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Art + Science Now: How Scientific Research and Technological Innovation are Becoming Key to 21st Century Aesthetics

by Stephen Wilson
Thames & Hudson, London, 2012
208 pp., illus. 270 col. Paper, £19.95
ISBN: 9780500289952.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.  I am so happy my Professor's final book is one that is so rich.

Stephen Wilson (1944-2011) was a graduate student of Sonia Landy Sheridan at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  He taught in and directed the innovative Conceptual/Information Arts program at San Francisco State University for over two decades.  He was hired there by its co-founder Bryan Rogers (1941-2013), chemical engineer-turned-artist, later Dean of the University of Michigan (UM) College of Art and Design.

The trouble with conceptual and information-based art for a sensualist like this reviewer is that too often it is sometimes austere, disciplined, monochromatic, symbolic.  Or else it looks like a science fair entry, or demonstrations at the UM College of Engineering Technoramas my dad took me to as a kid, whizzy but bare-bones.  I, admittedly, spend much of my time largely working on the side of the dichotomy that Duchamp called "retinal", yet its hegemonic old-fashioned canvas-to-gallery-to-patron economy seems more fitting a cobbler seeking an outlet for custom shoes than a public intellectual.  Most of these works seem to be exhibited in universities, at conferences, or short-term museum installations.  Yet for so many of the pieces here, there is a visual richness to them, a gleam of materials and satisfactory design.

Now published in paperback, Wilson gives us a colorful picture book of memorable artworks, which he divides into eight organizational categories.  The first category is Molecular Biology, artwork produced in the laboratory, "where artists probe cultural planes and social questions connected with cutting-edge science and technologies research."

Christine Borland's 2000 "HeLa" (Hot) looks like a laboratory, with its display of bench, electron microscope and live cancer cells, as do projects by Koen Vannechele (2000) and Brandon Ballengée (1999), their projects documenting chicken and tree frog images, past and possible futures.  Shiho Fukuhara and George Tremmel graft human and tree DNA in "Biopresence" (2004), while Natalie Jerimejenko's "One Trees" are exhibited in different configurations 1999-20004, identical plantings in different San Francisco environmental conditions. Some artists brew a ritual beer with human DNA, Kathy High displays castoff lab rats, and Marta de Menzez maps wing pattern areas of butterfly embryos.  Other projects use mouse and human cell lines to create artificial leather, or use electrical impulses from rat neurons to control a robotic diagram.

A second category is Living Systems.  Daro Montag buried strips of film in soil to produce "This Earth" in 2006, while Morgen Jacobsen's "Power of Mind" 2006 employs potato-generated energy to display online human rights information. Other botanical artworks involve hyrdoponic plants, monitoring of plants, and sensors on plants that trigger calls to water them.  "Spore 1.1" (2004) by Douglas Easterly and Matthew Kenyon uses the price of Home Depot Co. stock to determine the water supply of a plant purchased there. Other projects enlist animal, rather than vegetable, participants.  Beatriz da Costa led a team that created "Pigeon Blog" (2006), where birds equipped with backpacks collect data on urban air pollution, GPS, and monitor mobile phones and their own altitude.  In Garnet Hertz's "Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot" (2004-5), the insect controls direction and velocity. Miya Masoka's "Ritual with Giant Hissing Madagascar Cockroaches" (2002) called to mind Yoko Ono's movie "Fly" that followed one roaming over a nude body.  Stephen Wilson explored relation between human and animal in his own work in 2002, as live protozoa directed humans to mimic their movements in a game of "Follow Me", and the humans tried to influence the creatures in "Control Me".  Many examples make clear that this field must confront and clarify its tendency of natural phenomenon of working scientists exhibited like artwork.  Does this demonstrate that all complex, concerted human activity is art making?

The category Human Biology is Wilson's third, a place to classify Wim Relvoye's ornate "Cloaca Origina" (2000), a digestive system food subject to biochemical interaction and ultimately producing synthetic feces.  Jula Rendolica's 2005 "Hymnext Project" created an artificial unisex (!) hymen, grown from artist's own cells.  Risk and torture were issues Oliver Kuntal wanted participants to consider as each thrust an arm into his 2003 "Mosquito Box" full of mosquitoes exposed to AiDS carriers. Arthur El Senor and Remko Scha employed facial muscle stimulation for a "choreography" of expressions, but Paddy Hentley's "Short Cuts to Beauty: Face Corset 16" used an apparatus that distorts the wearer's flesh in a creepy way.  Subcutaneous fat of Stelarc and Nina Sellars blended, with blood, others, nutrients in 2005 performance.

