Technoscience and technoscience art

Published in: „digital_ia.13 bio_kinetic_tech_art_festival”. Szczecin 2013.

Mutual relations between science and art in the context of technoculture which is dominating nowadays in the face of technoscience continuously extending its field of impact form the central issue of cyberculture. After many years, during which the dominant tendencies defined the essence of these disciplines of human activity in opposition to one another, at present both the artists and the scientists every time more often meet upon the occasion of the implementation of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects, based on strict co-operation, and on the search for fundamental similarities between art and science. The above process takes place in many environments; the artists using new technologies and media are somehow doomed to seek not only help, but also inspiration in the scientific environment. On the other hand the scientists tend to use more and more frequently the procedures of visualisation of their own scientific achievements: the imaging is one of the most popular forms of publishing many scientific experiments. Thus the objects of unique aesthetic values are created. An interesting  example of the fact that scientific images (in the form of a photography, a film or an animation) can be at the same time treated as artistic objects are the works distinguished by Lennart Nilsson Award, granted by Swedish Karolinska Institutet. This award was created in 1998 and it has been granted to scientists who work “in Lennart Nilsson’s spirit”. This Swedish artist photographer and scientist since mid-50s experimented with the photographs using extremely big close-ups; later he used a microscope, scanning electron microscopes and endoscopic techniques. He was the first person to photograph a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and in 2003 a SARS virus (the virus of severe acute respiratory syndrome). But he is most probably best known because of the photograph made in 1965 and published on numerous occasions all over the world, entitled A Child is Born, which was even sent into space on the board of the Voyager space probe, transformed into sound signals. The photograph of an unborn child in the mother’s womb published on the cover of “Life” magazine which sold in more than eight million copies was one of those breakthrough moments which consisted in being able to enter the microcosm of human organism.

One of the most unusual examples of huge aesthetic potential of images made using various tools. which permit to enhance certain elements which have until present been invisible is a ring, constructed from 48 atoms surrounding a standing wave of electrons, called the Quantum Corral. This image was presented for the first time on the cover of “Science” magazine in 1993 and it was created by a group of scientists from IBM research centre in San Jose under the direction of Donald Eigler and Erhard Schweizer, who used a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM). These researchers managed to create the method for positioning single atoms. STM developed by Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohr in 1981 is a brand new device for image creation and its constructors received a Nobel Prize in 1986 for their invention. Just like the Atomic Force Microscope, this device scans the surface of an object; it does not photograph it, but it rather examines the object in a tactile manner, and later it changes its topographical ‘impressions’ (which are not a form of image impression) into a numeric format. These data are only later converted by appropriate software into virtual images. As constructively explained by Eigler, STM “creates images in a manner which is similar to the way in which a blind person can create an imagined impression of an object by feeling it”[1] […].

This argumentation could be made more complete by reminding that the Latin word ars means the same as the Greek word techne, which denotes both art, science, and craftsmanship, and which originates from the verb ‘to weave’. Today these semantic fields acquire new shades of meaning, especially if they are used in the context of technique and technology, which has decisively determined the parameters of modernity. At the end of the 70s the term technoscience appeared: it was used for the first time by a Belgian philosopher Gilbert Hottois in relation to technological and social contexts of science in the era of the development of technoculture (today we would have to add- of the cyberculture) […]. Hottois developed his own interpretation of philosophy of science and technology; he interpreted technoscience as the area stretching between the poles of technophobia (the extreme version of which is proposed by contemporary neo-Luddists, who view the development of the information society as a threat for humanity) and technophilia (the enthusiasts of new technical solutions, who often represent a type of technoutopian thinking which states that technology is our salvation).

While the scientists and the philosophers have been involved in the discussion about the presence and the meaning of technology in the world, the artists have successfully invoked scientific achievements and new technologies, which are not restricted to the media. One of breakthrough moments in this scope was an exhibition organized during the Biennale of Venice in 1986 under the motto “Art and Science”. Due to the importance of Venice event for the world of art, this subject area in a natural manner became present in the discourse dedicated to transformations of contemporary art and it resulted in the proclamation of its new branch. In the editorial to the special edition of “Leonardo” magazine from 1987, the main theme of which was “the art of the future, the future of art” Frank Popper used the term technoscience art for the first time. He wrote in this edition[2] that three significant aspects of high technologies, i.e. the computers, telecommunications and audiovisuality shaped new reality, which also included the reality of art. The 60s faced the development of kinetic art, while technological art developed in the 70s, and the 80s brought a dynamic development of technoscience art. Important exhibitions, such as Electra (1983) in  Musee D’Art Moderne de la Ville and Les Immatériaux  (1985) in Centre Pompidou in Paris, the first editions of Ars Electronica in Linz (which started in 1979) or Kunst und Technologie (1984) in Bonn made the artists, the critics and the audience aware that a new art stream is being born. Its main message and its essence were based on the co-operation between the artists and the scientists under the projects integrating those both environments by means of techno-artistic experimentations.

