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Adventure to the stars…telling tales of science and art

The night…was always an enigmatic book of which certain people – as always happens – proclaimed themselves to be the licensed interpreters. They transformed this vault of truth into a simulacrum, an illusion. Being distrustful of those who persistently deceived us, we developed the habit of also distrusting the night, which enshrouded us, or so we thought, in gloom and illusion. We put our faith in light alone. Please, Mr. Einstein, Jean-Claude Carriere.[1]
I'm inclined to think that most if not all of the difficulties that have in the past puzzled and deceived philosophers and blocked the way to knowledge are entirely of our own making. We have first raised a dust, and then we complain that we can't see. The Principals of human understanding, George Berkeley.[2]

Ryan Gander: A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, 2008
Ryan Gander: A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, 2008; photo Andy Keate; courtesy the artist

This year, 2009, is being celebrated worldwide as The International Year of Astronomy, under the theme The Universe, yours to discover. The President of the International Astronomical Union, Catherine Cesarsky, in her welcome address on the official website, explains that 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of the first astronomical observation through a telescope by Galileo Galilei, saying: "It will be a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture, with a strong emphasis on education, public engagement and the involvement of young people, with events at national, regional and global levels throughout the whole of 2009." Cesarsky acknowledges astronomy to be one of the world's "oldest fundamental sciences" which has impacted profoundly on world culture, and which is "a powerful expression of the human intellect." [3] Astronomy, there is no doubt, has fuelled the imaginations of many individuals, since ever the human being cast her eyes heavenward, taking in the light of the cosmos. Astronomy, and specifically science in general, methodologically speaking, is based largely upon making observations, summarizing those observations, setting up experiments to test those observations and consequently interpreting the perceived outcomes of those experiments, with a view to claiming those summarized observations (aka hypotheses) to be true or false. Traditionally speaking at least. This is according to scientist Paul Grobstein, who articulates another approach to the methodology of science, and it is one based firmly on revising how science is itself articulated. Grobstein proposes developing "a story of science as story" in an effort to "encourage the same kind of critical evaluation of our understanding of science that science itself promotes in its examination of other phenomena"; not a philosophy of science exactly, but perhaps a meta-science. Telling the story of science as story is a fairly vague notion – what does that mean exactly? Grobstein argues that:

Science has the potential to be what we all collectively need as we evolve into a world wide community: a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth, an evolution in which all human beings are involved and take pride. For this to happen, we all need to work much harder to not only reduce the perception of science as a specialized and isolated activity of the few, but to make it in fact the product and property of all human beings. [4]

What Grobstein promotes is dissolution of the perception that science is an exclusive field, which often has been overly conflated with the field of mathematics. Science has historically been set up as a specialist and exclusive discipline, as have most academic disciplines. Grobstein believes that through the science as story approach this misnomer perception of exclusivity will dissolve, and in so doing, will invite more participants, more contributors to the field of science, thereby increasing the possibility of becoming "progressively less wrong" in forming accurate, yet mutable, understandings of the universe and our place in relation to it and each other. As opposed to the traditional methodology of science: hypotheses – experiment – conclusion (true or false), Grobstein operates an expanded methodology, which incorporates subjectivity, in a (presumably) critical manner (see below right, in a figure taken from Grobstein's article):

figure 1: schematic illustration showing more traditional (left) and more contemporary (right) ways of describing the "scientific method" (Grobstein, 2005a)

Hypothesis, Grobstein argues, is effectively a ''summary of observations' which leads to new observations through the experimentation process ("An experiment," Grobstein explains, "is nothing more [and nothing less] than the making of a new observation to see whether it matches predictions made by the previously existing summary; in short, skepticism is a requirement of the scientific method.) and from these 'new observations' come further 'implications', from which one can infer whether or not the summary observations still hold true, or whether they need replacement. If a contradiction/ paradox/ problem seems implied then one must pursue a revision of the 'summary of observations' through what Grobstein calls "the Crack." This pursuit and exploration is (or should be, in Grobstein's view) undertaken with a consciousness of the cultural background, personal temperament, and individual creativity of the inquirer. In this conception, the scientist has turned, again, explorer, treading back over old ground into uncharted territory, so to speak, and the story of that exploration, however abstractly put, narrates a story of adventure and peradventure. Not that the scientist wasn't always necessarily exploring and observing, but in the story of science past, the exploration process was left out of the methodology, whereas in Grobstein's schema, the adventure begins at the end so to speak…or at least, the adventure never ends (or begins for that matter)… as Grobstein says: " There is no conclusion in science; it is a continual and recursive process of story testing."[5] (emphasis added)

