Rejoicing in the Rejoining of Art and Science at CODAME Intersections
Vanessa Chang is a curator, writer, and educator with CODAME ART+TECH. She is a lecturer in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts, and her current research is centered on innovations in new media, artificial intelligence and the arts.
Chang is also the lead curator for the upcoming CODAME event, Intersections, at the Leonardo Convening, November 3–4 in San Francisco. She and I spoke about the importance of Leonardo and forums like it, as well as the central themes of the upcoming Intersections exhibition and a few standout works that will be on view.
Irene Malatesta: Leonardo is an academic journal, a forum for artists and interdisciplinary creators to share ideas. One thing that stands out to me is their declaration about the Convening: “This event is the culmination of the 35 international celebrations for our 50th anniversary. We are crossing industries, fields and boundaries in order to make deep intentional experiences.” Can you speak a little bit about what this means to you?
Vanessa Chang: The Leonardo Convening is an event that culminates a year of celebrations, experiments, and explorations marking their 50th anniversary. They have been doing a series of design thinking processes leading up to this, with other events happening around the world. The Convening is in many ways about marking where Leonardo is, and then figuring out where they want to go for the next 50 years.
I think this is a really interesting approach to making connections and Leonardo is all about building connections and exploring intersections. There will be some keynotes but it’s also about art-driven processes and workshops, and creative ways of cultivating interdisciplinary and collaborative thinking.
I think for many, it may be tough to get your mind around this thing that is neither a conference nor a festival but it sounds like a little bit of both, very educational in spirit and also quite interactive. Can you speak a bit about what you believe an “intentional experience” is?
VC: I see it as a disposition towards connections, conversations, and discourse. I think they’re trying to set some parameters by which people can interact. The daytime will have workshops led by artists, performers, or scientists that invite engagement, and where the parameters are defined so that the experience is there to be had. It’s almost like design thinking and practice, or perhaps like experiential ethnography. That’s what comes to mind.
Leonardo is an academic journal for artists and Leonardo says, “It boasts the peer-review rigor of a scientific journal.” What do you think is special about the community of people who are not just academics, who are not just artists, but who straddle the line and really define themselves as both?
VC: In the last few years, I’ve met so many more of them than I knew were working in this space. What’s special about them? Journals like Leonardo really have a wonderful standard for arts-based research, in that they understand art itself as a form of research and exploration. I think that artist-scholars can use art and the artistic approach as a valid mode of asking questions, exploring answers, that is in fact “rigorous.”
What’s interesting about Leonardo is that it’s an MIT Press journal, which as a press and as an institution have been conducting really deep work at the intersections of art and science for a long time. When people think of MIT, they often really think of a very scientific and technical approach to inquiry. Yet I know that books I read from MIT press are often a home for artist-academics. I’ve read some of those books while doing research for my own dissertation.
You’re an educator, lecturing at the California College of the Arts. Can you talk a little bit about what your professional world is like and maybe your specialties or your specific interests to your curatorial projects?
VC: For me, there’s incredible overlap between what I do as an educator or what I do as a researcher and scholar and as a curator. I have been fundamentally motivated by a few different questions. For example, how do we move through the world? How does that shape our experience of being in the world? How does moving alter perception? And, how does technology factor into that equation and how in turn is there this dialogue between ourselves, our perceptions, our embodiments and the media that we use, and the need to create?
What was most generative for me was looking at artwork that considered and worked through these questions. These projects often offered new questions, and surprising perspectives. That has been my research and I pursue that in a few avenues. I have quite the appetite for interdisciplinary work.
I also take all this into consideration as a curator. Thematically, what are the motivating questions of a particular exhibition that I’m trying to think about? And how can we materialize those concepts and questions in engaging ways?
What are different works doing to invite that engagement? And how to position them in ways that can generate a productive conversation among them that people can experience as they move through it?
For Intersections, you selected works with a few distinct, thematic narrative threads. Can you explain what those threads are and what the motivating questions are for Intersections?
VC: This is an interesting exhibition to be part of, because of the particular project and the particular investments that Leonardo has. Yes, this is a CODAME event, but as part of that larger whole it must engage with what those investments are: interdisciplinary collaboration, partnership and a sense of history, it being the 50th anniversary of Leonardo.
From that viewpoint, several strands emerged that seemed important. One of the major ones would be, the algorithmic. This is a major theme in most CODAME events and exhibitions, and Intersections is no exception. This is work that deals with code and computation, data, and how that’s parsed from different perspectives.
A second strand is the organic and the environmental. This has been an important part of the domain of science. In the past 10 years or so these concerns have become very important in the humanities and social sciences as well. The environmental humanities, eco-criticism and the environment, have become very significant, as in many ways we are living in a world of catastrophe. I see a lot of scholarship, but also increasingly artwork, that’s trying to reckon with questions around what is organic, what is the environment, and what is our relationship to the environment.
Third, I looked at more broadly-conceived effects of science and technology on perception and the perceptible.
There are overlaps among these three domains throughout the exhibition. I think that when you think about the organic and you think about the algorithmic, it’s also important to step back and consider the lenses by which we look at these things. People hold up science as, in some ways unbiased, right? Science is rational and has certain logical principles we can apply consistently.
