Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to visit the exhibition currently on display in the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. The Renwick building, located across the street from the White House, was built as a museum in the mid-1800s. In 1972, it became part of the Smithsonian Institution and serves as home to a collection of contemporary craft and decorative art.
Following a two-year renovation, the Renwick reopened in November of 2015. The inaugural exhibition in the refurbished space is WONDER. For this exhibition, nine artists were invited to create installation pieces that, in some way, connect with the building itself. As a docent remarked to us, it was hoped that each piece would create in the viewer a sense of wonder. It was hoped that each viewer, as he or she moved from room to room, would go, “Wow!”
For me, the exhibition certainly had the desired effect. Thinstallations are visually stunning. Moreover, the connections to science are unmistakable. For example, using colored strings hung between the floor and the ceiling, Gabriel Dawe recreates the dispersed light that fleetingly forms when sunlight passes through a window (Figure 1, photograph courtesy of David Wessner). While Dawe’s “dispersed light” obviously is more material and less fleeting than actual wavelengths of light, the effect is equally awe-inspiring. And it certainly is not static. The movement of air within the room, from people walking by or the heating and air conditioning system, cause the strings to vibrate. This static, physical depiction of light almost seems to come alive with motion and ever-changing hues. As another example, John Grade made a cast of a hemlock tree growing near Seattle, Washington and then created a model of this tree out of a half-million small blocks of reclaimed cedar (Figure 2, photograph courtesy of David Wessner). The piece is stunning in its scale and detail. Every indentation in the trunk of tree, which we probably would overlook when walking through the woods, jumps out at us. We see the tree in a whole new way. Not only is the subject of this installation biological, but also so is its ultimate fate. When the exhibition closes, the piece will be returned to the forest home of the original hemlock tree, where it slowly will decay. Various microbial decomposers, a collection of bacteria and fungi, will break down the cedar blocks, converting them to simpler chemical pieces that can be re-claimed by other forms of life.
As Charissa and I have noted in several of our posts, the fields of art and science too often are perceived as separate. They aren’t. Each field informs the other. And an appreciation of both fields is necessary.
Affectivity in Science: Gut Instinct, the Bacterial Sublime, Embryology, and Toll Gene Family
If there is one binding theme at work in The Bridge residency program it is “affectivity in science.” In coupling scientists and artists, not only does the SciArt Center develop new space for expression and problem-solving rooted in the collaboration between the all-too bifurcated fields of science and the humanities, it also reinforces the necessary role of affectivity within science. By “affectivity,” I mean intuition and visceral emotional response.
Our exhibition Gut Instinct teases out the relationship between affectivity and science in a layered manner. First, in its contents, the show will examine the relationship between brain activity and the gastrointestinal tract, with the linchpin being bacteria. Similar to the fundamental union of emotion and ratiocination that is at work in affectivity in science, the exhibition points out that healthy brain activity is not ex nihilo but situational, viz. corporeal. It is a matter not so much of the silent ruminating individual, but the individual as a collective of symbionts: a mind the workings of which depend on millions of bacteria. Second, in its very construction as a hybrid art-science communiqué, the exhibition underscores the world of possibility opened up within science when affectivity is made agential – i.e. overt, driven and directed – in the form of art. Let us say, thus, that art fused to science opens up a unique form of affectivity that is neither wholly one nor the other but succinctly a matter of both. That is, the strain of affectivity that is struck in uniting art and science offers a special form of non-reductive functionalism borne of guttural emotional response. It is a biofunctionalism in which art becomes a disinterested vehicle of scientific literacy and science offers new platforms of creative expression within art.
In addition to our forthcoming exhibition Gut Instinct, I would like to quickly cite three other pithy discussions of “affectivity in science.”
Anna Dumitriu, a bioartist who generously has agreed to show work in the exhibition, has written about the “bacterial sublime.” Based on the writings of eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke, Dumitriu develops an idea of reasoning driven by passion and terror to explain her own bacteria-based art practice in her essay “Confronting the Bacterial Sublime.” http://annadumitriu.tumblr.com/BacterialSublime
Scott F. Gilbert and Marion Faber’s “Looking at Embryos: The Visual and Conceptual Aesthetics of Emerging Form” (in The Elusive Synthesis: Aesthetics and Science, Alfred I. Tauber, ed.) is another great source for understanding “affectivity in science.” The authors underscore the connection between awe and various politics of alterity (feminism to name one) channeled through embryology.
And, Mike Fortun’s “What Toll Pursuit: Affective Assemblages in Genomics and Postgenomics” (in Postgenomics: Perspectives on Biology after the Genome, Sarah S. Richardson and Hallam Stevens, eds.) riffs on the discovery of the toll gene family and the German term “toll,” which variously translates into English as amazing or weird. The name of the gene comes from German biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard's exclamation "Das ist ja toll!" – “That is amazing!” –when she discovered in 1985 that the gene controlled “dorsal-ventral polarity in the fruit fly embryo.”