Sunday, May 29, 2016

Week 9

Like so many of the topics we have covered in this class, space and the arts are in conversation with each other in a way that differs largely depending on the direction of information transfer. Space travel and research has influenced works of art. For example, Ray Bradbury's short story, "All Summer in a Day" presents a future where humans have colonized Venus, a planet constantly beleaguered by rain. Numerous other TV shows, books, short stories, and art works have made use of the space theme as a way to mediate our collective fascination (and, at times, fear) of space (Interstellar is a recent example).

Alternatively, scientists have been utilizing their technology and knowledge in artistic ways. For example, Carl Sagan utilized the work of scientists and artists alike to present scientific knowledge to the public. In a related vein, Neil Degrasse Tyson makes use of stylized animations in the recently rebooted version of Cosmos. Similarly, many scientists have been working with artists in zero-gravity to both test the effects of space flight on the human body as well as use the experience of weightlessness as inspiration for artistic endeavors (Forde).

I'm a student at UCSC. Recently, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History held an event entitled "Cosmos," featuring astrophysicists, artists, magicians, and spiritualists presenting their particular perspectives on space.


Bradbury, Ray. "All Summer in a Day."
Forde, Kathleen. "Dancing on the Ceiling: Art & Zero Gravity." Web.
Sagan, Carl. "The Pale Blue Dot." Video.
"3rd Friday: The Cosmos." Santa Cruz MAH.
Vesna, Victoria. "Week 9: Space and Art." UCLA. Lecture. Web.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Week 8

     The relationship of art to nanotechnology is two-fold. On the one hand, science fiction authors and artists have created an astounding volume of work speculating on the role nanotechnology may one day play in our lives (oftentimes these depictions are negative, reflecting perhaps a collective public fear of the technology). This representation of nanotechnology in the media is what Gimzewski and Vesna refer to as the "nanomeme."

The concept of evil nanobots with the capacity to kill humans has come up again and again in science fiction.
On the other hand, nanotechnology itself can be used to create art. For example, Nanp-scape, an art installation by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau that allows users to "touch" nanoparticles (Art.base). Additionally, IBM has used nanotechnology to create the "world's smallest animation," where individual atoms were manipulated to create a video entitled 'A Boy and his Atom' (Anthony).

Ultimately, nanotechnology isn't itself inherently positive or negative, but rather exists as a tool in a collective global context. As Jim Gimzewski points out, nanoparticles are added to food products in ways that may or may not be harmful, and that we have current little understanding of. That being said, nanotechnology does have astounding medical applications, and may be instrumental in new forms of cancer treatment (Conger). Even in the arts there is a schism of sorts, with some artists using nanotechnology to speculate on disastrous or dystopian futures, and others using nanotechnology itself in order to create art.

A bucky ball surrounding the earth - a reflection of the way that, for the better or not, nanotechnology has taken the world by storm.
Laguna Design.

Anthony, Sebastian. "IBM creates world’s smallest movie with a handful of precisely placed atoms."
     Extreme Tech. 1 May 2013. Web.
"Art in the Age of Nanotechnology." Art.base. 11 March 2010. Web.
Conger, Krista. "Small wonder: How nanotechnology could detect and treat cancer." Stanford.
     17 May 2016.
Gimzewski, Jim. "Nanotech for Artists." 21 May 2012. DESMA 9. UCLA. Web.
Gimzewski, Jim and Vesna, Victoria. "The Nanomeme Syndrome: Blurring of fact & fiction in the
     construction of a new science."

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Week 7

     The confluence of neuroscience and the arts has a particular interest to me as someone with mental illness. The visual arts are able to represent the internal experiences of the mind in a way that is otherwise difficult to communicate. For as much as Frazetto and Anker speak on the commercialization of psychoactive drugs, the cartoon facsimile for depression in a popular Abilify commercial does a disturbingly good job of representing the experience of living with depression.

Depression, represented as a being extraneous to the sufferer, rather than as an intrinsic part of them.

     The rise of a "neuroculture," however, comes with its challenges. The language of endorphins and seretonins has made everyone an expert on neuroscience, and I am exhausted by people suggesting I exercise as a way to "release endorphins," as a treatment for my anxiety and depression, as if it were so simple. That said, the collective obsession with the way that chemicals act on the brain has produced many evocative art pieces. The rise of drug culture and LSD in the 60s coincided with an outpouring of artistic effort on the part of artists in order to replicate the experience of mind-altering drugs (Vesna).

The art of Bryan Sanders, an artist who completes self portraits while on a variety of different drugs.
An art piece representing the rhizome, a concept in Deleuzian philosophy.
Interestingly, it resembles a neural network.
     In a tenuous relationship to neuroscience (which, as Mark Cohen conveys, is concerned with an empirical observation-based understanding of the brain's mechanistic workings) is psychoanalysis. Carl Jung speaks of the ahistorical modern man, the breakdown of religion in the West, the delineation between consciousness and unconsciousness, and the work of Freud (he also claims that art predicts shifts in the collective consciousness). He stresses the importance of looking internally rather than externally. While much of Jung's work is interesting at the least, I take issue with this transcendentalist view of human progress, and his brand of psychoanalysis becomes, in its own way, another kind of religion, translating human behavior into its own mystic set of symbols and interpretations. As Deleuze writes, "In truth, Freud sees nothing and understands nothing." The world is a landscape of multiplicities, and to ascribe any sort of unifying consciousness/unconsciousness dichotomy is to diminish its beauty and complexity. From a Deleuzian standpoint, art is neither representative nor referential, but instead self-expressive and self-evident, an affirmation of one's existence as a being of nature. Art as an act of one's neurological capabilities. As someone who is tired of all my actions being read as representative of my mental issues, I appreciate this view of art.


