Report from the Opening of “Intimate Science”
“Intimate Science,” the exhibition that I curated as part of my Warhol Curatorial Fellowship, opened on Friday, January 20, 2012 at Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, the campus gallery expertly run by Astria Suparak. Several hundred people turned out (during a snow storm) to see the work of BCL, Center for PostNatural History, Markus Kayser, Allison Kudla, Machine Project, and Philip Ross. The crowd was a mix of artists, architects, technologists, and mycologists– the latter thanks to the abundant examples of reishi sculpture and architecture by Phil Ross and a reception sponsorship from the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club. Both Phil and Allison gave talks the day before; Phil talked about the possibilities for mushrooms as building materials, batteries, and a substitute for petroleum based plastics. Allison talked about how her time living in Bangalore coincided with her research into algorithms embedded in living systems; one example of this is the “Eden Growth Pattern,” a surface fractal found in both urban sprawl and bacterial growth, and in Allison’s work on view, Capacity for (urban eden, human error).
The day after the exhibit, Mark Allen of Machine Project presented a three-part workshop titled, “Mind reading for the left and right brain.” In part 1, participants learned to solder in the process of building a personal galvanic skin response meter (aka a lie detector); in part 2, they developed their “intuitive” abilities with psychics Krystal Krunch, Asher Hartman and Haruko Tanaka; and in part 3, they learned to operate and perform with a simple audio looping device called an Earbee, designed by Sara Roberts. The video below gets at the mind-altering group experience of this full day workshop.
On Friday night, we got a sneak preview of the soon-to-open Center for PostNatural History storefront in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Rich Pell walked us through the darkened hallways of the center, which had the atmosphere of a Victorian sex parlour meets natural history museum.
Ultimately, “Intimate Science” looks at artist-initiated research in a scientific or technological area, and notes the dramatic shift from artists operating on the periphery of research to conducting research themselves. The artists in the exhibit have a sustained and intimate relationship to their studies (for example, in Phil Ross’ case, he has been working with ganoderma lucidum or reishi mushrooms both in the field and in his studio lab for 16 years), and contribute in a meaningful way to cross-disciplinary discourse. I first heard the term “Intimate Science” used by Roger Malina, astrophysicist and editor of MIT’s Leonardo (a 40 year-old peer-reviewed academic journal on the application of contemporary science and technology to the arts). Malina suggests that this type of practice parallels Mode 2 Science, which emerged in the latter part of the 20th Century: a type of scientific knowledge production that is interdisciplinary, problem-focused and context-driven, responsive to the social environment, and interactive (involves non-specialists). Social practice and artistic research operate under the same principals. And when artists become scientists, the lines of inquiry pursued become quite expansive.
Read the Intimate Science introductory text below.
The most recent manifestation of artists working at the intersection of art, science and technology demonstrates a distinctly autodidactic, heuristic approach to understanding the physical and natural world. Intimate Science features artists who are engaged in non-disciplinary inquiry; they aren’t allied to the customs of any single field, and therefore have license to reach beyond conventions. This kind of practice hinges on up-close observation, experiential learning, and inventing new ways for the public to participate in the process. And through their engagement with “intimate science,” a more knowledgeable public might well be able to influence what research is supported and adopted by the larger culture, and the walls of science can become more transparent.
For four months in the fall of 2010, I worked at a cozy desk in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon as a research fellow hosted jointly by the Miller Gallery and the STUDIO. On a daily basis, students, faculty and visiting artists would stop by my front row seat at this frenetic concourse of technoscience dispatches.
While my initial line of inquiry was artists embedded in scientific or industrial environments in the 1960s, I began to uncover a new narrative — a tactile shift in discourse and practice between that moment and this one. While artists two generations ago were dependent on access to technicians, labs, computer time or manufacturers to realize works of scientific or technological complexity, those I was presently meeting had far greater agency to conduct this kind of work themselves. Even ambitious endeavors such as independent biological experiments, materials research and micromanufacturing can be conducted by today’s working artist — and not at a naive or removed distance.
Roger Malina, physicist, astronomer and executive editor of Leonardo, a leading journal for readers interested in the application of contemporary science and technology to the arts, describes this direction as “intimate science.” He writes:
“In an interesting new development in the art world, a generation of artists [is] now collecting data about their world using technological instruments but for cultural purposes. Shared tool-using leads to overlapping epistemologies and ontologies. These artists both make powerful art and help make science intimate, sensual, intuitive.”
And unlike the rare “Leonardo” polymath of the Renaissance, contemporary artists who operate across disciplines employ the expertise of the network: the network, not the individual, is encyclopedic. The Internet has provided unprecedented access to shared knowledge assets, materials, fabrication processes, microfunding, and audiences. This exhibit examines how networked communication and open source culture have contributed to this shift from artists aiding science to doing science, and the impact this imparts on the way scientific knowledge is acquired, utilized and disseminated.
In Common Flowers/Flower Commons (2009), BCL (Georg Tremmel + Shiho Fukuhara) bio-hacks Suntory’s genetically-modified “Moondust™” cut flowers — carnations bio-engineered to have a blueish purple petal color — back into living plants with the intention of creating an “open source” population of these flowers.
Center for PostNatural History (Pittsburgh) is a project spearheaded in 2008 by Rich Pell with the objective to advance “knowledge relating to the complex interplay between culture, nature, and biotechnology.” It is a singular natural history museum that is concerned with “PostNatural” varieties of life normally excluded from scientific taxonomy, i.e., transgenic organisms that have been altered by humankind via selective breeding, genetic engineering, or other methods of biological tampering.
Markus Kayser (London) takes notions of sustainable micromanufacturing to the extreme through projects like his Solar Sinter (2011), which combines a custom-made 3D printer with solar power to transform sand, on site in the Sahara, into glass forms, and Sun Cutter (2010), a low tech ‘laser cutter’ that makes objects by focusing sunlight into a beam powerful enough to cut through plywood.
Allison Kudla (Seattle) combines computer fabrication technologies and plant tissue culturing to make living installations. InCapacity for (urban eden, human error) (2009) she uses a custom-built computer controlled four-axis positioning table to “print” seeds and algae into a delicate architectural pattern, which she describes as biological material in collaboration with an engineering mechanism.
Machine Project (Los Angeles) is a “not-for-profit arts organization and community event space dedicated to making specialized knowledge and technology accessible to artists and the general public.” Machine describes its terrain as encompassing “art, technology, natural history, science, music, literature, and food,” and more. Machine’s style of presenting promotes hands-on engagement and engineers atypical collisions between different branches of knowledge.
Philip Ross (San Francisco) works in the realm of “biotechniques.” He makes sculptural and architectural works from plants and fungi, and videos about micro-organisms. His “mycotecture” series is an experiment using reishi mushrooms as a sustainable construction material. He is also the facilitator of DIY biology events via CRITTER — a salon he founded for the natural sciences.
Andrea Grover was the 2010 Andy Warhol Foundation Curatorial Research Fellow at Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery and STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.
A densely illustrated publication, New Art/Science Affinities (2011), accompanies the exhibition. Co-authored by Grover, Régine Debatty, Claire Evans and Pablo Garcia, and designed by Thumb, the book features more than 60 international artists and collaboratives.