Wilson wrote that these artists appreciate "[t]he body not as a subject but as an object.  Not an object of desire but as an object for designers."  Sensors communicating information from the artist's body to others, converted into control of robots or at least controllable visuals.  Rokeby went on a 40 day cyborg walk in London in 2007, while Takechto Etani's "Pimp My Heart" car in 2006 fed the driver's heartbeat into a bass heavy auto sound system, synchronized LED light displays on the car.  Other artworks in this category include or were inspired by electroencephalagraphs and cerebral angiograms, pheromones, MRI scans full body, brain while drawing.

The fourth category is determined by physical science.  Shawn Brixey's 2003 "Eon", where poetic emails sent to him are encoded via text-to-speech synthesis, finds the voice modulating ultra-pure water, creating light via sonolumenescence.  Austin Richards Dr. Mega-Volt 2006 performances shoot UHV sparks from a Tesla coil dramatically through the air.  The Information Lab's (Ursula LaViencie and Auke Towslager) "Cell Phone Disco" (2006) presents as wall of flashing lights that responds to visitors' cell phones.  Rachel Wingfield's "Digital Dawn" (2000) features electroluminescent window shades responding to ambient light.  Rhythmic music throbs through a pool of goopy potato starch, forming dancing blobs, in Yoshimasa Kato and Yuichi Ito "White Lives on Speaker" 2006.  Other artists use outdoor sensors to monitor climate, control visual displays, or locate celestial bodies from a street kiosk.

Kinetics and robotics is Wilson's fifth category.  The reader notes the beauty and delicacy of Haruki Nishijima's 2001 "Remain in Light", where viewer's shadows touch light spots on the wall, or capture electronic waves with butterfly nets, and thus release sounds.  Contrast this with Chico MacMurtie's burned-looking corpse-like "Drumming and Drawing Subhuman".  Louis-Philippe Demers and Garry Stewart choreographed ten dancers and two "worshipping" robots onstage, some of the dancers wearing controllable mechanical leg extensions.  Daniel Rozin's "Mechanical Mirrors: Wooden Mirror" has a viewer's portrait appear on an array of gray-scale blocks as a result of a digitized video picture of them. Paul DeMarinis' "Firebirds" 2005 modulate caged oxyacetylene flames using WWII-era political speeches.

Sergi Jorda's Music Technology Group created the Reactable (2004) that lets several performers simultaneously control a synthesizer and mix sounds by moving objects upon it.  Ken Rinaldo and Matt Howard's “Autotelematic Spider Bots” of 2006 use infrared eyes to interact with visitors and each other, displaying insect-like movements and behavior.  The Arduino open source microcontroller since 2005, designed by a collaboration of artists and engineers, has simplified and furthered the creation of this type of project.  Yet in the jolly retro spirit of Steampunk, Wei Huang's 2006 "Steam Walker" is a miniature robot propelled by 18th century technology.

Kelly Heaton constructed a touch-responsive robotic garment out of furry Tickle Me Elmo toys, and David Moises made a Flying Carpet powered by a leaf blower.  Hacked toy dog robots by Natalie Jeremijenko sense environmental dangers, causing them to bark and circle the offending site. An exemplar of the contemporary wide-ranging science and technology artist, who explores interfaces between the natural and tech-enabled artifice, Jeremijenko has recently hosted "multi-species" public dinners, creating awareness of alternative food sources.

Alternative Interfaces come sixth in Wilson's taxonomy, where artists have demonstrated new ways of information to travel in and out of devices.  Angelika Böck's "Eye2Eye" (2000) displays pre-recorded eyes to illuminate eye-tracking and shifting attention.  Ken Feingold's 2006 "Eros and Thanatos Falling/Flying" employs ventriloquist dummies, those creepy early 20th century vaudeville puppets, enabled with algorithmically generated synthetic speech.  Baba Tetsuki creates virtual drums in "Freqtric Drums" (2004) from its participants touching each other's palms, Squidsoup's "Driftnet" (2007) users flap their arms like birds to assemble sounds into compositions, supplemented with an abstract visual representation, while Camille Utterbach's "Untitled 5" (2004) transforms user generated movements and gestures into rich virtual abstract paintings, as the visual results of Norimichi Hirakawa's "Driftnet" (2006) project suggests ocean waves.  Active in body-machine interfaces since 1980s, David Rokeby's "Seen" (2004) took and manipulated wall-sized video captures of people crossing in the Piazza San Marcos, Venice.

