Review of Quantum Art and Uncertainty | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Quantum Art and Uncertainty

Quantum Art and Uncertainty
Paul Thomas

Intellect Press, Bristol, UK, 2018
188 pp. Paper,  £36
ISBN: 9781783209019.

Reviewed by
Brian Reffin Smith
December 2018

For this reviewer art has, among others, three important functions, two desirable, one not. As distraction, spectacle or even solace, it acts in a reformist way at best, certainly not revolutionary. We turn in circles: everything's awful but look, this cheers us up. But it's all terrible. But here's some beauty or humour or something; but we're all going to die; but see the life-light in this painting, the awe in the interaction with this screen... spectacles, however uplifting we pretend they are, are always, in the end, inadequate; ones involving VR headsets especially: often not only inadequate but authoritarian, too.

The two desirable functions are performative, in the sense that the words "abracadabra" or "I love you" are performative. Art can make us want to do things, and it can make us think. In other words it can be political with a small p, and it can be a representation of, or stimulus towards, philosophy. And just as a lot of philosophy today is almost a branch of physics, and certainly vice versa, art can be considered as part of philosophy and physics. This may be too bold or bald a statement for some, but please bear with me.

This stimulating book, whose powerful three page introduction by Timothy Morton is itself almost a reason to buy it, deals with the power of fragile uncertainty, the inbetween-ness of things, as exemplified in various artworks and in the speculative thought and art of Paul Thomas.

Spectacle comes from spectate, to view, watch or behold. It's passive. While etymologically close, speculation is more active, to do with contemplation and of course thinking about what you're observing. But what we are observing is not clear. We shiver between two horrible poles: absolute nothingness, non-existence; and mechanical, cold, perpetual motion, that is not alive in any useful sense, like a pointless pendulum about which we know Foucault. The attraction towards either of these poles, really, is a death-drive. Art, and here quantum art especially, quivers in the middle and postpones or suspends this momentum. The life that flickers twixt non-existence and pointless agitation, and Thomas's art that mirrors or embodies this flickering, is not definite life as opposed to death, but "uncanny", uncertain, hard to discern. Whilst the manic pursuit of certainty is destructive, of life and everything, the powerful fragility of the flickering, asserts Morton, challenges the "rigid, binary ways of thinking and acting". Uncertainty is power. The horrible poles are in fact impossible, the in-betweenness is all there is.

Thomas's book is an insight into art as reflection of, and stimulus to think about, our flickering lives in a flickering universe, via art. Immateriality precludes neither performativeness nor political action. If that's hard to accept, given the urgent materiality of threats we face today, think about the opposite, the death-wish binaries of the Cold War era, revisited and repeated now as both farce and tragedy. This malign Zeitgeist would collapse all waveforms, reducing all uncertainty to a tweeted obscenity. We need the flickering. One way to confound the enemies of humanity, truth and oneness is to throw glitter into their eyes, to rattle them by being gloriously off their bases, swerving, scintillating, made of different stuff, shimmering life to their hard death, multi-dimensional to their one dimensionality, infinite to their zero.

These don't make very good slogans or plans of action, of course. We can, and do, drift off into clouds of semi-professional unknowing, making, you know, art about that stuff, just one more useless pole, virtual now. We can get lost and self-destruct in a frenetic forest of norms and tangents to the death-death line yet make a good career out of that along the way, if you get the self-destruction just right. But art can anchor us, not trapped but located, at least for a bit.

Each large chapter of Quantum Art and Uncertainty deals with one "property, dimension or aspect of quantum phenomena" and the impact of uncertainty, illustrating it using physics and art. A comprehensive review of the contents and arguments would be as long as the book itself, but in outline: chapter one, The Swerve, correlates the Surrealists of the 1930s, specially Roberto Matta, and artists such as Cézanne and Giacometti, with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. And this uncertainty-awareness has rarely been passive. It isn't at all defeatist. The swerve, or clinamen, can be a powerful tool to thought and to action.

The second chapter, “The Diagram,” uses Richard Feynman's blackboard markings to catalyse visualising links between art and science via, wait for it, Deleuze and Francis Bacon. This might give an idea of the book's scope. Gestural and logical expression are here intertwined. Chapter three, Spin, introduces some of Thomas's own work, with Kevin Raxworthy. Some of the work, in isolation, can seem rather illustrative, but actually goes beyond that towards a sort of confrontation, again between knowing and uncertainty. It is no more "merely illustrative" of, for example, the data from 60 microseconds of qubit precession than were Feynman's diagrams merely illustrative of wave/particle duality. They become performative, explorative again. A photograph of Feynman lecturing at CERN shows him almost embracing a straight line, whilst equation fragments  drift off across the board like Cy Twombly marks or Van Gogh's crows.

The penultimate section, “The Graphene Moment,” sees the discovery in 2004 of the eponymous form of carbon as a swing from graphite to a new quantum materiality. Thomas writes, with reference to Object Oriented Ontology, of Quantum Oriented Ontology, of "hidden material agencies" being brought to light. Pencil is contrasted to a drawing, admittedly using graphite, of the sonification of a microwave affecting an electron's spin. The pencil tip and gramophone needle are contrasted with the atomic force microscope. The (sort of) certainty of the sharpened pencil lead  is thrown into question by the implications and metaphors surrounding graphene, and that's the (sudden distribution of) the point. It's a many-pencilled universe, perhaps.

Inflection, curve, swerve, fold . . . and on, in the final chapter, to smearing: The Cloud and its erasure of digital and other boundaries. Thomas sees the cloud as a problem of "perspectivalism", unable to be absorbed within the objectification of space. (The cloud, in computing terms, is often seen, including here, as coming from Compaq in 1996 and then Google 10 years later, but in fact it was used in similar contexts at least twenty years earlier, at least metaphorically, to which telecommunications diagrams attest.) Thomas quotes Manetti describing Brunelleschi's use of burnished silver to reflect, rather than portray, clouds in all their irrationality and reluctance to conform, to be pinned down. Clouds were left out of Brunelleschi's universe, in a way. The inverse, of course, is that attention to the cloud or The Cloud can usefully question our still too Cartesian perspectives. It makes us more abstract, more theoretical. Then, of course, we as artists have to decide what actually to do with that upheaval. Is it enough merely passively to portray our relationship to disembodied, incalculable, boundary-free data? I suppose not. And if we use it, to make art, it certainly uses us too. But if awareness of swerves and clouds just lets us paint differently, so what? There has to be the performance of something. It helps that this book does not only describe the interactions between what we might call quantum awareness and art, but via Thomas's words and works also points to directions in which a rather new art might wend its uncertain way. In Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway, shown in this chapter, Thomas sees an allusion to the disintegration of perspective. The railway lines' fixed perspective point dissolves. The train too, into clouds of smoke and steam. All that is solid melts into air. But the train, bright and powerful, is also undeniably there, unmelting, solid. The point is surely the performative relation between the engine and the clouds of uncertainty produced in part from its own boiler. Along with, of course, a lot of hot air, that this book does, and we must, avoid.