Criticality, Imagination and Interaction:
A new basis for Art Science Curation
Contemporary curation and engagement operate within an increasingly divided society. The cultural condition is one of social, political and intellectual fracture. Art and Science have an important part to play in the creation of new forms of discourse within diverse, knowledgeable and empowered audiences, yet enabling space for ambiguity and the imagination.
How can we commission and present art and science in a way which raises awareness and challenges our cognition of the world? How can we move beyond discredited grand narratives, which embed misconceptions of science and art as always being separate and the domain of a small elite? How can we pursue an agenda of hybrid practice exemplified at the heart of new media, technology and science? How can we instil an understanding of art, technology and culture as forms of embodied knowledge and individual literacy?
This chapter explores an approach to art science collaboration, curation and public engagement, which has developed at FACT the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool. Here, a rich practice has emerged which raises issues concerning the place of science in wider culture, public understanding of the role and nature of science and how fruitful collaborations between art and science can be created which provide provocations around these issues.
Mike Stubbs, the CEO & Artistic Director of FACT and Mark Wright, FACTlab Research Director engage in a joint attempt to answer some of the complex issues raised by the very idea of presenting art-science collaborations in a space of public engagement.
Science is not just about rote knowledge but a process of reflection, action, error and discovery and this process is familiar to artists. To be unaware of this process is to be unable to truly understand science or art which is a state the public are often trapped in. Even though Art and Science seem on the surface to be about the visual and spectacle, they are both concerned with a deep curiosity of the unseen which may be conceptual, abstract or indirectly observable.
Richard Feynmann said that most of the time he experienced a state of not knowing and playing and being wrong. What role does imagination play in scientific research, in art practices, and in the way the two are generally perceived?
The sense of being relaxed with not knowing is important. If science is shrouded in mystery and specialist language, which it has to be to a certain extent, how can we penetrate its physical spaces and feel confident enough to explore them for ourselves?
Something similar happens to scientists with art. If you visit a painter’s studio you realise they have painted all day every day for the last 40 years. How does that compare to a scientist at CERN spending 40 years trying to find the Higgs Boson? They are not dissimilar, their motivation is based on a sense of curiosity and an ability to imagine something that is not already here. So quite a bit of what is written in science fiction is not about the future but about what is actually happening.
With predictive technologies things get closer and closer to us as we live with the illusion that we know everything or that we have the ability to understand the concrete world in real time, whether that is through IOT technologies, metadata combined with high speed networks, as a process of prosthetic augmentation of the self. Like painting or good old fashioned scientific research, some of these systems are being replaced by forms of automation, this gives us the idea that we are more distant from the thinking process.
Uncertainty is what gives all knowledge its humanity.
To be disconnected from this uncertainty, as the public often are with science, leaves us unable to place that knowledge appropriately within our own personal cultural context.
Without a feeling for uncertainty, knowledge seems cold, threatening , meaningless or infallible. This leads to a sense of dissociative confusion or dogmatic acceptance or rejection. We need to find new ways of connecting people to an appropriate sense of uncertainty, doubt and possibility through which meaningful encounters are made possible. This sense of uncertainty is a prerequisite for the public to feel empowered to apply their agency and imagination.
The creation and sharing of knowledge unfolds in a state of uncertainty and flux. During this creative process artists, as well as scientists, enter an embodied participative status of becoming. This experience can be very exhilarating and rewarding. Knowledge created by this process is like a fossil, a trace left behind by embodied creative interaction. Again the public are unfamiliar with the uncertainty associated with this process and this state of being. Instead they see the fossil and are unable to bring it back to life. Similarly, sheet music is not the same as music as it is played and heard.
Knowledge is not an artefact, knowledge is performative.
One thing music, art and science all have in common is they are ‘played’. They are performed and explored through an embodied process of playful improvisation.
We therefore need to find new ways to enable the public to experience this creative participative status, both in the creation of new ideas and their imaginative reinterpretation, extension and re-contextualisation.
Science is usually thought of as being either ‘correct’ or not. Instead, what if we were to approach it in terms of different cultural interpretations from an ensemble of voices?
It is interesting to see people who study science histories can make more speculative connections between science, religion, belief and other indigenous beliefs of how the world was formed and how we experience it. In our experience, the artists that have worked in combined residencies at FACT and CERN have been respectfully irreverent, deeply questioning the raison d’etre of these institutions.