Experimental storytelling…

"Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world," said Einstein, as if to torment his predecessors and rob Newton of his Laws.[6] It seems to me that the explorations of science, despite perhaps their efforts not to be, are full of mystery, revealing more and more the infinite complexity of the Universe, and less and less any unified theory of life, the universe and everything. The 'stories' of the universe told by science are certainly multifaceted; complex in their narrative, neither continuous nor discontinuous, and told, relatively speaking, by a very small number of individuals who form the scientific community. What Grobstein seems to be suggesting, in a way, is that all humans have the potential to be scientists (a Beuysian echo?)…It's simply a matter of summarizing your observations, making new observations through experiments, interpreting their implications and relating them back, through a kind of critical subjectivity, to the summary in an ongoing adventure of discovery. The more of human kind that gets involved in this adventure, Grobstein suggests, the deeper and wider our understanding of the universe and our place in it could be, regardless of whether the experience of discovery ever ends. "There is always more than one possible summary/ story that will fit any given set of observations. And so there is always a choice (conscious or unconscious) to further pursue one or another way of several alternative ways of making sense of the world,"[7] Grobstein suggests. Rather like a 'choose your own ending' storybook, except of course here it's more a case of 'choose your own trajectory'. Reading through Grobstein's paper, it is not long before one begins to align his attitude and methodology within the unfolding story of contemporary art. In the 'Introduction' to their book Exhibition experiments (2007), Paul Basu and Sharon MacDonald trace a lineage between the break in the 1660s with 'Aristotelian epistemologies', and the beginning of the 'age of science', and developments in exhibition practices and contemporary art practices. The New Academicians of the seventeenth century, armed with the motto nullius in verba – 'on the word of no man', made a commitment to establishing truths through experiments.[8] The word 'experiment', meaning 'from trying', became synonymous with scientific method. Basu and MacDonald reveal that experiment is often regarded as a "knowledge generating procedure," "the creation of phenomena" and the "systematic production of novelty." They quote Bruno Latour as saying that "experiment can be seen as a transformative process – for the people as well as the materials involved," and they illustrate this by saying that "the experimenter is transformed by the experiment into an expert." The authors draw comparisons between the experiment and the exhibition, revealing an argument that "the purpose of scientific apparatus is 'to make visible the invisible' – in other words, to exhibit, to 'hold out', to display"; and they make the connection to the seventeenth-century figure of Robert Hooke, who was appointed the Royal Society's first curator of experiments. (The word 'curator' was, they note, first used around this time to refer to an officer in charge of a museum collection.) Thus, Basu and MacDonald drawtogether their 'summary of observations' wherein the exhibition is "conceived as a kind of laboratory, in which, to use the language of actor Network theory (Law and Hassard, 1999), various 'actants' (visitors, curators, objects, technologies, institutional and architectural spaces, and so forth) are brought into relation with each other with no sure sense of what the result will be."[9] For Basu and MacDonald, and the other contributors to the book, contemporary exhibition practices "cannot be conceived merely as means for the display and dissemination of already existing, preformulated knowledge (the scientific model rejected by the scientific experimentalists)," but that instead the contemporary exhibition should be understood as "an experimental practice" which is a site for "the generation rather than reproduction of knowledge and experience."

The exhibition, Basu and MacDonald explain, is a site where 'experiments in meaning making' can take place, but also a site where transparency of method is central. The authors acknowledge also a 'performative turn' in exhibition practice, where the site of representation becomes usurped almost by "a medium for 'enactment'":

Rather than making complex realities more vividly simple, patronizing audiences and perpetuating illusory securities, the issue has more often been how to engage with complexity, how to create a context that will open a space for conversation and debate, above all how to enlist audiences as co-experimenters, willing to try for themselves.[10]

This conviction seems to echo that of Grobstein's call for science as story, and story as meaning-making. Visitors to exhibition environments, Basu and MacDonald believe, "must play an active role as navigators, way-finders and meaning makers; drawing their own observations and conclusions without the reassuring presence of an 'authority' to defer to."

