Prometheus Bound; Art, Science, Creativity and the Imagination.

Prometheus Bound will attempt to examine the relationship between the creative arts and more conventional concepts of research and development held within industry and academia. 

The approach will be from a contemporary position, but informed by a historical perspective.  What is interesting is the close historical relationship of ‘creativity’ with research and development.  The current attempts to once again meld these together seem to re-iterate the many historical instances of scientific endeavour manifesting itself as exhibition and (frankly) showmanship.

Edison, Tesla, Franklin and Grey were all electrical experimenters prone to spectacular public demonstrations and performances.  These researchers inhabited a world in which the boundaries between the arts and the sciences were less defined.  Casting even further back in time, the work of anatomy was far more an artistic imperative than a medical or scientific concern until the seventeenth century.

This essay will attempt to tease out the possible mutual benefits of cross-sectorial creative research.  As a counter-point, it will also attempt to differentiate the potentially divergent research motivations and long-term goals defined by collaborating parties.

Why a resurgence of interest now?
Why the interest in creativity and sciences?  Poetics and Techniks are once again being placed in a courtship.  This belies our conventional wisdom, which comfortably isolates creativity within the realm of the arts and supposes the intelligence that circulates within the sciences is fundamentally different (and by that token presumably exclude logic et al from the arts).

Who has the Monopoly on Imagination?
In order to avoid the pitfalls associated with questions concerning the ‘ownership rights’ to creativity it might be useful to adopt a clear position from the outset.

Whilst distribution may on occasion appear unevenly spread, creativity and imagination are ubiquitous, as are ingenuity and wit, they are the commonwealth that drive the cultures of both art and science.

“Science and art are two different approaches that complement each other, and (both) are needed to produce a balanced vision of the world.  They also have much in common.  Science is very much directed by aesthetics and beauty - notions of what fits, economy of means, and ideas of form and order. The same issues surface, in different ways, in art.”

“Science boasts of being objective and value free, while art is concerned with value and human response.”
“These people (Artists) think deeply about issues that also interest scientists but the fact that they are not scientists is what is important, because they bring a different perspective.”

Physicist and science writer David Peat commenting on Art/Science collaborations.

Has it always been thus?
Is there in reality a distinct bifurcation in the minds and methodologies that separate Artists from research scientists?  If so why? and how is it manifest?  If not, why do we persist in supporting artificial boundaries?

Whilst the arts and sciences may both lay equal claim to creativity what differs fundamentally are the historical frameworks within which creativity and intelligence have been trained, applied and focussed.  It is here that the differences and barriers are formed and are, in fact fostered by educational systems, perpetrating a mutual distrust founded upon a lack of familiarity or empathy.

Some interesting insights can be gained by considering the historical aspect of research activity in both the arts and sciences.  Contemporary scientific method, characterised as experimental, impartial, rigorous, repeatable and ruled by logic is as such, a relatively recent phenomena, arising in an ad hoc manner from an amalgam of individual experimenters, enthusiastic amateurs, learned societies and more often than not disseminated by public demonstration and spectacle in a pre-digital form of ‘info-tainment’.

Ironically the parallel research activities within the visual arts can be argued to have occurred at an earlier date, delivering viable and complex tools for communication and visualisation (not to mention expression).  Clear examples are to be found in perspectival systems (a visual system that facilitated the development of both architectural and industrial mechanisms and structures – being partly responsible for the early ascendancy of industrial in the Occident rather than the Orient where perspective was not generally employed).

Again, within the study and representation of anatomy, this was (and to a minor extent still is) the preserve of artists.  Leonardo Da Vinci successfully made wax injection moulds of the brain, and Michelangelo sculpted several muscle studies.  Until the seventeenth century, anatomy was the work of artists rather than anatomists and was the basis for teaching art rather than medicine.  When the two streams converged it was a short step into public entertainment and the popular waxworks, which in a manner served to maintain a popular cultural interest in scientific endeavour.  This admixture of arts and science is amply demonstrated by the current touring exhibition ‘KorpenWelt’ featuring plastinated (real) corpses employing a system perfected by a German scientist who is at pains to model himself upon the late Joseph Beuys!