For example, the two-artist collaborative “Semiconductor” is clearly interested in the epistemologies of science processes and in the people that actually do science. Yunchul Kim on the other side is more interest in an intimate understanding of the research material itself. Yet in both cases their work enables audiences to experience places, such as labs and research facilities, that otherwise might feel detached and institutionally predetermined. There is a general need to gain access to these spaces through other people’s experience, whether through fiction, documentation of a process or the recounting of a tale.
The principal reason science tends to dominate cultural discourse in this way is that, in various ways and without realising how, we get trapped inside its ontology.
An ontology consists of a set of concepts and categories and their relationships which can be used to define a subject or cultural domain. An ontology of science, for example, may consist of many things such as; ‘physical phenomena’, ‘abstraction’, ’theory’, ‘experiment’, ‘observation’, ‘data’, ‘analysis’, ‘refutation’, ’paradigm’ etc.
To understand and practice science as scientists do is, in a sense, to learn, operate and expand the ontology from within. To educate people in order to become scientists it is also appropriate to adopt this ‘internal’ perspective. However, confusion can arise if we apply this ‘internal’ approach to public engagement or as an all-encompassing world-view.
The principal aim of scientific public engagement should not just be to teach the form and use of the ontology of science, but to also enable the public to relate that ontology to wider culture.
It is unsurprising, given the obvious transformational power of science, that some readily apply its ontology beyond the practice of science itself. Conversely, it is also unsurprising that other secular and religious aspects of culture lay claim to parts of science and such appropriation and contestation is a normal part of cultural discourse. However, it is important to see that the ontology of science and its expressive power have limits. In particular, subjective experience is outside its domain.
Science can tell us what a human is but not what it is to be human. Science can tell us how we behave or inform our behaviour but not how we should behave with respect to each other and the world. Science should be seen as one important aspect of culture, one ontology amongst a network of others to be related and explored.
In such a landscape, different cultural interpretations and voices have space to open up. We therefore need to go beyond the concept of trans-disciplinarity to trans- ontological methods, which recognise difference, plurality and relations as fundamental.
Academic and formal settings are beginning to investigate whether textual descriptions are ‘enough’. How does contemporary socially engaged arts practice give people the means to experience and construct content for themselves?
Clearly there are increasingly diverse mechanisms that enable people to have more first-hand experience. If we think of it literary traditions went from the third to the first person; entertainment went from theatre, to cinema to TV; computer games moved on to Virtual Reality experiences, creating hybrids of shared and private spaces. In our recent work with BeAnotherLab from Barcelona, there is the use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality to give the direct experience or illusion of being inside someone else’s body. It is another form of representation just like projected media but feels a lot closer to a representation of being that other person.
Our current condition, on the verge of the neural networking, seems to promise deeper shared experiences of consciousness. Yet this is all but an end point, which brings us back to the importance of science fiction and imagination. As we develop new technologies that provide new subjective and inter-subjective experiences we must constantly find ways to ask ourselves: what then?
Academics have increasingly become involved in new forms of enquiry that involve creative interaction with real world social-technological systems. Methods such as action research and the ubiquitous rise of co-design are examples of this.
A principal reason for this is some forms of knowledge are situated and embedded in these systems physically or as tacit knowledge and social relations rather than being readily at hand for observation. It is only through interaction that they are revealed. Also, if we follow an approach of creative, critical speculation, we are creating entirely new embodied and situated systems in which new meaning, relations and consequences unfold in an unpredictable manner as we creatively form these systems in-vivo. The study of culture in such a way requires a new trans-disciplinary approach. Hybrid methodologies involving concepts from design, sociology, ethnography and arts practice have emerged to support this process. As a consequence the concept of publishing has also been revisited. Conventional analysis and case studies are augmented with information concerning ways to recreate immersive experiences and community interactions.
Conventional approaches to scholarship are well suited to their role of exploring, deepening and interpreting ontologically distinct silos of traditional subject boundaries. They are not suited to ‘trans-ontological’ research. Science alone sees such enquiry not as science but the application of science, arts and humanities alone, see such enquiry, not as the study of culture but an intervention into culture. We do not call for the abolition of traditional ‘silo’ scholarship as this provides the deep knowledge in science and the arts and humanities, which is the source material for our approach. What we call for is to augment the traditional with trans- disciplinary methods. This requires a new form of practitioner who is able to peer more deeply into these silos and contextualise their meaning into wider culture.
Socially engaged arts practice has been influential in pioneering such methods, as they are spaces in which the social meets the digital and scientific aspects of culture. Practitioners in this field have developed methods similar to that of academics. However, pedagogical, social and political principles apply which widen the aims of interaction to learning, agency and empowerment.
