Nine-tenths of the iceberg: research as the unseen component of artists’ work

Since 2014, the writers of this article have been studying the relationship between Art and Science (A&S) practitioners as part of an AHRC Innovation Award, Metamorphoses.  Sarah Craske is an artist, while Charlotte Sleigh is a scholar in a field known as Science and Technology Studies (STS), a loose grouping of historians, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and literary theorists, all of whom turn their critical humanist skills towards the sciences.

Sarah Craske: Biological Hermeneutics – An exhibition of the transdiscipline at Chethams Library, 2017 in collaboration with Dr Simon Park, Dr Charlotte Sleigh & Chethams Library.

Introduction

Since 2014, the writers of this article have been studying the relationship between Art and Science (A&S) practitioners as part of an AHRC Innovation Award, Metamorphoses.  Craske is an artist, while Sleigh is a scholar in a field known as Science and Technology Studies (STS), a loose grouping of historians, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and literary theorists, all of whom turn their critical humanist skills towards the sciences. [1]  As part of their research activity, Craske and Sleigh conducted an in-depth survey of 18 leading practitioners in A&S, designed to uncover the realities of their experience in the field.  One of the key frustrations highlighted by artists was scientists’ lack of understanding of the research that underpins artists’ work.  One artist summarised the feelings of many in asserting that a lack of respect for this element of their practice was the most problematic aspect of collaborating with scientists:

What is repeatedly not understood by scientists … is that artists have systematic methodologies in the same way that scientists do. … Unfortunately we’re still coloured by a cultural fantasy that artists are about free-for-all expression that involves the release of personal burdens onto the canvas.

Developing this insight, this paper contends that there is a failure on the part of many scientists (just as there is amongst the general public) to understand and hence respect the research and critical practice that underpins contemporary art practice.

Curiously enough, Sleigh recognised this same phenomenon from her experiences as editor of the British Journal for the History of Science.  In this capacity she receives a steady trickle of articles from scientists (often retired; always, to date, male) who have turned their hand toward history.  In most cases, their attempts are unsuccessful: a collection of diligently researched details which do not add up to anything more than a very local narrative, usually biographical.  These authors often react badly to rejection, complaining that they have been turned aside on account of a failure to adhere to the accepted ‘style’.  The sneer inherent in the word ‘style’ is all too apparent; it has nothing to do with inherent quality, only superficial fluency.  This, they imply, is all that years of postgraduate training and professional experience can confer upon an academic historian. They have no sense of other histories that have been written on closely allied topics, or of what analyses these have brought to bear; nor do they have any sense of how their particular biographies might contribute anything to a bigger-picture understanding of history.  In short, they have no understanding of the context of research within which their own work must make sense, and consequently the latter fails to make a meaningful contribution to the field.  Just as a would-be historian can lurk inside the lab coat of many a scientist, so can a would-be artist – and arguably these can sometimes be the very scientists who are motivated to participate in A&S collaborations.

A second example from our own experience helps to set the stage.  As part of our research, Craske collaborated with a scientist, Simon Park, and on one occasion, intuiting that this crucial nine-tenths of the iceberg was not apparent to Park, Craske decided to subject an item of his artistic output – photographs of bees coated in copper sulphate crystals (Park 2013a, 2013b) – to a research-based critique.  Like all conversations in the project, this was recorded in full.  In the recording, Craske prefaces her comments by explaining that such critique used to be an obligatory rite of passage for art students, and warns that after their first crit, most of them ‘ended up crying’.  As the conversation continued, Craske pushed Park on the meaning of his piece, questioning the path by which he had arrived at the point of making it.  His answers were initially autobiographical,[2] but eventually he constructed a narrative about chemical poisoning and its threat to the bee population.  Neither Park nor Craske was quite satisfied by this story (copper sulphate is not, in fact, an insecticide) but more significantly, Craske wanted the meaning to be in development in advance of the work’s completion: ‘If you do something and you present it and you add meaning to it after, that’s not good enough.  Because you have to check that your audience is going to get the meaning from the work.’  For both Craske and Park, this conversation was part of the journey towards honest communication: a moment for Park to understand the role of research in artistic practice, and for Craske to clarify the similarity of art and science in this respect.

This article builds on our survey findings published in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (Sleigh and Craske, 2017).  Where the latter establishes research as one area (amongst others) of friction between artists and scientists, the present article develops and articulates what this research practice in art constitutes.  What appears in galleries and elsewhere is the top tenth of the iceberg; research and critical practice are the nine-tenths that lie beneath.  A&S collaborations may be improved, we suggest, by an improved communication of this little-appreciated feature of contemporary art.  Additionally we suggest that contemporary artists (as well as scientists) may have their research enhanced through an engagement with STS, which may be considered as the ‘out-sourced’ critical practice element of science.

