods. With experience, a farmer might see a threat to their crop, a sailor an indicator of rough seas to be navigated around. With training, a meteorologist might see it as the outcome of turbulent weather systems, a physicist, a battle between updraught and gravity which may produce hailstorms.
Each of these viewpoints can be seen as an overlay of meaning onto observation, allowing them to read the state of underlying systems in surface features. These interpretations are entirely dependent on the mental landscape of the viewer, and how their experience, knowledge and values filter what they see.
I would like to propose an installation artwork, celebrating the diversity of human perception. It would exploit an unusual optical phenomenon to reveal the invisible, and allow the audience unexpected glimpses into the minds of others. It would offer an immediate and intuitive way to explore a subject through different eyes. Most particularly, I would like to communicate the beauty and joy I find in a scientific view of the world.
An example of cumulonimbus praecipitatio, created by the rapid upward movement of warm, moist air and characterised by precipitation that reaches the ground.
Studying physics for three years had a profound effect on my outlook. I was trained to look at the world in a certain way, to observe, measure, test, record and report what I saw objectively. My watchwords were rigour, logic, and rationality. I was swept up by the universality of the scientific method, presented as creating a communal edifice of fact and theory divorced from the daily experience and internal worlds of the people that create it.
This ideal of objectivity is carried to its extreme in formal scientific communication. The process of structuring observation into information, building toward theory and ultimately formal knowledge iteratively removes the stamp of the individual observer until the final product is universal, impersonal, unambiguous.
In formal scientific communication between peers, subjectivity is not discarded but rather is recorded and accounted for. Although a certain level of understanding is assumed, authors externalise their mental framework both by dispassionately explaining their reasoning and through reference to work which they draw on. In this way, the reader is given as full access as possible to the author’s thought processes. In theory, every statement can be traced to its conceptual roots, ultimately supported by testable facts. The reader is an active participant in the process of communication, navigating through the author’s arguments to verify the foundations of their conclusions.
This depth of understanding is essential to conveying the minutiae of scientific endeavour and to effective critique, but it is inaccessible to an audience which lacks knowledge of the paradigm in which the author operates. It is the essence of dispassionate, intellectual communication.
Animated arrows represent air movement within the storm cloud, colours changing as heat is exchanged with the condensation of water vapour. Spheres with + and – signs dance through the structure.
The wider context of a piece of scientific work is frequently presented through documentary texts, which I define as journalistic reportage which curate the communication of others into a gestalt vision of the subject. This may be a cohesive picture of consensus or a fragmentary view of discord. Though it may convey more of the values, excitement or motivations of scientific work, documentary expression still operates at a remove, rather than conveying directly the internal landscape of an individual observer.
Sparsely framed, colourful radar imagery of a storm is collaged with a tracery of diagrams and strongly textured oil-paint clouds lit by lightning within.
Occasionally a scientific institution will seek to communicate on a more empathic level by channeling their output through artists. They may be invited to spend time in the institution, perhaps being placed with an active researcher, to become familiar with the institution’s methods and output and produce artworks based on their experiences.
To explain my reservations toward this practice, I will need to enunciate my definition of art. Works of art come in many guises: paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs, dance, theatre, poetry, prose. Art can be classified as what is beautiful, appealing, or has more than ordinary significance. However, these are of course very subjective qualities. I would like to propose a definition of art, distinct from the craft of creating something beautiful.
The hard edges of an ephemeral storm cloud are frozen in granite, towering and foreboding. This contradiction of solidity and weight hovers, apparently absurdly weightless, over metal rods of rain.
Artistic works can be literal, metaphorical or abstract, fleeting or permanent, and anything in between. They may depict the beauty of a face or a feeling of loss, through an enduring edifice in marble or an ephemeral arrangement of leaves on a river stone, to a universal or specific audience. However, throughout its myriad forms, I consider art to be the process of expressing a subjective reality by imbuing a creative text with meaning, with the aim of inducing a response in the mind of the viewer.
This process spans four elements: subject, artist, text, and viewer’s reception. The artist’s observations of the subject are built into a mental abstraction, and translated through their particular medium into a text. An individual’s view of the artwork may be a faithful recreation of the artist’s idea or diverge wildly for it, according to the viewer’s mental landscape of values, experience and emotions. Artists may attempt to exploit, challenge or transcend this subjectivity, but if the viewer perceives no significance within the text, then (for them) it has not succeeded as a work of art.
An artwork will evoke constellations of meaning in the mind of the viewer – the extent to which these are intended determining how effective the piece is. Playing on these chains of association and meaning can be effective, but relying on them will narrow the audience for whom an artwork will have impact. By its subjective nature, artistic communication can also give rise to imprecision and ambiguity, rendering it relatively ineffective as a means of expressing factual information. Art also differs from other avenues of communication in the extent to which the artist’s subjectivity is expressed.
