.::..Nicholas Sagan..::. …:.::..artworks and experiments…::.:…nicholassagan@gmail.com

How Art Killed Sci-Fi

February 2010

Contemporary Artistic Practices That Engage Scientific Inquiry And Their Effects on Particular Facets of Popular Culture (Or How Art Killed Sci-Fi)

The arts and sciences have long had a complex relationship, with both severe pitfalls and transcendental advantages.  However, since the advent of the modern technological age this relationship has become more of a necessary component for contemporary artistic practices that are concerned with the utilization of technological advancements. While early forms of this more evolved relationship can be found in the optimism of the age of the Space Race and NASA’s continuing art program, of which only a single artist-in-residency has been awarded[1], it has also been argued by some cultural critics that this development has had negative effects on various genres of pop-culture.  The most notable of these arguments is that New Media and other technologically based modes of artistic creation have contributed to the demise of some pioneering forms of science fiction.  As more and more sophisticated technological means of production become accessible to a larger public, and therefore a larger number of artists, the work that forms will inevitably be a reflection of the culture in transition.

In the early 1960’s, NASA had invited artists to be a part of many of the Apollo missions by welcoming them into the control rooms, press galleys and other publicly inaccessible vantage points.  This effort was undertaken in the hopes that having a form of cultural output separate from the newsreels and government announcements would enable the public to connect with the spirit of the Space Race and therefore a larger national identity.  The results from the years of artistic production based on this “rocket-science” culture were proudly displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the exhibit holds the record for highest number of visitors.[2]  If nothing else, this event is a strong indicator of an unprecedented level of public interest or investment in modern science.

The events of the Space Race offer a reference point for an era in which there was rapid, and rampant technological development.  The era in which imagination and production thrived has had an influence on not only the culture at large, but also on both working artists and a growing generation of artists.  Nam June Paik, for instance, was emerging as a video and electronic artist in the late 1960’s and created a work called “Electronic Moon #2” with which he represented the phases of the moon on a low quality television set.

This early work of Paik’s is a piece that moves beyond much the ‘propaganda-style’ art shown in the National Gallery and bridges the gap between actual scientific (or purely empirical) representation and imaginative or fictional artistic representation.  Although his forms are very rooted in the imagery fed to pop-culture and utilize similar modes of delivery, his works are a departure from the NASA collection and conform to a growing movement wherein the old forms of Pulp and Genre Science Fiction, popularized by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, are absorbed into a new form of science fiction that almost negates the calculated distance within the relationship between the real and fictitious.[3]  It is in this mode of artistic creation, a method that bridges the technology and cultural ideology of an age, where there is a renewed sense of ownership over the production of cultural capital.

More recently than Paik’s work we can look to NASA’s ill-famed Artist-in-Residency Program and it’s sole recipient, Laurie Anderson, awarded in 2004.  She has thus far been the only artist who has been able to roam the administration’s various campuses, located across the country, to take notes on research and experiments for use in the production of new works.  This was a distinct departure from the 60’s where artists were welcome to “sit and watch” while history unfolded in front of them.  While some scientists were skeptical of Anderson (one was even on record as saying, “What is she going to do? Write a poem?”), she was able to use empirical information gleaned from the starkly scientific community in order to create a work of resonance and wit that bridges the same gap between a culture and the technology that drives it.[4]  The piece that resulted, titled The End of the Moon, was more of a collection of ideas turned performance all inspired by the stars in the night sky and how its all really just a big clock.

Both of these artists were creating works that were reflections of a specific culture they were a part of at the time.  While the same scientific community in a larger sense influenced them both, they each engaged with it in very different ways.  Paik was more informed by the more broad and nationalistic culture whereas Anderson was directly informed by the ideas generated by scientists and the inner workings of NASA’s administration.  All artists, and people in general, are arguably the product any given culture they come from and reflect it in some form or another.  Of course the artist does have the choice to either embrace or disregard the culture they are spawned of and it follows that the individual response on the part of the artist, intentionally or not, will reflect the context in which they create art.  These two situations are prime examples of how an artist can respond to a scientifically based institution and it’s influence of a culture at large.

It is arguable that one of the essential determining factors for the success of a work of art is how well it holds up in different cultural contexts and that to push the understanding of any specific work, or body of work, it must be run through various cultural filters. Put another way, artistic, economic or scientific ideas can be translated into other modes of thinking.  This is a process that happens more often than is sometimes directly evident in forms that art can take.  So while there were ideas or memes[5] rooted in science, the fact that they could be translated into various bodies of work is a testament to the power of a given idea.