In this article we use research and critical practice as two very closely related, sometimes overlapping terms.  We take research to include an investigation of the history of one’s own field, to understand how others have framed similar problems, what techniques they have used to investigate them, and what results they have come up with.  This research is essential in order for an artist or a scientist’s work to answer a question that matters, and to avoid duplication or dead ends: in short, to be meaningful and original to one’s community.  Craske laments the passing of strong criticism in art training (that focused on the work and was less careful about the artists’ emotional response such as that to which she subjected Park), and fears that a valuable internalisation of criticism may be lost as a result in the current generation of artists.  Critical practice is the constant measuring of one’s work against the backdrop of research and practice, checking it in all the above respects.

Sarah Craske: Artists Blood, 2015

Research as the root of practice in art and science

Research is a recognised and highly valued activity in contemporary art; art theorist Kathrin Busch noted in 2009 that ‘contemporary art practice is now so highly saturated with theoretical knowledge that it is becoming a research practice in and of itself’.[3]  British art colleges (later universities) began to insist upon academic rigour in the teaching of artists around the 1970s.  In the current century, the Bologna process has enshrined art in academia around Europe (Sheikh, 2006).  Although there has been criticism of the trend, and its institutionalisation of art within the academy, such developments have produced two generations of practitioners who, at best, are highly aware of the critical and historical relationship that their work bears with predecessor artists; they are extremely reflexive concerning the representational implications entrained by their choice of materials, media, methods, and context of display.

Thus, for example, in our recent collaboration Biological Hermeneutics, Craske gave considerable thought to the use of blood in preparation and display.  Due to the scientific methodologies advised to culture some rather fastidious bacteria, Craske had use of the medium imposed on her practice. As a material, however, blood is an extremely powerful signifier, as was surveyed and explored in the exhibition Blood: Art, Power, Politics and Pathology, (Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2002).  Rarely is blood used without a sensational statement, as this show demonstrated in its blood-based artworks from early medieval Christian iconography to Gunther Brus’s self-mutilation performances; ritual, religion, sacrifice, self-harm, life, death, feminism, war and torture are variously invoked by its use. With this tranche of artworks behind her, that had no particular relevance to her immediate work, Craske found herself trying to navigate this imposed cultural landscape with an intent to play down her use of blood in favour of the artwork’s original message. The final works diminish the presence of blood through post production colour alteration, and a focus on the bacterial colonies uncovered on the text.

Furthermore, the scientifically routine choice of sheep’s blood threw up further complications for Craske.  Craske reflected on research questions including: What were the ethics involved in terms of its procurement? How did sheep fit into the procurement process for scientific consumables? How were sheep in themselves relevant to the work? What kind of signifiers would sheep be in this context? What signs do they produce and what do they signify?  Eventually, she made the active decision not to use sheep’s blood, as is the norm, but to use her own, human blood instead.  There were several reasons that made this course of action appealing.  First, sheep’s blood immediately conjures ‘the blood of the lamb’, a particularly heavily-freighted concept that was not relevant to this project.  Second, there was an element of ethical preference in not using an animal product.  Third, in a project that concerned unexpected and uncontrolled transformations, the investment of the artist’s self in the process seemed an appropriate commitment to the partly aleatory nature of the artwork as it unfolded.

Thus Craske brought historical knowledge of her field, and reflection on her relationship to it, to bear upon her artistic choices concerning the use of blood.  Her work was rooted in research and critical practice.

When it comes to reflecting on their own practice and its place in a tradition of research, many contemporary artists are streets ahead of scientists.  Scientists have an awareness of the significance of their work in relation to recent history – that is, the work of researchers in closely-related fields.  They know that a recent experiment, published in a research journal, leaves a particular question unanswered, and they will attempt to answer it through their own work (which, if successful, may be published in the very same journal – so the process continues).  However, they have a relatively poor grasp of longue durée scientific history, and of the cultural implications (of gender, ethnicity, ableism and so forth) that are entrained by their choices in problem framing, research context, personnel, and funding.  Such questions are instead explored by scholars in STS.  To take a well-known example, historians have disproved the myth that Darwin discovered an objective, ethically neutral reality about nature which was subsequently distorted by social Darwinists and eugenists.  Rather, as scholars such as Gillian Beer and Robert Young have demonstrated, his ‘natural selection’ was a secularised version of a God figure, operating in a manner remarkably akin to Adam Smith’s hidden hand.  Thus natural selection was, from the outset, a naturalisation of competition and economic individualism, within a particular Victorian framework.  Race and class were bound up in the metaphor from its beginning.  Or to pick something more recent, the description of autism spectrum disorders as an ‘extreme male’ brain condition not only imposes a gendered understanding upon ASDs, but rebounds to essentialize all males, including neuro-typical males, in a particular way (naturally prone to systemizing rather than empathizing).  And by essentializing the characteristics of males, the science in turn determines the ‘normal’ female.  In these and many other instances, STS scholars have shown how cultural pre-conditions have contributed towards the framing of particular phenomena in nature for interrogations, and how methods and language choices have gone on to have unanticipated after-effects within culture – feeding back, in turn, to the next phase of scientific research.

