SPACES & PLACES A conversation with Stephen Nowlin, Director of Williamson Gallery
Exhibition: "Hyperbolic: Reefs, Rubbish and Reason" (2011). The Cold Water Reef, by the IFF Core Reef Crafters. Photo credit: The Institute For Figuring (IFF).
By Julia Buntaine, Editor-in-Chief
Julia Buntaine: Could you share a little bit about your background and how you came to pursue a SciArt focus in your life and subsequently, Williamson Gallery?
Stephen Nowlin: My father was an original DIY maker/tinkerer and also a professional musician, so I think I was lucky to grow up in a kind of art & technology environment from the beginning.
Then, while attending California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in Oakland, California, in the late 1960s and living in Berkeley, I was exposed to avant-garde artists mixing art and technology - I’d seen Merce Cunningham and John Cage, fooled around with electronic media at the fledgling Mills College Tape Music Center, played with my first black-white video camera, and participated in “happenings” involving technology. It was all very new back then and appealing stuff to a young artist, and I’d also become frustrated by the traditional media and conservative approach to arts education I found at CCAC. So I left in the middle of a semester, failed all my classes, and returned to Southern California where I went to work for the Pasadena architectural firm, Ladd & Kelsey.
As it turns out, L&K were the recipients of two of the most important West Coast arts commissions of the time - the new building housing the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art (now the Norton Simon Museum), and a Disney/Chouinard Art Institute initiative called California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). At L&K, I helped construct a scale model of CalArts and learned about the college, which was just beginning its construction in Valencia. It was the antithesis of CCAC - experimental and techno-savvy, unstructured and avant-garde.
Also at that time, I heard about a new art program at Caltech that was going to bring artists and scientists together, so I quit L&K and found a job drafting computer parts for the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories in Caltech’s Astro-Electronics Lab, which also enabled me to participate in the new art program. Its director, South African artist Lukas Van Vuuren, told me it was a part of something called E.A.T. - an acronym for Experiments in Art and Technology. Looking back, I attribute the beginnings of the current SciArt movement to the advent of E.A.T. combined with the ecology and environmental awareness movements of the same period that popularized global science-based perspectives. Ecological sensitivity was very much a part of the design school philosophy at CalArts when I became a student there in 1970.
Exhibition:"Intimate Science." "Fungarch" by by Philip Ross.
At Caltech, Lukas Van Vuuren struggled a bit to find a place for me in the art program. I was 21 years old, and had no standing in the art world or the science world - I was just a former student, I didn’t know anybody at Caltech, and nobody knew me. I kind of sneaked in through a side door, and then great new horizons came into view. The scientists wanted to work with well-known and experienced visiting artists, and the artists wanted to work with their counterparts in science. I learned some basic things about how the two domains can mix and how they cannot. I also began to understand the products of scientific experimentation as embodiments of ideas beyond the science itself, deep ideas about life and living - science as artistic content even without artistic authorship. This was an important realization for me, and it resonated with concepts explored by artists I admired - Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and later Sol LeWitt, Dorothea Rockburne, and Mel Bochner. After some time, Lukas paired me with a filmmaker named John Whitney, who’d come to Caltech to further his pioneering work in motion graphics. I worked with John for about a year, and we stayed in touch until his death in 1995. In addition to John’s projects, I made my own short three-minute experimental film called NNON, which I filmed in 35mm and then never showed to anyone. It sat in a box in my basement for a few decades until 2012 when I transferred it to digital for an exhibit at REDCAT Gallery featuring CalArts grads.
Those early years of exposure to new technologies, ideas, and individuals were an intense time for me and have continued to inform my artistic/curatorial practice to this day. But I want to say something else about what influenced me then and now, and that is how science approaches space - by which I mean not only outer space but also Earth space, nature, objects, other people, just all the common and uncommon stuff surrounding us. For virtually all of human existence we’ve conceived of space as embodying two domains - the natural and the non-natural, or the so-called supernatural. But when science came along it didn’t do that. For science, the supernatural is a non-concept - there is only the natural to contain everything, including all that we find to be malevolent, marvelous, moral, and mysterious. If SciArt is going to engage this true science, if it’s going to excavate the deeper meanings that await tantalizingly beneath the surface novelty of art meeting science, if it’s not going to be art and pseudo-science or new age mysticism, or just art as sciency gizmos and pretty lab pictures - if it’s truly going to be art and science, it will need to acknowledge, as science has, the end of the supernatural as anything other than a fiction and thus liberate the ensuing implications to robust debate. It needs to ignite that discussion and embed it in the SciArt discourse. To a planet whose human population remains mostly encumbered by the natural/supernatural dichotomy and its concomitant misapprehensions and conflicts, the art-science impulse matters very much, I think.
Exhibition: "Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond" (2000).
