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Part 1: Report from “Art as a Way of Knowing” Conference at Exploratorium

Exploratorium interior, 2006. Courtesy Exploratorium. (photo: Adam Snyder)

On March 3-4, 2011, I attended the “Art as a Way of Knowing” conference at Exploratorium, San Francisco, the legendarily creative, hands-on science museum founded by Dr. Frank Oppenheimer in 1969. (By the by, Exploratorium has had an artist-in-residency program since 1976, beginning with Bob Miller’s mind-expanding experiments with light and shadow.) This art-science convocation was headed by Marina McDougall, Exploratorium Arts Project Director, artist and member of The Studio for Urban Projects. The third in a series of National Science Foundation sponsored art-science gatherings, this one was specific to education and how creativity and social learning is an essential feature of inquiry, regardless of discipline. This position was foreshadowed on the cover of the program book with a quote from John Dewey.

As the developing growth of an individual from embryo to maturity is the result of interaction of organism with surroundings, so culture is the product not of efforts of men put forth in a void or just upon themselves, but of prolonged and cumulative interaction with environment. The depth of the response stirred by works of art show their continuity with the operations of this enduring experience.– John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1934

Art as Experience by John Dewey, New York: Perigee, 1934.

An impressive roster of invitation-only attendees ranged from artists, writers, philosophers, and curators, to educators, scientists and policy makers, all housed at the nautical “thematized” hotel, The Argonaut. The conference took place in a less nautical, more capital setting of The City Club, located in the former San Francisco Stock Exchange Building, designed by Miller & Pflueger architects. The building was opened in 1930 during the height of the Great Depression, and featured artworks that illustrate the might of American industry, including the first U.S. fresco by Diego Rivera, Allegory of California. Fortunately, Rivera’s communist party ties did not cause this mural to meet the same demise as his Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center.

The “Art as a Way of Knowing” opening keynote was given by Lawrence Weschler, author of several works of “creative non-fiction,” including Seeing is Forgetting the Name of What One Sees: Conversations with Robert Irwin, and Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. Weschler began by talking about the 18th Century, before “art was split off from science.” He named the year 1637 as the beginning of this fissure, marked by the publication of René Descartes Discourse on the Method (which birthed the famous quotation, “I think, therefore I am”). Weschler discussed Francis Bacon, and the “Age of Wonder,” and presented paintings of Wunderkammers as “interdisciplinary expressions of the wonders of creation.” He also elaborated on how the study of anatomy was originally an artistic pursuit, not a medical one. Weschler summarized the distinctions between creative and scientific inquiry as such: “The artist uses himself as the measure” while the scientist “uses an external logic process.” Throughout his talk, Weschler deftly wove-in slides of Old Master paintings and quotations of poetry, with more recent quotes from the likes of James Baldwin: “Let us lay bare the questions that have been precluded by answers.” It was a very romantic kick-off.

Day One provided a useful overview of the last forty or so years of art, science, technology and engineering mergers– vis-a-vis landmark exhibitions, the establishment of support organizations, festivals, and academic programs–provided by Rob Semper, Roger Malina, Dominic Willsdon, and Casey Reas. Casey’s chronological talk, “The History of the Future: Art and Technology 1965-1971,” was especially helpful, roll calling milestone exhibitions like The Responsive Eye (1965, MoMA), Nine Evenings of Theater and Engineering (1966, The Armory), The Machine (1968, MoMA), Cybernetic Serendipity (1968, Cororan, ICA, Exploratorium), Information (1970, MoMA), and Software (1970, Jewish Museum). He also mentioned two seminal publications of the time, Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood and Beyond Modern Sculpture by Jack Burnham– both which approached art as a system rather than discrete objects.

Watch video on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSVQqJo0Pmk

Jeff Kelley made the connection between Allan Kaprow and John Dewey, asserting that both saw intelligence as situational. Dominic Willsdon also talked about the coinciding emergence of conceptual art and academic interdisciplinarity in the 1970s. Peter Richards brought in socio-political events of the 1950s -1970s, namely CP Snow’s canonical Rede lecture, “The Two Cultures,” Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring, the emergence of the Environmental, “Back to the Land,” and Civil Rights Movements, and the establishment of Whole Earth Catalog (which he offered was the forerunner to the world wide web). Richards suggested that the cold war-driven “fear” that marked the 1950s became “anger” in the 1960s, and led to the institutional and cultural change that embraced interdiscipinarity. He said the “Drop City” based on Buckminster Fuller’s architecture and ideas, was an example of science and engineering being practiced [hands-on] in the social sphere. It was also during this time that both NSF and NEA were founded.

Image of Drop City, Colorado, 1970s. (Photo: The Craft Begins blog)

A welcome interlude was offered by Jeanette Redensek, with a paper titled “Art is Good for Nothing,” about Kant, and the measurement of visual intelligence.