Socially engaged arts practice of ‘speculative futures’ and ‘social dreaming’ have produced works that aim to create new forms of public engagement. What kind of cultural spaces can arise from this new idea?
I think we are only just learning what that might be and to use new language in new settings. There are lots of interesting developments in terms of science futures and speculation. What I believe is that there is a need for collaboration between science research institutions and audience facing places that engender a sense of openness and sharing, that leave space for ambiguity, magic and realism.
The essential element that art provides for engagement is not illustration or explanation but criticality. At FACT we think of public engagement in terms of the concept of ‘Literacy’. To live in a society where science is so important citizens must be scientifically ‘Literate’. Literacy usually means to be able to read or write. In this wider cultural sense ‘Literacy’ means to both understand and act. We use art, not for mere illustration or dissemination of science, but as a critical provocation to enable the public to engage, interpret and creatively respond. We put these two elements of criticality and literacy together to create new forms of engagement.
People must grasp the processes and uncertainty of science. Being presented with dogmas builds kickback and resistance to statements. This goes back to the importance of being in connection with a state of doubt. Also the focus on objectivity sheds everything else, the political, the social all become invisible because of this focus on the physical world and only that which is objectively knowable rather than the subjectively interpretive. Having spaces that put aspects of the material world recounted by science back together with interpretations helps to put things into perspective and see that science is a part of culture that acts through frameworks of power. The public create their own understanding, meaning and voice through experiences which are embodied, speculative and imaginative.
Conclusions: shaping new curatorial and engagement practices
We have argued that science and art are intrinsically uncertain processes that operate in a state of doubt. Something which the public is not often aware of and with which we must reconnect. Another point was made that science should be seen holistically as a cultural phenomenon and not just in terms of its knowledge production. These two issues come together and call for a new curatorial approach which sees audiences as free cultural agents. The public is not just a receptacle for what science states to be true: in a society where science plays an increasingly important role, it is composed of active citizens that fully engage in a dialogue through which the future unfolds.
All arts and science institutions are aware of the importance of public engagement. In the arts this refers to the inclusion of diverse audiences beyond a privileged elite. In arts institutions, engagement with the public has extended beyond public exposure and understanding of art to part of the artistic process itself. This was noticed by Bourriaud as an aesthetic development (Bourriaud, 2002) and documented by others in its many diverse forms (Thompson, 2013). FACT has developed long term engagement projects which build trust while maintaining artistic integrity.
There has to be respect for the participants and the process from all sides. FACT conduct engagement in many forms but have a particular interest and expertise in long term deep engagement. Participants of such engagement are taking a risk of trusting the artists that they will not feel inadequate or foolish. Many communities are vulnerable such as those with social, physical or mental health challenges and their welfare has to be ensured. Deep trust can only be built up over a long time. It is important that the practitioners show respect and a clear commitment to the community. The practitioners must also be prepared to take risks and be prepared to change their approach as things develop.
Artistic integrity is also an important aspect of engagement. So called, socially engaged art has been critiqued for choosing between aesthetics and social activism while falling short on both (Bishop,2012). A central strategic goal of FACT is international excellence. Our exhibitions on art and science and the CERN Collide programme attract internationally recognised artists as well as emerging and mid- career artists of the highest order. This commitment to professional excellence in both the art and science is important.
In socially engaged practice there is, by definition, a collaborative public element. One way that artistic integrity can be maintained in this sense is by careful framing of the aesthetic context by the artist. Other artist may encourage more agency by the community, but it is still possible to create exceptional work. Another approach is for other artists and engagement professionals to aid the public to respond to a primary work in the gallery either directly or conceptually.
We have shown there is a history of socially engaged practice involving many types of arts institution. We believe that art and science curators can learn from this history and cross-pollinate new ideas of participation.
Theories of Pedagogy are relevant to social engagement both in terms of political awareness, where education is equated by practices of freedom rather than the banking of facts (Freire,1970) and constructivist approaches which foreground understanding through enactive doing rather than passive presentation based on the developmental psychology of Piaget (Piaget, 1954), its connection to cultural and dialogic processes (Bruner, 1990) and explored in socio-technical educational contexts by Papert (Papert,1980).
Curation of art and science has long moved on from the display of artefacts in the context of a single narrative to one that mirrors some of the constructivist viewpoint. However, there may be more to learn about meta-curation of experiences which precipitate enactive dialogic experiences.
