Art as Research

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Stephen Wilson, Information Arts (2003)[edit]

Elaboration on the Approach of Art as Research

This chapter briefly elaborates on the possibilities of art as research, in which artists develop new kinds of knowledge and applications ignored by mainstream scientific and corporate research and push scientific inquiry in unanticipated directions. It explores the meanings of approaching art as research and the rationales, agendas, and working methods of this kind of art.

Can the Arts Offer Alternatives in Setting Research Agendas, Interpreting Results, and Communicating Findings?

Historians of science and technology have documented the determinants of which research is supported, promoted, and accepted, and what products win in the marketplace. As research increases in general cultural importance, it becomes more dangerous to totally rely on market forces. Valuable lines of inquiry die from lack of support because they are not within favor of particular scientific disciplines. New technologies with fascinating potential are abandoned because they are judged as not marketable. Our culture must develop methods to avoid the premature extinction of valuable lines of inquiry. The arts can fill a critical role as an independent zone of research, in which artists integrate critical commentary with high-level knowledge and participation in the worlds of science and technology.

For the last twenty years my artistic practice as artist and researcher has included monitoring scientific communication, working as a developer, and being an artist in residence at several think tanks. These years as what I call a shadow researcher have been illuminating. Tracking and undertaking research at a distance, I have learned of intriguing developments that never saw the light of day. I have seen many inventions and emerging technologies killed because marketing departments judged that no money could be made. I have seen entire R&D departments and their years of research blown away by the winds of corporate politics. Government and corporate support for basic research has almost disappeared, and the concern with the bottom line has shortened the payback horizon to the point where few risks are taken. I have encountered debates in the scientific community that devalue approaches that do not fit favored paradigms.

The invisible hand of the marketplace might not be so wise. Judgments that make short-term sense for stockholders may not necessarily benefit the culture. The peer review referees of scientific journals cannot always see beyond their disciplinary blinders. Scientific and technological research have such critical ramifications for us all that we can ill afford the premature elimination of these ideas and efforts.

Can the Arts Offer Alternatives in Setting Research Agendas, Interpreting Results, and Communicating Findings?

The Lesson of Computer Art: Many “high-tech” artists believe that they have addressed the future by becoming computer artists working with digital image, sound, and interactive multimedia. They have misunderstood the real significance of artists’ work with computers during the last decade and a half: the fact that artists were experimenting with microcomputers at almost the same time as other developers and researchers. Artists were not merely using the results of research conducted by others, but were actually participating as researchers themselves.

New technologies, such as genetic microbiology, promise to have a similar or even greater impact on life and thought. Artists should identify future trends that could bene?t from the artist-research inquiry.

What Is a Viable Role for Artists in Research Settings?
What Can Researchers Contribute to Art and What Can Artists Contribute to Research?
What Can High-Tech Companies Gain from Artists Being Involved?

A good model would provide mutual benefit and cross-fertilization, such as Bell Labs’s involvement of artists in sound research, which was instrumental to telephony, electronic voice research, and electronic music. Also, artist Sonia Sheridan’s residency at the 3M research center in the 1970s simultaneously in?uenced the development of color copier technology and shaped her development of a program at the Art Institute of Chicago. More contemporary examples include the artist-in-residency programs initiated by Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Interval Research, which experimented with mutual definitions of research agendas. The Xerox PARC experience is described more fully in the MIT Press book Art and Innovation.

These contemporary examples are qualitatively different from earlier collaborations between artists and scientists-engineers. For example, in the 1960s, EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) and the Los Angeles County Museum collaborations in art and technology did not profoundly address the role of artists in research; rather, the engineers functioned as technical assistants or the artists dabbled with new technologies. The contribution that artists can make to research and development is that they often approach problems in ways quite different from those of scientists and engineers, as demonstrated by the crucial role played by designers and artists in computer human interface research over the last years. The arts can function as an independent zone of research. The concept of artist could incorporate other roles, such as that of researcher, inventor, hacker, and entrepreneur. Even within research labs, artist participation in research teams might add a perspective that could drive the research process and continue to contribute at all stages.


Art Characteristics Useful for Research


The recent history of the personal computer illustrates the need for an independent research function and the role the arts might serve. Early developers, such as Apple Computer founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, found little support for their ideas about the personal computer. Supervisors signed waivers on the ideas because they could not imagine any market for a desktop computer. Similarly, the discipline of computer science was mostly uninterested in software and hardware issues related to these computers. Advances often came from individuals who worked outside traditional academic and business channels. Teenagers became world experts, nerds became billionaires, and artists made signi?cant contributions in fields such as interface design and image-sound processing.


Historical Precedents

Art and research were not always separate. The pre-Renaissance integration of the two may shed light on future possibilities. This section offers a brief summary of the historical relationships between art, science, and technology.

Paleolithic In the Paleolithic era, some of the greatest accomplishments were simultaneously monuments of art and science. The Paleolithic cave paintings have been identified as the first significant act of painting; they are also one of the first illustrations of scientific observation. Some analysts propose that their power comes in part from the painters’ careful observation of animal physiology and behavior. Paleolithic metalsmiths are renowned for the aesthetic power of their metalwork. They were also critical in the history of chemistry, being the first to identify different metals and their characteristics. Stonehenge is a another example of the early fusion of artistic, religious, and scienti?c functions. Although there are debates about the extent of its accomplishments, its monoliths are carefully placed to indicate the positions of heavenly bodies at various times of the year. In all of these Paleolithic examples, the pioneering in art and science went hand in hand.

Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci is well-known as history’s greatest integrator of art and science. He was by no means unique in having interests that spanned art and science; educated persons were expected to do so. The ateliers of his era included science and engineering as regular parts of their curricula. For example, illustrations of the artists’ studios included skeletons for studying anatomy and structural components for studying engineering. Even more, the ethos of the time included the idea that one could not be a good artist or scientist without interest in the other ?eld.

1870–1930 By this time, science and art had already become clearly separate fields. However, even during this period, many analysts trace important influences on abstract art coming from the invention of photography and the investigations of non-Euclidean geometry and elementary particle physics. These scientific and technological inquiries challenged traditional ways of seeing and conceptualizing the physical world. The questioning freed and provoked artists to represent the new world views. The influence of artists on scientists is less clear, although the general cultural questioning may have created a milieu that encouraged scientific questioning.
New inventions also stimulated artistic experimentation in fields such as photography, cinema, sound recording, electrical machines and lights, radio, and electronic music. In the early days, artists often acted as developers. For example, experimentation in chemistry and optics was intrinsic to the role of photographic artists. Artists assumed a variety of stances toward technological change, ranging from the urge of Bauhaus and Socialist art to participate within industry, to Futurist glorification of technology, to the ironic Dadaist commentary.


Future Possibilities

What is science? Let us define science as an accumulation of worldviews, questions, metaphors, representations, and processes that attempt to understand the nonhuman world. It is also the accumulated body of knowledge that these inquiries have generated. Wellcome Trust, “Sci-Art”—Web link to winners: <> Artists are engaged with science in a variety of ways—joining in the critique of its claims, building on its accumulated knowledge, and participating in the inquiries at the fringes of its understandings.

What is technology? In its widest meaning, it is the process of inventing and making things, which includes much of art. In its more restricted sense of “high tech,” it is the contemporary activities of research and development aimed at producing new materials and processes. Critics note that technological development is aimed at control and exploitation. High technology often builds on knowledge generated by science, but sometimes it races ahead of science into uncharted ground.

What is art? In the last century its definition has been expanded far beyond conventional media, contexts, and purposes. Neveretheless, we can ascribe to it the following set of characteristics. Typically, it is undertaken for nonutilitarian purposes. It usually intends to move or provoke an audience for aesthetic, intellectual, and/or spiritual purposes. In the West it is more likely than other disciplines to value personal, idiosyncratic vision and perspectives, to prize iconoclastic stances outside of established institutions, and to promote individual creativity.

This book asks how art, science, and high-tech research can influence each other. The appropriate contours of this involvement are not yet defined. Much experimentation is required. How can artists function independently from established research centers? When artists work within research settings, how can those centers learn to be open enough to benefit from the unorthodox contributions that artists might make? How can artists learn to involve themselves in the ways and byways of researchers without losing touch with their artistic roots? Young artists who become involved as researchers can be seduced by the recognition and economic rewards of research so that they quit functioning as artists.

Artists do not act exactly like researchers. Contemporary art often includes elements of commentary, irony, and critique missing from “serious” research. Scientists and technologists strive toward objectivity; artists cultivate their idiosyncratic subjectivity as a major feature of what they do. The “research” that artists create would work like art always does—moving audiences through its communicative power and unique perspectives. Still, it might simultaneously use systematic investigative processes to develop new technological possibilities or discover new knowledge or perspectives.

Frank Oppenheimer, the scientist who established the world famous Exploratorium museum of science and art in San Francisco explained the rationale for the combination: Art is included, not just to make things pretty . . . but primarily because artists make different kinds of discoveries about nature than do physicists or biologists. They also rely on a different basis for decision-making while creating their exhibits. But both artists and scientists help us notice and appreciate things in nature that we had learned to ignore or hadn’t been taught to see. Both art and science are needed to fully understand nature and its effects on people. In the essay “Boundaries and Categories,” biologist Stephen J. Gould notes that science often helps art in concrete ways, but that art offers a more subtle aid to science.

Of literature, he says:
Fiction is often the truest pathway to understanding our general categories of thought and analysis, and arti?ce often illuminates the empirical world far better than direct description. This paradox arises because we can best understand a natural object or category by probing to and beyond its limits of actual occurrence—into realms that science, by its norms of discourse, cannot address, but that art engages as a primary interest and responsibility.

He also notes the power of artists to confront scientists with the assumptions of their categorical schemes and concepts:

[W]e scientists face a special problem of denial and inattention to our personal prejudices, for our “official” methodology proclaims objectivity, and we can therefore be maximally fooled.

Artists can therefore be most useful to scientists in showing us the prejudices of our categorizations by creatively expanding the range of nature’s forms, and by fracturing boundaries in an overt manner (while nature’s own breakages, as subtle in concept or invisible to plain sight, are much harder to grasp, but surely understandable by analogy to artistic versions). Perhaps the segmented categorization of artist and researcher will itself prove to be an historical anachronism; perhaps new kinds of integrated roles will develop. Signs of this happening already appear. Some of the hackers who pioneered microcomputer developments may one day be seen as artists because of their intensity and culturally revolutionary views and work. Similarly, some art shows, such as Ars Electronica’s, now define research ideas as core themes (for example, artificial life) and invite researchers as key presenters along with artists. Research has radically altered our culture and will continue to do so. We must ask what role art might play in this process.

Though it seems incontrovertible that neither artists nor scientists can stand completely outside of a cultural or economic milieu, the creative leaps made by inventors, scientists, and artists amaze and inspire me. They do seem to create genuine new possibilities and for a moment stand above the cultural ?ow. The artists’ works described in the following chapters are remarkable in the unusual perspectives they use to explore research. Neither the research, nor the art, however, is complete in itself. Together they make a full picture of what the research really is and what it could mean.

Other resources[edit]

  • Daniels & Schmidt, ed. Artists as Inventors — Inventors as Artists. 2008. [1]