From today’s point of view the term “technoscience art” can seem only a historic concept, which in the earlier and in the later period was accompanied by a number of competitive terms (cybernetic art, cyber art or new media art). This term can be treated as a polysemous word, which defines a certain type of art, under which a number of type phenomena have been developed, such as algorithmic and generative art, transgenic art, bioArt, code art, telematics art and telepresence art, interactive art, software art, net art, hybrid art, digital art, informative art, robotic art, and virtual art. When Frank Popper was trying to formulate the main characteristics which distinguish technoscience art, he enumerated such disciplines as cybernetic sculpture, video art, holography, laser projections, electrophotography, computer graphics, digital images, multimedia performances, electronic environment, videotext, satellites and other forms of communication works.

This very list clearly shows how much art using new technologies has changed recently, since these technologies age very quickly and thus became obsolete media/ technologies. Paradoxically the term technoscience art can be used also today. First, it can be used in the historic context, in which it defines a certain stage of the development of art using new technologies, and secondly it can be used as a general name denoting the activities of new media artists, who draw upon the achievements of contemporary science. However, Popper’s doubts from that period are still valid:  “Among all possible terms the term »postmodern« art seems to be too broad and imprecise; while »electronic«, »computer«, or »telecommunications« art is definitely too narrow. I will therefore initially use the term »technoscience art«, but I am awaiting better suggestions”[3].

Camera Obscura is a notable exemplification of contemporary relations between the world of art and the world of science. By no accident do the artists themselves quote Albert Einstein, who used to say that “when science and art exceed a certain high level of technical possibilities, they tend to join in terms of aesthetics, plasticity and form. The greatest scientists are always also artists”[4]. Technoscience and technoscience art are at present a phenomenon which is permanently inscribed in the landscape of art using new technologies and new media. “Technology and art should not attempt to imitate nature, but instead they should participate in its diverse shaping. Camera Lucida created as a work of art/ nature and at the same time a scientific research tool blurs the differences between those both areas”[5]. It can be also inscribed in a wider context of scientific and artistic experimentation. . Science is often treated as an area which is far from our everyday life, difficult to understand for common people, boring, devoid of emotions and above all, threatening and suspicious, since it serves on one hand the capital and  arms industry, and on the other hand it is involved in dangerous experiments of  genetic engineering, cloning, and transgenesis, i.e. those phenomena which in the public and commonplace discourse are  perceived as the synonyms of threats related to the uncontrolled development of scientific research.

Evelina Domnitch and Dmitrij Gelfand do not belittle these threats: they are aware of many existing threats and of these which are yet to come as a result of the development of biocybernetics – but they see a positive potential in the co-operation and fusion of art and science. “In the future which is not far from today, art and science will be the basic, if not the only ones human activities. Only one hundred years ago farmers and workmen constituted 60 percent of American workforce, and today they constitute only 5 percent. […] People who are freed from the fight for survival will move towards conceptual and creative work. Art and Science will join, creating together a new form of activating the consciousness”[6]. In this a bit utopian and dreamlike manner  Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand see the nearest future; and such perspective is the not only right, but also the obligation of both artists and scientists.

[1] Donald Eigler, From the Bottom Up: Buildings Things With Atoms, in: Gregory Timp (ed.), Nanotechnology, Vienna, New York 1999, p. 425.  

[2] Frank Popper, Technoscience Art: The Next Step, „Leonardo” 1987, no 4, p. 301-303.

[3] Ibid., p. 303.

[4] Quoted after: Evelina Domnitch, Dmitry Gelfand, «Camera Lucida»: A Three-Dimesional Sonochemical Observatory, „Leonardo” 2004, no. 5, p. 395.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Silvia Scaravaggi, Actuating Consciousness of Cybernetic Future, (accessed on 13.11.2011).

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