Interviews - Vanta Black – a World Without Color
By Ana Elisa Sousa
Interview with Marie-José Daoust
April 27th, 2021
You were a philosophy teacher for a long time, and you have worked with many things and then you retired, and you became a volunteer guide at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. What motivated you to become a volunteer?
I had to occupy myself. I was always an active person and when you retire, at some point you realize that being on a perennial vacation is boring. I needed to keep my mind busy with projects. I started looking around for the kind of volunteer work I would like to do. I wanted my brain to explore new fields. Perhaps that's why I eventually became a guide at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I enjoyed it at the outset because - I keep saying this - it got me out of my head and into my eyes. I'm presently learning how to draw… I'm not practicing enough, but it's very different, being in your eyes and your hands, instead of always in your mind with only words and ideas. I like what this does, how works of art come to you as phenomena, and you make meaning out of them. You don't just get « information » out of them. You construct meanings and I find this interesting.
Did you already have a relationship with the arts that motivated you to go to the MMFA?
Yes and no. I wasn't much interested in art throughout my studies and teaching life. However, both my children are artists: my son is a cellist and my daughter is a visual artist. I've had many conversations on art with them. For example, I asked my daughter very naïve questions about her art, and it got me interested. Perhaps this helped pushing me into volunteer work in an art museum.
The first time I went to a museum, I must have been 17 years old, it was to see some Greek or Roman things. Then I visited a Picasso exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Not that I liked Picasso that much, but his crying women studies for Guernica deeply moved me: they're all undone, deconstructed, and that showed me what crying is – you’re falling apart. In school, I had encountered art only through our history and literature textbooks, they were usually illustrated with works of art, but they didn’t strike me that much save a few exceptions. I was more interested in logic, reasoning and demonstrations.
You mentioned Picasso, does his work inspire you? From what other artists have you taken inspiration?
I'm not particularly drawn to Picasso, but I find him immensely stimulating. What I find interesting is the history of art and the fact that when things start changing in society as a whole, it shows up in art. Artists somehow perceive this and try out new visual worlds and words to express it, a new language. And in doing so, they give this change a form and encourage it to go forward. So, it's not necessarily Picasso. I also like some Renaissance painters because things were changing then. I like Giacometti and how he evolved. I like Gerhard Richter’s abstract works, he considered them as real beings, having an impact on their surroundings, not just as objects of contemplation. I love Rembrandt, but not everything, some works in particular, his self-portraits for example, that I find ahead of his time. The visual beaux-arts include architecture, sculpture, painting, engraving and drawing. I'm more easily moved by architecture, the big cathedrals, the mosques and also some contemporary skyscrapers: I feel very small in a very big space and this has a strong physical and psychological impact on me, whereas with sculptures and paintings, though they may have an impact, I’m usually struck by works that I don't understand immediately. Our eyes are really fast at “getting it”, this is evolution's gift in some way: your brain wants to know “Is there anything I have to worry about here?”. In my case, once I've gotten past this short first glance, there remain elements that I don't understand, and this is what I’m drawn to explore.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work at the museum?
The museum has put on some virtual tours of different types and lengths. I did a three-minute video on a piece in our decorative arts collection. But there was no live guiding, so when our coordinator at the museum was looking for guides to work on this Parallel Worlds project, I said yes, YES, I was so happy to resume some kind of contact again, if only virtually. So that's it, we're not guiding that much, but I'm glad to have participated in Parallel Worlds because it's put me back into communicating with other people. I also went back to the museum and loved it – I found I physically missed the works.
You are also a guide for visually impaired people at the museum. Have you perceived that their relationship with art is different from that of not visually impaired people?
No, I have not perceived that their relationship with art is different, at least not with the few people I happened to guide repeatedly on tours. They came because they were interested in art. For them, of course, it's an outing and most often they have to be accompanied by a seeing person; only once have I had a person who could go about alone with just a white cane. The big difference for me is that I have to describe the work, and they want the work to be described as it is. They don't want me to describe a work as I fancy it or to lie about it, in other words, they want it described in as objective and true terms as possible. I take that very, very seriously. As one visitor once put it, they want me «to paint with words». And they ask questions. For example, as I was describing an abstract painting where a smaller square nestled in other larger squares, one woman asked many questions about that square: Is it in the middle? Is it higher up? Is it a bit on the side or not?