A scientist may well make decisions about their work comparable to those that Craske made in relation to blood.  They might decide to use one or another lab product on grounds of ethics or sustainability (so long as it did not affect the reliability of outcomes).  They might decide to use processes to improve diversity and inclusivity within their laboratory.  Indeed, programmes such as Athena SWAN, which aims to advance gender equality through ‘representation, progression and success for all’,[4] have put many of STS’s themes of interest on the table for science.  Crucially, however, these initiatives generally treat cultural biases as extraneous to the processes of science itself: as though science were a morally neutral activity that can be continued as normal once a better balance of lab employees is reached.  The difference from Craske’s case is that scientists would typically consider their choices as external to the science itself.

The biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling is an exceptional example of a scientist who has succeeded in incorporating critical practice into her own research.  Her awareness of LGBTQ+ politics has led her to a very sensitive and thoughtful framing of the biological questions that she examines, and to an explicit and conscious critique of the limitations and possible interpretations of her findings.  She has also been able to critique the work of her colleagues in these respects.  It is perhaps not irrelevant that her own sexual identity has been a part of her public persona.  In other words, she has not followed in the enlightenment mode of pretending that her research has nothing to do with her own self: that she is an abstract, God-like mind supervening objectively over physical nature.  Instead, Fausto-Sterling is an embodied subject.

The Slow Science movement (http://slow-science.org/) does not explicitly address progressive political desiderata, but it does implicitly highlight the need for critical practice through its emphasis on time for reflection: ‘Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail’.  Interestingly, it is in part historical reflection that leads the movement’s founders to their position: ‘Slow science was pretty much the only science conceivable for hundreds of years; today, we argue, it deserves revival and needs protection’.  Moreover, the slow scientists invite dialogue: ‘We … need time to mis­understand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences’.

Sarah Craske: Artist Blood In Conversation with Metamorphoses, 2015

From critical practice to criticism

Thus far, we have argued that contemporary artists are in general alert to the research component of their practice, including both its place in a longue durée tradition and its reflexive components.  By contrast, although scientists understand their practice as intrinsically one of research, appreciating the latter two features of their research is a rarity.  The consistent pursuit of these inquiries is located, instead, in STS.  It is somewhat curious that scientists have ‘out-sourced’ critical reflection to another discipline.  In fact, situated as it is within another discipline the process is not critical reflection (since it is not performed by practitioners themselves) but rather criticism.  As a result of this out-sourcing, the critique of science from STS is very different in character from the mutual critique of fellow scientists, whereas professional art criticism is of more-or-less the same kind as practitioner artists express concerning one another.  In other words, artists have one kind of critical practice – and art critics generally ‘get’ it.  Scientists have a different kind of critical practice – and science popularisers generally don’t ‘get’ it, though STS scholars do.

Relations between science and STS have been troubled for a generation.  The 1990s saw the so-called ‘science wars’, in which some scientists reacted strongly against the notion that their facts were in any sense socially constructed.  That debate occurred largely within academia, but in the past few years – the past two in particular – it has merged with a general rejection of expertise to create a super-storm producing Brexit, Trump, and accelerated climate destruction.  Some scientists have unfortunately attempted to associate Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ with humanists’ ‘social constructions’, in effect blaming the latter for the former.  As STS scholars and scientists attempt to make common cause with one another in the present crisis, STS may perhaps be reframed as a critical appreciation of science more akin to art criticism.  It describes and elaborates the effortful human processes by which facts are agreed: a process that deserves celebration as well as critique for its inevitable shortcomings.

