Through the Looking Glass: Visualising Science :: Oron Catts

18 August 2005, Melbourne Australia

I am always somewhat ambivalent in regard to taking part in (or organising) events as part of National Science Week. Although my work as an artist as well as the Artistic Director of SymbioticA deals with science as the primary concern and as a subject matter, there is some sense of incompatibility between the strategies of dealing with science by the National Science Week and that of SymbioticA. While the explicit aim of the National Science Week is to “celebrate science”, my own work, and much of what we do in SymbioticA is actually to engage critically with science.

Therefore, I was initially somewhat hesitant when I received an invitation to participate in the Through the Looking Glass: Visualising Science event. Eventually, I decided that I should participate due to the impressive line up of speakers, the focus on artistic engagement with scientific knowledge and the possibility of using it as a platform to explore different approaches in regard to art and science collaborations. I also felt that this might be a good opportunity to present SymbioticA and my own work to an audience on the east coast of Australia, as there is a need to foster closer ties between artists/researchers from the west and east costs. Thanks to the help from ANAT’s Conference and Workshop Fund I was able to travel to Melbourne for this event and stay for few extra days to meet up with artists, curators and writers.

The event itself had its high points, but unfortunately was very poorly attended. It seems that this was mainly due to the lack of promotion of National Science Week which was presumably in charge of promoting its associated events. I was surprised to find out that there was no information about National Science Week events even in the main tourist information centre at Federation Square.

The text used to describe the event (and that was used in the printed and online copy) proved to be problematic for some of the speakers and was fruitfully used by the speakers (including myself) as a starting point for a broader discussion in regard to role art plays when it deals with new scientific knowledge and its technological application. The organisers chose to highlight (not surprisingly in the context of National Science Week) a somewhat positivist view, I quote: “…with artistic practice increasingly employed as a legitimate tool to aid scientific research and development methodologies. Through the Looking Glass zooms into the positive and profound changes technology has had on how we interpret and represent our increasingly information-rich world.”

This statement provoked me to change some aspects of my presentation. Originally my talk was to be a description of the work done in SymbioticA and my own work with the Tissue Culture & Art Project (a collaboration between Ionat Zurr and myself) leading into a broader discussion regarding the difference between visualising science and artistic engagement with scientific concepts and technological developments. I was questioning the role of art as a “legitimate tool to aid scientific research” as I found this statement to be problematic on few levels; firstly, does art need to be legitimised as a tool to aid anything? Secondly in the context of scientific research, is that the role art needs to play? and might such an approach create unrealistic expectations in regard to collaborative endeavours between artists and other professionals? My point was that artistic research into new sets of knowledge should be valued for its own merits and its contribution to culture rather then be seen for its potential secondary outcomes of aiding, assisting or acting as a research and development arm for other disciplines.

This proved to create a stimulating contrast between my presentation and that of Drew Berry that followed me. Drew is a scientist who become an animator, and worked on large scale projects dealing with the visualisation and representation of molecular and micro biology. He worked on projects such as the award winning DNA documentary that was aired on ABCtv in 2005. Having our two very different approaches, presented back to back, provided a platform for discussion about the concept of truth in scientific representation and the validity of an array of strategies and approaches of dealing with the (life) sciences. I was very impressed by Drew and his work and I thank the organisers for providing me with the opportunity to meet him and present my work alongside his.

The afternoon session was as stimulating, contrasting the work of Prof. Peter Eades, a mathematician who works with visualisation of, and interface with, complex data, with the
work of Mari Velnaki and John McCormack.

As a whole the event presented stimulating and engaging presentations and discussions. It was a great shame that the audience was so small.

I also used the rare opportunity of being in Melbourne to meet up with artists such as Stelarc, Gina Czarnecki, Ian Haig and others, writers such as Ted Collless and Julie Clarke,
curators Mike Stubbs, Alessio Cavallaro and Antoanetta Ivanova and visiting the Centre of Ideas in VCA.

I would like to thank ANAT again for providing me with the funding to travel from Perth.

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