How the limits and senses of the body are extended by artists' research!  Kenji Yanbe "Giant Torayan" 2005 singing dancing fire-breathing robots controlled only by the voices of children, but not adults.  The medium of dance has been newly energized with the use of Arduino controllers in fabrics, as in Joanna Berzowksa "Intimate Memory Dress" (2005) pressure sensors record where touched.  Or one might be costumed in Manel Torres "Fabrican" of spray-on foam that can constitute a dress.

The seventh chapter is organized around Algorithms, and Wilson was an exhibitor in the exhibition "Algorithmic Art" held at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) and organized by their resident artist Craig Harris, about twenty years ago.  Wilson appreciates code as an aesthetic component, and its sociopolitical implications are not lost on him in his selected examples.  Surveillance technology, facial and human recognition algorithms have appeared in works by David Rokeby, Christian Miller, Amy Alexander and Marcia Shurgrimas. Lynn Hershman Leeson's "Agent Ruby" (2002) contorts her facial expressions as she dodges users' questions.  A 2004 piece by Shirley Shor,"Landslide" constructs colored shapes in sand, employing an algorithm to create abstract battles between colors that push each other for dominance, an allusion to territorial struggles in the Middle East.  Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau's "Life Writer" (2006) is an interactive typewriter where text produced upon it turns into animated ant-like artificial life forms projected upon its paper.  Jim Andrew's "Nio" 2001 is an interactive website that generates abstract animation influenced by concrete poetry.  Jeffrey Ventrella created "Gene Pool" (2006) to breed computer-generated a-life "swimbots" impacted by artificial evolution, while that same year, Spot Draves' "Electric Sheep" are bred with user-chosen parents and Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappens’ "Evolver" also lets users touch a screen to choose breeding directions.

The eighth and final category is Information, and some of these artworks are politically charged as well. In "The Battle of Algiers" (2006) Marc Lafia and Fang-Yu Lin use algorithms to sort and reassemble Pontecorvo's movie of the Algerian independence struggle.  One recalls the Situationists' psychogeography, subjectively re-mapping the city for a greater objectivity, at Ervin Karfazas' "Proximity Lab" (2006), which uses RFID sensors in shoes to map where the wearer has stepped.  In "Zone Interdit" (2006) Christo Wachter and Mathia Jud created 3D walkthroughs of forbidden zones like prison camp Guantanamo, and in "Police State" (2003) Johan Brucker-Cohen releases 20 radio controlled toy police cars, his response to the FBI program called Carnivore that monitors citizens' telecommunications.  Other relevant projects synthesize and deliver news from the Web, texts from Mark Twain, or depict Internet Protocol addresses as abstract color.

For all I've read about Eduardo Kac, this is the first place it's noted that the scientists who bred the phosphorescent bunny had reservations about releasing it to the artist.  They may have seen Kac as a potential P.T. Barnum, or as morally suspect as the exhibitors of the "Hottentot Venus" or "exotic" people from overseas cooped up in living dioramas at the Chicago 1893 World's Fair.  Wilson summarized his text with his concern that the scientific developments of our time aren't being created in communication with the humanities and arts, and that artists need to have a basic understanding of these processes and developments in order to engage with their own time.  If not, the "two cultures" that Lord Snow warned of in the 1950s remain with us, with an unbridgeable gap of bafflement between the sciences and the humanities.

Stephen Wilson's teaching in the Conceptual/Information Arts program—where he mentored so many of us—and his service a Board of Directors member of YLEM Artists Using Science and Technology over much of its 1983-2008 run encouraged the art and science conversation, interaction and achievement, from the 1980s into this century.  I savored this book on and between legs of the return flight from ISEA 2012, the International Symposium of Electronic Art annual conference.  I caught up with Steve Wilson at its 2006 conference, and feel bereft that I'm now unable to tell him about all the cool instances of art and science I learned of in Albuquerque, challenging work that's going on right now, since he completed the best book on work from the past decade.  Guess I'm sorry I couldn't thank him there, in person, for writing it.

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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