Stephen Wilson is a San Francisco author, artist and professor who explores the cultural implications of new technologies. His computer mediated art works probe issues such as interaction with invisible living forms, information visualization, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc. But most of all he’s interested in exploring the role of artists in research. He is Head of the Conceptual/Information Arts program at San Francisco State University.
I actually first got to know his through his writing. When i started getting interested in new media art, i was so clueless about the field that i asked people who knew (and still know) much more than me about it which books they’d recommend me. Most of them advised me to get my hands on Information Arts – intersections of art, science and technology. I did. It’s a hefty volume, a wonderful reference i usually turn to when i need some information on a particular aspect of the domain where science/technology and art meet.
You wrote “I am simultaneously awed and troubled about the course of scientific and technological research. Historically the arts kept watch on the cultural frontier. I fear that in the contemporary technology-dominated world they are failing that responsibility. Historically, the arts alerted people to emerging developments, examined the unspoken implications, and explored alternative futures. As the centers of cultural imagination and foment of our times have moved to the technology labs, the arts have not understood the challenge.” but surely there must be some artists around who are doing a good job at engaging with the advances of research, don’t you think so?
Yes, I didn’t mean to imply artists were not involved in these kind of explorations. In fact, many of the artists highlighted on WMMNA are good examples of artists willing to engage frontier areas of research. But there are some problems. One is the mainline definitions of art. Technology/science art research is still marginalized as a fringe activity. In a technoscientific culture, artistic probing the world of research is a critical, desperate need.
We need people looking at these fields of inquiry from many frames of reference, not just those sanctioned by academia or commerce.
Another is scope of artistic interest. Scientific and technological research is proceeding at breakneck speed – moving into fascinating areas of great cultural impact. Examples of areas are: genetic engineering, designer drugs, brain functioning, bionics, stem cells, materials science, alternative energy, extreme environments. There are tools now available such as microarray biology labs on a chip that enable research that used to take years to be accomplished in minutes. And these tools are becoming affordable for independent artists. There are a few artists beginning work in these areas but there should be many more. Where are the artists? It worries me to read about exciting, provocative new research areas without artists even aware of them. Also artists may need to get involved at a deeper level than they have so far.
Maybe the other problem is that even though the work of some artists comments on science and technological advances, they strive to find an audience. Where and how do you think works like yours can find an audience? Are festivals and museums the only channel to exhibit challenging projects?
Audience and support are major problems. Alternative art spaces and festivals have been a lifesaver for my practice over the years. They have been willing to show exploratory work. Mainstream museums and galleries have not been very interested. There are hopeful signs. For example WMMNA and sites like it attract not just people in the arts. In the Conceptual Information Arts here at San Francisco State University where I teach, I get students who come from outside the arts and media. They seem to have a more generalized cultural thirst for experimentation. Now the challenge will be to convert this spectator interest into a producer interest. The DIY and open source movements are other hopeful signs. They encourage people to think of themselves not only as passive consumers but potentially as producers and innovators. The web makes for a whole new venue for finding audiences but the museums need to do some catchup.
What triggered your artistic interest for scientific or technological research?
It started when I was finishing college. It was America in the 60’s so social change and justice movements were important foci in our lives. Everyone had to do a senior thesis. I was in humanities/social sciences so professors thought I would do something in those fields. I noticed, however, that electronics were critical forces in our lives. We listened to radio and music. Radio and TV were shaping the political mind of the society. It struck me that we didn’t really know how radio worked. How did this device capture sounds from far distances? For most of us it was a ‘black box’. I thought that was culturally dangerous – to have something so central be a mystery. I made self study in electronics and radio the subject of my senior thesis. My professors were not happy but I did learn how radio worked. Even more importantly I learned that things that had been mystified could be understood and that one didn’t need to be an expert in a field to do interesting work with it.
Later in 1980 when I was an art student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was in a program called Generative Systems run by a fascinating artist named Sonia Sheridan. She encouraged us to tear things apart to understand them. Microcomputers had just come out.Up to that time most people thought of computers as specialized devices only relevant to science and business. My gut told me they were going to have a more profound cultural impact than that. I wanted to work with them artistically.
Most of the other art students and professors thought it was a waste of time. There were few information sources in the arts. Even academic computer scientists thought the microcomputer was a toy, not worthy of their attention. I was somewhat on my own. I had to search out resources. I had to teach myself. I had to find other researchers wherever they were. I came up with ideas that people told me were impossible. I experimented. I did them anyway. It all taught me to be somewhat skeptical about common knowledge in any field. Learn what there was to learn but be willing to follow unpopular lines of inquiry. The arts have a long venerable tradition of iconoclasm that will serve them well as artists pursue frontier areas of scientific and technological research.
Does the public understand immediately what is at stake in your work? How do they react to your installations?
I try to create installations that can be appreciated at many levels. The audience can be provoked, intrigued and have fun even if they don’t understand the bigger issues. For example, children usually get involved in my installations. I’m not sure how many in the audience think about the larger issues. That’s a problem not only with general audiences but even the judges in festivals. IntroSpection and Protozoa Games got shown in a few places but mostly got rejections. Some judges felt they were too much like a ‘science fair’. (Protozoa Games let people play games with protozoa – single cell animals. IntroSpection let people play games with their own cells and microorganisms.)