It is in the contemporary life sciences that the art of showmanship converges from both artistic and scientific fields of endeavour.  Two critters come to mind, ‘Alba’ the rabbit genetically modified by French scientists, to ‘glow’ with fluorescent green genetic material (extracted from Jellyfish) under the direction of Eduardo Kac, and the infamous lab mouse sporting a human ear along its spine, created by Dr Vecanti.  Both might be regarded more as photo-opportunities (or Photoshop opportunities in Alba’s case) than either good art or good science.  Both have been strenuously pushed as image identities, their life as icons far outstripping their organic existence, Alba never escaped the Paris lab whilst Dr Vecanti’s creation unravelled shortly after the photo-shoot, establishing another similarity between art and science – spin!

The Watershed in the Industrialisation of Creativity.
“Genius is one-percent inspiration and ninety-nine-percent perspiration.”

The late nineteenth century marked a watershed in invention.  ‘R&D’ as we understand it today exists primarily within the corporate and state sectors, highly specialised, rigidly systematised, industrially organised – Bell Labs, Xerox Parc, MIT, and Microsoft even!  These monolithic research machines are so commonplace that we tend to overlook their origins.

The Invention of Invention.
It has been remarked that Edison’s greatest invention was the research organisation - but in reality Edison’s stroke of genius was not simply to establish his ‘Invention Factory’ at Menlo Park New Jersey in 1876 (effectively the world’s first research laboratory) but to rapidly couple this creative milieu with the industrial capacity of the factory.  Two other elements were instrumental in Edison’s phenomenal success. 

He possessed an imaginative understanding of the marketplace and sought not only to create entirely new industries (Electric Lighting, Audio Recording and Cinema to name but a few) but effectively planned to control these emerging economies via strict patent controls, which naturally were designed to put Edison’s manufactories in virtual monopoly situations.

Last but certainly not least, was Edison’s keen appreciation of the press.  As a young man he had worked as a telegraph operator sending Associated Press wire reports and had spent a good deal of time in Newspaper offices.  This experience provided Edison with a keen understanding of rapportage and public relations in general.

He used his insider knowledge to good effect when he dramatically announced to a group of New York reporters on September 15th 1878 that: - Firstly, he would within six weeks, solve the seemingly impossible problem of inventing a practical electric light bulb and secondly he planned to create an entirely new industry to provide public electrical power, using hydro power stations at Niagara Falls, to both illuminate America and change the World!

“When I’m through, only the rich will be able to afford candles,”

Such was his reputation that the following day stocks in Gas Lighting companies plummeted and JP Morgan scrambled to invest in Edison’s new electric venture!

Science, Spectacle and Showmanship – a Rogues Gallery.
One for the Money, Two for the Show….

Leonardo Da Vinci
It is well documented that Leonardo Da Vinci was as adept at turning his hand to producing designs for siege engines as he was at making anatomical studies and in the artisanal world of the Renaissance a commission for artwork and one for military hardware probably came from the same purse (plus ça change…).

Ironically, the economics of art, via the mechanisms of patronage and commissioning would seem to be well established long before science was systematically supported financially.

A brief examination of the economically necessary relationship between scientific research and public spectacle may serve to counter-balance rigid contemporary views that assume exhibition and spectacle are the sole province of art, reserving a more sober platform for science.

Jacques de Vaucanson.
Dubbed the ‘New Prometheus’ by both Voltaire and La Mettrie for his exquisite automata, (notably the Flute Player capable of virtuoso performances and a mechanical duck capable of eating and shitting) Vaucanson had a keen sense of high-society spectacle.  Whilst these cybernetic marvels became philosophic icons of the Enlightenment and indeed stimulated serious debate for the hundred years that they were in circulation; they did so in style.  The Flute player was first exhibited at an elegant showroom in central Paris in 1738 – the asking price for entry (three Livres) was equivalent to a worker’s wage for a week.  It was only after turning a substancial daily profit (seventy five visits per day) that the French Academy of Sciences nodded approvingly, and the automata took their place in the first edition of Diderot’s ‘Encycopédie’ (under Anderoïde).

