Friday, October 17, 2014

Re: [Yasmin_discussions] The Plight of the Supernatural ...

Hello Yasminers,

I have followed this discussion thread with great interest and want to jump in. The question about whether art-science collaborations contain an element of pseudo-science jumped out at me as did its corollary, does art-science contain an element of pseudo-art. On the former, I suspect yes, but am in less of a position to judge; on the latter, I must answer yes. I've seen it over the years of making and later curating new media art , and even now as I'm teaching a course about culture and technology alongside professors of engineering, business, and music.

In that class, we've been hearing from visiting lecturers and talking a lot about the Maker movement (I know, they're not scientists, but certainly technologists, a parallel collaboration). Some proponents of the Maker phenomenon invoke "art" as what separates them from traditional craftspeople or engineers or tinkerers - but too often that art takes the form of a technology project that includes extra elements of frivolous decor and/or a non-commercial/non-useful function (a giant hydraulic metal octopus that shoots flames into the sky from each tentacle while the head bobs up and down.) So, art=decorative+useless. There may be some merit to this equation, and play can be important in art, but those are not the questions being asked by creations like this; in fact there are few questions being put forward, little critique, and no engagement with or moving forward the discourse of art. We're back to the old idea of art whose primary function is pleasing the senses and the mo!
re the better; spectacle society.

Now this sounds pretty ungenerous, but I'm reacting more to the big claims than to the pieces themselves (which I enjoy.) I've also been re-reading C.P. Snow's paper about the "two cultures" and re-examining by own disciplinary biases. But this brings up an element of the supernatural that hasn't been covered here so much yet; not as false knowledge, but as spectacle. For as many people today who believe in the supernatural (ala religion, etc.) there seem to be an equal number (but not always the same crowd) who produce and enjoy the supernatural in entertainment culture - from Twilight movies to Game of Thrones to video games. These are not pernicious in the same way (by positing falsehoods as truth) but they are in a different way, by providing the circuses part of "bread and circuses." I note that supernatural themed entertainment is much more pervasive now than at other moments in popular culture and I wonder if there is any correlation to be made (stressful times=more !
escapism?) I don't know, but the effect can be said to be a distraction from real, pressing social and environmental issues - which entertainment culture does not always avoid with as much fervor as supernatural escapism does. Again, not to sound overly critical since I enjoy Game of Thrones very much and since the best speculative fiction provides important thought-experiments, but that's not entirely what's going on now.

Of course, none of this is to say that all or even most art-technology-science collaborations are inherently flawed, but an "element"? Sure. To me it speaks more of the continuing effort to overcome the two-cultures problem; the necessity of deep disciplinary knowledge and the necessity of crossing disciplinary boundaries in the great quest.

Richard Rinehart
Samek Art Museum
Bucknell University
Lewisburg, PA, 17837


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