A&S is a relatively new field and as such it is perhaps no great surprise that there has, as yet, been rather little rigorous criticism of its hybrid work – whether from within or without the field.  There are also some active and even malign causes for this silence.  When scientists engage in A&S – at least in the UK – they are motivated to do so by the ‘impact agenda’ which demands public engagement with their work.  (The very fact that artists – despite their intellectual specialisation – are seen as the means to achieve this is further evidence of the lack of appreciation of their research).  With the instrumental goal of public engagement in mind, there is no reason to interrogate artistic quality.  When funding comes from arts and humanities agencies, there is a similar emperor’s-new-clothes ethos at work.  The arts and humanities are under pressure to justify their economic value to society, and the showing that they can intersect with the self-evidently useful sciences is one way to do so.  (This displays a parallel ignorance concerning science; most scientists would strongly defend the intrinsic value of non-applied research.)  Again, there is if anything an active disincentive critically to interrogate work produced in this context.

Different participants in A&S can bring different critical perspectives to bear.  Sleigh, as an STS scholar, has most often been disappointed with A&S collaborations on account of the way that the ‘scientific’ component generally functions as unquestioned fact, something stable that the art can then ‘interpret’.  This conflicts with the findings of countless scholars concerning the constructed nature of scientific facts.  The Great Wall of Vagina (Heavenly Nipples Glastonbury Festival, 2014) is one good example.

Admittedly, Heavenly Nipples was created under the auspices of an organisation that self-defines as science-orientated (Guerilla Science), but it was presented as part of a Wellcome and GV Art-sponsored A&S event, #postARTandSCIENCE (22 September 2017).  Moreover, Guerilla Art’s Director is currently head of programming at the new Science Gallery London, whose name and mission statements both foreground art.  In these contexts the work seemed to be very much glossed as art, and to invite criticism as such.

This piece had the entirely laudable aim of resisting porn culture by informing its audiences of genital diversity amongst women, presenting viewers with a substantial montage of plaster casts of labia and vulvas in all different shapes and sizes.  The problem with this exhibit was that it implicitly presented science as the automatic champion of diversity via the power of objectivity. Yet histories of science reveal over and over again that ‘objectivity’ has in fact been enacted within a power dynamic that reduces certain groups (typically by gender, race, sexuality or ability) to the status of object.  Moreover, medical science has a particular history in relation to women’s knowledge of their own bodies, and its imposition of ownership over them.  Objectivity in medicine and objectification in porn culture are close cultural cousins.  By failing to carry out this research and to acknowledge it in what was displayed, the show was unsuccessful in Sleigh’s eyes.

Interestingly enough, Craske’s perspective on this exhibition is that it does not even meet the conditions necessary to be considered as a piece of art.  For her, it is one of many examples of work billed as art and science but which in actuality is a work of science communication.  This uneasy blurring of science communication and art and science makes it very difficult for general audiences to know what they are looking at.  Even if they are aware that they are seeing the top one-tenth of the work that has gone into making it, they are not aware of whether the majority of the iceberg is comprised of science, or art, or both.  As a result, works that should be judged within a context of science communication may be perceived and judged as art, and vice versa.  This, then, tends to diminish the perceived rigour of art and science collaborations, as they can be seriously misinterpreted within a science-communicational framework, rather than with a critical, art-disciplinary eye, depending on the context of presentation.  For this reason, Craske has found it very difficult to create a general framework for her own critical judgements concerning the A&S productions of others, and tends to look at each work on a case-by-case basis.

In her own practice, Craske does not think so much about drawing on science as about drawing upon the practices (methods, technologies) and people of science.  This collaborative approach can deliver work that has outcomes unexpected by both its constituent disciplines, transforming the research pathways of both.  One unexpected collaborative outcome from her recent research has been the realisation that scientists do not like being reduced to technicians (or technical tutors) in the service of art and actually want to contribute to the work.  Such qualities of partnership, respect and open-endedness are not possible within a science communication framework – art in the service of science – which immediately negates its ability to exist as art.

Thus, Craske is most critical of A&S work that tends to damage the relationship between its constituent communities.  The relationship between the two disciplines can be a fragile one, with both players stepping out of their disciplinary boundaries and accepted research pathways.  This in itself can feel professionally risky.  Reflection on research as the root of practice, and communication of this between collaborators, is necessary to understand, empathise with and work with one another’s respective risk-taking.  Furthermore, the dissemination and interpretation of collaborative work is has to be done with respectful appreciation of one another’s professional areas, as meanings can change across disciplines and if not handled correctly can severely damage the perceived professionalism of one or both parties.  The perceived rigour of research, when presented in the ‘other’ discipline, can easily be jeopardised.  In this light, Craske has reservations about Kac’s work GFP Bunny (2000).  As much as Craske can and does appreciate the fundamental questions and themes raised by Kac’s work from an artistic perspective, the media science fall-out that occurred was so public that it has increased hesitancy in the scientific community to work with artists or to invite them into their laboratories.