Wolfgang von Kempelen.
Another world famous android example, which toured for decades with various owners, was the ‘Automaton Chess Player’, constructed in 1769 by Wolfgang von Kempelen.  This mechanism caused both a sensation and controversy for many years, a machine that beat many champion players in its time, ‘The Turk’ as it was commonly known, trounced Napoleon and refused to continue playing Catherine the Great when she resorted to cheating!

The debate about the Turk’s intelligence was finally revealed in America – the automaton was a fraud concealing a human chess master, but which also contained some masterful mechanical engineering!

Mary Shelly.
It was a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.  With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet… the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, 1818.

Passing from mechanical life to the nexus between the human body and early electrical research, we encounter a consistent theme that moves from science into the realm of art and fiction and back again.

Ever since Mary Shelly’s precocious novel (she was only 19 at the time of writing) the metaphorical relationship between life and electricity has become standard fare, especially in cinema.  Filmic science-fiction narratives further associate the body as the subject of technology and volunteer the flesh to a process of ‘mineralisation’ and hybridisation.

Electricity was a fundamental Enlightenment research topic and again one played out in a voguish public arena.  The list of experimenters who indulged in public and parlour spectaculars is too lengthy to detail.  The fruit of the early experiments of Galvini, Stephen Gray, Nollert and Benjamin Franklin eventually made their way into popular consciousness.

Duchenne de Boulogne.
The first attempt to systematically represent the physiological response to electricity was pioneered by Duchenne de Boulogne who made lengthy studies of the relationship linking muscular contraction (principally facial) and expressed emotion; via a process, he termed ‘faradism,’ in which electrical stimuli were applied directly to the skin.

Duchenne practiced this technique on both the bodies of his patients and upon still-malleable cadavers. It is noteworthy that he established a comprehensive photographic archive of his Electro-Physiologie Photographique in order to isolate and classify muscular reactions.

Fritz Laing.
‘Metropolis’ provides the template, sadly infrequently matched, for the transformative relationship between body and mechanism; mediated by electricity.  The familiar setting, part medical, part research-laboratory, the subject, frequently restrained, the scientist, usually demented (or perhaps simply mis-understood!).

The switch is thrown and the body is bathed in an electrical aura whilst the soundtrack delivers high voltage arcs.

“Bodies are both Zombies and Cyborgs. We have never had a mind of our own and we often perform involuntarily - conditioned and externally prompted. Ever since we evolved as hominids and developed bipedal locomotion, two limbs became manipulators and we constructed artefacts, instruments and machines. In other words, we have always been coupled with technology. We have always been prosthetic bodies. We fear the involuntary and we are becoming increasingly automated and extended. But we fear what we have always been and what we have already become - Zombies and Cyborgs”.

Stephen Gray.
The juxtaposition of Stelarc’s earlier, fakir-like, body suspension pieces with his later electrode manipulated body-works evoke or perhaps re-play the pioneering electrical research work of Stephen Gray.  In London, on April the 8th 1730, Gray mounted a public demonstration of the electrical properties of the human body.  He suspended an eight year old boy from silken threads, induced a negative charge in his body by applying a positively charged glass rod to his naked feet, with the result that the boys face was ‘gilded’ with flakes of brass leaf, attracted from a receptacle placed below him.

Georg Mathias Bose.
A few years later, the ‘Venus Electrificata’ (or Electric Kiss) had been developed by Georg Mathias Bose as a popular salon entertainment, the willing but unsuspecting guest receiving a startlingly powerful bisou.

Still at the point of fiction, but not beyond irony, the recent Hollywood production ‘SimOne’ represents a human actress playing her digital double.  In this narrative, it is simply the packaging of the animating electricity that has changed.  The crackling high voltage arcs of earlier science fiction are here transformed into a flow of obedient electrons doing binary duties.  In cinema the balance between the real and the virtual is soon to be challenged – in much the same manner as the economics of virtual gaming has recently exceeded global movie revenues.

Edison and Tesla.
For the pièce de résistance, there is a somewhat grisly corollary to Edison’s desire to link technology to the life beyond (the original purpose of the phonograph was to store the voices of departed relatives).  Edison might be best characterised as a pragmatist, an energetic entrepreneur, but not a philosopher.  In effect, he relied upon the remarkable intellect of Nicolai Tesla to solve many of the technological and mathematical problems that were out of his scope.

