“Thinking is like breathing you do it unreflexively or not at all. And if you happen to want to do it reflexively, or with full awareness, it becomes a full project of its own.”
Taking breathing seriously can be as simple as Marcel Duchamp’s fine sentiment that “I like breathing – better than working.” It can become an enquiry into lungs, a song, a device to test air-quality, an aqualung or a method of self-treatment. Thinking about doing something whilst you are doing it, thinking about the way you think, reflexivity, is what the feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti suggests takes something out of the sphere of a normal activity into the realm of being a ‘full project’. By contrast, a normal activity is ‘understood’ to the extent that it comes naturally, that it follows common sense, or is done in the way it’s ‘always’ been done. One thing shared by both science and art is that neither can rely on this easy understanding. They have to probe deeper, to ask questions, make trouble.
Thinking about breathing: thinking about breathing whilst you are breathing. This is a relaxation exercise, a way to get to sleep or to focus strength while giving birth. But thinking about doing something that you normally do unconsciously can create trouble. As an example, easy enough, try walking. Stand up. If you’re reading this on a moving bus, even better. If you have legs, walk. But as you’re walking take control of every muscle. Make each do its normal walking thing, putting one foot in front of the other, but with intent. Too slow? You fall over? Or more likely, you stay sitting. Keep reading – that walking’s a tricky business.
But is thinking simply about taking control? At a certain point, even doing the walking exercise, your mind has to give over control to the self-coordination built into those shapely legs of yours. Thinking has to collaborate with muscular capacity, bone, kinaesthetic senses of position, capacity and movement. Dance of course is one of the arts which makes you think whilst you are walking. Every step is considered, planned or improvised out of a schema of available movements. But at the same time, a dancer learns the steps or movements enough to be able to remember them in the process of movement. One way of saying this is that they are rehearsed so that they don’t have to be thought. But another way of saying it, perhaps more accurately, is that a context is made, the practice of dance, in which forces in the body come into dialogue with forces in thought and sensation. Watch, wait and sense what is happening and see what you end up thinking.
In one of a series of Narralogues, in which fiction is combined with argument, the writer Ronald Sukenick poses in a different way the question of how to make a ‘project of its own’ out of thought and bodily capacity. In writing, he argues, there is a tremendous energy to be found in what he calls, lifting a quote from the Victorian critic John Ruskin, the ‘innocence of the eye’. Lifting from the Beats – poet Alan Ginsberg – he uses the idea of Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness’ to argue for a kind of receptiveness where the eye – the thinking, perceiving eye and mind combination – opens up. ‘When you’re passive you see things others don’t because you’re more receptive, attentive.’ The ‘random, the accidental, the fortuitous’ are trusted to move ‘beyond the stale, the static, the status quo version into a fresh view of experience’. To become absolutely transparent, to mobilise this passiveness that Sukenick talks about is a skill akin to the dancer’s. In order to dance in this way, in this way that is not a child’s, in order not to have to think twice, one must have done so hundreds of times before. It must be learnt, but it is a question also of unlearning all that you thought could not occur in order to make oneself available as a site of experiment. You may begin an experiment with a hypothesis, but must be totally open as to the results.
One of the powers of art is to make a project of thought and sensation, of bodily and conceptual capacity that is predicated on a fundamental investigation both of being alive, and of the world we are alive in. Allied with that it is also about making that world, of shaping and adding to it. Here, art and science have something of a common concern. Although they are expressed in different forms, (Such as calibrating the sensitivity of a sensor, calculating a norm for a set of control specimens, or developing a technique which adequately develops the arrangement of one set of matter, a chair in a room or a face, to another, a painter and his or her paints and canvas) they concern, in a certain way, the same fundamental problem.
The sociologists John Law and John Urry, express a similar set of concerns in their areas of activity, often in the study of science. Using Werner Heisenberg’s proposition that, in physics, ‘What we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning’ they suggest that, “Methods are protocols for modes of questioning or interaction, which also produce realities as they interact with other kinds of interactions.”
This awareness of its own perceptuality, the way in which it sees things including its limits, has made the quantum physics of the kind that Heisenberg and others developed in the early parts of the Twentieth Century so enduringly fascinating to artists and others. Interacting with an interaction is not arbitrary, but about adding a reflexive process to something as it occurs. To do science or to do art is to construct an aperture into chaos. How that aperture is shaped will determine to some degree what kind of world reveals and makes itself through it. Further, what that aperture is connected to, which media, what devices, what disciplines or movements, which kinds of cash flow or imagination. That is to say, you may be totally open to results, but use naivety only as a ruse.