Cosmic annihilator + other systems…

Allow me to introduce a story of my own…Not so very long ago, one cold winter's evening, I strolled down North Brunswick Street and onto the lower Grangegorman Road, and, meeting there the large, faded-red metal doors, I pounded upon them, softly beating out a long dull ringing. When that didn't elicit any response, I took out my phone, and fumbling through my mittens, dialed the number to stir the individual inside whose attention I was after.  Access was granted at last, and in from one cold to another, I was warmly welcomed. Cups of tea were quickly made, and in no time the pair of us were comfortable, he in a rocking chair and I on a swivel chair, and both of us pulled, as close as is polite, around the small oil heater, doing its best. We begin to talk: I say that I am interested in his work because I think it relates to something mysterious, something that could lead one beyond the apparent rigidity of the world, of how one thinks about it and one's place in it; something that could loosen possibility, perhaps; a kind of feeling that relates to what it's like when one manages to lever open the lid of a paint can that has lain untouched in a shed for decades, only to find a usable pigment inside. But really, I don't say all of this. I simply say that I am interested, and that I can't quite articulate why, and graciously, the artist takes over, and tells me about his work, despite the aimlessness of my approach…

Mark Cullen, Bellows composite, 2004, from Cosmic annihilator, photo Alex McCullagh, composite the artist, courtesy the artist

Mark Cullen has been, for some time now, on an adventure into the cosmos, the big black anti-matter surrounding all the little white dots of E=MC2. Cosmic annihilator was an immersive installation which took place in Pallas Heights, a handful of abandoned apartments within a social housing, low-rise tower block, which Dublin City Council donated to Mark Cullen and Brian Duggan, both founders of Pallas Studios and most recently of Pallas Contemporary Projects. Pallas Heights was established in 2003 as a "temporary solution to the steady trend of diminishing creative space for artists" within Dublin City.[11] In her essay 'Ready-made darkness: notes on Cosmic annihilator', which accompanies the retrospective publication Cosmic annihilator + other systems (2005), Sarah Pierce references Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's experiment in vision.

This experiment required that an observer, enclosed in a darkened room, would look for a short time at a small hole through which light is intensely shining. The hole is then closed, and the observer is required to look to the darkest corner of the room. Goethe describes that:

… A circular image will now be seen to float before him. The middle of the circle will appear bright, colourless, or somewhat yellow, but the border will appear red…No sooner, however is the whole circle red than the edge begins to be blue, and the blue gradually encroaches inwards on the red.[12

Pierce uses this reference to illuminate the idea that "Without light there is vision. There is colour and depth,"introducing, through Goethe's experiment, the "notion of subjectivity, where what is seen is not directly observable in the room." Thus, Pierce acknowledges the importance of the "subjective vision of an observer" within Cullen's work, and infers the observations of the scientist; to "make the invisible visible." "Throughout Cosmic Annihilator," Pierce says,

Cullen directs his observer through periods of extreme darkness, preceded by moments of intense light. This action begins from the moment visitors step into the flat from outside. Playing with the eye's inability to adjust quickly after exposure to light, Cullen shrouds the flat's entryway with black curtains that close-off the space to the outside. This causes immediate disorientation. The impulse is to move forward, to seek light and recover one's vision. In doing so we move deeper into the flat. [13]

The absolute darkness of the space which Cullen creates, preceded, as Pierce describes, by momentary intense light, could indeed be interpreted as a metaphor for human kinds great quest for absolute knowledge; the moments of illumination followed by a consuming darkness, as new observations give way to fresh skepticism. Within the publication is also printed a copy of an excerpt from The Sun newspaper, dated 7 February 2003. The article's headline reads "The New Blackest shade is 25 times darker" and opens with the lines "Scientists have created a new black which is blacker than the blackest existing black," referring to the development of Super Black for use in optical apparatuses in the study of astronomy. The phrasing of the article plays up the tautology of creating a 'black that is blacker than black', but nonetheless, the simplicity of the explanation only veils its expansive implications for astronomy: "The darkness of black is measured by how much light it absorbs. Super Black retains more than any other and is therefore the least reflective surface on Earth."[14] In Cullen's work, the use of darkened spaces is important. He tells me that in his installations he makes attempts to engage the observer, "altering people's general perception of how they're going to experience an art work…I've used a lot of darkened-down spaces, making corridors, so there's a sense of channeling…into a new experience, or a new frame of reference."[15] In his installations, he attempts to suspend observers' expectations so that

they can attune more to perceive and experience, and imagine. For Cullen, it is important to take time, to allow the time for the light from the distant stars to reach the eye and the mind, to 'slow down experience' so that the work is revealed, and emerges through experience rather than through rough representation. Cullen's most recent work engages with astronomy in a very direct way, he having spent time in Argentina observing the constellations in the relative comfort of a 60 km light-exclusion zone. His residency there was spent observing the constellations, meticulously transcribing their locations from the heavens to paper. The paintings developed from these observations formed something like a daily practice for Cullen, subsequently resulting in his most recent installation at G126 in Galway, BlackFlash. The work seems to fuse observation with imagination, leading Cullen to develop science-fiction-like trajectories, both through the individual paintings and through their installation within the gallery space. Cullen tells me that " a lot of the work is about working out, in a way, your place imaginatively in relationship to the world,"[16] a world in a constant state of flux. Grobstein argues that "Science is not about change in general, but about a particular kind of change, the kind of change that results from making observations, cataloguing them in a way that makes them publicly available, creating individual and collective stories about those observations, and then using the stories to motivate the collection of more observations, that in turn alter both the stories and the way they are told." [17]

