Art as a Way of Knowing
This last week the Exploratorium in San Francisco hosted a two-day conference devoted to “Art as a Way of Knowing.” Funded by the National Science Foundation, the conference organizers convened “an international group of artists, scientists, museum curators, writers, educators, and other cross-pollinators to explore and discuss the role of aesthetic inquiry in public interdisciplinary learning environments.” Presentations careened widely and wildly from art critic Jeff Kelley discussing the influence of the early 20th-century philosopher John Dewey on the Happenings of Allan Kaprow to Geoff Manaugh and Matt Coolidge talking about the confluence of geography and architecture, to Margaret Wertheim describing the incredible growth of the Coral Reef Project by the Institute, for Figuring.
But the real joy of the conference came from a night at the Exploratorium itself. If you’ve been to the legendary “museum of science, art and perception,” you know that many of its exhibits specialize in making us aware not just of how the world works–it’s physics and chemistry, for example–but also how we see the world, which means how we are often fooled by our preconceptions. Rooms are not the size they appear to be, objects disappear in front of your eyes, things move that really don’t, and more. But the best trick
of all was to realize how contemporary art has come to pervade what used to be a much more science-dominated environment.
Upon entering the cavernous space, we were greeted by an ongoing solo piano performance of Erik Satie’s circa-1893 composition Vexations, which consists of a short phrase to be repeated 840 times–which usually takes about 18 hours. It was a calm introduction to what would prove to be a rich visual experience and audioscape. Nearby, for example, independent curator Chris Fitzpatrick, composer Thomas Dimuzio, and NOAA cetacean acoustics expert Dave Mellinger set up an alcove that invited listeners to recline on enormous pillows while listening to a humpback whale composition.
Jeff Kelley had installed a station from which visitors could check out a cot and bedding, then go find a perfect place and time for a bed, the recreation of a classic Kaprow performance work from 1986. The Exploratorium volunteers were instructed in the nature of the piece–the conflation of a private act in a public space–but nonetheless Kelley, while using one of the cots, was at one point told that he “had to move along,” the assumption being he was a homeless person. Kaprow would have loved it.
The stealer of the evening, however was a performance of Black Rain by Brighton-based artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, collectively known as Semiconductor, whose films often deploy digital noise and “computer anarchy” to explore the intersection of the material world with our senses. Black Rain, which uses images from the twin NASA satellites known as STEREO imaging coronal solar ejecta, has become an internet hit, and is powerful enough at that scale. But seeing it projected on a huge wall with a live performance of the dense score reminded everyone in the building that art is experience, and that remains the definitive way of knowing.