That’s in many ways true, but it also comes with its own ideologies and its own lenses. I wanted to turn that around a bit and have at least some representation and acknowledgement of what technologies do to our perception of the world, whether the camera or the particle accelerator.
I think it’s really interesting how science and art are often positioned, in casual discourse, as being opposing sides, opposing factions, in the way that we approach the world. It seems like Leonardo’s project is really centered on saying, “No, that’s not true. Those are two tools that we use and they’re both valid, and they go together as human beings try and make sense of the world with our limited choices.”
VC: I think with those elements, there’s something about the post Enlightenment fissuring of ideas into disciplines. When you’re talking about science, think of scientists and artists in the Renaissance: there is no real separation there. They were just learned people. They were the same people.
Yes — Leonardo, for one!
VC: Exactly. The idea of rigor and systematic inquiry has been falsely separated from art. I think what Leonardo is trying to do — this journal, this group and this exhibition — is trying to marry those two things very intentionally, and expose the ways in which they’ve always been interrelated.
There’s this moment, particularly, that I would mark in the post-war mid-20th century when this overlap becomes way more visible and prevalent. That is the moment that gives birth to something like Leonardo, where explorations in science and explorations in the museum have really informed each other.
That’s something to consider as we think about Leonardo and that’s why the algorithmic is really important to consider. It’s not just because it is in every facet of our lives, but due to the post-war emergence of cybernetics and developments in computation in the latter half of the 20th century. This lays the groundwork for how we think about art and science.
I want to go back to strand number two, the organic and the environmental. This is something that I’m finding really interesting lately, especially in light of the news this week [about the recent climate report, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a non-partisan panel of scientists gathered by the United Nations to advise global leaders]. I’ve just begun to read the headlines, and it’s terrifying. According to the New York Times, the report describes “describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040.”
Are there connections between this social-political moment, this climate, and specific works or narratives that are exhibited here?
VC: Yes, absolutely. We’ve got several works in the Intersections show that speak to that. The most explicit would be “1945 to 2015”, which is a collaborative dance performance between The Climate Music Project, composer Richard Festinger, and Kinetech Arts [with choreographers Daiane Lopes da Silva and Tanja London]. It follows the development of scientific data about climate change from 1945 to 2015, using projections and dance.
It’s my understanding that the organization and their partner, The Climate Music Project, are using art as something of a call to action, to try and embody and give aesthetic life to this data.
Our relationship to data is something that I also wanted to foreground in this exhibition. They’re showing the second part of a three-movement series, and 1945 to 2015 is about how much the carbon is rising in the atmosphere, massive population growth, and increased human land use.
That’s the work that I think is trying to really enliven, really bring data to life. What’s fascinating about this report is it’s not going to do anything on it’s own. It’s a terrible thing.
What the piece tries to do is to vivify, if you will, the data. You can have an overwhelming majority of scientists say, “Look, here are the facts,” but maybe facts aren’t going to be enough. How do you mobilize people around that? Maybe art is one path to that.
Another piece is an installation by the artist Tiare Ribeaux. It’s a work called Cyanovisions. It is about algal blooms of cyanobacteria. She’s thinking about life as a complex system at a micro level and at a macro level. The work will involve actual cyanobacteria bubbling in these beakers. With Jody Stillwater, she’s making a short speculative film about a future where microbial life are seen and understood as divine. So imagined, this work comes closer to the very stuff of life.
What’s interesting in that context is that, because of climate change, I believe harmful algal blooms are increasing. So, it’s a very earthy and also fantastical approach to envisioning the ways we interact with the environment. I’m really eager to see what she does with that.
Are there other specific works you want to mention that really capture these themes?
VC: Yes. Actually, I’d like to mention one work that captures some of these questions. Jiayi Young has a piece that’s she’s created with a number of collaborators, called, “What Does the Bot Say to the Human?”
The artwork takes actual election data from the 2016 US presidential election from Twitter — and as we all now know, the role of Twitter, bots, and AI in that election is a big, and still unfolding, story. Young [and her collaborators, including Weidong Yang, Shih-Wen Young, Qilian Yu, and Bartek Kłusek] take that data and translate it into the movement of fluid and speakers, and lights, and there’s this notion of infection that the bags and the fluid are meant to embody.
There’s this sense that there’s something fundamentally organic and biological about something really algorithmic and ephemeral, and that I think really embodies some of these questions we’re trying to reckon with in this exhibition.
In many ways, throughout Intersections, we’re asking: how do we mediate our relationship to technology, to the environment, to the world. What are our feelings around it? How do we interact with things that aren’t even alive? What does it mean to be alive?
On Saturday, November 3rd, 2018, from 6pm-10pm, projection, installation, and performance art will enliven the beautiful Fort Mason campus at San Francisco Art Institute. Join this bold, curious, and talented crew of artists, scientists, and technologists for an unforgettable cross-disciplinary evening as part of Leonardo/ISAST 50th year celebration of visionary collaboration between art and science.
In Intersections, we invite you to touch, listen, watch, and feel the profound transformations we have wrought upon our living world, and that world upon us. Come journey with us through the particle accelerator, the network, the camera lens, the data cloud, the waterway, and the algal bloom.
Get your tickets for CODAME Intersections here.