Whether or not they have visual memories anymore, they want to view and come to know a work, like any seeing person. Looking at the artwork for them means using me for their first glance at it. I therefore try to be as neutral as possible in my descriptions. So, that part is very different from tours with seeing persons. It’s a demanding exercise. Preparing for a tour for the visually impaired is a lot of work, but most rewarding: it taught me to distinguish as much as possible the meaning I tend to give a work at first or second glance from what is in fact there, in the work itself as it were. Thus, whatever the visitors, I now often discover details and meanings I had not myself been aware of in works I thought I knew well. I find it satisfying to link interpretations of works of art to a factual basis.
Once the artwork has been described and the factual questions about the work answered, we have conversations that are exactly like conversations I have with seeing persons. These visitors might be visually impaired, but I discovered with them that I am somewhat impaired myself. For example, I found that my own sense of touch is not very good. I see, and because I see, I don't need to touch that much. We can't touch the sculptures at the museum, but with the visually impaired visitors, we've permission to do so wearing gloves and no jewelry whatsoever. As I rehearsed for a tour, at some point I needed to touch a sculpture that I was seeing right there in front of me: I blindfolded myself and … I was lost. I had to work at it, peeking on and off, for a good ten minutes before I recognized with my hands what my eyes had seen. Whereas when they touch things, they're good, they're really good at knowing by touching things. So I don't think that they're that different. I'm not an expert on this, but I think that when they are already interested in art, their relation to it is the same as any seeing person.
However, perhaps being visually impaired might have as a consequence that the people around them do not think of bringing them to museums. Some museums, like the MMFA, have started to put up forms, shapes and works that non-seeing persons can touch. Even paintings can now be fashioned that can be touched so that the visually impaired can experience them. But this is recent and available only in a few museums. It has barely started at the MMFA. In other words, our environment tends to isolate people who are somehow impaired instead of getting them to enjoy art. In that sense, they might have a different relationship with art as they're less familiar with it. Simply because our social context is not made for them, it somehow excludes them. In my opinion, this goes for any impairment. If you're deaf go to a concert or put music on! You will probably feel something of the music.
How do you think art can help in the vulgarization of science?
Well… perhaps in finding metaphors, or analogies. Often in art, we interpret works as metaphors of what’s going on, or of what is «out there». Developing metaphors and analogies, talking them out and applying them is useful. I often talk to myself out loud and this makes me understand things. Art is a symbolic kind of thing. Your question is interesting, I’ve never really thought about it, so I am going out on a limb here. With art, we are dealing with symbols. And «vulgarizing» it, making it accessible to everyone, is like interpreting or transposing signs from one area to another. And there is also this idea of starting from basics. This is why I like the works that were chosen for the colloquium on the theme of Vanta black, they were mostly of a very basic nature: clear shapes and lines, black on white, white on black, darkness and light, and colors a bit. Lines, shapes and colour: the fundamental «words» of visual art.
Vulgarizing entails thinking ordinary people are intelligent and that if you explain things to them, even if those things are complicated, they will understand. You can get them to understand by using ordinary language, metaphors, analogies, comparisons and drawings and so on. I don’t know if art itself does this, vulgarizing I mean. But being with art cultivates this analogical or metaphoric ability, this kind of transposition humans do in art when expressing themselves or their world view. Moreover, keep in mind that to get people to understand something that is complicated or even counter-intuitive, for example the theory of relativity, you will not be explaining it in all its details. However, you want them to understand the thrust of this science and how as a consequence, you cannot think it true while fancying any other conception at the same time. Science is knowledge, not a personal opinion nor a dogma, but something to seriously take into account until proven otherwise. As ordinary people, whenever we’re at a loss about something, we need to ask ourselves: what do we know about it? Good vulgarization encourages this. And I think this capacity to do this, to vulgarize and explain, is a kind of creative ability.
What is your advice to scientists, but also to people in general who want to bring more arts into their lives?
