The previous post of this three-part series examined why experimentation and prototyping are key to the scientific method, especially where public art is concerned. Building on that idea, this post insists that prototyping is most valuable when it's documented in a shareable form.
Art is science when its creation is documented with the goal of sharing knowledge.
When we think about the art world, this is certainly not the common practice. This challenge begs the question: what if the interpretive labels displayed alongside works of art began to incorporate more information relating to how the object was created?
Many museums have taken comparable steps to rethink and rewrite their labels, making the text more comprehensible to diverse audiences, crafting fictional narratives to engage visitors for longer periods of time, and leaving curatorial interpretation open to interpretation by inserting turns of phrase, such as seems to be. Providing the backstory to a work of art—that is, information about the prototypes that led to what it is you’re looking at in the exhibition setting —whether in an analog fashion or via digital engagement platforms like apps, serves a different end. It serves a scientific approach to art.
We’ve come to expect the authoritative interpretation of art to be placed on a placard on a wall, just as we’ve come to expect scientific experiments to be communicated first and foremost in an academic journal article. But there are other ways and forums through which we can communicate knowledge about the experiments that lead to what we call art and, likewise, what we call science. These ways and forums prioritize meeting the public at some point between the act of making and theoretical engagement. What can we expect of these forums, though, when the art we find has no walls for labels? Here’s a straightforward—and familiar—example to start us off.
The artist Lucy McKenna’s work can generally be described as inspired by science. As the first post in this series pointed out, this is typically the surface layer of what we think of when we think of scientific art. Since we now know better, we can look for other tell-tale signs of the scientific method in how McKenna presents her work. Is there any experimentation involved? How does she document that process? And to what end?
Consider McKenna’s most recent project The Artist Observatory (2016). On her website, McKenna explains that as an artist in residence at a space observatory, she became interested in what is called dry plate astrophotography—for the most part, a now-dormant practice. To see if she could make her own photographs using this procedure, she researched the methods and experimented with various materials (both new and old).
Moreover, she documents the details of her process on a separate blog, accessible via a “Process” link on her website. Here are just a few notable excerpts from a series of posts on The Artist Observatory that help to assemble a complete picture of how art can be developed through transparency with respect to experimentation:
I [received] my expired Kodak and ORWO plates, dating from the 1960’s and 1970’s, so I’m looking forward to testing these over the coming weeks to find out if their emulsion is still active and if I can use them to make my own astrographs. (McKenna 12 Mar 2016)
I began building the dry plate camera to fit the Grubb telescope this week...The next step from here will be exposing my 4 different batches of dry plates to light to see if their emulsion is still active at all, then hopefully making my way back to Armagh Observatory with them on a clear night to try photograph some stars and planets with this camera. (McKenna 11 Apr 2016)
I turned my bathroom into a darkroom this weekend...I took 2 plates from each batch and cut them down quite small. I tested these in daylight, tungsten, and on longer exposures in almost darkness using the Ernemann Heag II plate camera and recorded the conditions in my notebook. (McKenna 24 Apr 2016)
McKenna’s research and creative process were inextricable. Mark Ratto of the University of Toronto calls this theoretical and pragmatic form of engagement critical making. Conceptual thinking and physical making are, to Ratto’s point, often held separate. However, the constructive process of making can be a site for analysis as well (2011). Documentation demonstrates that objects and materials carry ideas. Grounding these ideas in critical discourse accredits them as knowledge worth sharing. In McKenna’s case, she accomplishes this by connecting her documentation to history and other scholarly literature.
Blogs are a great way to share such reflections as well as informal records of procedure. But when an artist wants to share codified knowledge in a form that lends itself more directly to further experimentation, platforms like Github, Thingiverse, and Instructables are more fitting. These platforms can be categorized under the umbrella of open access repositories.
Publishing on Open Access Repositories
Github, Thingiverse, and Instructables make it possible to openly share code, designs, and do-it-yourself project guides. They can be seen as infrastructure supporting not only artists but also open science/research/data initiatives. Open access refers to online research outputs (scientific, data-centric, or otherwise) that are made directly accessible to the public free of charge and without delay or other barriers.
