[ISEA96] Panel : Nell Tenhaaf – Interpenetrations: Art, Science, Cultural Theory

Panel Statement

If there is any overarching concern that can be identified in artistic and cultural practices of the past few decades, it would have to be named as subjectivity, and the examination of how it is shaped through various representational apparatuses. Some would protest the resulting self-consciousness, not to say politicization, of cultural production, probably most acutely felt in the theory-laden period of the visual arts from the late seventies through the eighties. But another, more interesting and pertinent result of this period is the recognition that the sciences too put forward, and indeed are built upon, representational models that are inextricably bound up with human subjects, their histories and desires. Paul Feyerabend outlines an epistemological relationship between the work of scientific researchers and artists in the following way: performing in their different styles and using different languages and skills, scientists produce results that often coagulate into entire but mutually exclusive worlds. These worlds cannot be detached from the languages or the methods used. Extending this point of view to non-scientific cultures, we arrive at the assumption that what we find when applying material, social, literary technologies to Being are not the structures and properties of Being itself, but the ways in which Being reacts to human interference. (From “Theoreticians, Artists and Artisans” in Leonardo, Vol. 29, No. 1, p. 27, 1996) Feyerabend’s intention is not to collapse the two types of Research into one worldview, nor to prove how creative scientists really are. Rather, he reconsiders the interrelationship between material and theoretical processes in both art and science, with a view toward resituating the grand search for truth, or at least for meaning, within culturally specific moments. One feature of our current moment is that, through technology, the sciences constitute a paradigm of collectivized desire. Technologies are the meeting ground between theory and practice where this desire manifests, with promises to improve the functionality of the soma and the psyche, as well as to heal the wounded soul: the appeal of Virtual environments / cyberspace / hyperspace is its promise of an infinite expansion of the perceptual world; artificial intelligence, artificial life and genetic technologies are to reveal the complexities of human behaviour and its evolution, and give us control over destiny and mortality. There is no intention here to criticize the goals of scientists or developers of technology, nor to appropriate trendy science metaphors for cultural theory. Instead, the proposal of this panel is of a more generally intellectual nature, which is, to consider ways in which complex, layered representations can keep subjectivity, the social world and also the natural world fully in view. The idea is that such a point of view is important for any designer of a Reality model, be it artist, theorist or scientist. After C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, a recent book expands on the idea of a third culture consisting of “those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.” (John Brockman,The Third Culture, Simon and Schuster, 1996). The great men (sic) of letters are a thing of the past, Brockman declares. This statement drops like a lead weight into the ferment of a cultural scene that is not necessarily interested in replacing one intellectual pantheon with another, nor in accepting the idea that the sciences are overtaking other knowledges in constituting culture. But what we have until now called culture, in a literary and artistic sense, is beginning to recognize the problem of how to engage with scientific enquiry. This has come about via the burgeoning of technologies that very obviously have a cultural impact. Some of the current debate among creators of reality models concerns the empirical basis of those models, and seems to be distorted rather than enriched by the interdisciplinarity of the “third culture.” As one school of thought applies social and political critique to the history and practices of science, an opposing school feels that this politicization ignores and undermines the crucial claim of scientific work to facts and truths based in the natural world. This has become a completely polarized argument, and not simply polarized between the cultural domain and the scientific one. A recent manifestation of its vituperativeness appeared in a report about a hoax article by physicist Alan Sokal which was published in the “postmodern” journal Social Text (The New York Times, Sunday, May 26 1996). Sokal’s paper was couched in pomo jargon, but deliberately included gross errors and misrepresentations meant to catch out the journal’s editors. They meanwhile perceived it as an important gesture on the part of a hard scientist to be engaged with current cultural studies issues. This incident does point seriously, if cynically, to the question of expertise even as it reinforces the belief that science (and in particular, physics) is the discourse of ultimate authority. This is the cultural context for our panel, its backdrop. The crossovers of areas of interest and expertise on the panel are these:

  1. Eliot Handelman: music with cognitive science
  2. Jeanne Randolph: art theory and criticism with psychiatry
  3. Phoebe Sengers: cultural studies with artificial intelligence
  4. Nell Tenhaaf: visual art with biogenetics,
  • Nell Tenhaaf. Canada,¬†¬†Toronto-based photographer, teacher, writer and feminist. website