“Science as a Wonder Machine” with Jill Scott

“Science as a Wonder Machine” (2015)
in conversation with Jill Scott

This text is part of “The Hypothetical Cabinet of Phlogistronics” publication and it’s related to the homonymous exhibition.

Jill Scott: I would like to start this conversation with your “Cave Caustics” projects, where you work with the phenomenon of caustics, or the effect of light being condensed by matter. What‘s your interest in exploring light or caustic behaviour with tools like 3D software?

Alan Bogana: I use these tools because they allow me to either slow down or magnify or control these dynamical and ephemeral phenomena. But most of all, they allow me to visualize phenomena that don’t exist in reality. The works from this project offer the viewer some realistic views about how nature works, but at the same time they depict unseen or impossible occurrences. For example, when I created the work Crystal Fire, the flames were defined with a translucent materiality caused by the index of refraction of a quartz crystal; a hybrid with the properties of plasmas and liquids, this generates peculiar caustics. I’m really interested in this ambiguous zone of speculation about what these computer simulated products might look like and how they relate to reality. What kind of truths or lies do these images convey?

JS: I notice too that you also create virtual objects that generate caustics, but then remove them from your videos and prints in the final result, keeping only the light behaviour as traces of their existence.

AB: We are so overwhelmed by information. One of the key challenges of the digital age is filtering, abstracting and reducing reality. By hiding the physical objects, I’m doing this in an extreme way. Normally the object itself would be at the centre of attention. Through this process we focus on discrete and ephemeral aspects of it. That’s also why the show is constructed partially in the dark, with moving lights that illuminate one thing at a time in order to put a focus on only some aspects of what is physically present in the show. The main aim is to develop an alternative visibility as the final artwork, as well as to explore different modes of perception.

JS: One of the main materials in the show are the minerals. You told me that you worked with 3D scans you made at the Mineralogy Museum MINES ParisTech in Paris and that they have a mineral collection dating back to 1794. Can you tell me more about that experience?

AB: My curiosity about minerals started with the work called Diamond Mountain Drift, which is inspired by the discovery of a planet made almost entirely of diamond called “55 Cancri e”. The caustics that could be generated by a virtual model of a mountain made of diamond intrigued me very much. I felt I wanted to explore these interactions of light and minerals by digital means. So, when I had a residency in Paris I contacted the Musée de Minéralogie MINES ParisTech. From the beginning, my idea was to give them a copy of the data if they would let me make the 3D scans of minerals from their collections. I was also very interested to see how they would use this data, and compare that use with my own use. Some of the specimens were too fragile or hard to see, let alone scan. Some specimens could scarcely be scanned due to reflections or transparencies and the actual limitations of 3D scanners. Because of these limitations, and because of my increasing fascination, I then started buying minerals to continue the research in my studio.

JS: Can you give me a couple of examples of your experience of working with particular minerals and with light? What were the inspiring ah-ha! moments during that activity?

AB: There really is an enormous richness and complexity of shapes and textures in minerals. In terms of shapes, the crystal-twinning phenomenon fascinates me a lot. These are intergrown crystals with symmetries. It used to be a recurring motif in several artworks I’ve done, before I got to know about it in greater detail in the field of mineralogy. These shapes also evoke the basics of computer graphics, because polyhedral shifts merge into each other. I’m also very fascinated by the opal, which reflects light in a very complex way, with shimmering colours. Again, it‘s interesting how this reflection can be connected to the field of 3D simulation and the quest for a mimesis of nature that drives its development. According to the experts in photorealistic computer graphics, the opal is one of the most complex minerals to be simulated in a physically correct way. Another example concerns notions of beauty. What’s beautiful about a rock?
Dealing with collectors of minerals, I had the impression that readability is often seen as an aspect of beauty, like a meteorite that bears very visible traces of its impact on the Earth. Then there‘s the whole aspect of taxonomy and the history of science which I wish to explore. All these specimens have been classified according to a series of mineralogical principles. I wanted to explore these boundaries between different specimens by means of digital manipulation. When looking through the collected data, I had the idea to sort of crossbreed the minerals. There‘s also another more subjective and amateur taxonomy of minerals that I came upon through buying specimens at minerals stores affiliated to the New Age movement and esotericism. That‘s a world I hadn‘t entered before, and it provided a stimulating contrast to the rational world of science. I was rather touched by what people project onto minerals and their potential power. Perhaps that power might even affect skeptics like me!

JS: Speaking of your interest in scientific and alternative taxonomies, you refer to a cabinet of curiosities or Wunderkammer through the title of the Langenthal show. This was a historical way of presenting knowledge across different disciplines, namely, art and science. Later, the classification systems of the 19th century museums shifted the contents of these cabinets away from phenomena and towards fact.

AB: While I was conceiving this show, I was wondering what objects would be part of a contemporary Wunderkammer. I thought that science and technology are really gigantic wonder machines, which mediate and enhance reality. Today, a huge amount of knowledge is generated every minute, and at the same time many occurrences still fluctuate between categories; it is hard to have one overview of a contemporary cabinet of curiosities. There are so many specialist fields, that it’s challenging to pursue a holistic view.