There are easy to spot problems with some of the areas of science and art interaction. The most obvious are those cases where artists are there simply to illustrate or to make simple to a supposedly simplified public the nature of scientific ideas or results. Here, artists are used to be good at getting a message across, but blocked off from any fundamental access or capacity of thought or questioning. An equal and related problem comes from artists who take scientific methods and, in an arms race of obviousness, compete to be the first artist to use this or that scientific technique in an art context. One stands up and shouts for attention. “Look at me, Look. I’m the first ever artist in the world to design the first genetically modified this.” You are a clever boy indeed. Other clever boys use art, the system of taste as a way of valourising their ‘necessary’ cruelty. One stands up, “So yes, I may be doing marginally fruitless work on human neurology using the brains of live monkeys as pin cushions… But at least I use Mozart to drown out the noise of the drill.”
In finding ways in which science and art might connect which are more than drivel or destruction it is possible that we might find people using methods derived from science and from art but in contexts which are not exactly either. Explicit Science and Art collaborations can be understood to be part of a wider field in which art and science are combined in lots of different ways ‘in the wild’. One example of this is the immense amount of creative, campaigning and research work that has been developed in AIDS activism.
Thinking about your body working, how it goes on as a continuing changing, aging live process is something that often only happens when we step outside of the unreflexive state, when we become conscious that something is wrong, when we become ill. Thinking about breathing then takes on another nature, not just observing something occurring that you will do anyway, but becomes something of a question or of an assertion of resistance.
From the beginnings of the continuing and worsening AIDS epidemic, activist groups mobilised to demand access to drugs, research programmes and research design. In pioneer activist groups such as the network called ACT UP – Aids Coalition To Unleash Power, much of the initial power of the campaigns came from the artists involved. They produced posters, graphics, and demonstration and campaigning techniques drawing on their skills and the ways of thinking and working they had as artists. Crucially, they married these skills with urgent and difficult work gaining expertise in medical science. AIDS activists gained these from other movements, and from participants and allies inside medicine and other research areas. Learning to use archives, to read journals and to test and learn from the language and methods of science, at the same time as reflexively measuring them against the results in your own body and those of your friends is part of this movement, and continues to be so as it has spread around the globe. (A movement which as it has spread, takes on increasing amounts of the science, and more of the context in which that science is formed: including intellectual property regimes, relations between men and women, and the profoundly flawed global mechanisms for distributing wealth or resources and of rewarding research.)
Art and science collaboration ‘in the wild’ have existed since both of these intellectual and practical currents emerged in the modern era. On of the means by which they have interacted is in the area of technology. Recently, attention has been renewed to the devices uses by artists to construct images. In such narratives we can see how the ‘wisely passive’ eye or the aperture into chaos is made. Such devices allowed artists to see the world and to the process of seeing in new ways. Realism, as in the precise supra-photographic paintings of Vermeer, only came into being by making vision technological. Sight sees itself in new ways by becoming strange, working through a grid, a camera obscura, or through lenses and other devices that make painting and drawing slow down, take notice of what had been missed.
Such use of technologies is often seen in contemporary art as being kind of naff. An over-involvement with technology and hence with technique is seen as denigrating the ironising reflexivity which the artist must take to their work. This irony is often what is used to differentiate art and science collaborations from both proper art and real science. Who after all can imagine an ironic science? But following the Twentieth Century’s catalogue of scientific horror, can there truly be a science of any other kind?
Marcel Duchamp, whose work, rather more often than his breath, is called upon to validate this assumed disjuncture between conceptuality and technique (in which the latter is imagined as simply the brainless carrying out of work) provides one of a possible number of figures for such a science. As art historian Rosalind Krauss puts it, such ‘cerebral’ uses of Duchamp are there to ‘purge it of its merely carnal connotations… …ritually cleansed, transfigured, sublated.’ One series of elements of Duchamp’s explicit, naff, precise, and addled programme of work operate exactly in the area of kinaesthetics. The series of Precision Optics (1920, remade 1960) coupled retinal experience with the seeing acts of the mind. An attempt on one level to see whether a mass-produced visual gadget was a viable and humorous way of side-stepping the limits of the gallery and collector system they were also a way of linking the carnal and the conceptual by tricking the eye into seeing. Each of these Rotoreliefs (1935) was a round piece of card with a series of circles printed round each other asymmetrically. When watched spinning they appear to writhe, coil and pump, making shapes that recede and protrude. The wisely passive eye gets moist.
The cross-fertilisation of art and science is more profound and lasting than its sometimes gimmicky institutional blind dates can be seen to acknowledge. Hawking the coupling as the ne plus ultra of innovative industry can do nothing except create a market for a spitoon for yawns. Reflexive sciences and carnal, open-eyed and deliberating art however – there’s something worth practising breathing for.
This text was comissioned for the catalogue of a ‘sci-art’ exhibition called ‘Wonderful’. It was removed from the catalogue for being too ‘negative’.