06 February 2007

Faux-Science Art, Faux-Art Science

As a person who knows very little about real science (and what little I know is entirely NOT my fault or doing), I appreciate humorous attempts at faux-science. My dad (ahem—the man solely responsible for the science I’ve managed to comprehend) once showed me a brochure, packed with information about an animal I’d never heard of—the nauga—and its plight to survive extinction given the huge human need for naugahyde. A few years following, my brother gave him a shining example of faux-science. A “Teach Your Chicken to Fly” book, complete with the aerodynamics of it worked out in graphs and charts, and all the metrics you’d need to reproduce the author’s results with your own flock. Brilliant, fake, and funny too.

More recently, J.K. Rowling published two of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts textbooks. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” began with (what for children would certainly be) a very lengthy and involved discussion of the distinctions and classification criteria between beasts and beings. It included descriptions of how the borderline species came to be classified (including centaurs, fairies, goblins, merpeople, etc.), and the text reminded me forcibly of other texts dealing with technical distinctions (fine art vs. folk art, anyone?).

None of these forays into faux-science were made to be art. They were all made to be humor, jokes, hoaxes, etc. But recently I came across a book full of faux-science, fully intended as art. It is Julian Montague’s Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification. According to the publisher, “Montague is an artist and graphic designer whose various art projects address issues of scientific classification as they relate to our perceptions of the natural and man-made worlds.”

Ok. Yeah. No, really, I’m ok with that. I’d like to take a look at the book before I put my vote one way or the other. But the thing is, if it makes a better joke than work of art, I’m not sure what I’ll think. Does humor stop art dead?

On the flip side, I’ve seen way too much faux-art science lately. Boing boing linked to this “art-project” the other day.

It’s a tool that enables the user to share their payed-for web connection (at the airport, lets say) with any wireless device close by. The description on the creator’s web site described its art-value as follows:
the Wifi-Liberator critically examines the tensions between providers trying to profit from the increasingly minimal costs associated with setting up a public network and casual users who simply want to see the Internet transform into another "public utility" and become as ubiquitous and free as the air we breath. The project targets pay-per-use wireless networks as often found in airports, other public terminals, hotels, global-chain coffee shops, and other public waiting points.

So using this thing requires that you first buy into the system of pay-per-use. That’s a problem for me, or at least it seems like a dilemma that ought to be addressed. Further issues? Yes. The art, it seems, is not the thing, but the act of using it, which makes this a tool for a happening? For a performance piece centered in civil disobedience and theft? These are big issues that get in the way of the WIfi-Liberator’s claim to critical examination.

Another problematic scientific venture into art is the Bioglyphs project, described on their website as “a collaboration co-created by the Montana State University–Bozeman School of Art, the Center for Biofilm Engineering, and billions of bioluminescent bacteria.” Said bacteria are grown in petri dishes and arranged into aesthetically pleasing compositions.

They are cool looking, to be sure. But I don’t think that makes them art. It isn’t just about aesthetics. Plus, I’ve got issues with referring to the bacteria as a “collaborator”. They no more collaborate than wind collaborates with a mobile. The bacteria are totally indifferent to the scientist/artist's creative vision.

So, that’s my current feeling on artists doing faux-science and scientists doing faux-art. I’m convinced that science/technology can make a pretty picture or a political statement, but that art requires more. And I remain convinced that “hilarious art” is at best dubious and at worst a contradiction.


Dad said...

Now Mary Ann, you know it takes the interpretation of the scientist/artist to know when to take the picture to make it artistic. That may even be almost as artistic as the randomly beautiful scribblings of my wonderful granddaughters. Almost but not quite.

Vatti said...

Ah yes, the plight of the Naugas! Their story was actually told in a April 1 edition of the TCM (Technical Community of Monsanto) Newsletter of many pre-merger-merger years ago. With all the current cost-cutting going on by my current employer, I wonder if we will ever allow the time to be so funny again?

Mary Ann said...

Ah yes. The things we sacrifice to save money. . . .