- Art, Science, and Cultural Understanding ed. by Brett Wilson
edited by Brett Wilson, Barbara Hawkins and Stuart Sim. Common Ground Publishing, Champaign, IL, U.S.A., 2014. 234pp. illus. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-6122-9486-5.
This interesting collection on the now no-longer-polarized fields of artistic and scientific research (the infamous “two cultures” of C.P. Snow) can be read at various levels and should be of interest for various groups of readers. First of all, it is a book that accompanies the shift from the SciArt program funded by the Wellcome Trust, which came to an end in 2005, to the broader ArtScience movement, as defended and illustrated by Leonardo (the journal as well as the creative and institutional network that the journal’s editor has managed to build). It continues and deepens the critical evaluation of Glinkowski and Bamford (See <www.wellcome.ac.uk/sciartevaluation>) while looking for new forms of theorizing the mutual involvement of practice-led artistic research and empirically driven hard science with the help of models, ideas, and authors that one finds in the Leonardo environment. Second, it is also a book that aims at defining, although not in a very theoretical way, the notion of “transdisciplinarity” (mainly via some brief references to Helga Nowotny). Coedited by researchers from the ScienceArt initiative Project Dialogue at the University of West-England in Bristol (See <www.projectdialogue.org.uk>), this publication offers a mapping of a wide range of existing initiatives, best practices and collaboration in this highly dynamic field, but the overview it offers cannot make any claim of completeness (it is quite astonishing to notice, for instance, that the flagship project group for transdisciplinarity work in the U.K., based at the University of Plymouth, is not even mentioned).
The book is neatly divided in three parts, each of them composed of four chapters. “Arguments,” the first part, is the most theoretical and addresses the possible benefits of a transdisciplinary dialogue between arts, sciences and humanities (with humanities clearly lining up with the arts rather than with the sciences). It has a strong focus on the philosophical discussion of scientific theories and epistemologies, but all contributions take as their starting point the necessity for empirical scientists to question the axioms of narrowly defined scientific procedures, methods and belief systems (the very idea of science as a “belief system” being to begin with a very postmodern approach to science). All essays in this section revisit the science wars of the 1980s and demonstrate in a quite balanced way that the excesses of these years have now been overcome and that a real dialogue is now possible, not only because it is no longer possible uncritically to embrace the often naïve critiques of science by socially committed nonscientists but [End Page 314] also because scientists themselves have become more aware of issues and problems such as the historicity of truth systems and objectivity, the limitations imposed by short-term market constraints and the dramatic impact of the social and material environment on the work of individuals in laboratories. Part 2, “Advocacy,” takes as its starting point the notion of embodiment and the sensory experience of life as an ideal bridge between scientific research and artistic production. This section is perhaps the most representative of the ideal of transdisciplinarity that the editors tend to exemplify and demonstrates very convincingly the mutual enrichment of scientific and artistic inquiry and problem-solving (the chapter on color perception and reproduction by Carinna Parraman is an excellent example of the encounter between these fields). Part 3, “Agency,” makes room for artists linked in some way with Project Dialogue and presents a sample of often-fascinating works in various media. Here as well, body and embodiment are key notions, and this centrality has certainly to do with the fact that health sciences are, probably more than others, theoretically oriented disciplines, directly confronted with questions that cannot be solved by technicians alone.
This very useful book, well edited and open to a wide selection of voices and examples, will be of interest for all those working in the ArtScience field. In...