SPACES & PLACES
Visual Science of Art Conference, Belgium
By Gabriella Warren-Smith, guest contributor
When I was at school, my father always discouraged my preference for the arts, as he felt these were "fluffy" subjects that were unlikely to lead to a career. For him, the idea that art could be useful or practical was an alien concept. This perception is shared by many, and although I have issues with its message, I do not necessarily blame those who believe it.
Art and science have been separated in education and society throughout history. One is known for seeking meaning through logic, and the other through creativity. On thesaurus.com, science is even defined as an antonym of art - its polar opposite. But what do artists and scientists do? John Maeda, specialist in technology and design, reflects that:
"Both are dedicated to asking the big questions placed before us: What is true? Why does it matter? How can we move society forward?" 
The deliberation of these ideas take place in the laboratory or studio, both sites for experimentation, testing, thinking, and failing. From this perspective, artists and scientists share the same passionate curiosity that comes alive through their work.
Yet their methods of communication and delivery take extremely contrasting approaches. In his analysis of art and science cross-disciplinary practice, Phillip Breedon emphasizes that "the separation of language, communication and culture across disciplines is both the barrier and opportunity that must be addressed" . Perhaps in some cases artists and scientists are interested in answering the same questions. How might we facilitate Breedon’s suggestion of crossing their contrasting approaches, using this barrier as a bridge to opportunity?
This past summer I gained new perspectives in the art and science dialogue at the 2019 Visual Science of Art Conference (VSAC) in Belgium. Artists and scientists whose primary expertise lies in the field of visual perception presented their research over four days in the form of presentations, artworks, exhibitions, and poster sessions. In the introduction, conference director Johan Wagemans explained that the inclusion of an art program at VSAC is a relatively new experiment, with the aim for both artists and scientists to explore each other’s language.
As a curator in the field of art and science, I’m aware that this is not a new subject. There are numerous examples of artists and scientists working together, borrowing elements from one another’s disciplines to enhance their professional potential. What I personally gained from VSAC were new understandings in the scientific perception of art. This conference wasn’t really about artists and scientists working together, its focus was the use of art embedded within the practice of scientists, and the influences of science within the work of artists.
Vision scientists shared their findings investigating the perception of art, measuring participant’s preferences to elements ranging from symmetry, political persuasion and the synchrony of dancers, to Malevich’s black and red squares. Where did Hokusai choose to place Mount Fuji in his thirty-six views of the mountain, and what does this tell us about an individual’s approach to composition? Is visual art better appreciated in virtual reality in comparison to the museum context? How does our peripheral visual system impact our perception of Mona Lisa’s ephemeral smile?
I was struck by the use of art as a measurement tool, its origins recycled to make room for new knowledge and discovery. Stripped of its subjective nature, art became something that could be reduced to data. But can artistic taste always be measured, understood, and backed up by facts? I’m not so sure.
In discussion of these issues with a scientist from Goldsmiths, she reflected that these conversations often arise within her visual perception practice. A common concern is that to find similarities and patterns in the perception of art, the fact that art is subjective is disregarded. In Paul Crowther’s book, Art and Embodiment (2001), he describes the relevance of the philosophical 'hermeneutic circle' theory to the experience of art:
"Our starting point is always inscribed in and informed by a
pre-established stock of knowledge and beliefs... the new aspects of it which are disclosed through our exploration, serve to modify, and sometimes transform, our starting point" .
The appreciation of art is therefore a personal experience, tied to our memories, knowledge and relationships. How can these experiences, which are often embedded deep within our subconscious, be considered and recorded in the measurement of the perception of art?
Many of the scientific studies presented at VSAC attempted to address this difficult feat. The most successful examples considered participant’s individual differences, and the elements that could impact their personal preferences. From an arts perspective, those that failed to acknowledge these integral elements lost my confidence in their findings.
Another key aspect of art that I often felt was missing from the conversation was the complexity of its conceptual elements. Most of the scientific studies were based on paintings, particularly of the Old Masters. This makes sense in the context that they were measuring visual perception. But contemporary art rarely engages with paint, its values are instead based on intellectual strength. Moving away from aesthetics, the approach of artists tends to be rich in research, taking inspiration from other disciplines and thinkers. The scientific studies were looking at older models of artistic thinking, and weren’t in keeping with what artists are making now. I’m not suggesting that contemporary art should be considered their new medium, but that they were missing some of the other core elements of art appreciation which are about the transformation of thought, knowledge, and emotion.
I want to stress that this more traditional outlook of art was not reflected in the VSAC art program. Co-curated by a team of art and science professionals, the artist selection process had a really eclectic mix, presented in some of the most extraordinary art venues I’ve visited in a while. Perhaps the scientists shifted their understanding in contemporary art through its integration within the program. Read more about the artists here, but for now I want to focus on the science!
I hope that my perceptions don’t come across too critically, and that they resemble instead my fascination in the familiar subject of art being transformed so considerably. My previous experience of crossovers between art and science is rich in the collaborative opportunities they offer. In 2018, FACT hosted the international touring exhibition "Broken Symmetries," which showcased a series of immersive, dazzling artworks that communicated the work of scientists from CERN . This exciting interchange between some of the world’s leading physicians and artists showed the potential of this type of collaboration.
There are also many examples of artists and scientists working together in the creation of a space for dialogue around climate change. A recent paper exploring how art can excel the work of scientists, claims that:
"Art can connect people to complex concepts at an emotional level...
art has the potential to influence values, beliefs, knowledge, and the development of societies which are the same factors driving the environmental behavior of citizens" .
I believe that the key takeaway here is the mention of emotion. Academic scientific research is ordinarily inaccessible to the general public, and could benefit greatly from employing an interdisciplinary approach to communicating to audiences, increasing the likelihood of connecting with emotion.
At VSAC I was disappointed to find myself struggling to keep up with the science. I had hoped that my recent crash course in perception might help with my understanding, but unsurprisingly it wasn’t quite adequate! What’s more is that the artists and scientists seemed to speak another language, and critiqued each other in such a manner that everybody’s background became very obvious.
Going forwards, I felt that VSAC could have benefitted from a little collaboration in communication. An interesting experimental session could have paired artists and scientists together, and challenged participants to present one another’s work to their peers. This way both artist and scientist would learn new and innovative methods of communication, expanding their reach to a new sector, whilst further achieving the Director’s goal of exploring each other’s language.
VSAC expanded my mind in the consideration of the potential of art within other disciplines. Art entered a period of transformation in the work of vision scientists. The studies they shared were not driven towards making large claims about the art itself, but about how we as humans perceive. Art became an attractive and interesting element of their laboratory apparatus, helping scientists ask the big questions that makes them tick through unique methods within science.
Put forward to the scrutiny panel of artists, it is no surprise that some of these methods were questioned, as let’s face it, art is not often a variable that is tested. If VSAC is about the marriage of art and science, future conferences should start thinking about collaboration, and the skills that both disciplines can offer to each other.