The connection between art and science may not be as readily apparent in the connection between these repositories and open access. However, it can be rationalized in light of the scientific merit of documenting artistic experimentation. Here’s another way to put it.
The open-access projects pictured above could have been used to create works of art, and by being made available on an open access platform—a public forum, essentially—it becomes possible for other artists, makers, or scientists to repeat the process of creation. In doing so, they would be experimenting with the replicability of the initial experiments that produced the project made accessible to the public in the first place. In other words, they would be confirming the knowledge established by the first use of a particular experiment. Thus, they’d be creating art scientifically and it would be possible for them to do so because documentation had been shared.
This is what happened when New American Public Art appropriated the Low Poly Mask uploaded by the user kongorilla onto Thingiverse to create the first prototype of Your Big Face. By publishing their remix, they’ve provided a resource for further iteration.
Leaving conceivable but outmoded apprehensions about revealing the inner workings of the artist’s mind aside, there are two matters of concern worth discussing in relation to open access—something that happens to be very important to us here at NAPA. The first has to do with accreditation, which I explored from another angle in a previous post on the technological mediation of public art. The second has to do with resources, which I will briefly address here. First, a word on Creative Commons to bring our discussion on attribution back to the fore.
Open access overcomes traditional notions of copyright in many ways, allowing secondary users to share and build open documents, for instance. Creative Commons specifically allows people (creators/licensors) to share their work openly “in the commons” while getting credit for it by retaining certain copyright laws. These laws require anyone who makes a “remix” to make their iteration available under the same terms. There are few actionable repercussions for those who do not abide. Creative Commons excels when it comes to enabling good actors, but we can’t expect it to discourage bad ones just as effectively. It gives permission but not necessarily protection. All in all, it permits—even encourages—experimentation to lead to credible knowledge. It’s an adaptation of scientific citation standards for the arts.
Interestingly, the Creative Commons site currently has both a header and a footer with calls for contribution.
You’ve likely seen the same on Wikipedia at one time or another. That’s because making something “open” doesn’t exempt it from needing resources to prove sustainable. The fact that open access repositories of all kinds need resources is the second matter of concern relative to providing open access documentation. Documenting experiments properly with the intent of sharing them takes time, effort, and funding.
Patreon is a platform that allows creators to crowdsource funding. This might seem antithetical to open source, but while open source may hold ‘free’ as a tenet, that’s not to say that there are no costs to make the resources it distributes. Artists can use platforms like Patreon to make documenting experimentation a more feasible endeavor. This is the goal of New American Public Art’s Patreon page, which contends that public art should be a public resource. You can pledge to be an “Investigator” or “Material Researcher,” too.
The scientific connotations here are not coincidental, but indicative of what it means to aspire to transparent documentation and replicable experimentation. The fact that costs are associated with making knowledge accessible doesn’t need to be hidden, and, by the same token, fundraising doesn’t need to act as a paywall for codifying experimentation in other open access repositories. It can, rather, just act as way to hasten and sustain the process.
The documentation of prototyping is undoubtedly one very important aspect of critical making. It is typical for such documentation to be done by the artist, scientist, or researcher (when it’s done at all), but I would be remiss to not mention that documentation can be enacted by a secondary party. For instance, cultural theorists who take up projects like McKenna’s The Artist Observatory as their objects of study also contribute to the network of documentation that surrounds the project. Whether or not secondary documentation is any less scientific is a topic for another discussion.
In anticipating further discussions that may branch off from here, it would be advantageous for us to contemplate additional questions: how big does the forum that accesses and accepts knowledge need to be in order for that knowledge to be considered science? How can we expand the cultures of trust from which repeatable experiments may be derived? What role can platforms and tools like blogs, open source repositories, Creative Commons licenses and crowdfunding play to replace or transform the interpretative labels we’ve come to expect as accompanying art? With public art as our concern, such questions as these are key. By finding tenable answers, we can work towards meeting the public in a more accessible space between art and science.