Tesla was, by contrast, theoretically brilliant but naive in his patent related business dealings (especially those with Edison!).  The two eventually engaged in a gruesome technological duel to establish the format of electrical power generation and supply, as either direct current or alternating current.  Edison’s vested interests lay with DC, whilst, Tesla who was the inventor of AC had sold his AC patent to Westinghouse – Edison’s principal business rival.

A ‘Battle of the Currents’ ensued guided by an Edison engineer Harold Brown.
The Edison Lab. attempted to convince both the scientific community and the general public of the dangers of Tesla’s AC power, by staging a series of public demonstrations in which Edison hooked up large mammals (including horses and an elephant) to AC generators and literally fried them to a cinder.

Tesla (now working for Westinghouse) responded with a series of public demonstrations designed to suggest the safety of AC power.  Tesla would touch one hand to a large AC generator, whilst a large gas filled globe would immediately illuminate in his other hand.  Whilst these displays were spectacular, they were also misleading the un-informed public, as they operated only via static electric effects.

The eventual outcome of this latter-day inquisition was ironic.  As we know alternating current was accepted as the most efficient form of power, but it was partly through the machinations of Edison that the US government adopted the Electric chair as a ‘modern and efficient’ form of capital punishment (Edison’s Lawyer even suggested the ‘Chair’ be named ‘The Westinghouse’).

The New York State “Electrical Execution Law” was passed in 1885 with the first execution taking place in 1890 – by all accounts a horribly botched job, roundly denounced in the national and international press!

The New York financiers, JP Morgan conceded that AC was the power source of the future and forced a merger between Edison General Electric (re-named as General Electric) and Westinghouse who proceeded to build the world’s first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls using Tesla’s patent.  Edison refused to enter the General Electric building for the next thirty years and turned to other things!

“Science is more controversial than art can ever be.”
Cornelia Parker, Artist.

The intention of such a kaleidoscopic romp is to dislodge the stubborn presumptions that most of us hold regarding the boundaries and behaviours of scientists, technologists and artists.  Hopefully, it is apparent that research and creativity can combine in a synergy that is unruly and provocative and above all un-predictable.

The Present and the Renaissance of the Renaissance.
In the contemporary educational context there is a burgeoning interest in developing relationships, motivations and skills that move freely between the established disciplines, we increasingly value the ability to form connective networks – but why are we so interested in these developments now?

It is difficult to imagine that we are collectively entertaining a nostalgic dream of the polymath.  Surely, we all acknowledge that the world is too vast and too complex for a genuine resurgence of omniscience.  However, if these developments are regarded as symptomatic, an object lesson illuminating our current situation, it may be possible to acknowledge that our strategies for science (and by implication the arts) are much too narrowly defined – restrictive to the point of losing touch with larger contexts as a consequence, suffering intellectually, ethically (and probably economically).

It seems that some institutions are taking this all quite literally.  It is reported that the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design is in the process of establishing a ‘Renaissance’ department; call it a wishful (or wilful) spin on a new-media arts unit but this title illuminates current desires vis a vis the convergence of tools and technologies but can the digital realm become the Procrastes bed of all human endeavour?

Babies and Bathwater.
The first iteration of ‘inter-disciplinary’ pedagogy within the Australian tertiary art education sector might be termed problematic and one all too frequently motivated by economic rationalism rather than a lucid understanding of research culture.  Even when motivated by a genuine desire to dissolve the barriers between discipline silos, the net effect was often to literally eradicate the intellectual and physical boundaries of the studio discipline per se (a practical method for emptying problem studio areas from the ‘too-hard’ basket!).

The result - a ‘deskilling’ process, fuelled by a simple (oxy-moronic) oversight that true inter-disciplinarity ipso facto relies upon well-established and sophisticated discipline knowledge.  The real trick is how to overcome the inertia that clings to virtuosity (and/or academic fiefdoms) and to negotiate dynamic relationships capable of hybridising knowledge and practice – in often unpredicted (and un-predictable) ways.

The importance of being different.
As suggested above, the power of collaboration is generated by the creative confluence of difference, rather than by establishing a ‘lowest common denominator’ of similarity.

