The Straight Line and the Labyrinth

Art and Science in the Digital Continuum

by Piero Scaruffi

Art Practical magazine

(for the special issue on the 2015 AICAD Symposium "Exploring Science in the Studio"
hosted at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco in October 2015 )

1. A Disclaimer in lieu of an Introduction


I have been organizing multi/inter/anti-disciplinary events since high school. Since 1995 my incredibly chaotic (and intentionally colorful) website, that covers all sorts of disciplines, is the reflection of my multiple lives in multiple disciplines. Inevitably, I get invited on panels about art/science/tech inter-action/section. I have come to realize that such discussions are often flawed from the beginning, and consequently lend themselves to all sorts of wrong generalizations, for a simple fact: we have a straightforward definition of what science is (a scientific theory offers a mathematical model that can be used to both predict the future and to disprove the theory itself) whereas there is no viable definition of art. In the old days in Italy it was the Church that decided what is art. Then it was the aristocratic patrons. Today a realistic definition of art probably is “what gets accepted in museums, exhibited in galleries, reviewed by critics and purchased by collectors”; i.e. it could literally be anything. If an influential critic decides that my hiking boots are an artwork, they end up displayed in an art gallery and purchased by an art collector. Hence all the discussions about art+science rely on a relatively clear definition of what science is and on an extremely vague, historically shifting and inherently subjective definition of what art is.

Ultimately, everything that humans do can be considered art, at one point or another, by one school or another, and even what animals do is often considered art. Is there anything in nature that is not artistic?

My provocative definition is very simple (alas, I was trained as a mathematician): art is largely defined by its uselessness. The more useful for practical purposes something is, the less likely that I recognize it as art. If it is very useful, it is not art. If it is totally useless, then it is certainly art. (Insert “smiley” here!) Artists who try to explain to me why their art is useful to society are shooting themselves in the foot. Not surprisingly, in 2016 I will celebrate Dada’s centennial with a special event at Stanford Univ.


2. Why art/science/tech interaction matters. An ode to interdisciplinary minds.


Creativity does not happen in a vacuum, whether it's art, tech or science. They all coexist, influence each other and interact, whether they want and know it or not. Silicon Valley, for example, did not happen in a vacuum: it happened within the intense cultural ecosystem of the Bay Area. Other regions of the world (notably the East Coast and Western Europe) had the brains, the money, the electronic corporations, the Nobel laureates and the political power that the Bay Area sorely lacked; but it is the Bay Area that ended up overtaking all those other regions and becoming the world’s epicenter of technological and scientific creativity. One cannot explain why it happened here without studying its preexisting culture and society. In our book “A History of Silicon Valley” (2012) we did precisely that. The more we studied the society of the Bay Area, and going back at least a century, the more we understood where the casual office environment, the culture of failure, the startup ethos, the meritocratic system, the idealistic approach to technology, and so forth came from: all the aspects that other regions associate with “Silicon Valley” cannot easily be derived from the established social and work patterns of other regions but can naturally be explained from the lifestyle of the Bay Area. People living in the 1950s in New York or London did not know the Bay Area as a place for advanced technology: they knew it as a refuge for wildly unorthodox artists and writers. In the Sixties people all over the world knew the Bay Area as the birthplace of the hippies, of the Black Panthers, and of the most unlikely artistic movements; not as the birthplace of the computer (that would be England) or of the transistor (that would be  New Jersey).

In fact, virtually nothing has been invented in what the world now knows as “Silicon Valley”. Things NOT invented here include: computer, transistor, integrated circuit, robots, Artificial Intelligence, programming languages, databases, videogames, Internet, personal computers, World-wide web, search engines, social media, smartphones, wearable computing, space exploration, electrical cars, driverless cars… In other words, just about everything that the world identifies with Silicon Valley.

What Silicon Valley did was to “hijack” each of these inventions and turn them into something else according to an “alternative” philosophy of life that was unique to the Bay Area.

Think of the Unix operating system, an invention of the largest corporation in the world (AT&T), that UC Berkeley turned into the archetype of social media. Think of the Internet, an invention of the Department of Defense, that Silicon Valley turned into a hotbed of counterculture.

That “alternative” philosophy had been created by intellectuals and sometimes plain outcasts (from the beat poets to Burning Man) who had little or nothing to do with technology and science, and very often were even hostile to the unbridled rationality of technological progress and to the business world that exploited it.


3. A Historical Intermezzo: The Separation of Art and Science


Art is the recreation of the world in human image. Each mind does it differently because each mind is different. Needless to say, the existence of millions of different views of the world would make life fairly difficult. Luckily, we also have science. Art is the process of creating a very personal view of the world. Science is the process of creating a very impersonal view of the world. Art loves diversity, variety, unorthodoxy: there are many truths in art. Science aims for one and only one universal truth.

