Since a number of years we are in the midst of a new wave of interest in the connection between art and science. In the previous century there have been two such waves, the first in the twenties and thirties, marking the beginning of modern art, industrial design, modern music and modern architecture. The second of these waves was in the fifties and sixties, marking the birth of electronic music, video art, interactive art and generative art.
Both of these periods shared a sense of optimism about potential future developments, but also a sense of responsibility for the artist who had to fulfill a specific mission to help ensure this positive potential. This mission was perceived to consist in absorbing new technological and scientific notions into the realms of human experience and imagination. Civilization often lags behind the advances in technological control of the world, and according to Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy this lag is one of the root causes for excesses such as exploitation and war.
In the current wave of interest in the ArtScience connection, a number of views on the interactions between art and science can be distinguished. A form of collaboration that has become almost common is one in which scientific concepts are seen as a kind of ‘content’, and where the artist translates these concepts into images, sounds or other experiences. This can reduce the artist to a kind of scientific communicator, but in most cases it triggers radically new kinds of artistic development.
Also it can result in works that help scientists get a new intuitive understanding of what it is they are doing, or works that comment on consequences of scientific developments. Another form of collaboration is one in which scientists or technologists assist in realizing an artistic idea. This can reduce the scientist or engineer to a kind of art facilitator, but more often the artistic idea itself is informed by a new awareness of possibilities. Also the artists can help trigger new directions of research by posing uncommon problems.
A more complex and much more interesting zone between art and science has been described in two recent books. In his book ‘ArtScience’ (2008) David Edwards cites many examples from the worlds of science, art, civil society and industry that show how transposing ideas or strategies from one field to the other often results in radical innovation. ArtScience for him is an intermediate area of creativity where art nor science are clearly defined: stimulating this zone he considers to be one of the key strategies to foster innovation. In his ‘Information Arts’ (2002) artist and theorist Stephen Wilson gives an encyclopedic overview of many new forms of art that have their origin in current science and technology. To discuss these forms he no longer considers the traditional artistic disciplines to be relevant, and in his book he proceeds to group these art forms under the headings of the main scientific disciplines. He argues that these new forms of art will not necessarily find a place within the traditional platforms for art, and will also not necessarily share traditional artistic concerns.
The core idea that makes such collaborations and intermediate zones interesting is that art and science are both considered as types of exploration, and that they are thought to be complementary in many ways. Where science maintains an aura of objectivity and detachedness, in art subjectivity and critical engagement tend to be favoured. Where in science peer-review is the norm, artists are expected to be iconoclastic and original. Where science is expressed in formulas and text, art often exists through non-verbal experience. Ultimately, however, art and science share the aim to enlarge the scope of our ideas about the world. By inventing new media and new artistic languages, art can create new worlds of experience. By widening our imagination it also creates new kinds of thinking, as we can not think about the things we can not imagine. As Gyorgy Kepes, founder of the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies at the MIT wrote in 1956: “The images and symbols which can truly domesticate the newly revealed aspects of nature will be developed only if we use all our faculties to the full – assimilating with the scientist’s brain, the poet’s heart and the painter’s eyes. It is an integrated vision that we need; but our awareness and understanding of the world and its realities are divided into the rational – the knowledge frozen in words and quantities – and the emotional – the knowledge vested in sensory image and feeling.”