There's going to museums of course (or concerts, etc.). But there's also putting oneself in a creative posture in everyday life. This is much easier said than done. To do this, we must let go of this reflex of «getting it right» - if you're doing science, you want to get it right, this is what is expected of you, and of course, the results you will arrive at will be considered valid until proven otherwise and this has consequences. To put oneself on a creative wavelength, I think you have to let go of that reflex of avoiding mistakes, you have to go out of your comfort zone. Remember that artists «create» - they don’t know in advance what they’re going to end up with. They have an idea, perhaps, but they grope their way along. So, you might perhaps want to try drawing, painting, sculpture …
For instance, I want to draw, I’m just beginning, I haven't been to a drawing class yet because in a sense it would be premature, it doesn’t work for me, I’d want to «get it right». I’m rather referring here to the experience of being at a loss doing something you’re not familiar with or good at but persevering anyway and finding that something may come out of it that you might be satisfied with, even though you'd throw it away two years down the road. As I have an objective mindset on things and am impatient to find the «right» answer, I find that putting myself in this position where I don't know the next step or «the right way» frees me from doing what is expected, therefore enables me to be «creative». Well, my drawings are not very good but, with a how-to book, I keep at it because for the time being, they teach me to tolerate this feeling of not knowing, of having to be patient with myself, of having to practice, to let my own questions come to light, to invent my own «drawing persona» as it were.
The competitive performance-oriented atmosphere of our social organization in general, and of contemporary science, works against art and creativity. Perhaps not always, maybe some artists thrive on this performance and competition ethos, I don't know. But in my mind, art is a place for discovery and creativity, but then, so is science.
Interview with Dr. Patrick Cavanagh
April 21st, 2021
Dr. Patrick Cavanagh is a Senior Research Fellow at Glendon College and a research professor at Dartmouth College. He received an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from McGill University and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Carnegie-Mellon University. He has been a professor at the Université de Montréal, Harvard University, and the Université de Paris. He currently studies visual attention, shadows, and how we know where things are. He has also explored the contribution of various features such as shadow, colour, and texture to representations in art and how the artists’ use of the features offers insights into how the brain works. He has published over 290 articles and book chapters and one book on shadows. He holds an honorary doctorate from the Université de Montréal and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
When and why were you first motivated to incorporate art in your scientific career?
Quite a while ago, when I was working at the Université de Montreal with colleagues at McGill we were interested in how you understood the shape of objects, especially what shadows contributed to understanding the shape of objects, how they told you what was above what, and what and where they were. We did a whole study on shadows and the shape cues that come from shadows. And while we were doing that, I was just amazed at how a dark area on a picture could look like a hole or looked like a black thing or like a shadow and how the brain understood that. And of course, was quickly clear that the first people who had to think about that were the artists, who had to understand how to make shapes out of lines and then add shading and reflection if they could and how that would help define a scene.
There's a really interesting history of how artists have used shadows, and what they can get away with. So, when I'm talking at the museum later, I'll be pointing out how artists understand what's necessary to convey a scene and the shape and the lighting and the shadow. And they also understand what they don't have to follow. You know, they don't have to make it photo realistic. They can put the shadows where they want. In fact, the human brain doesn't seem to care what the shadows are.
You obviously use a lot of art in your research, and I'm sure you're going to talk a bit more about that during the colloquium. Is art is part of your life in another way as a hobby? Do you have a favourite artist?
I can't draw, so I'm definitely not an artist, but I love and enjoy art. Mostly realistic landscapes, people. For the artists, I like James Turrell, who's kind of a visual artist and creates surfaces with light and space. Uh, so he, he's maybe one of the closest people to fish and research. All artists are vision scientists as they discover how to represent the world in ways that are not physically realistic. I mean, it's a flat painting after all, in many cases. But James Turrell is further out there because he's not dealing with pigments and paint. He's dealing with light and holes in walls and interesting stuff. So he's quite cool. And of course, people like Caravaggio, Vermeer and, Van Eyck and Roos Campman (?) are outstanding artists.
