Saturday, May 20, 2017

[Yasmin_discussions] Time for a Substantive Debate on the Language of Art-Science


The recent exchange in a post titled "Re: [Yasmin_discussions] art*science 2017 - The New and History" suggests asking questions that no one seems prepared to raise here. I find myself puzzled by the fact that no one questions questionable propositions, or the claims that seem to support them.

One recent post calls for a responsible debate of the kind we don't see often enough in art-science. I'm going to raise a few issues that I think require such a debate.

May I ask precisely why it is that we want to "get sciences out of laboratories?

This kind of narrative seems to assume that nothing useful happens in laboratories.


> A sincere alliance between arts, sciences and technologies would seem a
> great, positive solution to this kind of question. Going beyond current
> approaches towards arts and science collaborations and promoting art as a
> platform to get sciences out of laboratories and into crowded, narrow
> streets, with smell of spices, kids running lively with creativity, elderly
> sitting in chairs outside, transgressive traders conspiring in whispers,
> robots carrying some inscrutable package along the road, shops like holes
> in walls along the market hyperconnected to resources around the globe to
> enact trade, professionals eating under roasted seafood under umbrella
> kiosks, served by bots driven by artificial intelligences, and asking them
> professional advice and tasks, while they cook.


If we expect scientists to engage with artists in a serious and responsible way, artists must credit scientists with some level of serious engagement in the world.

Where are these robots to come from? Can we assume that the post-modern language of "transgression" is going to solve our problems, whatever they are?

But this excerpt, and some of the concepts that Salvatore put forward in his long post require a serious debate. I'm going to risk opening a debate by asking what kind of world we really want — and what it is that we want to contribute to in the art/science conversation.

This post implies a global supply chain and government policies to supply the wants that Salvatore describes in such a world. We're more or less describing today's world — except that instead of endless consumption by a relatively few wealthy people, we're talking about endless consumption by everyone in transgressive, poetic language.

This world of endless consumption, servant robots, and transgressive traders requires even greater use of electronics, more fishing, and more trading than we see today. In such a world, government policies and economic linkages will place strain global resources to an even greater degree than we strain them today.

David Owen's book The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse explains in detail why this is so:

There are ways beyond this, but they do not involve roasting fish under umbrellas as though we can dredge them up from today's overfished oceans to sell them in a transcendental souk where everyone is rich and no one needs to bargain.

The recent work of Jørgen Randers is a case in point. Randers is one of the co-authors of the original Club of Rome Report, Limits to Growth. Randers has been revisiting the original report to update the issues and findings. In addition, he has written with Graeme Maxton a book titled Reinventing Prosperity. Managing Economic Growth to Reduce Unemployment, Inequality, and Climate Change.

Reinventing Prosperity proposes 13 principles that can achieve these goals. But the problem is serious, in the sense that there is no deep political will to solve these kinds of problem. A few years ago, Jørgen Randers undertook a study for the Norwegian government. He proposed a series of actionable measures to reduce catastrophic climate change. The idea was that if every nation in the world undertook similar measures, we could dramatically reduce the threat of catastrophic climate change within two decades. Randers and the Norwegian government understood that Norway alone could not do this. However, they reasoned that if Norway adopted these measures, then the other Nordic nations might follow – Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark. If the other Nordic nations adopted these measures, then the rest of the European Union might follow. And so on.

The plan involved 15 actionable points. The plan would have raised taxes in Norway by about €250 (GBP 191) per year for two decades. The measures were put forward in a public referendum. The voters rejected the plan. If one of the world's wealthiest and most environmentally conscious nations refuses to adopt such measures, it is hard to see what will bring about the changes we need in other nations.

You can find a copy of the report from the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment to the Norwegian Parliament at this URL:

This is a long link, so if it breaks, Google:

Summary in English: Report No. 34 to the Storting Norwegian climate policy

A concise discussion of these issues appears in The Guardian:

The point is that the world has long been oriented toward consumption for those who can afford it. While our world has made significant progress toward equality, which is good, this has involved ever greater consumption by even more of the world's seven billion inhabitants. This will destroy the kind of planetary environment we need for human life.

Frank Trentmann's recent book on consumerism examines many of these problems in historic context and in current terms:

This is a viewpoint piece Trentmann wrote for The Guardian:

This post-modern Mediterranean world of lively kids dashing among the endless stands and kiosks of a market filled with elderly people — all well-to-do — and cheerful families does not exist, and cannot.

I often read articles on sustainability that take a post-modern position on science. The environmentalist philosopher Arran Gare wrote a book on this issue a few years back. Gare argues that post-modern positions on science have helped to create the context in which those who oppose environmental regulations can question science. At the same time, several groups of designers who claim to favor sustainability challenge the epistemological foundations of scientific inquiry into the causes of climate change.

Their argument is essentially this:

It's bad for Donald Trump and his friends to question the idea that human activity is leading to catastrophic climate change.

It's good for artists to question the scientific methods that allow us to determine whether human action is changing the climate.

To put it another way:

Our political enemies are all wrong on science because they are evil people.

Our friends should challenge science because their hearts are in the right place.

If we are going to be serious about art-science, we've got to think deeply about the kinds of discourse we see as useful.

I do not think that getting scientists out of laboratories is useful. And it is not useful to get us all into the endless bazaar where we consume increasingly more of everything linked by increasingly dense trade routes with more shipping, more transport, more robots, more electronics, more fishing and more …

The new York Times recently published a report that suggest the possibility of a major collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf. This is not a prediction, but it is a serious possibility. Should this eventuate, it will be a disaster for many of the world's most populated regions.

I do not want to promote art "as a platform to get sciences out of laboratories and into crowded, narrow streets." Salvatore's post sounds a bit like medieval Venice. In the world that may be coming, there may be no Venice.

If we require that scientists take some ethical responsibility for our world, should we not ask the same of artist-scientists?

We expect scientists to offer responsible and substantive evidence for their claims. I expect the same of artist-scientists.



Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in Cooperation with Elsevier | URL:

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| University Distinguished Professor | Centre for Design Innovation | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia

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