Mark Cullen: CASLEO, oil on board, 30 x 30 cm, courtesy the artist

Mark Cullen: Cosmic annihilator, 2004, installation shot (detail); courtesy the artist

Storytelling or just loose associations…

The room on the other side of the door was in darkness and smelt musty and damp. When Erno closed the door behind them, the room was in complete darkness, at which point Tom began to get a bit frightened. He didn't like the dark at the best of times, and it was so dark in here that he couldn't even see his own hand in front of his face. Then with the flick of a switch hundreds of bright neon strip-lights slowly began to flicker and flash high above their heads. At first just one or two lit up, then as time passed more and more came to life. Tom covered his eyes with his hands. It was hard to see because everything was so bright after staring into the darkness for so long.[18]

Excerpt from The Boy who always looked up, by Ryan Gander

A couple of summers ago, I went to visit Ryan Gander in his studio in London, to ask him about his TV script Appendix appendix, which I was hoping to write a part of my thesis on. I had been exploring scripts and the use of scripts within contemporary art practices and discourse in general, but that's another story. It was a terrible interview by journalistic, or even academic, standards, I'm sure – I had only vague notions and expanding theories, and nothing succinct and simple really lined up to ask him. (It was my first interview, after all.) However, we had an interesting conversation, which he kindly recorded on his computer for me, as neither of us was really convinced that my Dad's old Dictaphone was going to pull through. Appendix appendix is a TV script, as yet unproduced, as far as I know, and a further translation of Gander's practice as was its predecessor Appendix, both made in collaboration with designer Stuart Bailey. The television script is certainly one of the most involved pieces of text I have yet read, and it is not that it is illegible, it simply requires that one takes their time with it; articulates all the parts in one's mind, has a good think about what is being said, how it is described, the order that it unfolds in…put simply, the basic requirement of the reader is to slow down the text, to think about it, and try to imagine it, effectively taking on the role of TV producer and director – the TV programme thereby comes to life in your head rather than on any TV screen, that I'm aware of at least. One thing I do remember Ryan Gander saying in that interview was "Everything does connect…everything can connect… it's a way of thinking."[19] I was reminded of this utterance as I explored The Flight of the dodo exhibition held at The Project during the summer, curated by Jonathan Carroll and Tessa Giblin.[20] It was that exhibition which started me thinking back over Gander's work, and which compelled me to explore some aspects of the nexus of ideas therein: received 'knowledge' vs observation and experiment; the nature of the exhibition and museum and its colonial genealogy; those early adventures through books and stories of conquest and discovery; the nature of space and time and the universe, and our place in it; thoughts of extinction and demise.

Early in 2008, Gander's Heralded as the new black installation was held at the IKON Gallery in Birmingham.[21] His work within the installation slipped in and out of institutional dependence, as in the case of the white Adidas tracksuits, which the invigilators were required to wear. These uniforms, seemingly innocuous, make certain demands of the viewer, of bringing their own subjectivity to the interpretation of their meaning. Embroidered onto each of the tracksuits is a 'splash of red', and it is this signifier which has the potential to trigger in the observer a thought experiment (stimulating a kind of forensics/ storytelling), raising questions of 'how things come into being' and challenging the viewer to reconsider, perhaps, the apparent stasis of the exhibition space. Gander's work sets up a space wherein the viewer must become observer, and prepare to take time to engage with the works, to slow down and let thoughts form a nexus of 'loose associations'. Basu and MacDonald write: "Experimentalism is not just a matter of style or novel forms of presentation. Rather it is a risky process of assembling people and things with the intention of producing differences that make a difference. In their production of something new, experiments seek to unsettle accepted knowledge."[22] Discussing his art in a short video on the IKON website, Gander postulates: "We have cinema and we have decoration, so art doesn't need to be entertainment and it doesn't need to be decorative. But we don't have something that discusses really complicated relationships that are in the world and we see all the time around us, if we look hard enough, so art has a good place, or a good reason to exist…"[23] Currently participating in Life on Mars at the 55th Carnegie International, Gander's most recent work presents the visitor with 100 crystal balls, dispersed throughout the gallery space, in apparent random order. The piece is titled A piece of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and onto the floor. Inside each of the crystal balls is etched the image of a piece of paper, as if in suspension, paused at the moment of its drifting away. In much of Gander's work, there seems to be a quiet attention drawn to the moment where routine, quotidian narratives diverge. By freezing a representation of that piece of paper slipping from his table, just at the moment when the artist was about to draw upon it, Gander puts a macro lens upon that fragment of space-time, highlighting perhaps that it is just at those moments when everything seems to be slipping away that the greatest possibilities exist. But of course, this is my interpretation, a part of my larger story, which conflates the methodologies espoused by Grobstein and other scientists with the adventures of artists, within the fragmented narratives of the contemporary art exhibition, where the viewer is encouraged to turn observer.