I had the lucky moment one evening to be able to go into the National Gallery of Art in London, just about six of us who were vision scientists. And one of us happened to be one of the trustees of the National Gallery, so we had an evening of our own looking at Caravaggio and some others. And the thing that struck me, because I could get up very close to the paintings, which I probably wouldn't be allowed to do in normal hours, was how they don't just paint, you know, black here and white there. There's this incredibly detailed, finally done slight blur to every edge. There was a craft there, but I'd not noticed in any photographs from museums or sort of standing back from a painting. But when you get up close, you see that they're not just drawing a light, dark edge or whatever it was that they understood things about. If the edge were a little bit fuzzy, it's much more captivating and naturalistic. So yeah, seeing their work up close was a real revelation.
Do you think that science can inform art? So for example, can the research you are doing with shadows help artists in their projects as well?
Well, maybe. Artists do all sorts of things by definition. They're just open to any possibility. We have worked with a number of artists in creating installations based on the science of colour, and on perceiving colour. We did one where the whole scene was rendered in pure colour. It was a three-dimensional volume that you would walk through and you can look at people, but that the brightness differences were gone. It was just in pure colour. People would slow down and motion would’ve seemed to stop and depth would disappear. There are a number of cases where we have had demonstrations based on science in art museums. Another one we had was called The Monster Flash. I got renamed Rhodopsin. That was done at the San Diego Art Fair and also in Paris and Palo Alto and New York.
So it's basically a huge flash [that] goes off. And first, you have to sit in the dark and then a huge flash goes off and whatever you're looking at in the room it's frozen as an after image on your eyes. And after a few seconds, it changes from being a colour after image, which we're mostly all familiar with, to a black and white positive after image that lasts 10 seconds or more. And that's based on the rod vision you have, which is what is usually used in dim light. So, that image is then frozen in front of you. The idea of this was first put together by an art colony in San Diego, they would try and get people to make different poses and freeze that pose and their vision and experience these different ways in which the structure of the image in front of you was constructed from this frozen image, although with no colour and kind of fragile because if you looked away, it would go away. [You’d have to] keep your eyes pretty steady.
So, we've had some interactions with artists with colour and that after image. In the cases where we did [collaborated] we also learned a lot from the artists. The ones who did the colour installation also had looked at how to modulate images on a screen. So there were more video artists, so we learned a lot from them as well, but some artists are interested in science and some not so much, they're on their discovering things. But we're always on the lookout for new things that artists might discover.
How do you see the use of art in communicating the science you do to the general public, not necessarily to other scientists?
Every presentation of science is a piece of art, and you have to present the work so that's engaging, visually in our case because we're doing visual science. And often what we do is use visual illusions, very large-scale visual illusions to really draw people in. And then we try and get to explanations of them.
That's part of what we're doing with David Byrne, who's a musician. He has a show, I guess you'd call it, but it's not a music show. It's an "experience show" called The Theater of the Mind. It involves 12 illusions and it's presented at a gallery. You go into it and each illusion is supposed to tell you that visual experience is really not just what's out there, it's something constructed by your brain. The [visual] illusions are a good way to show that.
After each illusion, there's a little debriefing in which you present the science. This was an awesome opportunity to bring science to millions of people who are great fans of David Byrne but might not have understood these different solutions or even been attracted to them otherwise. Thanks to him and other people like him you can use [art to communicate science]. You see that in science museums where there's always a section on visual illusion. So we captivate before and then get people interested in how the brain works.
How has your daily life as a scientist been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
We're very privileged in having jobs that are not too hard to complete from home. So some of the research has been done by online experiments, so we can set up programs and have people participate in our vision experiments through web interfaces. And that's worked pretty well. I have lots of zoom meetings with collaborators around the world instead of travelling, which I would have done. We don't have many in-person subjects in our experiments as usual. So yes, there's been an impact, but far less on us than on, let's say the restaurant industry or, many others that have been crushed by the pandemic. So we feel very privileged to be able to continue working during the pandemic without that much taken away.
If a fellow scientist would like to incorporate more art in their research, what would be your advice?
You have to have a question about which art offers interesting data. So in our case, the question was how does vision work? And art is one way to test how vision works. The other way would be to have photographs or real scenes. But the special thing about art is that artists can manipulate the scene and get away with it. So our interest in art was that, one of them. I don't know what other questions you might have of that variety. So it's not obvious why you'd pick art over a photograph, or just a real scene or a computer-generated scene. But in our case, it was because the artists know tricks and those tricks reveal the shortcuts the brain has.