A second vital condition is that each of the collaborating parties is able and willing to recognise and value mutual difference; and resist assimilating or naturalising it within their own organisation or discipline.  This is especially pertinent when artists are engaged within large corporate or academic research organisations.

It is frequently noted that successful (productive) research situations are difficult to characterise.  The most common receipt for success in ‘Blue-Sky’ research combines the sharpest specialist minds, very loose, or self-structuring parameters (i.e. do what you want) and a convivial environment.  These conditions might also easily describe a good art school – sadly, the word milieu has been little understood as a key to creative research, forgotten under an avalanche of quality-assurance reports!

Edison’s success was largely due to his ability to establish a creative research and development milieu at the Menlo Park ‘Invention Factory’ which placed a strong emphasis on open and shared work methods with social and recreational activities creating a strong ambience of collectivity and loyalty.

Catch 22.
From the age of twelve, Edison gradually lost his hearing.  By the time he had established the Menlo Park Laboratory he was hard of hearing but resisted several suggestions that he invent a hearing aid.  His rationale was that the aural isolation he experienced helped him to be a better creator and a better inventor.

Ironically, Edison’s creation of the (systematised) research organisation was fundamentally antithetical to Edison’s personal working method, which was essentially non–theoretical.  A talented and intuitive ‘Technologist’ but certainly not a theoretically trained scientist or mathematician, his one time collaborator and subsequent rival Tesla would ridicule Edison thus: -

“If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed with the diligence of a bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search”.

Individual reverie is the key issue, a fulcrum – and one that is emphasised by Paul de Marinis, a prominent sound artist and Stanford professor.  De Marinis has a practice that is deeply influenced by and concerned with the archaeology of technology and mirrors the pre-industrial reverie available to the creative individual before the advent of the ‘Fordist’ research techniques pioneered by Edison.

“What’s interesting to me in my own work is the degree to which, within my research process, I can maintain my thoughts observations and perceptions in a unified pre-linguistic blur for a sufficient period to come up with solutions to problems posed by works, that function inter-relatedly and more or less equally in the areas of object, content, history and metaphor.

My experience in collective and collaborative works (many of which have proceeded with synergy & satisfaction) is that many issues, thoughts, curiosities, management strategies, skill sets, and unspoken but pre-visualised outcomes, become articulated early in the process in ways that tend to linearise the definition of the project.  In other words, the participants expound, contradict, haggle, persuade and clarify common purposes in ways that tend to put limits on the collective imagination.

Exceptions to this are systems that use oblique communications or that explicitly decouple the efforts of the participants (like the music for Cunningham “events”) that in ways dissuade communication and clarification but nonetheless encourage simultaneous action.

Thus, by working alone I can sustain a state of wordless thought for months on end, often with favourable results.
Paul De Marinis (private correspondence).

This is very close to the traditional function of the artist’s studio - a place where thoughts are developed in a pre-verbal dialogue with a physical process.  A dynamic evolution, without script or prescribed outcomes that is evaluated in a variety of often, subjective registers.

As such, a mysterious process, which when the planets align can produce remarkable results, it is also still linked in a subterranean manner to the process of invention in scientific research.  As De Marinis hints, it is vital to retain and nurture this powerful internal creative reverie, whilst simultaneously negotiating effective methods for entering into collaborative situations.

It may be a very tall order for tertiary Institution to cultivate, in its graduates, the combination of a robust and independent creative practice with the ability to collaborate and move effectively between disciplines.  As from a cursory glance, the two modes appear to be mutually exclusive.

Unpacking the differences and conjunctions that exist between creativity and research, especially between, creative research and collaborative research, we may discover that there is little or no real opportunity for an artist to undertake ‘research’ (defined in a conventional scientific sense) in a solo mode.  Even were they to persist the individual must inevitably form connections with institutional resources and knowledge bases.  Therefore, to a significant extent all research is a collective occupation.

