THE LANCET

 

April 22, 2000

Exploring sci-art: the final frontier

by Kelly Morris

 

N01se: an exhibition about information and transformation showing at

Wellcome Trust Two10 Gallery, London, UK, until May 19, 2000.

 

At the boundary between art and science lies . . . the Wellcome Trust. Or at least,

that organization aims to break down the barriers between the two dominions, notably

through their groundbreaking art exhibitions. Their latest offering explores ways in which

information is abstracted, transmitted, and transformed; an imperfect process in which

the resultant error or excess—noise—can confuse or obscure the signal. Yet the noise

itself, rather than the selected information, can reveal to us the broader context from

which we have comprehended but a part.  These ideas, can be seen to underpin all of

human communication, and thus promise to unify science and art.

 

N01se, which started life as a multisite exhibition, explores the tension between order and

the chaos from which that order, or information, arose. Much of the work, however, was

clearly constructed for scientific or aesthetic purposes and so fails to dispel the classic

art/science dichotomy.  Given the innovative nature of the exhibits and the vast expertise

behind the exhibition, it is easy to see how some can claim that science and art must be

inherently separate.

 

The skeptic's view is that the supposed common ground between art and science is actually

a superficial sharing of subject and form. Thus we see art about science and products of

science and technology passed off as art, alongside rigorously investigated art and research

on artistic processes. For example, Talking Heads (developed by the Sony Computer

Science Laboratory, Paris, France and Brussels University Artificial Intelligence

Laboratory, Belgium) could not be mistaken for anything other than an experiment.

Robotic agents are launched from site installations around the world or via the internet to

interact with other agents in a guessing game that aims to explore the evolution of artificial

language (see http://talking_heads.csl.sony.fr/ ). While the experiment obviously sits well

with the exhibition theme, it is unlikely to be mistaken for art.

 

Fortunately, one stunning collection of works does belie the skeptic's beliefs. Electrochemist

Merrill Garnett (State University of New York, Stony Brook, NY, USA) has spent more

than 30 years investigating the ultra-low-frequency currents of DNA, with the conclusion that

altering this DNA “pulse” can reverse the abnormal cell growth that characterizes cancer.

His solution is a palladium/lipoic acid complex that acts as a DNA charge donor, without

the toxic effects of current chemotherapy.  While Garnett clearly uses scientific method to

achieve scientific goals, he and others have chosen to publicize his work, in part, through art:

radiant electromicrographs of his “liquid crystal” compound; captivating paintings of his cell

cultures by daughter Joy Garnett; and his book First Pulse. The book’s editor Bill Jones

has also collaborated with musician Ben Neill to produce Pulse 4, 6, 7, 8--a light and sound

installation that harmonically reflects ratios of the frequencies transferred between Garnett’s

compound and DNA.

 

And Garnett’s work has more fundamental implications for defining the common ground

between art and science. “If there are harmonics in the organism, its physiology will

recognize certain signals”, he explains. “This would create the possibility of aesthetic

relation”. Put another away, certain relations will be naturally pleasing, what James Joyce

called “the rhythm of beauty.” And, as Joyce explores in Portrait of the Artist as a Young

Man, if the articulation of these relations is scientific, this pleasing quality will be called truth,

whereas if the relations are expressed in an artistic form, we call the product beautiful. This

insight, which lies at the heart of N01se, reveals that just as one person’s noise is another’s

music, so one group’s truth is another group’s beauty.

 

 

Kelly Morris

           The Lancet, London, UK

 

           COPYRIGHT 2000 The Lancet Ltd. in association with The Gale Group