Unseen Science and the Failure of the Visual

Alexis L. Boylan, University of Connecticut, alexis.boylan@uconn.edu

It has been lamented that climate change is the most important political, scientific, existential issue of our human moment and the arts are failing to speak to it persuasively or with urgency. While not an inditement of visual arts per se, there has not been a galvanizing visual moment, icon, or style, that has radically shifted popular or political momentum in addressing climate change. Similarly, despite a plethora of visual materials produced globally to explain the seriousness of COVID and the need for safety measures and vaccines, there remains a significant population that not only refuses to believe in prevention measures, but deny that COVID is real or lethal. Technology is often blamed for fostering scientific denial, yet, in thinking about more successful visual campaigns (HIV/AIDS activism and Ebola awareness, for example) technology has been crucial. So how is the visual failing to convince, cajole, activate contemporary scientific crises and truths? How can science be seen in this historical moment?

This session asks if there is a fissure between visuality and science. Countless political, social, religious, and moral movements have situated visuality as fundamental to communicating ideals and urgency. What has shifted about visual strategies or reception? Has something changed in regard to the power of the visual? Or has unseeable-ness always plagued science and visual culture? What case-studies might help unpack how the scientific visual has become/has always been unseen? Is the problem not that there is a fissure but instead that visual success needs to be qualified differently? Is there a way to culturally re-see science? What might alternatives be?

Abstracts & Speakers

The Autonomous Third Element: Asger Jorn’s Theory of Experimental Creativity

Wylie Schwartz (SUNY Cortland)

In the two decades leading up to the Second World War, a central issue preoccupying certain artists was the extent to which the term ‘experimental’ becomes intertwined with the prewar bureaucratization of science, which occurred at the precise moment when scientific research is mobilized as a vital national security issue. Amidst this context of the shifting language of wartime techno- science, in 1952 the Danish painter Asger Jorn moves to a tiny Italian fishing village and establishes the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (or IMIB) – where he articulates a model of experimental creativity that conjoins artistic experimentation with scientific research. This paper considers Jorn’s critique in relation to what Jürgen Habermas would later identify as a critical concern when contemplating the relationship between modern science and the role it played in shaping the public sphere. Looking closer at this fascinating moment in Jorn’s career, this paper addresses what I identify as a critical gap in the literature by focusing on experimentation, a term that has been neglected in previous historical accounts but, as I argue, is paramount in understanding the legacy of avant-garde artistic practice.

Forms Emerging Out of Deep Darkness”: The Mine and British Abstraction

Tobah Joy Aukland-Peck (The Graduate Center of the City University of New York)

In mid-twentieth-century Britain, the strange subterranean darkness of the mine challenged representation. To imagine the human worker laboring inside this uncanny subversion of the visible landscape was to confront the uncomfortable origins of everyday substances like coal, oil, stone, and metal. Yet, this paper argues, artists were drawn to mining subjects precisely because they undermined artistic conventions. Though abstraction privileged natural form over the social context of the mine, a material focus maintained the markers of the fossil economy and the brutality of extraction on the picture plane. However, these images abstracted the body of the miner to a degree that severed the connection between the worker and the image. I argue that the collapse between miner and material in the visual arts was a symptom of the contradiction in the national attitude towards coal mining communities, whose labor products were vital to the national economy but whose living and working conditions remained largely invisible.

Diagrams in Art, Celebrating the Failure of the Inexpressive Image

Michael Whittle (Hong Kong Baptist University)

As a diagram researcher with a dual background in biochemistry and fine art, this paper examines diagram-based drawings from my own artistic practice that reflect upon the balance between the success and failure of scientific and mathematical diagrams to depict authoritative truths about the world. I propose that once positioned in a fine art context, these so-called inexpressive images take on new qualities and act in ways unintended by their creators. As art objects, the human narrative behind a diagrams creation and use becomes significant, and its philosophical status called in to question. In what ways do diagrams produce the reality they merely purport to describe? How do readers or users of diagrams project their own ideas and intentions on to these images? How can we call in to account the underlying data of diagrams that exist at the very limits of what can be studied, measured, depicted or imagined?

The Lie of the Eye: Op Art Between Truth and Politics

Lindsay Caplan (Brown University) 

We find ourselves at a moment when the critical practice of questioning truth has been hijacked by opportunist reactionaries, even as the eruption of ecological and epidemiological crises make the persistence of this post-truth condition ever more absurd. Our ability to share in the perception and understanding of a common world is simultaneously being cast into doubt and becoming increasingly necessary. This paper seeks to tackle this double-bind—the existence of a shared material reality and the undeniable variability of perception—by examining the polarized reception of Op Art in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. Op constitutes a limit case in understandings of the relationship between an art premised on truth and an art premised on politics. Looking at contemporaneous debates about critical and positivist science, as well as analogous “flickers” in structuralist film and cybernetics, it will argue that Op evinces a crisis of legitimation for critical art that continues to structure our conception of art’s social significance today.

Invisible materials and non-physical bodies

Jack Smurthwaite (Independent Scholar)

What is the relationship between visuality and materiality? This paper reframes the impetus of the session by questioning not the role of the visual in the space between art, public engagement, and science, but a renewed and evolving understanding of material and materiality. A thinking of material that is removed from the physical, and therefore can be seen or visualized, is of the utmost importance in conversations across academic fields, including the science and philosophy. Our understanding of what can be visualized, then, is predicated on a frame of reference that prioritized the visible (and that which can be made visible) as the real; however, this has changed. Within our current time, and with shifting understandings of material that can legitimately be non- physical and ‘invisible’, we no longer need to visualize something in order to render it intelligible or feel its effects. I would like to use this paper as platform to question how the rift between the non- physical and the visual and be better understood.



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