JS: Well, I think the strategy of embodiment helps to immerse a viewer in this level of wonder.

AB: You’re right. We have to be part of the Wunderkammer, and I try to achieve this immersive experience by the use of moving lights and by interaction with the space and the artworks.

JS: I am also thinking of the notion of scale. In one of your videos you take the scan of this mineral and make it come alive, floating and pulsating. The small rock becomes a mountain or a planet.

AB: It’s very hard to estimate the size of a rock by just seeing it in an image. Do you know the writings of the philosopher Roger Caillois, a very passionate mineral collector? He describes poetically how you can always see a landscape on a mineral rock. I’m quite surprised by the fact that the further we go into space exploration, the more we receive images and forms of other worlds that look like our own planet. For example, the landscapes on Titan, the moon of Saturn, which is thought to have methane rain, look strangely familiar on the images that reach us. When I try to imagine and depict alien worlds, I have to rely on the things on our planet. I cannot escape anthropocentrism. This impossibility is one of the things I want to transport in my work. I speculate on things we don’t know by transforming things we know. That’s a fundamental aspect of this show. I’m using my scalable and morphable scans of minerals to blur the boundaries between the organic and inorganic, the natural and the cultural.

JS: In this regard, let’s talk about holograms and making them visible. Why do you want to construct a three-dimensional image that you cannot see without external light, like lasers? Is it visibility or invisibility that you are after?

AB: Well both! In my sculptures I am actually looking for the tension between the two-dimensional support and the perception of a three-dimensional space. Holography is based on how light interacts with matter, the principle of the interferences of waves. It is a medium that clearly reveals how light behaves. These analogue tools I’m operating with to create holograms are also very hands-on. I like to explore lasers, optical elements and film, and how they interact with light in a sculptural way. I perceive this as a complement to the explorations I’m doing by digital means.
My fascination with holography dates back to my childhood. I always loved the idea of the floating ghost that doesn’t have a material dimension. Unfortunately, holography is now mostly known from security stickers.

JS: Yes, it has become very gimmicky, but there were a lot of artists in the 1960s making holograms and some kept exploring that medium, like the Australian artist Paula Dawson.

AB: Absolutely! There were holograms by Bruce Neumann, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, James Turrell, Ed Ruscha, and then several artists who specialized in this field, like Dieter Jung and Rudie Berkhout, who also worked with caustics. From a contemporary point of view, I try to explore the history as well as the materiality of this medium. I’m also exploring the rich aesthetics that the divisibility property of holograms offers. For example, if you cut a hologram in two, you will obtain two entire images on the two fragments. You may lose some information, but not the whole motif. This property of holograms is something quite counter-intuitive to what we define as an image nowadays. It’s an interesting medium, complex to work with and master, but then I don’t want to be confined to making holograms.

JS: I understand that you don’t want to be boxed in. I really believe that if an artist finds something fascinating enough, then others will eventually want to share that enthusiasm. If you want to understand the physics aspect of a phenomenon, are you interested in how scientists collect data?

AB: Indeed, I guess that is why I have been reading far more scientific papers and popular science than anything else lately. In relation to my research on caustics I could also study gravitational microlensing in astrophysics, or the game of life algorithms in computer science, or catastrophe theory in mathematics, or caustics in acoustics. The amount of knowledge potentially involved is extremely broad. So, the more I know about a field, the more complex, ramified and specialized it becomes. But as an artist I need to decide how far I want to go. How much do you need to know to deal with a topic, and then what do you do with this knowledge?

JS: I would be the first to say that artists should have a robust knowledge of science. They need to know the phenomenon and the scientific basics, so that they themselves can recognize the difference between objectivity and subjectivity, between the esoteric and the anatomical. Every artist has to say: this is the level of robust information I want, or do not want, to include in the work. Do you also take a stand in this way?

AB: I think it’s tricky to define the level of robustness of knowledge you mention. What I’m sure of is that I don’t want my artwork to impose any authority, objectivity or truth. I’m not doing science. Instead, my biggest aim as an artist would be to pose the right questions. For me it’s fundamental to draw connections between things in an intuitive way. Intuition and curiosity are the driving forces behind what I do.

JS: Physicists are clearly interested in exploring what is not known in relation to light and understanding caustic behaviour though mathematics. But what is the difference between the passionate curiosity of an artist and that of a physicist? I think they are similar.

AB: I would say the methodology. The outcome is ontologically very different as well. For me, artworks are entities for contemplation, which could, or could not, generate transmittable knowledge if put in relation to other entities. But for me being an artist is also about the freedom to “jump” between different fields, notions and ideas.

JS: So you don’t start with an interest in understanding?

AB: Yes, certainly, at the beginning of my research process. But with my final artworks I don’t want to claim the authority to say that what I’m doing is the truth or objective … misconceptions are also a driving force in my practice, and in some cases I welcome misconceptions on the part of the viewer perceiving the artwork.

JS: But you’re also setting up experiments to explore how light behaves, in a similar way to a scientist.

