Some Thoughts on Art and Science

Linda Francis, Undecidable, silkscreen on Japanese paper, 2014.

That science could have some expression in other disciplines probably found its most comfortable place in the mid-20th century, for instance in the works of Louis De Broglie and David Bohm, theoretical physicists whose explication of quantum mechanics called determinism into question and advanced an ontology that was at odds with prevailing thought. Continuing that investigation, Bohm entered into a long and engrossing dialogue lasting many years with Indian-born philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti on the nature of mind. The physicist Richard Feynman’s riveting lectures in physics exemplified the way in which the process of observation led to the description of the “real” world. These lectures were exemplars of the pure pleasure—or as he put it, “fun”—inherent in thought. Of course there were many others who pushed the boundaries of science toward the humanities, such as the logician Willard Van Orman Quine, one of the most influential philosophers of science and mathematics, whose ontology was based on an entirely biological (or “naturalistic,” as he called it) precept. Today, contemporary thought dealing with the theories of Einstein and Gödel in physics and mathematics bore straight into the heart of the episteme of our time.

Despite a developing interest in the convergence of art and science in the 60s and 70s, collaboration between the two fields yielded mostly superficial results. The experimental Bell Labs projects proved to be small feats of engineering in the service of simple visual effects. Just entering into the art world then, and impatient for the growth of new kinds of knowledge, I made an attempt to discuss some ideas I had about strings with a mathematician in academia. Ironically, the discussion was a total failure because we did not speak or operate in the same language. It did prove possible, however, to have something of a dialogue with a materials physicist and a biologist, mainly because they were able to see similar structures in my work and their microscopy. Visual resonance alone was not my intention, however, as I was really interested in an underlying equation between the form, its construction, and its possible function. More recently, I have used algebraic geometry to configure an image and then pose analogous questions of interpretation within it.

In general, dialogue between art and science is becoming easier, since the computer and, consequently, science itself have become the prevailing means and methods we use to make and describe reality. These are in many spheres our only experience of reality. That we have been operating for a long time in a complex synthetic environment makes the breaking up of strict boundaries possible, and although this can play havoc with reason, it is also the province of the arts to be able to understand it and create clarity. The increasing volume of science news in the media and the number of scientistic terms entering the vernacular point to the burgeoning of science as the arbiter of what is considered truth. The longing for AI to solve all our terrible and looming problems is a utopian desire that, if the past is any template, will be betrayed. So here again, the artist, the humanist, must take part in identifying fallacies, create multivalent solutions, and become an ethicist.


Linda Francis

Linda Francis is an artist based in New York.