Monday, November 17, 2014

On Art and Science, by Werner Sun

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Werner Sun, Imperfection III (detail), 2014. Mixed media, 24" x 12"

Editor's note: For a new series of posts to be published over the course of the coming year, I've invited members of the sci-art community to weigh in on the relationship between art and science, and, most significantly, the degree to which their merging into this third entity we call "sci-art" holds any legitimacy. Werner Sun, whose contribution follows, seems the ideal candidate for setting things in motion, as he has worked extensively in both fields throughout his career.

On Art and Science
by Werner Sun

When I became a scientist, it was with some reluctance because, throughout my life, I have also been pulled towards the arts. At one point in my youth, I had even entertained the idea of becoming a choral conductor. Instead, I went to graduate school in particle physics, and I have remained involved with the field since then. Particle physicists have a voracious appetite for data; we demand ever increasing quantities of it to study elementary particles in more and more detail and thereby discover new phenomena. Consequently, in my career as a particle physicist, I have developed a taste for analysis methods that attempt to squeeze as much information as possible from datasets of finite size.

At the same time, I have also developed an artistic practice that draws on elements of graphic design and data visualization. I collect visual fragments, often in the form of folded or embellished digital prints, which I assemble into ordered three-dimensional structures. Manipulating images in this fashion gives me the same pleasure as coaxing a scientific dataset into telling me something new about nature. Sometimes, I even use computer-generated fractals in my artwork to make this connection explicit. What I hope to explore in visual terms is the very process of turning data into knowledge. Creating art is my way of philosophizing about science.

Werner Sun, Traces, 2014, mixed media, 24" x 24"

To me, artists and scientists are both in the business of communicating. As we know from information theory, every communication channel has a finite capacity, meaning that it can only reliably transmit so much information in a given amount of time, no matter whether that channel is an Ethernet cable carrying digital signals or air molecules carrying whispered words. Therefore, no matter how simple the message, the information one wishes to convey must first be organized. In organizing or summarizing data, we displace it from its original context, and we highlight some aspects while ignoring others in an attempt to expose hidden similarities and patterns. Organizing data is equivalent to generating knowledge, and while there is an obvious benefit to this activity, it also entails a distortion of the data itself. The creation of any piece of knowledge, or the communication of any idea, is an inherently reductionist act.

Nor does data reduction stop with a single iteration. Data can be reduced repeatedly as different strands of knowledge are woven together into models of the world that keep growing in predictive power. If there is no limit to the amount of data that could be gathered, then ignorance is always present, even as we gain more and more understanding. Thus, if we view the fields of science and art as linked by a common framework for amassing and communicating information, then they are also logically linked by a fundamental spirit of inquiry and a pursuit of knowledge that will always, by definition, defy ultimate fulfillment.

CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector at CERN

Visualization of a proton-proton collision in the Large Hadron Collider, as detected by the CMS detector

Plot shown when the discovery of the Higgs Boson was announced.
Red histogram shows model of Higgs Boson; black dots are the actual data.

Of course, science and art are not the only disciplines to confront the limits of knowledge, but I see in them a distinct posture with respect to the unknown. At the same time that artists and scientists push back ignorance, they also recognize it as the engine that drives their work. Not only is there an obsession with knowing (as with so many other pursuits) but also a tacit acceptance that some things may not, in fact, be knowable. This healthy respect for ignorance is reflected in some of the techniques that artists and scientists employ. For scientists, there is the notion of a blind or double-blind analysis, where researchers develop experimental procedures in isolation from the data, to prevent personal biases from influencing experimental outcomes. Similarly, when musicians are asked to interpret a song or a sonata, they often prefer to "let the music speak for itself,” allowing it a kind of intelligence of its own, even if they themselves composed it. . And with visual art, one often finds intuition leading the way, so that the crafting of a physical artifact becomes inseparable from the thinking about it.

In all these cases, the act of creation is partly choreographed and partly improvised. The artists and scientists who work in this way deliberately hold themselves in an imaginative agnostic state in which they oscillate between control and freedom, between working within a system and stepping outside of it to assess the results. And each cycle of this oscillation can itself be viewed as an experiment within an experiment, or perhaps an open-ended creative work in miniature.

The relevance of science to art has been amply demonstrated in recent years by artists who adopt the imagery and techniques of science. As Mark Dion has said, "For me and for a number of artists today, science really functions as our world view.... Our relationship to science is very much like the Renaissance artists' relationship to theology." The reverse question, however, is not often addressed. I believe the relevance of art to science lies in art's ability to productively probe the nature of knowledge without offering concrete answers. As any artist can attest, the meaning of a piece sometimes eludes even its creator. I find that when an artistic undertaking becomes too highly constrained, either by ideology or practical considerations, it grows stiff and incapable of reaching beyond itself. The same applies to science as well; it takes a light touch to keep one's experimental results from being polluted by preconceived notions. In both science and art, the best work, it seems to me, is done in an environment willfully purged of prior knowledge, for the sheer wonder of populating that space with new thoughts and discoveries. And because of the gaps in communication necessarily left in such a work, that wonder is passed on to other consumers and practitioners who, in laboring to close those gaps for themselves, end up opening a whole host of new ones as a result. Thus, a single seminal idea can acquire a life of its own as it flows through this chain of insights, shifting subtly with each step as it propagates outward to infinity.

Werner Sun, Imperfection I, 2014. Mixed media, 24" x 12".