AB: That’s true, but I’m not really assuming any direct link to a scientific method or way of working, even though the tools I’m using look more and more similar to the ones used in science labs. I think that presenting scientific knowledge in art might make art too didactic or ancillary, especially if artists visualize or illustrate facts. That’s a different profession, scientific visualization.

JS: Well, I’m interested in blurring these boundaries, but I have to suffer didactic labels. If I show works in a science museum, the science audience thinks it’s too ambiguous, layered and metaphorical, and if I show in an art context, it’s too didactic. I’ve always been criticized for being between these two worlds. But you know what? I don’t care anymore. I’m exploring what I need to explore, whether it fits people‘s categories or not. Artists drive change and blur boundaries and they also create new contexts for discussion around their own research. There is already an international framework of discourse about creativity in art and in science. The discussions are very powerful and really interesting.

AB: I agree, I’m fascinated by the discourses in these different contexts, but I also have to remind myself of what I appreciate most in an artwork. Where’s the precious poetic aspect?

JS: If artists are honest, they realize that there is poetic potential in many of the impacts that scientific discoveries are having on society. You just have to educate the scientists about visual poetic metaphors. They’re often only used to literary analogies. Today, I think that artists like you are filters. You like the information available from science, but it’s a great challenge to include scientists directly in your dialogue. Scientists are open to it, but they need training. As we have found in our artists-in-labs programme, artists also like to talk to scientists.

AB: Yes, I’ve had the chance to have conversations with scientists from different fields in recent years and I was surprised how easily ideas flowed in the discussions. Somehow my bizarre associations made sense to them. They understood, for example, the inverse strategies that I was using in my simulations. For them, simulation is utilized to predict something or to control or prove a theory, but for me a simulation is an exploration to find out bizarre connections between things, or grey zones or ambiguous zones of light behaviour that don’t exist in reality, or cannot necessarily be proven to exist. Physicist Claudio Conti, director of the Complex Systems Institute at La Sapienza University in Rome, told me that it could be interesting to class all the different types of caustic catastrophes in my artworks in order to understand more about the phenomenon and the results, and he was fascinated by my images. At the same time we talked about holistic approaches to complexity as opposed to reductionist approaches. He’s a great proponent of the institute’s transdisciplinary approach, but aware of the fact that it can cause the researchers from many different fields there to feel like generalists rather than specialists in a particular field. These issues make me think about my label as an “artist”.
I want to preserve my freedom as an artist and find out what my role in the art-science exchange can be. Perhaps you might lose a certain freedom as an artist if you specialize in science. In my opinion you’ll see the trees very well, but you might lose sight of the wood.

JS: Well, I think this freedom comes from making interpretations of natural behaviour and structure rather than visualizations of reality. Most scientific visualization designers take data and visualize narratives based on the facts of scientific discoveries. Interpretations, on the other hand, can make analogies or even create fiction from scientific fact. In this way, science can just be a jumping-off point for artists, but if you are interested in science then you have to be able to say why? For example, the range extends from a number of artists who are working in the environmental sciences and need to use facts to wake people up, to other artists who might be interested in society and genetics. It’s hard to generalize. You, for example, are interested in the physics of photon particles, or how materials behave. When light hits a crystal, it’s the behaviour of light that scientists are interested in. It seems to me that you are using this interest as a starting point to fictionalize and speculate about the behaviour of light in relation to objects.

AB: You’re right. I even started using the term “visual science fiction” to describe my practice, although “the fictionalization of the behaviour of light” is a more precise description for some of my works. I like science fiction because it offers me a framework that relates to science but still enables imagination and speculation. I once read an article by a mineralogist on the “Mineralogy of Star Trek”.
He built a big database of all the fictitious minerals in Star Trek and the narrative function they had, but also the degree of reality and plausibility these minerals could have. Based on actual science, he asks if they could eventually exist in the universe. Frederic Jameson (in Archaeologies of the future) pointed out this narrative mechanism of fiction by analysing how a new primary colour is described in a science fiction novel and how some science fiction is closer to magic than science. Some of the fictitious minerals in Star Trek are described in a couple of sentences only, whereas Isaac Asimov wrote several pseudo-scientific papers on thiotimoline, a fictitious chemical compound he once invented.

JS: So in relation to your work, a central question would be: What degree of detail do you need to describe and conceive of an unheard-of mineral that reflects light in a completely unique way?

AB: Yes, and then what happens to people’s imaginations when the only thing left in the room is the trace of light that was reflected from that object?


Jill Scott is Professor of Art and Science Research at the Institute of Cultural Studies in the Arts, of the Zurich University of the Arts (ZhdK) in Zürich, Founder of the Artists-in-Labs Programme and Vice Director of the Z-Node PhD programme on art and science at the University of Plymouth, UK. Her artwork spans 38 years of production related to the human body, behaviour and body politics, but in the last 10 years she has focused on creative media art experiments in connection with neuroscience, ecology and sensory perception, resulting in the interpretative construction of interactive media sculptures with cultural implications.