Art renders the familiar unfamiliar. Science renders the unfamiliar familiar (or, at least, manageable).

While they seem to be polar opposites, the two complement each other in many ways. In fact, major scientific revolutions have usually coincided with major artistic booms, whether in Athens, Florence, Vienna, or... the Bay Area.  The specific mechanisms by which creativity in the arts helped boost creativity in the sciences and vice versa is a long and convoluted story, beyond the scope of this essay.

Nonetheless, against all historical evidence, today the widespread perception is that art and science don’t need each other.

The origin of this misunderstanding may lie in the explosive success of science and technology in improving the material conditions of the human race. Scientific/technological progress in  transportation, medicine, energy, education, materials, information, etc has made us live longer and wealthier than ever in the 200,000 years of our history.

Since the industrial revolution of the Middle Ages (yes, it started back then), that success has relied on increasing specialization, and therefore against interdisciplinarity.

In fact, the separation of art and science was part of a broader trend away from unification. Not only did science and art progressively move apart, but disciplines within each kept moving apart from each other. Each scientific discipline became more and more specialized. Artists became painters or sculptors, but rarely both. A continuum of knowledge and of human practices was broken down into a set of discrete units, each neatly separated from its neighbors. This happened for a simple reason: it worked. Humans were able to build large-scale societies thanks to the partitioning of labor and of knowledge. As knowledge grew, it would have been impractical to maintain the same continuum of knowledge. It was feasible, on the other hand, to muster the increasing amount of knowledge once it was broken down into discrete units and handed down to "specialists". The gap between art and science, and the gaps among all artistic and scientific disciplines, kept increasing for the simple reason that the discrete space of specialized disciplines was more manageable than the old continuum of total knowledge.

This is not surprising. The specialization of labor is actually the foundation of life as we know it. At the very beginning there existed multifunctional cells. They later split into a mortal body and an immortal genetic material. The mortal body split into organs and limbs. The need for societies arises from specialization: multifunctional beings don't need to socialize, whereas specialized beings need to live in societies where other beings perform other functions so that the whole is fit to survive. The division of labor among specialized units has been important for survival and progress millions of years  before Florence decided to separate the quarter of the goldsmiths from the quarter of textile manufacturers.

Centuries after the beginning of the industrial revolution we live in a society of hyper-specialists; and, in particular, in a society in which science and art are kept neatly apart, obeying radically different rules. Today’s scientist belongs to a bureaucracy, typically a university or a research institute, that rewards scientists the same way that a large corporation rewards its employees. Promotions are handed out by superiors, and based on grants. The only opinion that matters is the opinion of their peers.  On the other hand, today’s artists look more like self-employed business people. They don’t have superiors and they need to involve a heterogeneous audience that extends from the general public to the art critics. The opinion that doesn’t matter is the opinion of their peers.

Today society leans heavily towards science and technology. One could also argue that, to a large extent, science has tended to focus on the material improvement of life whereas art has tended to help the “spiritual” improvement of life, and that today we live in a wildly more materialistic era than most people would like to admit: material benefits are better appreciated by a vastly larger population than “spiritual” benefits.

Alas, specialization, ultimately, means: knowing more and more about less and less. The alarm was sounded already in the 20th century: Lucio Fontana's "White Manifesto" (1946), CP Snow's "The Two Cultures" (1959) , WT Jones' "The Sciences and the Humanities" (1965), etc. The fragmentation of knowledge creates boundaries, turns the continuum of human knowledge into a set of discrete cells (prisons, traps). Everybody sees a tree, but nobody can see the forest anymore.


4. A Manifesto: Restoring the Continuum.


The digital revolution of the 21st century is providing the opportunity for an unprecedented degree of exchange, interaction, integration, convergence and blending of disparate disciplines. We can see the continuum again. Artists can be made aware and increasingly empowered with technology and science in their work. Scientists and engineers can be made aware that there is more than just a new “paper” or a new “release” that matters in life. The business world is becoming more aware that art trains people to be creative, that art can help usher in a paradigm shift.

The evolution of society depends on all facets to evolve, not just one.

21st century culture is being expanded both horizontally (thanks to the emergence of new poles such as East Asia) and vertically (thanks to the emergence of new technologies). The Global Contemporary (to steal the title of a recent ZKM exhibition) is being shaped by the tension between an increasingly multicultural world (that tends to fragment and polarize) versus the ubiquity of the digital (that tends to flatten and homogenize). A methodological and aesthetic revolution is being driven by fluid incoherence between antithetical poles: local/global, micro/macro, analog/digital, real/virtual... A new form of culture is emerging that reflects the dogmatic adoption of disruptive innovation and the total defamiliarization entailed by it. The "ordinary" is increasingly extraordinary, and seldom private, because the new ideologies of production and consumption entail the constant monitoring of private life while offering ever newer forms of nonstop participation.