Believing the story…or not?

Walter Benjamin observed that post World War I, there seemed to be a silencing of "the securest among our possessions," which he deemed to be "the ability to exchange experiences." "The Storyteller," wrote Benjamin, "takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale."[24] The scientist Paul Grobstein argues that there is a need to tell the story of science as story, and in this way activate and encourage a promotion of science's methodologies in a more accurate way, stimulating observation and thought. Science, Grobstein believes, can best contribute to culture "by providing stories that may increase (but never guarantee) human well-being, by serving as a supportive nexus for human storytelling in general, and, finally, by exemplifying as an available alternative for all humans in their own storytelling its most characteristic value: a commitment to skepticism and a resulting open-ended and continuing exploration of what might yet be."[25] The kind of storytelling which Grobstein is promoting may indeed be characterized as a scientific methodology, but it resonates far beyond that discipline alone, and this is evident, I feel, very much in the contemporary stories of exhibition and art practice, of both Mark Cullen and Ryan Gander, and within such curatorial practices as that of Project in Dublin. Grobstein  acknowledges that no theory can, or should, claim to be "the view from no where" as early scientists did, in their quest for pure objectivity. "Science," Grobstein argues, "is much better off aspiring to the view from everywhere, to stories that make most sense of the widest array of observations and stories made from unique and different perspectives."[26] The questions this raises are many, and it is perhaps here that the experiments of artists and exhibitions become relevant to this scientific hypothesis. After all, it is perhaps artists, curators, writers, and cultural practitioners (to borrow a phrase) who enter into the privilege and responsibility of one kind of storytelling in our time. Then again, as IYA2009 confidently declares, experience, adventure and discovery are within the reach of all – The Universe, yours to discover.

[1] Jean-Claude Carrière, Please, Mr. Einstein, Harvill Secker, London, 2006, p 53

[2] George Berkeley, The Principles of human knowledge and three dialogues, Howard Robinson, Oxford University Press, 1996

[3] www.astronomy2009.org/general/about/welcome/

[4] Paul Grobstein, 'Revisiting science in culture: science as story telling and story revising', Journal of research practice, Vol 1, Issue 1, p 2

[5] Grobstein, op cit, pp 3-7

[6] Grobstein, op cit, p 7

[7] ibid

[8] Paul Basu and Sharon MacDonald (eds) 'Experiments in exhibition, ethnography, art and science', Exhibition experiments, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007, pp 1-22

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] Mark Cullen and Brian Duggan, Pallas Heights 2003 – 2006 , www.pallasprojects.org/publication/publications.htm

[12] Sarah Pierce, 'Ready made darkness: notes on Cosmic Annihilator', in Mark Cullen (ed), cosmic annihilator + other systems, 2005

[13] ibid

[14] 'Super Black' – reproduction of article from The Sun, in Cullen (ed), op cit

[15] Jessica Foley, 'Audio transcription of interview with the artist Mark Cullen, Dec 2008'

[16] ibid

[17] Grobstein, op cit, p 13

[18] Ryan Gander, Appendix appendix, excerpt from The Boy who always looked up, Christopher Keller Editions, 2007, p 53

[19] Jessica Foley, 'Audio transcription from an interview with the artist Ryan Gander', July 2007

[20] www.projectartscentre.ie/index.php?option=com_contentandview=articleandid=182:the-flight-of-thedodoandcatid=15:archivevisual-artsandItemid=27

[21] www.ikon-gallery.co.uk

[22] Basu and MacDonald, op cit

[23] www.ikon-gallery.co.uk/programme/past/gallery/201/heralded_as_the_new_black/

[24] Walter Benjamin, 'The Storyteller', in Illuminations, Pimlico, London, 1999, pp 86–87

[25] Grobstein, op cit, p 14

[26] ibid

Jessica Foley is a writer, teacher and artist, currently based in Dublin.

Article reproduced from Circa 127, Spring 2009, pp 22 - 29


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