Cohen, Mark. "Neuroscience." 12 May 2012. Web.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Fľix Guattari. Anti-oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum, 2003. Print.
Frazetto, Giovanni and Anker, Suzanne. "Neuroculture." Nature. Vol. 10. 2009. 815-821.
Jung, Carl. "The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man." 1928.
Vesna, Victoria. "Neuroscience." UCLA. 2016. Web.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Week 6

     While this week's lecture was concerned with relatively new biotechnologies, humans have been modifying nature for aesthetic purposes for hundreds years. During the 1600s, tulips became immensely popular in Holland, spurring botanists to create increasingly ornate varieties (ironically, the most prized variety of tulip, 'broken' tulips, were the result of a mosaic virus) (Raven).

An illustration of "broken" tulips.
     In another example of the public's relationship to art and biotechnology, Christopher Kelty makes reference to the outsourcing of the life sciences to the general public, allowing average citizens to carry out science in their homes. FoldIt is one such project, a video game that asks users to fold proteins into different configurations, reflecting amino acid folding rules. The game has allowed scientists to access possible protein structures more quickly than an algorithm would be able to, and has applications in medicine (FoldIt).

An example of a structure that can be created in FoldIt
     While many artists have learned how to use biotechnology in order to create art, many scientists have utilzied their specialized knowledge to artistic effect as well. In 2015, a contest was held in which scientists created art using bacterial and yeast cultures on agar plates. The living cultures were utilized as a medium by scientists, raising questions about whether or not life ought to be used as an art object. 

The winner of the Agar Art Contest. American Society for Microbiology/Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil from Massachusetts
     Ellen Levy addresses issues discerning nature from culture in the era of biotechnology. In my biochemistry lab, we inserted the GFP gene into a culture of e. coli, causing them to glow green. Why does this seem innocuous, but we raise an outcry in the case of Alba, a rabbit subject to a similar process? Is it because rabbits are more "like us?" Is it because such a process is "unnecessary?" The public reaction to these art works reflect a hierarchy of priorities, where mammals are more important than fruit flies, transgenic experiments for medical advancement more important than aesthetics. A milieu of hypocrisy and confusion cloud the field, and public opinion is increasingly swaying against genetic modification in general, despite the fact that humans have been playing with the genetics of crops for thousands of years.
     Many take concern with biotechnology-based art because it uses life arbitrarily, reflecting perhaps a deeper criticism of the arts as a non-pragmatic endeavour. While I have yet to muddle through my stance on this complex issue, I leave you with some images I took of a hawkmoth through a dissecting microscope.

"FoldIt: Solve Puzzles for Science." Foldit. Web.

Levy, Ellen K. "Defining Life: Artists Challenge Conventional Classifications." (2007).Kelty, Christopher M. "Outlaw, hackers, victorian amateurs: diagnosing public participation in the  
     life sciences
 today." Jcom 9.1 (2010): 1-8.
Palermo, Elizabeth. "Microbe Masterpieces: Scientists Create Cool Art from Bacteria." Livescience.
     22 October 2015. Web.

Raven, Sarah. "The History of the Tulip." Sarah Raven. 25 October 2014. Web.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Event Blog 1

A mural outside the museum.
A taxidermied red-tailed hawk.

    For my first event, I visited the Norris Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Norris Center is an on-campus natural history museum. It represents the meeting of the arts and sciences in multiple ways, the most obvious of these being the large collection of taxidermied animal specimens on display. As somebody who prepares taxidermy bird specimens myself, it is most certainly an art form, requiring precision, dexterity, and a creative eye for the aesthetic presentation of a dead animal in a lifelike way. Scientists can then make use of taxidermy specimens in order to easily study animal morphology. In fact, new species have been discovered and named by scientists searching through drawers of taxidermy specimens.


     Outside of the center, an easel accompanied by post-it notes allows visitors to post "nature notes," accounts of natural history happenings that they've observed around campus. Many of these notes are accompanied by small sketches and illustrations, reflecting the meeting point of scientific observation and artistic representation in order to serve and illuminate said observations.

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     As much as the idea of "two cultures" of the arts and sciences at odds with each other is clearly visible in other facets of the university campus, the Norris Center represents a peaceful integration of the two (perhaps the beginnings of a burgeoning third culture?). Here artistic practice and creativity inform and illuminate scientific practice, creating displays that are legible to individuals of all backgrounds and allowing scientific information (that is often quite inaccessible, jargon heavy, and complicated)  to be easily accessed by the general public. Even though this museum is at UCSC, I highly recommend that my classmates check it out if any of you are ever in the area.

Myself (left) and one of the student curators of the museum (right), with a stuffed boar's head in the background.