The other thing we have studied is not art but artists. Artists have tens of thousands of hours of experience in representing the world, so we want to understand what artists know about the world and how they use that to construct drawings and sketches and paintings. We have studied artists, asked questions [such as] is their perception any different from a non-artist? How about their memory? Do they have different memory for scenes? So that was great. I think you could get it at a number of scientific questions by looking at artists. The number of questions you might get at by looking at the art itself is maybe more limited.
But yes, if you’re asking how you can bring art into your research, you have to have a good question for which art is a unique answer, or you could study artists and ask questions about memory. [There are] lots of interesting cases of patients who've undergone brain damage, and you can track the nature of their experience in the world by their art, if they happen to be artists. So quite a few famous artists who had strokes for example, or schizophrenia, and continue to make art as their problems progressed. And, for some of them, when their problems went away. So that gives you an insight into how they experienced the world that you don't get by just asking them questions or doing tests. I think art and brain damage is certainly one interesting avenue.
Did you find any differences when you were comparing perception and memory in artists?
Oh, yes. A lot. So, this was with Florian [Pedreau] in Paris [Université Paris Descartes]. He and I found out that artists have no difference in perception. A lot of people thought artists might have a sort of more raw experience of the world that would help them draw it as it was rather than as it is seen, but that's not true. They have the same response to all the sort of light and illusions that non-artists do, but in terms of visual structure, it's completely different. They can look at a scene and recall and reproduce its structure with a very brief glimpse. Their ability to organize what they see and keep it in memory in a very compact format goes well beyond what non-artists have. So that's the real difference, is in their memory, how they structure things, and it'd be like a chess player.
An expert chess player knows all the different patterns of the pieces on the board. They mean something to them, they just look and it means something, whereas a novice player looks at it and sees separate pieces. So artists may be more like that, when they look around a scene, they really capture a high-level structure of the scene much more completely than we would. We would see a little door here and a blind there, and they'd get sort of the whole gist of the structure of the room, the piece.
Artists look at the world differently from the general population. An eye-tracking study conducted by Vogt and Magnussen in 2004 showed that trained artists (right side) spent less time looking at focal points (here, a face or a silhouette) and more time scanning the overall image compared to non-artists (middle). Eye-movement patterns for each group are represented by the yellow lines (Vogt & Magnussen, 2004).
Interview with Bettina Forget
April 27th, 2021
When did you first encounter the convergence of science and art in your life? When did it click to you that you could join things together?
Well, that was when I was doing my undergrad. I was living in Singapore at the time, pursuing a BA in Fine Arts at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts/Curtin University. At the same time I was starting to be active in amateur astronomy. During the day I would make art and at night I would pull out my telescope and start observing the sky. As my degree progressed, it occurred to me that what I was doing at night could inform what I was doing during the day, and I started to make astronomically informed art. Quite frankly, my professors didn't quite know what to do with me because I was a little ahead of the curve. There wasn't really much astronomical art around at the time. I was frequently being referred to as making landscape art because “what you're painting is like a landscape, it's just really far away”. This is where I realized that my work exists at an exciting connection point: the convergence of art and science.
So they didn't have a name for that. That's interesting.
I discovered later that there exists the International Association of Astronomical Artists, the IAAA, and that they had been around for a while. The IAAA members do mostly illustrative work. You'll find their illustrations in Scientific American or Astronomy Magazine. I found out about them a little later, but when I was doing my BA the art-science movement was just emerging.
And you're still working with that convergence between astronomy and art. Now it's long-lasting love.
The last time I heard from you, you were starting as a director at SETI, at the Artists in Residence (AIR) Program. How is that going? What have you been doing there?
