Science and Art, Intent, and the Supernatural

by Stephen Nowlin

PLASMA 5 online article version 

The international art/media/conceptual movement known variously as ‘Sci-Art,’ ‘Art and Science,’ ‘ArtSci’ and otherwise, is an iteration of paradigmatic change in art that reaches at least as far back as the mid 19th century – an evolving impulse to excavate for content and meaning in the physical and real rather than the fictional and imaginary. Today the implications of Sci-Art reject a core tenet of virtually all human societies – the existence of a so-called “supernatural” dimension to reality.

Among the ideas and meanings it explores, Sci-Art disrupts these: art with intent, and natural with supernatural. Pry apart those assumptions until their halves exist individually, independently of one another—like water and gravity, pried from a river.

In the meantime, consider more clichéd reactions to the Sci-Art collaboration: its vulnerability to receiving attention only for the pairing’s superficial novelty—the surprise at combining two stereotypically opposite ends of a spectrum, the romance of a Romeo and Juliet improbable tryst of epistemologies; or it can be dismissed as a charmingly naive overestimation of the intellectual depth its wonder-and-awe subjects can provoke; or among some who cannot find in its products the comfort of those familiar, entrenched conventions that define science and art separately, the criticism that each domain simply ends up compromised to its detriment by their attempt at unification.

Los Angeles 2019, pic Clemens Fantur

Like many nascent and inevitable ideas, however, such prosaic critiques only persist until emerging nuances begin to cleave and splinter off new perspectives and provocations. The story of Romeo and Juliet did not suppress cultural tensions beneath the passions of romance, but rather submitted them to fiery revelation. So must it be with the frictions of Sci-Art. Sensations of wonder and awe, so often the reaction when art engages science, can tend to tranquilize the pairing’s more insurgent and provocative meanings – just as the sublime beauty of a night sky conceals the truly hellish complexities that are stars. Under the auspices of its seemingly incongruous yet straightforward name, Sci-Art must search for old truths and untried structures of meaning and relevancy waiting to be disturbed and envisioned. Among those is its interrogation of the two marriages mentioned above: natural with supernatural, and art with intent.

The latter has had a head start. The sanctity of artistic intent, the canon that assumed visual artworks are defined by the effects of a human intermediary micro-managing brushstrokes or strikes of a chisel to meet the discriminations of connoisseurship, was disrupted in the early 20th century by artists like Kazimir Malevich, Marcel Duchamp, and Kurt Schwitters, radicalized by Jackson Pollock et al, employed in varying degrees by others such as Robert Rauschenberg, and Helen Frankenthaler, conceptualized by Sol LeWitt and Dorothea Rockburne, brought to music by John Cage, and spread ubiquitously into the delta of the next century’s myriad artistic directions. It was a change in harmonics, for at some higher frequency intent remained present but ironically so, there to expressly agitate conjecture around the ideal of its absence.

Los Angeles 2019, pic Clemens Fantur

The lure of that absence was in the desire to arrive at an art liberated from the biases of subjectivity and which gained, like science, its power from an enthrallment with the aesthetics of objective reality rather than imagined fiction. Over time the inclination toward artworks that were objects or expressions in real space, rather than windows through which to peer into fictional space, shifted the ontological paradigm from imaginary to real—from depiction to actual, myth to science. They symbolized a preference for locating sources of transcendence in the real rather than in the imaginary, which was metaphorically the natural rather than the supernatural. The artistic products of that history, up and through the current products of the so-called Sci-Art movement, act like sensors that have recorded this wave of existential change propagating through the past and into our present moment.

Prying loose the broadly rooted memes of the supernatural from a jungle of entanglements within the psyche of humans and their social institutions, is an inevitable disruption brought about by the cross-examinations of a science and art coupling. Art is in essence a propagator of symbolic information and transcendent sensations, while science evidences an elegantly curious world but rejects anything gimmicked to be other than natural. Art that engages science can reveal the transcendent dimensions of the latter’s natural worldview, rendering sublime the complexities of our species’ long evolutionary journey through time – and thus the alchemy which privileges us to feel our deepest connections to existence. 

The implications of this secular poetic are broadly subversive on a planet where most human cultures remain heavily invested in the idea of a natural world that veils some higher order of magical-supernatural causality and governance as the source of spiritual sensations. The vector of change in art’s pictorial ontology over the last two centuries points to an incremental disputation of that traditional view, echoing a parallel scientific awareness that the sensations we cite as evidence of life’s profound meanings are bequests from our biological evolution, not the deific. Their enchantments as well as provocations are distillations from our fitful journey through deep time and the iterations of natural process. We thus continue to make our way, the lucky finders and interpreters of beauty and meaning—qualities attributable solely to our amazing biology and otherwise never intended to exist by any conscious force of creation. 

If art is going to engage true science – if it is going to excavate the deeper political and social meanings that lay tantalizingly beneath the simplistic novelty of pairing two stereotypically polar opposites; if it is going to avoid becoming art and pseudo-science or art and New-Age mysticism or just art as sciencey objects; if it is going to truly be art and real science, it will need to embed in its practice the acknowledgement of an impoverished supernatural in conflict with the rising nuances of a scientific ontology. It needs to ignite that discussion and make of it a robust contemporary discourse.

by Stephen Nowlin
original publication in ‘The Brooklyn Rail’, New York 

Los Angeles 2019, pic Clemens Fantur

The latest innovations in space exploration, science, and technology have launched us into a new age. One that has shifted our perception of the world through significant scientific breakthroughs and interplanetary discoveries. We now find ourselves living in a realm of knowledge hitherto unfathomed. A reality that almost sounds like science fiction and one where possibilities keep opening up. Exciting times for sure!

Having spoken to many different scientists for this issue, we have noted time and time again the deep impact that science fiction has had on their research. From the engineers who built the largest space telescope to date (James Webb Space Telescope – JWST) to the biologists who study the strange properties of spider threads, science fiction has been one of the motivating factors that got them into their fields of study. But why? Because of our innate ability to put ourselves in scenarios where we live and breathe the unimaginable. To dream big no matter the odds. Science fiction is the potential of what we can build. What we can discover. It is a spark. For this, it is no wonder that we find it to be a key element of scientific discovery and technological development.

Here, we have 224 pages jam-packed with interviews, stories, behind the scene sneak peaks, photo series, posters, and nerd guides that speak to this. Scientists from different fields, from Berlin to LA, all talking about their personal motivations and passions. A Berlin special introduces us to the diverse research areas this city is host to. Everything from the exploration of Mars to the creation of humanoid robots, Berlin is most certainly becoming a scientific point of reference in Europe. From there we jump across the Atlantic to explore all the latest nerd hot spots in NYC, learn about the latest JWST advancements, and so much more before our final jump over to the West Coast, where more scientific tales await!

We’ve been lucky to meet and interview many people who have followed their vision and unusual ideas with a fearless determination to see them through, regardless of what others might think. This, we know, is the only way. It’s not about ego, it’s about seeing the bigger picture and, in doing so, seeking kindred visionaries that will contribute to it. If there’s one thing we can learn from all these scientists, artists, and sci-fi characters, is that we are stronger as a team. No one achieves anything alone, not even Iron Man.


full article published in PLASMA magazine 5

Edited and adapted from “Sci-Art Doubts and Distruptions,” originally published in The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture; New York, on 12/13/2017.

PLASMA 5 repro Nora Heinisch




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