Recently, concepts from design have entwined with those from arts practice so that expression, creativity and learning combine in speculative imagining of the future both on a society and individual level (Dunne, 2014). Engagement is far more interesting using this model than one purely about technology or skills acquisition. This leads to citizens who are enactive empowered participants in their own cultural world.
Publication is no longer confined to an exhibition catalogue, analysis or case study. It now extends to the sharing of resources and recipes for the recreation of communities of experience. This has been enabled by the world wide web (McGann, 2001) and the rise of the digital commons and commoning, the creation of free shared or open source resources, extending beyond software to hardware and other physical and social resources (Baldauf and Gruber, 2017).
Socially engaged artists have recognised the need to, not just document, but share the processes, methods and actual artefacts which embody complex frameworks for human encounter and discovery (Re-Dock, 2017).
Maker culture is increasingly visible in art and science settings and is also implicated in encouragement of children into STEM subjects, which is an important context for art and science collaborations and exhibitions. Making certainly seems a natural partner to socially engaged art, constructivist learning and speculative design.
FACT has integrated making into all exhibitions and engagement using FACTLab which is a production, engagement and research space embedded within FACT itself. It is interesting to note that recent research (Blikstein, 2016), warns against light demo style workshops, the separation of abstraction and practice and the operationalization of maker learning as a STEM gateway. Instead it is important to
support learners through to a level of fun but tough projects which combine abstract concepts, practical outcomes and empowered creativity as their driving force. FACT is designing exhibitions and engagements with our publics, which embody these principles.
The role of embodiment in art and science.
In closing we use the concept of embodiment as a unifying perspective to draw our themes together. Embodiment is a philosophical position, which takes the body and the physical world to be as much a part of our cognitive apparatus as the brain (Clark, 2011). When the first ape picked up a twig to poke a termites’ nest, it ceased to be merely an animal and became a cyborg, part animal and part technology. To be a cyborg is not just to have a tool to achieve a new task but to have an extended cognitive landscape. Human evolution can be seen in terms of a multitude of new embodiments, which transform our cognitive, social and cultural awareness. Language and mathematics, its formal derivative, are also technologies derived from embodied interaction (Lakoff and Nunes, 2001).
All arts media are technologies. Oil paint is a technology, which allowed artists to work more flexibly. In this perspective we can include new media as a natural progression of this cultural evolution without falling into the trap of fetishizing the technological. Scientific instruments are technological embodiments, the microscope, telescope offer new embodiments which allow us to see things which could not be previously seen. More deeply, when we consider radio telescopes and particle colliders, it is not just that we see something hidden but that embodied interaction is what brings perception into being. Language and mathematics provide a further form of conceptual ‘seeing’. From this perspective the cultural significance of technologies, mathematics and scientific instruments, is that they create new embodiments, which bring about new forms of knowing and being. We are now entering a phase where the concept of embodiment extends beyond the augmented individual to internet scale computation, post human and non-human ecologies of interaction.
New technologies such as computer simulations, projectors and virtual reality, bring a new class of embodied experience into existence. The abstract can be made visceral in new experiential realities. Visualisation taps into the old visual pathways of the brain to bring insight to data from images, not just through aesthetics but enhanced forms of cognition (Feraco and Erdt, 2018).
This relationship between digital media, culture and remediation has profound consequences for curation and the concept of the archive and database as noted by Hayles (Hayles, 2013). The archive is transformed from a passive repository to an enactive space for experiential narrative creation and sharing.
Furthermore, the concept of embodied cognition underpins the theory of enactive learning and constructivism. Learning and cognitive development are not just processes of logical deduction but of action in the world.
The very need for the new approaches to curation and engagement advocated here using methodologies of critical provocation imagination and co-design, are predicated on the view that all human relations are embedded and situated physically and socially and that meaning unfolds through embodied interaction. It is also the source of the embodied participative status of becoming and its uncertain potential which artists and scientists enter in the knowledge creation process and which we seek to engender in the public through critical, imaginative creativity (Dourish, 2001).
As contemporary curation looks to highlight process, networks, algorithms, global computation, non-human and post-human (Graham, 2010), our concept of embodiment moves from a single person, a single body using a single tool to networks and ecologies of embodiments physical, and social.
We believe it is possible to use this framework of embodiment combined with the criticality of arts practice to encourage a deeper connection between art and science rather than just to select art that illustrates or presents a technological spectacle to engender a critical imaginative unfolding of understanding through enactive learning.
These new contexts exist where the materials, processes and philosophies that shape a new approach to understanding the world, are formulated in a space of imagination, the fictive and belief along with proven data and beyond traditional science engagement.
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