Colliding Ideas – art, society and physics symposium

Chris Henschke discusses his artistic residency at the Australian synchrotron.

I spoke at the RMIT symposium “Colliding Ideas – art, society and physics” on Sunday, 8th July 2012. Chris Henschke organised a diverse range of speakers to discuss the intersections of Art, Physics and society to coincide with the 36th International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP 2012) held here in Melbourne, where the latest announcements on the search for the Higgs Boson were given. A closing panel session with all the speakers raised some interesting questions on Art and Science collaborations.

Colliding Ideas ran from 11.30am – 5pm on Sunday 8th July at RMIT, Level 5, 342 Swanston Street, Melbourne.

Talk Abstract

Navigating the Science-Art muddle
Jon McCormack, Monash University 

In 1969, the art critic Terry Fenton launched a scathing attack on Art-Science relations in the art journal Art Forum. Fenton’s targets were some of the leading figures promoting the virtues of Science and its utopian role in Art, including MIT Professor Gyorgy Kepes and “Systems Art” visionary, Jack Burnham. Fenton’s view of Kepes’ vision for Art and Science limited Art to being “a handmaiden of science as technology is a handmaiden of science”. Jack Burnham saw the major scientific advancements of the time being based on an underlying scientific “systems theoretic analysis” of the world. Such an idea was so powerful that even culture, he claimed, must transition from being object-oriented to become systems-oriented. Fenton countered that a use of this new “systems thinking” was employed by the Pentagon in pursuing the Vietnam war. As was also observed many years later by Richard Coyne in his book “Technoromanticism”, claims of the benefits of relationships drawn from Science and technology are always deferred to the future. By 1986, and older and wiser Jack Burnham conceded that his ambitious utopian predictions for Art based on systems science had failed.

Ten years later (1996) Brian Eno, giving the speech for the Turner Prize, asked “Why have the sciences yielded great explainers…while the arts produce some of the loosest thinking and worst writing known to history?” In Eno’s view, Science had achieved the popular explanatory power that was once the province of the arts and religion. Art had become mired in impenetrable dialogues and opaque meanings. In the years that followed, UK arts funding embraced Science/Art partnerships in a new renaissance typified by Millennium dome exhibits, Welcome Trust sponsorships and NESTA fellowships.

Today, Science’s explanatory power in popular culture has diminished, not because it is any less capable of explanation, but because of changes in communication structures and ideologies. This being at a time that humanity now depends on Science more than ever before. Arguably, Art is now in an even worse position, still suffering from the fragmentation distilled by postmodernism and the collapse of international art markets that depended on globalist capitalism’s obsession with “growth”. What kind of relationships can Art and Science possibly have today, given their history? If Art is not to be the handmaiden of Science, what other roles can it have?


Download the Flyer_Colliding_Ideas_RMIT2012

Owen Richardson wrote a review of the event for the Melbourne Age.