Another example of a scientific based institution that is gained more publicity in recent years is the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, in Bern, Switzerland.  It is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, capable of producing energy amounts upwards of 7 TeV (teraelectron volt) range.[6]  While other particle accelerators have been the subjects of artistic inquiry in the past, their prominence in pop-culture has not been to such a high degree.  Images taken from the “bubble chambers” or other particle collision detectors have a certain aesthetic dimension artists have found inspiring or useful.  Today’s media coverage of this scientific development has provided a certain amount of freedom of circulation for the theoretical and practical applications of particle physics.

As the vast reservoir of scientific information is processed and distilled through the various forms of hyper-media, such as Yahoo Email’s homepage news flashes or iPhone Apps, information is circulated to a degree where enough people are exposed to create a sort of positive feedback loop.  As the percentage of people introduced to a new knowledge set, however reduced or distilled, becomes greater, so does the percentage of artists who will use that knowledge to produce work.  This happens not only in the realm of particle physics but of biology, astronomy, and zoology, to name a few.  The basis of the relationship between biology and art can even be traced to Kandinsky’s later “biomorphic abstraction” works such as Colorful Ensemble from 1938, Around the Circle in 1941 and Tempered Elan done in 1944.[7]  More recently we can look to fine example Eduardo Kac’s Genesis, which utilizes an engineered bacterium, displays of genetic coding and Biblical text.[8]

It would be a mistake to not take into account the effect that communication technology has had in the role of dissemination of information, for artistic purposes and more.  As science and practical technologies evolve we will hear about them more and more and as a result the use of these technologies become more engrained in our cultural practices.

A very modern example of a communication technology being used for purposed of artistic creation is the science behind our cell phones.  The Museum of Modern Art in New York has developed an App that can be used to generate abstract paintings using your finger. They also use a very real system of satellites to relay information between to ends of a call, or in case of certain apps for an iPhone and other 3G based devices, the ability to find out what your longitude and latitude are.  The science is there whether we address it or not and as our lives become more dependent on technology the more engrained science and culture become.

What is even more important to this discussion is that art is generally created as a response to certain aspects of a given culture, if not a culture at large.  As a culture evolves or shifts, so to will the bodies of work being produced by artists keen to those changes.  The more scientific ideas become a part of popular culture, the more difficult it will be for artists to ignore certain growing trends.  As these trends begin to reveal to us that the production of technology is finally catching up to the pace at which ideas within science fiction are generated, art, which we know of to be a product of culture, will inevitably absorb and recreate the world of science fiction and thereby making it more of a reality.

While at first this may seem like a positive step towards the future there is a certain flip side that can have a very real negative impact.  Take the example of Dr. Steven Kurtz of the collaborative artist group Critical Art Ensemble (CAE).  In 2004 Kurtz woke up one morning to find that his wife had unexpectedly and without apparent cause passed away in her sleep.  When the emergency crews showed up to his home they came across a number of Petri dishes, microscopes, other equipment for biological study and supplemental literature.  Very soon after the FBI, in conjunction with the Joint Terrorist Task Force, came into his home and confiscated all materials deemed “suspicious” because of its “subversive” and “radical” tone, although it was little more than material for elementary-level biological research and development.[9]  As it turns out, after four years of grueling and expensive court cases, Kurtz was only working on an art project that addressed the loaded political issue of germ and biological warfare.  Furthermore, CAE (and Kurtz) considers themselves “tactical media practitioners”, which means that they are a group of artists devoted to understanding and operated at the intersections between art, technology, critical theory, and political activism.  It is just short of a safe assumption that Kurtz’s work would receive the type of attention it did.[10]

This was a very serious situation as the courts wanted to criminalize Kurtz under the pretense that he was a biological terrorist and that his “research” had caused the death of his wife.   The government became suspicious of this art project because there was a culture of fear in place that in part was and still is a product of conceptual developments in the genre of science fiction.  In many examples from the early genre of Pulp Science Fiction (and even into more contemporary works) we can find the stereotype of an evil genius with a plan of world domination through the use of some biological agent or super-amped technological achievement.

While this is just a stereotype and misconception of the genre, it is still maintains a certain presence in popular culture while at the same time the government concerns itself with real life “villains”, so to speak.  In this way the intersection of science (and science fiction), culture and art can be a very dangerous place to live and work in because a certain amount of clarity can be lost when trying to take all of the elements into consideration.  However, there are still ways that the production of work that incorporates elements of each can have a very tangible and positive impact on various cultures throughout the world.

