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Art & Science Now

Art + Science Now

by Stephen Wilson
Thames & Hudson, London, UK, 2010
208 pp., illus. 270 col. Trade, $50.00
ISBN: 978-0-500-23868-4.

Reviewed by Hannah Star Rogers
Science & Technology Studies
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York, USA

hsr9@cornell.edu

In Art + Science Now, Stephen Wilson has provided us with an excellent catalogue of art that engages with science and technology. Ranging from Beatriz da Costa’s air quality mapping with pigeons (PigeonBlog 2006) to Haruki Nishijima’s butterfly nets which can capture electromagnetic waves (Remain in Light 2001), Wilson’s book offers images and descriptions of artwork inspired by science and work that critiques science in some way. There are few comprehensive texts that bring together artworks that deal with difference sciences, so Wilson’s book will be of use for scholarly reference and general interest, especially by those in the science community who are wondering about artistic research in their fields. Wilson raises important questions about this type of work. How should we think of art inspired research or science inspired art? What is its future? How much science do audiences need to know to engage with the material? And how should we assess it?

Wilson supplies an introduction to each section, which helps to orient readers to the artwork. This book succeeds in gesturing at some historical and contemporary influences without imposing a singular history, specific trajectory, or central set of goals for these artists. The artists and topics are selected and the book only covers works completed between 2000 and 2007. Even so organizing this huge breadth of material must have been a chore, yet this book is both attractive and explanatory. Maybe this is because it must also have been a lot of fun to work with everything from Wim Delvoye’s robotic digestion (Cloaca Original 2000) to Austin Richards’ performance art with Tesla coils (Dr. Megavolt 2006).

Wilson has organized the volume by science or technology topic: Molecular Biology, Living Systems, Human Biology, Physical Science, Kinetics & Robotics.  This allows him to write coherent and interesting overviews of each section and give the novice some sense of the science and technical aspects involved. This organizational structure will also probably appeal to science-oriented readers who want to find artwork on a particular subject. But it creates a situation in which artists appear in several chapters if their work deals with more than one of the science themes. For example, Natalie Jeremijenko’s work appears in three chapters: Molecular Biology, Living Systems, and Kinetics & Robotics.

This may leave readers lost in the scientific categorization, though is not clear that the artists would have divided their work in this way. It is not clear that the organizational divisions reflect how the artists divide their world, as reflected in the myriad of different types of science and technology individual artists are engaged in, not to mention the variety of scientific topics represented at festivals and even individual shows. While perhaps this division is as good as any other at this moment of considerable foment in the field and practitioners who require similar skills do in many cases seem to gravitate together, scientific or technical categories do not seem to be what is at stake for these practitioners.

In the Introduction, Wilson reminds readers that one way to think about the definition of art is to use its institutions to determine what counts as art. Science-engaged art appears to have built its own sustaining institutions, separate from the traditional art world, though something similar could be said of the French Secessionists and many others. Indeed, the book makes the case for Wilson’s conviction that there is value in seeing these works as both art and beyond mainstream art.


Last Updated 7 July, 2010

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