September 29, 2010

Observation on observation

The Berkeley Center for New Media and Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice recently hosted a gallery walk-through with some of the artists featured in Worth Ryder Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Knowledge Hacking, described as a project that “invites artists to use the university research environment as raw material for their work.” While many of the issues raised by this collaboration between BCNM and WRAG’s curator Anuradha Vikram deserve serious exploration, I want to mention here just one exchange that occurred during the panel following the artists’/curator’s walk-through.

Oakland artists Yvette Molina and Sarah Filley were among the three groups chosen to “collaborate” with Berkeley researchers in the production of an artwork. Molina and Filley describe their project, Wonderarium, as “a public art proposal to enchant and reinvigorate our romance with nature at the heart of Oakland’s urban jewel: Lake Merritt.” While the main component of this project is to place a large, floating, spherical terrarium on Lake Merritt, another component of the Wonderarium is their Mobile Plant Ambassador, which they describe as follows:

[It was] developed to take plants “on the road” … [providing the] novel experience of building a terrarium directly from the cart. All supplies (glass containers, pumice, soil, and a variety of plant cuttings) are arranged by drawer in the order needed to make their very own terrarium. As participants express their personal creativity in four easy steps, they are also investigating themes of micro-systems and climates — a mini ecology class!


During the panel discussion, Molina stated that when they send the public home with a biodegradable, plantable Dixie-cup sample succulent, or with a mini-terrarium from the Plant Ambassador, they tell the new plant owner to think of the plant or terrarium as a “science project.” My hackles went up. My arm shot off my torso: “Why,” I asked from the audience, “when you are making the explicit choice to call Wonderarium an art project, do you contextualize this plant as an object of science rather than an object of art?” Framing the newly adopted succulent(s) with this language encourages close observation, Molina explained. I persisted. “But if your purpose in developing this project is to USE art as a seductive tool for the appreciation of nature, what do you gain by then calling your handouts ‘science projects’? And how does it really benefit art, as a discipline, a worthy pursuit, a form of research and reverie, when you teach your public that a practice of observation should be considered science? To my mind, you perpetuate a spurious and unproductive binary by doing so.”

As an artist, I know what it’s like to be on the other side of the panel table, having to field comments that are really statements disguised as questions. As a member of the audience, I was dismayed by what I perceived as the naiveté of Wonderarium, but also excited by finding a useful term with which to discuss the convergences and divergences of scientific and artistic practices. Observation. Within scientific practice, observational is counterposed with experimental study. In film-video history, an observational documentary is counterposed with something that might be thought of as more expressively, or rhetorically driven. Observation strikes me as a term one encounters rarely in the discourse around contemporary avant-garde visual art practices, and yet it’s not so far from the terms one sees more often. Artists experiment, strategize, deploy, examine, investigate, cultivate, work across platforms, mobilize, negotiate, interrogate, intervene, engage, etc. Even when they aren’t using those terms themselves, more often than not, the curators, historians, and critics producing discourse around and from visual art are using this language. I’m sure I am teaching my students to use it, and now I am glad to be asking myself why.

Comments (7)

  • DeWitt Cheng says:

    Interesting discussion on the current consensus on art’s limits, or lack of same.

    With conceptual art having exploded all limitations on what art is—it’s not necessarily an object, esthetically powerful, or even meaningful or “privileged”—how do art-lovers make critical judgments? Trusting to institutional valorizations (as Danto seems to do) simply pushes the decision-making off one’s own desk onto someone else’s. When did intellectual/artistic lefties become dittoheads?

    if art becomes an arena of experimentation eschewing any sort of meaning, statement, or content outside its own concerns (remember wicked old navel-gazing formalism?), which have been enlarged in the past few decades, granted, why should anyone outside the artworld bubble care?

  • Hi Konrad,

    thanks for that great response. it’s so thoughtful.

  • Hi Anne and all,

    Thanks for the thoughtful report and discussion. I agree with what you and Anu say about the notion of observation as a link between the two domains. I just wanted to suggest a different way than the art/science binary to discuss different observational practices and how they relate to language. I’ll try to be brief.

    One practice seems coupled with objectifying language. That is to say, the goal of observation is the form of description, interpretation, theory or judgement about the observed. It could take the form of many kinds of language: say in the language of math or filmmaking or the law or art criticism. The observation is in the service of creating these formulations in a language independent of the object, and possibly the observer.

    A different practice, or aspect of general observation would be coupled with a response, i.e. the gesture of response, directed “back towards” or “inspired by” or “in resistance to” the observed on something like its own terms, or on a composite of one’s own and the observed’s terms. This kind of observation is in the service of creating a dialog in a way that may never get formulated in (meta-) language, but is fed directly back as play. This is the way an artist works with materials, or a comic works with an audience, or a predator, prey.

    Sometimes both aspects get mixed together, but the thought is that one way creates facts and theory, the other creates discourse and interaction. Art or science could work in either mode, of course!

    Thanks for the conversation!

  • Kyle Griffiths says:

    I believe there is a further dichotomy in differentiating experimental practice from observational practice, and in fact, the division is only useful in certain branches of science. In any case, observation has to follow experimentation in the interpretion of science practice.

  • Thank you both Anne and Anu for your thoughts and comments regarding our project.
    photo credit for the image goes to Lydia Gonzales.

  • It’s really interesting to read this, Anu. I’m glad you gave the project some context. Thank you.

  • Anne, thanks for the mention and for your thoughtful commentary. In their proposal, the Wonderarium artists articulated their project’s relationship to scientific research in a different way – as an experiment in plant tolerance of extreme environmental conditions, which would afford their scientist collaborators an opportunity to observe how specimens reacted to indoor growing, extreme heat and light, etc. The idea was to stress-test the succulent plants in the Wonderarium prototype, a situation that the scientists might not have arrived at on their own, but from which they could still learn. Whether such an experiment is art or science seems less interesting to me, than the fact that it has applications for both disciplines.

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