Let us revisit the topic of the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, and what it might mean to elements of pop- and subcultures that find this sort of subject interesting.  Most likely there are people out there who want to know more but do not want to take the time to learn any of the vocabulary or math, which is minimal, to grasp some of the main concepts with an endeavor of this sort.  This is where we end up with the artist’s rendering of some scientific phenomenon.  Diagrams are an aid that is highly useful within the context of scientific explanations.  If you take a look through one of the popular science magazines such as Discover, or more appropriately, Popular Science you will find that the pages are full of diagrams and artist renderings of scientific phenomena from all points on the scale, from the quantum to the cosmic.  While the example of the artist’s rendering is base, it serves to show the simplest form of a relationship that holds potential as limitless as an artist’s imagination.

It is no surprise that some of these diagrams may have even come about from the development of illustrations or renderings within the genre of science fiction.  One example from pop culture that will serve our purposes very well here is Star Wars.  In the movies the star fighters of the bad guys, known as the dreaded Galactic Empire, are called T.I.E. Fighters, which stands for twin ion engines.  Now it may seem that because it is in science fiction there is an emphasis on the fiction.  This could not be any more of a false assumption.  There are astrophysicists and other high level scientists currently working on models of ion engines and are very close to what was once considered fiction.  While the current models cannot (or might never) reach the level of supposed sophistication of those used in films, the fact remains: science has influence elements of pop culture which has in turn influenced scientific progress.

Just as science and pop culture are engaged in this cyclical relationship, so too is the art world.  Science fiction has inspired many artists and in many different ways.  There are filmmakers and writers who add to the sci-fi lexicon with some very meaningful and deeply artistic works.  But there are also artists who assimilate the ideas that modern advanced science has put forth and take them through a process of deconstruction.  As mentioned earlier, with the examples of Paik, Anderson and Kurtz, there are artists who work at the molecular level and those who work with scales in the astronomical range, using scientific principles not only further their own artistic understanding of something, but to aid a larger culture as a whole understand something in a way they might not have thought possible.

The more and more pop culture absorbs these scientific ideas, the more and more science fiction becomes science fact and the more artistic practices begin to bridge that gap between high science and high art.  As long as science remains an influential force acting upon the direction and attitudes of a larger culture and vice versa, so too will the art world.  So while there are some forms of science fiction that still live strong, such as the ever popular Star Wars franchise, the genre we once knew of as science fiction has grown beyond the Pulp of the early years and has been embraced by a larger culture for, and this point is arguable, a better tomorrow.

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Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Science Fiction. In S. Glaser (Trans.). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Duchting, H. (2000). Wassily Kandinsky. Koln, Germany: Taschen.  p79-90.

Hull, A. (2004, June 30). Moon and Stars Align for Performance Artist; Laurie Anderson Accepts Art Commission From NASA. The Washington Post, pp. 1-2. Retrieved January 4, 2010 from the World Wide Web: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/a15916-2004jun29.html.

Huws, U. (2000). Nature, Technology and Art: The Emergence of a New Relationship? [Electronic version]. Leonardo, Vol. 33, No. 1, p.33-40.

McKenzie, J., Schneider, R., & Critical Art Ensemble. (2000). Critical Art Ensemble Tactical Media Practitioners: An Interview. [Electronic version]. TDR (1988-), Vol. 44, No. 4, p.136-150.

Overview. (2009). Retrieved January 20, 2010 from CAE Defense Fund: http://caedefensefund.org/​overview.html#issues.

Richmond, S. (1984). The Interaction of Art and Science. [Electronic version]. Leonardo, Vol. 17, No. 2, p.81-86.

Thacker, E. (2001). The Science Fiction of Technoscience: The Politics of Simulation and a Challenge for New Media Art. [Electronic version]. Leonardo, Vol. 34, No. 2, p.155-158.

Tomasula, S. (2002). Genetic Art and the Aesthetics of Biology. [Electronic version]. Leonardo, Vol. 35, No. 2, p.137-144.

[1] Chicago native Laurie Anderson to this day has been the only artist awarded NASA’s Artist-in-Residence title.

[2] Hull, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/a15916-2004jun29.html.

[3] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p 122.

[4] Hull.

[5] A meme is an element or component of a culture that can be transferred by any means other than genetic.  The idea of landing on the moon was a particularly powerful culture image.

[6] A single tera-electron volt is equal to a million million electron volts.  A common household electrical outlet puts out close to 120 volts.

[7] Duchting, p79-90.

[8] Tomasula, p142.

[9] CEA Defense fund website: http://caedefensefund.org/index.html

[10] McKenzie, J., Schneider, R., & Critical Art Ensemble, p136.

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