The new continuum, though, bears little resemblance to the old one, in that its context is a knowledge-intensive society that is the exact opposite of the knowledge-deprived society of the ancient continuum. Therein lies the challenge.

Some of us believe in "democratizing" the "high culture" that has been exclusive to the hyper-specialists. This high culture tends to be by specialists for specialists. It spreads outside institutions via conferences or salons, but rarely via public programs. Sometimes public programs "democratize" it by lowering the quality of the content, so as to appeal to the "masses". The LASERs (Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous) and the LAST (Life/Art/Science/Tech) Festival have tried to "democratize it" without lowering the caliber of the content. We want to bring to the general public the kind of high-caliber programs that are usually reserved for the specialists. And note that “general public” typically means “specialists”: we want to bring to specialists of one discipline the kind of specialistic knowledge that is usually reserved for specialists of a different discipline. We want to make accessible to everybody the kind of high-level knowledge that tends to be reserved for an elite. We perceived this as a missing link, a gap to be filled. Our "democratizing" process is not about lowering the standards of the scientific, technological, humanistic and artistic programs that are offered by specialized institutions; on the contrary, we want to bring the highest possible standard of presentation to the general public. Hence a program that drafts top scientists, inventors, scholars and artists. Hence events that are free and open to everybody.

In a sense the Bay Area constitutes the ideal testbed. The Bay Area ("Silicon Valley" has become a reductive term) has become the world's most powerful technological driver. It has grown so rapidly that it lacks the kind of cultural and social identity that other metropolitan centers naturally acquired over the centuries.  It makes sense to rediscover and celebrate the entire ecosystem that fueled the breathtaking transformation from province to epicenter of the future.

My personal experience is that it is precisely this ecosystem, made of unorthodox intellectuals, advanced scientific institutions and a multitude of high-tech companies, that intrigues the rest of the world. Other regions have been the site of the most valuable company in the world (think of AT&T in New Jersey) or of the fastest growing industry (think of Detroit’s automobile industry); but there is something unique about the Bay Area that inspires the rest of the world, and it is not just having the most valuable company in the world or the fastest growing industry. In fact, it is something that has nothing to do with either.

That said, many of us are frustrated that the Bay Area does not contribute more to the advancement of the arts. The reason goes beyond the process of gentrification that San Francisco artists blame for destroying “their” city. On one hand a skyrocketing cost of living is certainly penalizing artists, but on the other hand the overwhelming amount of capital is directed towards technology and science. Unfortunately, nobody has been capable of articulating in simple, clear terms what the benefits would be for private and public capital to invest in the artistic community, the very community that shaped the unique mindset that fueled the technological boom that creates that capital. It is telling that, as I type this essay, we are getting more attention from Beijing than from Silicon Valley for the LAST Festival that we founded in Silicon Valley.

This is not a dogmatic religion. We, believers in art/science integration, share common beliefs in the drawbacks of separating art and science but tend to have different views on what the benefits of the integration would be.

My colleagues at major universities often speak about the benefits of art for science, and/or of science for the arts. My view is slightly different. What I would like to see arise from art/science collaborations is something that it is neither art nor science, something completely new that doesn’t even have a name yet.

"The worst labyrinth is not that intricate form that can entrap us forever, but a single and precise straight line" (Jorge Luis Borges)



More about the LASERs:

More about the LAST Festival:

LASER = Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (2008-present)

LAST = Life Art Science Tech festival (2014-present)

SMMMASH = Stanford Multidisciplinary Multimedia Meeting of the Arts, Sciences and Humanities (2011-12)

Josef Parvisi (Stanford neurosurgeon), Cathy Zoi (founding CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection established by former Vice President Al Gore and Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy in the Obama administration), Lucia Jacobs (UC Berkeley psychologist), Rachna Nivas (classical Indian dancer) and Chris Chafe (director of Stanford's center for computer music) at a 2015 LASER

Artificial Intelligence scientist Peter Norvig speaking at the first LAST festival

Piero Scaruffi trying Robert Edgar's MERGEEMERGE, one of the art installations at the first LAST festival

The crowd at the first LAST festival, Zero1 in san Jose, 2014


Gary Wight (Stanford faculty and artist), Pamela Z (composer), Leonard Susskind (Stanford physicist), and jan English-Lueck (San Jose State Univ anthropologist) with me at the first SMMMASH

Christine Peterson (Foresight Inst), Lynn Hershman (artist), Paul Rabinow (UC Berkeley anthropologist) and Jeremy Bailelson (Stanford virtual reality scientist) with me at a SMMMASH