Many audience members dealt with Protozoa Games and IntroSpection only as unusual games. But the installations did have more critical agendas. In Protozoa Games I wanted people to think about the complexity of life even at the single cell level and the relationship of humans to other animals. In IntroSpection I realized maybe 99.999% of people had never looked at their own cells and the microorganisms living inside of them and never had experience with basic biology research processes such as taking samples and using microscopes. I felt that this level of unfamiliarity was culturally dangerous in an era where biology research was becoming so critical. I thought it was an fitting role for the arts to appropriate the tools, bring them into public media, and comment and intervene in this situation of unfamiliarity.
What do scientists make of works such as Protozoa Games (video) and Introspection? Are they “awed and troubled” or do they see the pieces as complementary to their own work for example?
Mostly they ignored them. In doing research for my book Information Arts I was distressed to learn of scientist attitudes. Many are rather arrogant – they doubt that even other scientists outside their discipline can contribute to their work – let alone artists. Even though many are great supporters of classical forms of art, music, theater, ballet etc., their interest and knowledge of the art stops in the 70’s. They had little interest and familiarity with contemporary experimental conceptual, critical, and technological arts.
But there are hopeful signs also. There are several efforts around the world to involve artists in research – all based on the idea that artists can bring unique perspectives to the research process. For example there is the Artists in the Lab program in Switzerland, Interactive Institute in Sweden, SymbioticA in Australia, Hexagram in Montreal and many others. It’s not clear how they will all turn out but its a great start. Web viewers can find a more complete list at my art/research organizations page.
In creating IntroSpection I got a glimpse of the possibilities. I consulted with a Biologist at my university who is a world expert in bacteria. I wanted to learn more about the bacteria in the mouth since they might be important in my art installation. I was amazed to find out that in spite of all her knowledge, she had never taken a sample of her own mouth to see what was there. We had a good time together seeing what we could find in our mouths. We found some bacteria but they were all immobile. At that time in the development of my installation I was planning on using the movement of the bacteria in my art game so it was troubling. She pointed out that most organisms don’t move around if they have what they need in the niche where they are – it costs unnecessary energy. So we hypothesized about what could get the bacteria moving. She said she had never encountered that issue in the literature. We did several mini-experiments with coffee, alcohol, sugar, stimulants, drugs without much luck. We both learned from each other. I doubt it had any profound impact on her research, but I think it opened up some new ideas and approaches for her. I hear similar stories often repeated from artists who have worked with scientists.
Would you say that Protozoa Games and IntroSpection belong to the bioart category? What happened to bioart? It seemed that it was booming around 2003, at the time of the L’Art Biotech exhibition in Nantes (France). Is it back into marginality now?
I guess a lot of the fields in this hybrid art/science/tech world dwell in marginality. Some rise in attention and then recede. Bioarts continues to be an area where many artists are working around the world. In the last few years there are several books that have come out. As is probably clear from my work, I think it is cultural suicide for the arts not to pay attention to new developments in biology research. My hope is that gradually the importance of many of the art/science fields will be recognized and that it will become part of the mainstream expectations for artists to work in these fields. I joke with my students that the art supply store of the future will include sections for electronics and biology research supplies.
IntroSpection uses microorganisms. What is/are the biggest challenge(s) when working with tiny human cells?
There is so much to learn when working with microorganisms. I guess the biggest challenge artistically is how to bring these cells into cultural and art discourse. They are so alien at first for viewers and so easy to dismiss them as science. Also, many of the cells you can get to easily – eg on the skin are not very active. More lively stuff is more intricately involved in bodily processes – eg blood, sexual fluids, feces. You can well imagine art venues don’t want to deal with this stuff or the processes to get it.
What did you try to achieve with the work Body Surfing?
At the time of installation there was much discussion about the irrelevancy of the body. Virtual experience (eg Internet, online, games, vr, animation, etc) was seen as more important for the culture. I felt those themes were being oversold and people were ignoring the ongoing importance of the physical world. I have great interest in crossover areas where information and computational technology intersect with the physical – for example, physical computing, tangible interfaces, biology, materials science. I tried with Body Surfing to create an installation that didn’t do much unless the viewer exerted their body.
One section had digital movies that required viewers to run around the room; the speed and direction of the running directly controlled the speed and direction of the movie. Another section required people to stretch and contort their arms and legs in order to access information. Another section required people to beat on an African drum to control the digital world. I wanted people to come out of the installation sweating and thinking about the joys and limitations of the physical body.
You published Information Arts – intersections of art, science and technology. It was in 2002. Do you still keep a close eye on what’s going on in that artistic field? Have the interests and practices of artists evolved since the book was first launched? Do you think that it’s time for an Information Art, volume 2?
*** I do keep up. I love the risks artists take to work in these research areas. For example, I get such a kick out the artists that appear in WMMNA. It is a bit harder now to keep up because more work is going on. I am working on a new book for Thames & Hudson (a UK publisher famous for publishing big format art books). It will focus on artists working at the edges of scientific and technological research and will emphasize work created since 2000. It will be highly illustrated and will be aimed at the general public. I am looking forward to finding a way to explain this work that makes it understandable but preserves the integrity and complexity of the artists’ intentions. People will walk into the art section of their bookstore and there, right next to the big books on Monet and Picasso, will be this book full of fascinating artists working in this hybrid research. Perhaps that will help reduce the marginality we discussed earlier.
More information about Wilson’s installations, essays, books, and the Conceptual Information Arts Program at SFSU where he is teaching.
List of artists, organzizations, essays, books, and festivals related to the intersections of art, science, and technology.
Leonardo – International Journal of Art, Science and Technology (40 year history of monitoring this kind of art).