Michael John Gorman, of the highly popular Science Gallery in Dublin, gave a dynamic talk about creating a laboratory-like art space. Typical Science Gallery events include “Seed Dating,” an attempt at shidduch between artists and scientists for projects (not love, I guess, but hey– why not?), and exhibitions like “Infectious” which cast a large net to understand all that is “contagious” from laughter to viruses. I especially liked the project “Kiss Culture” by Maria Phelan, Ireland, in which visitors, on entry to the gallery, kissed an individual petri dish, which was then cultured so they could come back to “discover the natural flora you carry on your lips and nose.”

KISS CULTURE, Maria Phelan. (Courtesy Science Gallery)

During three concurrent conversations, I chose “In the Lab: Cross-polinators” with Roger Malina, Amanda McDonald Crowley, Semiconductor, Philip Ross, Rob Le Frenais, Stephen Nowlin, Ariane Koek, and Michael Naimark. (I was very sad to miss the other conversation “Learning without Knowing” with Mark Allen, Machine Project; Sean Dockray, Telic Arts Exchange and The Public School; and Adam Lerner, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, but I felt I had a better handle on that subject.)


I snatched this room marker from the panel I missed

Roger Malina outlined four generations of art/science collaborations, loosely as follows:

1st generation: tied to the arts in industry movement of the 1880s, marked by an emphasis on photography and film, and art and design, citing the Bauhaus as an example.

2nd generation: the establishment of interdisciplinary centers in the 1960s and 70s, such as Center for Advanced Visual Studies, E.A.T., and Exploratorium. He called this a period of “techno optimism.”

3rd generation: marked by the birth of digital culture and “creative industries.” Organizations that are emblematic of this include IRCAM, Paris, Ars Electronica, V2, MediaLab Pradp. Attendant with a similar digital optimism.

Malina said the 4th wave that we’re witnessing now is defined by a collaborative impulse, networked consortiums, and the building of “a new kind of institution,” one that’s small and agile, and generally underfunded. Arts Catalyst, Science Gallery, Eyebeam, IMERA, Marseille, and others are exemplary of this new breed. This wave, he argued, is “art-world driven,” and tied to Mode 2 science – a new form of knowledge production that emerged from the mid 20th century which is context-driven, problem-focused and interdisciplinary. He also used the term “intimate science” to describe this type of practice.

Amanda McDonald Crowley of Eyebeam gave a history of art-science research labs, provided in list form here:

Government: NASA, JPL, CERN;

Academic: MIT Media Lab, ITP at NYU, ACE at UC Irvine, RPI’s Bioart initiative, University of New South Wales, Z-Node, Zurich, and Hexagram at Concordia, Montreal;

Corporate: Bell Labs, Xerox Parc PAIR program, Interval, Canon Art Lab, Japan, and Google Labs;

Museum-centered: Exploratorium, Ars Electronica FutureLab, and Atelier Lab;

[my notes get fuzzy here– post lunch catatonia]

Artists in Labs: “Scientific Serendipity” Museum of Natural History, NY, SymbioticA, Converge: Where Science and Art Meet, ANAT’s Synapse, Swiss Artists in Labs;

Art and Technology Centers as Labs: V2, MediaLab Prado, Society for Art & Technology, Quebec, House of Natural Fibre, Baltan Laboratories– all marked by quality of “lab as social space;”

Artist-made Labs: MacroLab, Lab on a ferry, Helsinki;

Hackerspaces: Genspace, NYC Resistor.

NYC Resistor is a hacker collective with a shared space located in downtown Brooklyn.

The most intriguing part of the conference was not the discussion exclusively about the intersection of art and scientific disciplines, but rather the idea of non-disciplinary inquiry– work that doesn’t belong to the culture of any single field. This kind of work hinges on up-close observation, learning by doing, and inventing new ways for the public to engage in the process. On Day Two, I moderated a panel on this subject with Matthew Coolidge, The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Geoff Manaugh, BLDGBLOG, Rosten Woo, Center for Urban Pedagogy, and Susan Schwartzenberg, Exploratorium. All use a variety of field research that is specific to site. Their research and its presentation often happens “in the field” and engages participants in the process of seeing things first hand.

Stay tuned for an account of DAY TWO, as the conference turns…

–Andrea Grover

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4 Responses

  1. thanks for the very compleat post !! by the way its john michael gorman (not forman) who runs the science gallery in dublin- whats interesting there is that they are actually housed in a science department at the university ( like symbiotica is housed in a science department)- it is interesting to see emergence of these new institutional approaches
    roger malina

  2. Andrea Grover

    Thanks for the good feedback and correction, Roger; I’ll look closer at Science Gallery, too. Truly enjoyed your contributions to the conference!

  3. Thank you Andrea! The mergence of Art, Science and Engineering is truly important for the development on new ways of thinking in both fields. I wanted to share with everyone that there are active hacker spaces here in Texas, most notably TX/Rx in Houston: http://www.txrxlabs.org/
    and ATX Hackerspace in Austin: http://www.austinhackerspace.org/
    The members of these spaces range from programmers, engineers, to biologists. It is especially interesting in at TX/Rx to have NASA engineers collaborating in what it seems to be an art collective. I encourage all artists interested in NewMedia/Tech/Pseudoscience/Art to check out those organizations.

  4. Pingback : Resources » Art as a Way of Knowing

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