Art, Science, and the Politics of Knowledge
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2022
328 pp. illus. 42 col. Paper, $50
This new monograph, by Hannah Star Rogers, is an engaging, accessible, and thought-provoking study of the myriad ways in which art and science intersect, interact, and combine. The book is divided into a series of case studies of practitioners, or practice collectives, whose work cannot be neatly defined within either science or art. Through discussion of these case studies, Rogers illustrates how the theoretical frameworks of both art and science can be applied transversally, revealing the potential for methodologies and objects to operate in multiple ways, or with multiple epistemic valences, and thus to occupy a hybrid art-science position. Her intention is to give credibility to the emerging field of Art Science and Technology Studies (ASTS), which applies the tools of Science and Technology Studies (STS) to artmaking, and examines the ways in which certain actors cross and thus problematize such neat epistemic categories as “art” and “science”.
Chapter one explores the work of the Blaschka glassworkers, whose intricate sculptures of scientific specimens became ubiquitous within late nineteenth and early twentieth century science. Rogers documents a stylistic shift in the Blaschkas’ output, from Art Nouveau in earlier models to a form of scientific realism in their later work, both of which were accepted as objective representations in their respective times. Chapter two discusses the science-focused work of photographer Berenice Abbott. Rogers argues that much like the Blaschkas, Abbott’s insistence on the objectivity of her images was itself a kind of epistemic construction, “blackboxing” the material arguments put forward in her photographs about how reality is to be represented, and thus observed and constructed, through the natural sciences. Rogers aims to pry open these black boxes, thus rendering the artistic work of science, and the scientific work of artists, more clearly visible. Drawing on Terry Eagleton, she shows how these practices are political, enshrining some ways of seeing as knowledge producing, and rendering others as false or irrational.
Next, Rogers examines the work of tactical media practitioners (chapter four) and bioartists (chapter five), drawing links between these groups based on their adoption, or satirical appropriation, of identities within art, science, and corporate worlds. These identity shifts afford access to different environments or instruments and allow practitioners to modulate the public reception and reach of their work. Rogers identifies how both kinds of practitioners slip between science and art identities, or consciously occupy liminal roles between art and science to offer critiques of big business and big science. Rogers is especially interested in whether an artist engaged in credible scientific procedures might still be called an artist, or if a scientist might themselves be considered an artist based on their engagement of the public imagination.
In chapter six, Rogers discusses her own curatorial project, “Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology.” She explains how her intention was to establish public dialogue with, and participation in, scientific processes and knowledge making procedures, not to fill a perceived knowledge deficit. It seems clear that Rogers’ ASTS project has stemmed from this kind of curatorial work. As a curator, she forms links between works to create new material assemblages through which knowledge may be produced. Similarly, the vision of art-science that Rogers outlines involves artists re-skilling, speculatively designing, or otherwise imaginatively engaging scientific protocols, to render novel assemblages of materials, people and technologies that problematize art and science boundary concepts.
One area which might be interesting to unpack further is the division of art and science processes into either “material” or “rhetorical” categories. Although Rogers acknowledges these terms are imperfect, there perhaps remains a risk that, by describing everything in terms of material/rhetorical agency, her analysis establishes new categories of division, even as she breaks down art/science dualisms. The rhetorical associations of a system cannot be changed without changing the materials assembled therein, and conversely, as the materials networked change, so too do the rhetorical positions through which they speak. That said, I sympathize with Rogers’ position: she is both a theorist aiming for a systematic analysis of art-science, and a member of the art-science community. Adopting accessible, albeit imperfect, terms is arguably more impactful as a form of advocacy than would be a purist theoretical project with a correspondingly more limited audience. I think Rogers’ approach is commendable for this practical stance. It is clear how her theories can be applied, and so her work moves beyond the purely critical into the practically useful, which, if the intention is to build more equitable, aesthetically inclusive systems of knowledge, is an essential criterion for success. In this respect, Rogers comes across as sharing much with her case studies, such as the Blaschkas, whose scientific models she describes as “cutting-edge heuristic apparatuses” (222)––this definition could equally well be applied to Rogers’ own theoretical project.