Collaboration itself, whilst not unheard of as a creative practice, is still an unusual modality for those undertaking tertiary training in the visual arts.  The entire pedagogical structure still follows the age-hallowed stereotype of individual ‘genius’ and the development of a coherent signature style.  Anyone who baulks at this suggestion should dwell for a moment upon the structures of critique and assessment evaluation, most of which cannot tolerate ‘collective creativity’.  Likewise, a cursory glance at the professional (economic) arena within which the visual arts operate will quickly reveal the primitive (almost proto-capitalist) relationships that exist between artist and dealer gallery, the latter having a strong vested interest in the branding rights based upon individual identity.

All this augers poorly for the artist inclined towards a collective manner of creative production.  This turns out to be a double hurdle in fact – as not only, will the tertiary trained artist lack any practical knowledge of research methodology, but will in addition, have little or no experience of collaborative work practice.

Frequently attempts at creative synergy are supplied by agencies other than the tertiary sector.  ZeroOne is a latter-day i.e. post-tech-crash utopian (read West Coast) vision of dynamic coupling between art, science and commerce; and I paraphrase their website: -

Based in Silicon Valley in San Francisco, ‘ZeroOne’s’ vision is to fuel the engine of culture by inspiring innovation and creativity, by bringing artists and technologists together and to build community through the intersection of art and technology.
Their objective is to enliven communities through the empowerment of artists
within sites of technological, capital and technical expertise. Through entrepreneurship collaborations between new media artists and technology firms ZeroOne hopes to build and nourish a cultural and social capital in the United States.

This is a strongly ‘systems building’ approach which recruits the ‘real world’ directly to drive the ‘engine of culture’ rather than the protracted institutionally based ‘dry run’.

At the beginning of this essay the question was posed, why is there such current interest in creativity and research and in collaborations between the arts and the sciences?  With luck it is by now self-evident that a close nexus between the disciplines is more the rule than the exception.  However there may be merit in highlighting some points and cautions in conclusion.

In an increasingly specialised world, there exists a diminishing possibility of establishing a coherent view (a.k.a. the big-picture).  Frames of reference frequently require only a minor re-orientation to provide a substancial benefit and such a shift can result from accepting the ‘difference’ provided by a colleague from another specialisation.

Convergence #1 Digital Tools - convergence of means.
A factor that assists to establishing a common ground between disparate fields of endeavour is the advent of digital technology.  Even if it has not completely levelled the playing field, it has once again put artists and scientists in roughly the same ballpark.  They are using similar tools and concepts to expound their ideas.

It is pertinent to note in this regard the early introduction of computers into music schools which some claim was driven by the manufacturers (and their military clients) who identified the creative environment as the ideal context for testing this emergent technology!

Convergence #2 Real World - convergence of methods.
A second form of convergence can be identified in a discernable shift away from familiar representations of social and aesthetic issues, expressed in conventional artistic media, towards a more direct ‘experiential’ modus operandi that is frequently focussed upon an ideological or ethical concerns.  This may take the form of ‘Activist Art’ that subversively takes on the mantle of political or industrial structure (for example The Critical Art Ensemble) or becomes engaged directly in the methodologies and philosophical concerns of science.  The ‘Tissue Culture and Art Project’ artists within ‘SymbioticA’ at the University of Western Australia is a good example of this approach.  SymbioticA was established as a collaborative art/science laboratory working directly with the materials, concepts and methodologies of biotechnology, whilst at the same time generating a powerful and penetrating critique.

SymbioticA is rightfully cautious about the negative effects of economic rationalism on both Art and Science: -

“I think that art and pure scientific research have a lot in common, and are significantly
different from applied art (sometimes called design) and applied science (sometimes called technology).

Both applied activities (design and technology) are taking over the “purer” activities due to funding structures and economic rationalism”.

And concerning the conjunction of artists with corporate partners….

“This pseudo-creative gloss (not unlike the previous green-gloss) is in many cases only superficial and capitalistically driven.  My advice to artists is to be aware of the role they are supposed to play in these scenarios”.
Oron Catts, Artistic Director, SymbioticA.

In closing it is worthwhile to reiterate the assertion that whilst creativity and imagination, ingenuity and intelligence are common property, the production of brilliant scientists, virtuoso performers and artistic genius without nurturing both, rich webs of interconnectivity and well-developed cultural politics is foolhardy.

© Dr Nigel Llywd William Helyer, Sydney, June 30th 2003.

TAG : Essays

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