The artist’s observations of the subject are filtered through their experience, knowledge and values. Key features, perhaps distorted or exaggerated, are built into a coherent abstraction of the subject. By translating this model into their chosen medium, the artist attempts to convey to the viewer what they find significant in the subject. Is the quality and uniqueness of this vision which lends an artistic text its power.
An artist’s skill in the execution of their craft can be enhanced by practice, and their skill in abstraction can be similarly honed through study. For example, even a cursory examination of anatomy will enable a sculptor to see the human body with new eyes, to see the patterns of surface form with respect to underlying structures and systems. This pairing of understanding to observation adds a wealth of depth and texture to their perception a subject, which can be channelled into and inform their model.
Returning to institutional art, I am wary of pieces which do not come directly from comprehension in the mind of the artist, but are filtering by their understanding of a scientist’s explanation. Without investing in the framework to see the patterns and significance in a technical subject, an artist’s clarity of vision must be compromised. Of course, the applicability of these statements is entirely dependent on the circumstances, artist and what they choose to convey.
As I look further into the mechanics of discourse and communication, I am increasingly finding that understanding the subjective experience of other parties is key to successful communication. By investigation, comparison and questioning, ideas can be modelled, compared and built upon. In the spirit of this, I am engaged in the project of investigating my internal landscape, comparing the insides of my own head against an ever-expanding identification chart of concepts.
The cloud’s roiling form condenses within warm air hoisted aloft by an intruding wedge of cold air. Rain sheets down, wrung from the cloud as it is squeezed tighter against an oppressive band of cold air above.
Through my study of physics, my natural curiosity developed into a drive to answer every ‘how’ or ‘why’ question, to never leave something at ‘I don’t know’. This manifests in me seeking out information about phenomena which I encounter, or interesting, ‘wow’ ideas in general. The flitting of my butterfly mind is compounded by ‘internet generation’ sensibilities, so precise details may wash in and out without transferring to long-term storage, but the flow of information leaves traces and tracks. The impression of underlying systems ghosts around subjects which I have looked into, adding depth and richness to my perception of the world. I find it the source of great joy, and the desire to induce the same feeling in others is what steered me towards science communication.
However, while both conveying information with refinement and flair and inducing ahah! moments are immensely satisfying, it is the subjective experience of a wondering, open mind revelling in understanding which I wish to express artistically. I want to celebrate not just seeing but ‘seeing as’, and the model I have of our world’s immense and overwhelming but ultimately fathomable complexity.
Although this complexity may suggest the layered meanings and frenetic holistic portrayals of cubism, my ideals chime more closely with the Japanese aesthetic concept of Iki. This values expression of original ideas with simplicity, sophistication, and spontaneity. Works in this mode can also be described as romantic, straightforward, measured, audacious, smart, and unselfconscious. I aim to continue this mode of expression from my craft into artistic communication.
The immense image of a storm cloud presides over a forest of transparent panels. Passing amongst them, filigrees of word and line transform the dark cloud with brilliant colour.
I propose an installation which will allow an audience to view the same subject through different eyes. Fortunately, I know of an optical property which may be exploited to express this complexity in elegant style.
Combined polarising filters will allow or prevent the passage of light, depending on their relative orientation. By interspersing a birefringent material (such as sellotape) between them, regions of contrasting colour or clarity can be created in an otherwise black or transparent field. First experienced in an optics lecture many years ago, this image of material manipulating light has haunted me ever since.
A significant amount of research and experimentation will be required to do this well, but the concept is relatively simple:
A subject is presented through a straightforward depiction (eg. photograph) which any lay person might recognise, illuminated through or situated behind a polarising filter. Throughout the clean, spare gallery space tall, borderless transparent panels rise from the floor. Texts created from regions of birefringent material will populate the panels. As the viewer explores the room, unexpected flashes of colour will appear where panels intrude between viewer and the subject.
Each panel will offer a different subjective perspective, each of these key texts having been created in collaboration with a scientific or lay individual to visually express their perception of the chosen subject. A viewer can thus position themselves so as to superimpose text and subject, and experience a compound vision.
A further development might be to make the whole installation dynamic, using liquid crystal (a controllable birefringent material) as the display filter.
The aim of the work is to reveal the omnipresent but hidden subjectivity with which individuals see the world. However, rather than demonising the products of subjectively filtered observations, the goal is to externalise, examine and account for this subjectivity as the first step to developing mutual understanding.
Admittedly, my ulterior motive is to express the beauty I find through scientific, systemic understanding, but the work would also be a celebration of expertise outside of the ream of formal science. I am also certain that creating it would greatly increase my personal stock of interdisciplinary and cultural understanding.