It's going great. I'm just so delighted with my position at the SETI Institute. I get to facilitate conversations between extremely talented artists and ourSETIInstitute’s researchers. We have a group of phenomenal mid-career artists like Xin Liu, for example, who is also is a curator at MIT Media Lab in their Space Exploration Program. She's doing amazing, poetic work. Check out her project Living Distance, where she sent her wisdom teeth into space. That film was actually nominated at the 2020 Sundance Festival. Our current cohort also includes the experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats who's doing thought-provoking work. He’s creating a lending library for aliens called The Library of the Great Silence. His concept is toset up a Wunderkammer (a cabinet of curiosities) that is filled with objects that symbolize significant moments in humanity’s quest for survival. The main library would be installed at the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array in Northern California. I’m working with people who are incredibly creative and brilliant. That also includes our Institute’s researchers.If you are an exoplanet researcher, for example, or an astrobiologist, you are not just focused on anthropocentric navel-gazing. Their work deals with big philosophical questions, like “Are we alone in the universe?” and “What's the origin of life?”There is a lot of overlap between philosophy, art and science.
To highlight the AIR program we do regular SETI Live events, which are interviews of about half an hour with artists and researchers. We broadcast those on Facebook, on YouTube and on Twitch. These are really compelling conversations. Since I've been the director, I've been workingwith our communications team to have artists represented about once a month. We've had the world-renowned astronomical artist Ron Miller earlier this month, and before that we talked to the Mexican composer Felipe Pérez-Santiago, who's working on the Earthling Project together with Jill Tarter, one of the founders of the SETI Institute. Felipe is collecting human voices from all over the world using the Earthling app, which he created for this project. He will then use the crowd-sourced song samples to compose an opera that represents all of humankind. So, our AIR program artists are working on absolutely amazing projects.
Is there a channel that people can access and see the interviews?
Yes, they’re mixed in with the regular SETI YouTube channel and sometimes they are tagged with “SETI AIR”, so you can check them out.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everybody's lives and work. How is it going for you? How does a typical day look like now? How is that different from before the pandemic?
Well, there are a lot of Zoom meetings. At first, when the pandemic hit and my calendar was empty I had felt this weird disconnect because I'm normally always out meeting people at coffee shops, or in my studio, or I’m going out to vernissages and events, and suddenly my agenda was just wiped clean. Then Zoom meetings started. Now I feel more connected with everyone because we are just a click away. I have wonderful meetings with the SETI AIR artists and with our researchers. We actually do a monthly SETI AIR Happy Hour where we invite all our current and past artists, our curators, and anyone from the SETI Institute who wants to join. The Happy Hours turn into really inspiring conversations. And they're totally unstructured, I don't provide an agenda. You just chat about what you're working on. Suddenly we're talking about consciousness, or the origin of life, or whether we can send a message into the future. That last topic was raised by an art organization we're collaborating with called Theater Mitu. They installed a phone booth that people can use to send messages to the future; it’s part of their project Utopia. It’s going to be performed in their Brooklyn-based theater this fall. So, we have these amazing, spontaneous conversations. We are all dialing in from different time zones: Mexico, Dubai, from the West Coast, from Europe, but everyone makes the time to chat. I hope that we will continue to do this even after COVID because it's just phenomenal.
What advice would you give to a fellow artist that wants to incorporate more science in the work?
I think it’s a good idea to pick an area of science that you're passionate about. Whether you're into astronomy, botany or biology, engaging with science can change your perspective. However, don’t just be compelled by the aesthetics of science. Looking through a microscope is phenomenal, the imagery it reveals is beautiful. Still, creating a straight-up visualization should only be the first step. I would advise to dig deeper, to really research your chosen field of science, because that's where the ideas come from. Ask yourself why the scientists are conducting this research. What is the underlying research question? It's the big questions that drive transdisciplinary practice. This is where it becomes interesting. This is what drives both scientists and artists. Posing questions is the most fundamental overlap between art and science. If artists are interested in venturing into science-informed research-creation practice, that is really where they need to go. Artistic research-creation requires scientific research. You'll find out wonderful things, nothing is more beautiful than nature. So just dig in.
Do you see that a lot, that when artists think about science and doing work with science, they go straight to the aesthetics and stay there instead of going deeper to the big questions?
Yes. I think at first you’re compelled by the visual quality of scientific imagery. As an artist, of course, you first gravitate to this aspect, you think “Oh, nice colors” and “look at the shapes”. I think to settle into a scientific research area and to really to understand it, there's a lot of aesthetic visual production that happens first. I do that too; I settle in and I take out my pencil and start drawing things. Drawing helps me to engage with the subject matter on a more fundamental, profound level. Drawing makes me feel more comfortable in a research area and inspires me to investigate. The important part is not to stop there.
