Augment our thinking through the link between engineering, science, technology and art
Science consists in making the unrecognizable recognizable, in transforming the unknown into the familiar and in seeing a thread of unity behind dissimilar phenomena. An example of my own work, resulting from hours spent in cafes, can serve to take stock. The sight of milk gently mixing with coffee can be a soothing experience for many; but as I watched I realized that isolating the essence of how milk mixes with coffee and distilling it into a mixture theory could explain how regions can remain unmixed in oceans or the persistence of stain red of Jupiter. This is the essence of science: finding the single image that contains all the images.
Art is the opposite. It’s seeing something you’ve seen perhaps a hundred times, but in a different light that makes the familiar unfamiliar. It is the “best alienation,” as the Russian formalists called it, or “perplexity.” Sometimes described as the moment of wonder, it is a first step towards critical engagement with art.
Art is much more than the aesthetic concerns of form, color and composition. It is the why and the how of a thing. But it leaves the answers to interpretation and open questions: it gives the viewer the role of completing the work – inviting us to participate in a change of perception by establishing distant and perhaps implausible links that could not exist without a confrontation with art. himself.
Art doesn’t need to be driven by a goal, at least not one that can be summed up in a compact sentence. The objectives of contemporary art are as varied as the artists: to provoke, incite, irritate, challenge, reframe, shock, disgust, reveal. Art essentially exists for itself. Some say that art is a form of response to the world, an attempt to capture something about it, to put a lens on a feature of reality or, conversely, to turn a mirror back to us. One could argue that this is where its usefulness lies.
Science and technology, on the other hand, are guided by purpose and objectives that can be simply summarized: technology is about invention; science is discovery. Engineering is about both. All three can be variously associated with disruption and progress.
UNDERSTANDING MODERN ART
Because the connection between engineering, science and technology, on the one hand, and art, on the other, is perhaps not intuitive, a few comments on contemporary art may be helpful.
The aspiration of modern art is uniqueness; disruptions and progress have little or no meaning. The challenge for contemporary artists is not to extend an existing historical cultural line (this role has been given to craftsmanship) but to break with this line and create a territory not already occupied – a new form of expression that is not necessarily “better” but different and recognized as a new space.
Contemporary art embodies mind-blowing, thought-provoking, stimulating, unclassifiable and disconcerting works, without any perceptible dominant and geographical centrality. There is a constant series of biennials (and some triennials), monumental exhibitions and incredible investments in the construction of new museums by renowned architects.
It is no longer possible to speak of the art world solely in terms of the West. New York was once at the center of everything; now the center could be Houston, Ghent, Antwerp, São Paulo or Dubai. It seems like yesterday Beijing and all of China were super hot; now they are almost outdated.
In addition to the ever-changing center of gravity, there is a blur between art, education and commerce. Artists, entrepreneurs, collectors, museums and galleries, critics, academic institutions and impresarios intersect in constantly evolving ways. Doctoral students write memoirs on 25-year-old artists, without going through the test of time; MacArthur genius grants lend instant credibility and fame; markets make stars then quickly abandon them; the art world is transformed into an art market. That’s enough to make the tech world seem almost sluggish by comparison.
Because contemporary art is constantly in search of new spaces, art serves as a metaphor for speed, chaos and complexity. And if there is one thing that will characterize the world in the future, the only safe prediction we can make is that chaos and complexity will increase.
Engineering cannot – and should not be expected – to keep pace with modus operandi and the culture of the art world. But, for those receptive to new ideas and seeking to broaden their horizons, an awareness of the dizzying and divergent paths of art will undoubtedly enrich and broaden the landscape of their engineering thinking.
SOME EXAMPLES AT THE ART/ENGINEERING INTERFACE
Can the art/engineering interface work when really put to the test? Can artists and engineers with vaguely defined goals be brought together to find common ground and engage and define projects as equals? The answer is yes, but it needs to be organized, not forced.
In my own institution, we tested the idea with self-selected groups and loose goals. In classes that combined engineering students with students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern’s Department of Art Theory and Practice, groups developed new ways of visualizing social inequities in city transit. Chicago, games to facilitate interaction with people with autism, and more. The most rewarding result, however, was the collision of thought processes between team members and the fact that they could define and move projects forward collaboratively. Several other engineering-supervised team courses, under the general name NUvention, involve teams of engineering students with students in medicine, business, law, social sciences, journalism, and virtually any other major at Northwestern.
To go beyond small self-selected groups that are often eager to interact, it is necessary to go beyond stereotypes. Both sides have a romantic, almost cartoonish view of each other. Most engineers equate art with creation, beauty, inspiration and sometimes struggle, and they envision art as paintings, photographs and sculptures, leaving aside conceptual art, facilities and much more. Most artists equate engineering with cold technology, methodical logic, and practicality, not the human factors and passions that drive the practice of engineering.