From both STS and artistic perspectives, then, there is a need for an increased critical engagement with A&S works.  Recently established specialist University programmes in A&S should, in the course of time, help to develop an active literature of criticism in the subject, unafraid to be demanding in its judgements on exhibited work.  One could also hope that published vehicles for critical scholarship also develop, whether in established platforms such as this one, or in new titles.  Finally, one might hope that insights from STS would equip both scientists and artists with critical tools to interrogate science.

Jan van Rymsdyk and Robert Strange, ‘A fore-view of the womb, and of the contents of the pelvis; the ossa pubis, with the muscles and integuments which cover them, being removed’, in William Hunter, Anatomia uteri humani gravidi tabulis illustrata (Illustrated anatomy of the human gravid uterus), Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1774. Hunter’s use of these mutilated and dehumanised images of female genitalia is considered an important moment in the history of scientific objectification of the female body by many scholars.

Conclusion

A common perception of criticism is nicely captured by the speech that closes the film Ratatouille (2007).  It is uttered by the bad-guy restaurant critic Anton Ego; in it, he accepts that not only was he wrong to be sceptical about the food being cooked by the film’s heroes, but also that his entire professional life has been of questionable value:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.  But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

Besides devaluing the work of criticism, Ego’s perspective reflects a common assumption about the division of labour: that there are makers (such as artists) and critics (reviewers).  Like the repentant Ego, some participants and stakeholders in the world of art and science (A&S) are apt to suppose criticism an impediment to practice, and, moreover, to overlook its integral role within the practice of artists and scientists themselves.  An improved understanding of the role of criticism in the constituent fields of art and science is an important key to improved collaboration across their boundaries.

References:

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2003). The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain. Penguin/Basic Books.

Beer, G. (2000). Darwin’s plots: evolutionary narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and nineteenth-century fiction. Cambridge University Press.

Busch, K. (2009). Artistic research and the poetics of knowledge. Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, 2(2), 1-7.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2012). Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World. New York: Routledge.

Park, Simon. 2013a https://exploringtheinvisible.com/2013/07/27/bee-jewelled-found-dead-bees-and-copper-sulphate/

Park, Simon. 2013b https://exploringtheinvisible.com/2013/09/29/crystal-sarcophagi-found-dead-bees-copper-sulphate-and-sulphur/

Sheikh, Simon “Spaces for Thinking. Perspectives on the Art Academy”, in: Texte zur Kunst 62 (2006), p. 191-196 : p. 192.

Sleigh, Charlotte, and Sarah Craske (forthcoming 2017). ‘Art and science in the UK: a brief history and critical reflection’. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews.

Young, Robert M. (1985). Darwin’s metaphor : nature’s place in Victorian culture. Cambridge; New York : Cambridge University Press

Notes:

[1] In many universities, STS is practised within constituent disciplines or goes by other, similar names and groupings, such as History and Philosophy of Science.

[2] Park credited Roger Hiorns’ work as inspiration: see https://www.artangel.org.uk/project/seizure/

[3] Busch, Kathrin. “Artistic research and the poetics of knowledge.” Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 2.2 (2009): 1-7, p. 1.

[4] Equality Challenge Unit, ‘Athena SWAN Charter’, http://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/ 2017.

………………..

Sarah Craske is an award winning British artist, without category, now working at the intersection of Art, Science & Technology. She is currently developing a transdisciplinary manifesto which she uses to govern her own practice. She is specifically interested in exploring how the concept of knowledge & data, practice & space, language & method, equipment & materials transform through transdisciplinary working and is developing the transdiscipline – Biological Hermeneutics. In 2017, a speculative presentation of this discipline was site specifically installed at Chetham’s Library, Manchester, UK. In 2014, her research in collaboration with Prof. Charlotte Sleigh and Dr Simon Park, was awarded an AHRC Science In Culture Innovation Award, in recognition of her innovative contribution to collaborative inter-relationships between the sciences, arts & humanities.

www.sarahcraske.co.uk

Charlotte Sleigh is Professor of Science Humanities, University of Kent. Her research concerns the sciences where they intersect with the humanities, including history, literature, art and communication. Her original training was in the history of science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. She is the author and editor of numerous books, as well as current editor of the British Journal for the History of Science. Charlotte has given many public lectures, written for the mass media, and has appeared on a number of radio and TV programmes speaking on a variety of science-related matters. In more recent years Charlotte has developed her interest in art and science, collaborating with a number of artists to produce shows including Chain Reaction! (Sidney Cooper Gallery, Canterbury, 2013) and Biological Hermeneutics (Chetham’s Library, Manchester, 2017).

https://www.kent.ac.uk/history/staff/profiles/sleigh.html

 

 

 

 

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