On Open and Narrow Readings of Phenomena and Theories in Art and Science

Posted: October 26, 2018 at 3:56 pm

Last night a subset of the LOoW folks got together at Emily Carr for a presentation on emergence from an artistic perspective and have some informal discussions at a pub.

I just wanted to reflect a little here and focus on things that really stood out from the discussion. The physicists in the room brought up the idea of emergence (as the emergence of surprising behaviour due to the interactions of numerous believed-to-be understood components) in condensed matter physics. In the discussion some tensions between particle physics and condensed matter physics became visible. I’ll need to return to condensed matter physics later on (as I had not heard that term), and a quick look at the wikipedia page seems to indicate we’re talking about modelling complexity at the transition between states (solid to liquid, etc.). Through the discussion I kept thinking about disciplines and these various senses of “emergence” (e.g. coming from the dark into the light), and I realized that my initial and implicit sense of emergence comes from the influence of fractals, ALife, autopoiesis, self-organization through my artistic career. I realized that my sense of emergence is really about complexity science as a meta-discipline.

It is interesting that the LOoW theme of emergence came out of an effort to “even the playing field” between artists and scientists. The previous theme (dark matter) put physicists in a strong position of power where artists were significantly challenged. Emergence may be challenging for both physicists (at least particle physicists) and artists alike. The idea of “Emergency” also came up as a definition of emergence not as something coming into the light or surfacing, but an event that may be sudden and unforeseen and we may not be sure how to deal with it.

I had not read much about Olafur Eliasson and was surprised by the degree of overlap I share with him in terms of my practise. I strongly share Olafur’s sense of an artwork being a proposition that is never complete, a seed in a process that engages the viewer through material (or for me information) and becomes more than the artists intention. There is also this notion of art as “reality producing”, which is really interesting in the context of my practise where knowledge is considered an artistic material, as well as the notion of Machine Subjectivity and the idea of mind as an organ that produces reality.

Through the talk and some of the discussion I started to think about a framework that encapsulates some of the themes that came up. The idea of an open or narrow interpretation came up as a tension between art and science; I kept thinking about the relation between a description of a phenomenon and the phenomena itself. The following follows from my most recent publication: Imagination, Art and Reality in Intersecting Art and Technology in Practice: Techne/Technique/Technology.

I found myself thinking about a continuum between narrowness and openness of interpretation of both the phenomenon (the object of study / observable reality) and the material manifestations of theory (models, mathematical equations, diagrams, publications, etc.). In the chapter, I describe a continuum between Reality / Validation and Culture / Theorization.

On one end (Reality / Validation), we have very narrow interpretations of both the phenomenon and the theory purported to explain / predict it. This means the phenomenon and the theory are highly constrained in terms of interpretation and there is a clear mapping between them. The theory is representational and likely high fidelity.

On the other end (Culture / Theorization), we have increasingly broad interpretations of both the phenomenon and the corresponding theory. The theory and the phenomenon are less constrained in terms of interpretation where multiple mappings between the components of the theory and the phenomenon are possible. The theory is abstract and likely low fidelity.

This continuum is meant to integrate both art and science as processes of understanding the world through the construction of material manifestations of theories in a cultural context. Science work can happen at both ends where theoretical and experimental physics coexist. The link between a theory and the phenomenon may be tenuous: turns out there is no clear validation of String Theory; it’s a set of easily tweaked relations that do not demonstrably connect to measurements. Art practise can also happen at both ends; an artistic work could produce highly realistic results (consider a photograph or hyper-realistic painting), or could be highly abstract and open to many possible interpretations (e.g. abstract art).

Up to this point I’m just summarizing the chapter. Now, the insight I had in the LOoW meeting was a separation of this sense of narrowness / openness of interpretation of phenomenon and the theory. A phenomenon could be interpreted with high fidelity and narrowness, or with low fidelity and openness. A theory could also be interpreted with high fidelity and narrowness, or with low fidelity and openness.

I’ll use the word “reading” to describe the act of interpretation of both a theory and a phenomenon. We can think of a chain of operations: Phenomenon → Reading → Theory → Reading. I’ll set aside the manifestation of concepts into material (writing).

Art may often be an open description of a phenomenon (Artist reading / experiencing the world, or self) to create works where the description (artwork) itself is also open to interpretation;  the viewer creates meaning by associating structures and symbols to their own experience.

Science may be a narrow description of phenomena (high fidelity measurements of the world) to create works where the description (theory / model) is narrowly interpreted; the reader / reviewer creates meaning by situating a paper in a discipline / culture that constrains the number of possible readings.

These two continua lead to four combinations of open and narrow interpretations of phenomenon and theory:

  1. Open reading of phenomenon
  2. Narrow reading of phenomenon
  3. Open reading of theory
  4. Narrow reading of theory

Art may likely lean to 1,3 (e.g. abstract painting) and 2,3 (e.g. photography, hyper-realistic painting) pairs where science is likely to emphasize 2,4 (e.g. experimental physics) and 1,4 (e.g. theoretical physics) pairs. Art may emphasize open readings of theory and science may emphasize narrow readings of theory. What would it mean to invert this such that art emphasizes a narrow reading of theory and science emphasizes a open reading of theory?

Something I’m struggling with thinking through this is my sense of a narrow reading being an illusion due to my post-structural tendency (as manifest in Aporia, for example). How can we ensure a narrow reading? Does a narrow reading of a theory require a narrow cultural context (specialty / sub-field) shared between reader and writer?

The approach I usually take is to do the hard work of developing literacy in the discipline in order to narrow my reading. At the same time, my being an outsider and (relative) lack of training and specialism means even though my reading would narrow, it would likely still be more open than that of a specialist. I think this is a place where an artistic contribution to science can be made: a greater emphasis on a higher level description facilitated by letting go of lower level details—being able to see the forest from the trees.

The alternative would be to let go of my tendency to build that literacy and jump right in to an open interpretation. As an outsider, I can imagine easily taking an scientific paper describing some phenomenon and making a reading of it without sufficient literacy. I’m reminded of the LOoW exhibition from the last phase. I had a sense that physicists and artists were often talking past each other; accessible aspects of theory (e.g. the concept of darkness in dark matter) become amplified; small and difficult to comprehend  details that are potentially interesting may be suppressed in this process of artistic reading of science theory.

I’m thus left reinforced in my approach to do the hard work of literacy in order to consider narrow readings of theory by bringing a narrowness of reading in tension with the tendency of my discipline for openness.

The correlate on the science side is for a scientist to open their reading of theory. While the theoretical physicist may loosen their reading of a phenomenon to emphasize some aspect of a theory, I think there is still a strong tendency for the theory to be read very narrowly.

This opens quite a few questions: What would it mean for a scientist to read a theory with more openness? Would it require an outside perspective where the theory is situated in another discipline / culture? Who decided to look at crowd flow as a fluid? This certainly involved letting go of specialist detail (humans are agents capable of very diverse and complex behaviour) in order to emphasize a higher level description where they are described as simple components. What is the generative and knowledge generating potential of scientists (and artists) moving back and forth between open and narrow readings of theory (and phenomenon), rather than staying at a single level of description?

So this post ended up extremely long and I’ve spend days on it so I’m going to stop here. A few interesting things came up in my discussion with Djuna; I’ll just list them for future investigation:

  • Phenomenology in Physics
  • Taylor Expansion
  • Effective Field Theory
  • Bell’s theorem