There's a lot of fetishization of science as well. I see many installations with lab coats, lots of Petri dishes and the various accoutrements of science, and it looks so smart and so important. But what are you saying - what is your message? I would advise artists that creating an aesthetic response should only be the first step. Go beyond it. Get to the real questions.
Could you tell me a bit about the artists and scientists that most inspire you, or that has recently inspired you?
I love Olafur Eliasson. He does beautiful work. I love what he said in the Netflix series Abstract, about how he works. He goes by the “wow/a-ha’’ principle. First, a viewer should experience the“wow, this is gorgeous.”But this should be followed by an“a-ha, there is also an idea.” Viewers should always learn something, there should be a take-away. I also love his transparency.He is very open with how he experiments with materials and processes. You should check out his Instagram account where he documents his studio work.
Neri Oxman is also amazing. She’s at MIT, where she pioneered the field of Material Ecology. I love her work. And, of course everybody at the SETI Institute, all our AIRs are incredibly talented.
For example, Charles Lindsay, our first artist in residence and founder of the AIR program, did this project about talking to whales called Code Humpback. His questions was: if we're going to talk to aliens, should we maybe start talking to other species on our own planet first? These sorts of questions are so joyous and compelling. Right now Charles is working on the idea of having a Mars rover create a Zen garden as it's driving around. He comes up with great concepts.
And the fact that the artists are asking those questions too, not only the scientists, is amazing.
That’s right. This is why we have the AIR program. I mentioned Jill Tarter earlier, she is one of the founders of the SETI Institute. If you've ever seen the movie Contact with Jodie Foster, it is actually based on Jill's life, she is the Jodie Foster character. I asked her once why she championed the AIR program. She said “Artists really ask interesting questions. They come out of left field. I never thought of my research this way.” The scientific method is reasonably linear, though it’s not as linear as it pretends to be. Artists tend to be more associative, more non-linear, so they’ll ask the scientists “have you thought of this?” It's very helpful to our researchers to have these kinds of interactions. The scientists are not just muses. There’s a really great recursive conversation that takes place in the AIR program.
Can we know a bit more about the workshop that is coming up on Sunday? What can we expect from it?
I love that we're starting with Vanta Black in a series of workshops about colors, because color is a function of light. We're starting with the absence of light, the question of what light does, and why we need light to perceive the world around us. I've put together a workshop that is very experimental and iterative. This is not a workshop where you spend two hours to create that one perfect artwork. We're going to explore and experiment. Because I’ll be teaching online and not everybody has the same software, art materials, or access to internet resources, the workshop design is very flexible and dynamic. The workshop is framed around the idea of the self portrait. How do you recognize your face? What makes you, you? To what extend do light and dark play a role in making you - and anything - visible?
In its simplest form, drawing a portrait is typically done with pencil and paper. That means we’re already abstracting, making a face emerge out of the light by working with lines and shadows. We’re also going to reverse that and work with light on dark ground. There is also going to besome experimental photography using a smartphone and a simple light source, like a flashlight. We will be working both from light into dark and from dark into light. I'm also very interested in the idea of face recognition, both from a neuroscience point of view but also from a more technological perspective. During the workshop we’ll go online and visit a website that generates “fake” portraits. This will bring the conversation into a more contemporary space. What does web-based AI do? How do you feel about the fact that anyone can reverse-image search your profile picture on Google? What if you don't want that? How could you change your face so you become more anonymous? You would still recognize yourself, but would others recognize you? I’m very interested to have conversations around those topics. The workshop will start with the concept of color, explore the scientific ideas that underpin our understanding of light and dark, then move into art history and art making, and finally bring the conversation into a more contemporary digital space. I always like to explore big questions, so this should be a good progression. I think a lot of this workshop will be driven by the group dynamic. My aim is to provide creative prompts and inspiration, and then let everybody respond in their own unique way. I think it'll be a lot of fun.
Oh, wow. I'm excited, I'll be there. All right, Bettina, thank you so much for your time. I'll see you on Sunday.
This is great. Thank you so much. Take care.