Re-assembled for Williamson Gallery exhibition, courtesy of California Science Center and Eames Demetrios. Photo credit: Steven A. Heller/Art Center College of Design.
JB: Art having the potential for education, on top of an aesthetic experience, is somewhat of a contentious idea, and especially relevant in SciArt. What are your thoughts about the merits of the educational aspects of science-based art, and what has been your experience with the reception of having a gallery serve as a place of education?
SN: This question of art’s pedagogical role as it relates to science interests me a great deal. I’m a big fan of STEM to STEAM, and artful connections to learning math, biology, astronomy, and other sciences. Anything that debunks stereotypes about art and science - the notion that they sit on opposite ends of a spectrum, or the right brain-left brain divide - is welcome. My own exposure to science in school was pretty dull - nowhere along the way was it expressed to me that science has a soul, and I think if you want people to know the world scientifically, no matter what their age, you need to grab them soulfully, emotionally.
But at the same time, I’m wary of the difference between a stereotypical science museum where exhibits are likely to be conceived within the context of mostly quantifiable criteria, and a place like Art Center’s Williamson Gallery where, as it were, more random particle interactions take place. I’m always struggling with the amount of didactic material to provide an exhibition and consistently err on the less-is-more - the experiential and unquantifiable side. My hope is not to have people leave the gallery with any new set of science facts, but rather for them to leave with a greater appreciation of how science can make them feel. I want them to go away confused about boundaries they thought were settled, for the exhibitions to provoke intellectual dissonance and conjure unexpected pathways of thinking. So the Williamson Gallery is a place where art and science combine alchemically, where borders are trampled, and admixtures of the two domains are proportioned experimentally. An art gallery pursuing SciArt is a uniquely charged environment for education, but its pedagogy should be osmotic and unaccountable—it is not the same as a science museum.
The interest in SciArt has clearly expanded in the last several years, as evidenced by new university programs, more exhibitions, international conferences, the STEM/STEAM movement, the Maker Movement, the growing embrace of transdisciplinary thinking in general - even the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Congress have launched art-science initiatives. Still, despite such proliferation, I think a lot of artists, curators, and writers have been slow to catch on to SciArt or to embrace it. Part of this is due to the novelty factor - the cheap thrill and spectacle of exposing strange bedfellows. I think SciArt is radical, but this seems to have not yet been fully articulated or recognized, perhaps obscured by the parts that are pleasing and awe-inspiring. For the 21st century’s version of the modernist impulse, art still needs to be confrontational as well as endearing.
There are multiple forms of the art/science coupling taking place, and they have different goals in the public sphere - humanitarian concerns based in design strategies and the solving of world problems; or educational strategies for using art to increase science literacy; or capturing the awe-factor in artistic expressions. They are, as I see it, all part of an emerging matrix, a new multi-disciplinary paradigm influencing how we view our world and the worlds beyond.
Exhibition: "TOOLS" (2009). Gail Wight's "Meaning of Minuscule" (2007) (foreground). Photo credit: Steven A. Heller/Art Center College of Design.
JB: Does the gallery have any upcoming events you’d like to share?
SN: Yes - I’m working with guest-curator Meher McArthur on a survey of origami art and design by Robert Lang (May 30 - August 17, 2014). In addition to being an artist, Lang is one of the pioneers of the cross-disciplinary marriage of origami with mathematics and has presented, refereed, and invited technical papers on origami-math at mathematical and computer-science professional meetings. He has consulted on applications of origami to engineering problems ranging from air-bag design to expandable space telescopes. He is the author or co-author of 13 books and numerous articles on origami art and design.
I’m also in the process of curating "REALSPACE" (October 11, 2014 - January 18, 2015). “Realspace” describes an appreciation of space and existence in their raw unmediated states - unbiased, as it were, by human processing. Like scientists, realspace artists are observers of and experimenters with this rawness - they probe the emotional, conceptual, and epistemological implications of living on a realspace planet in a realspace cosmos. While the notion of certainty in science is stipulated to always be subject to doubt and revision, science is nonetheless as close to the ideal of a raw and unbiased perception as humans can achieve. It is this willingness to proceed provisionally along the path to knowledge that in part bestows upon science its poetic dimension - its assertions of universal truths rendered sublime by its acknowledgements of their fallibility. No other philosophy of existence is so unselfishly willing to be proven wrong. The exhibition "REALSPACE" will feature artists who extract their material from the raw realspace environment of science, and explore its emotionally and conceptually dissonant dimensions.
JB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SN: There’s a standard cliché that one major difference between art and science is that science is calculated and art is passionate. I don’t agree with this distinction, but ironically a favorite poem of mine from Leaves of Grassby Walt Whitman would seem to confirm it:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
I rather prefer the interpretation that scientists would do well to join with artists to communicate the broad and powerfully emotional appeal of their endeavors. The Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman thought about it too: “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination - stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern - of which I am a part... What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”