If you're one of the many followers of the band YACHT, you are likely already aware that vocalist Claire L. Evans has a huge advocate on the role of science in our world. She has spent a number of years blogging about the subject - showing an especial interest in those projects and with those people that connect science and technology and art.
So, when Andrea Grover, a Warhol Curatorial Fellow, decided to put together a book that focused on "the current and historic intersections of art, science and technology", Evans was a natural fit as a collaborator. They weren't alone either, with blogger Regine Debatty and designer Pablo Garcia taking part in this joint project that took just over a week to put together.
The final result of this work is a engaging and inspiring book entitled New Art/Science Affinities, and it was recently released as a print-on-demand book and a free PDF. The lovingly designed and curated book highlights the efforts of 60 artists or art collectives that are shaping our understanding of the world and the effects of technology on our lives through some beautiful and thought-provoking work.
We caught up with Evans to talk about this new work, her role in its creation, and how she sees herself fitting into this vast landscape.
WW: How did you get involved with this project?
Evans: It actually came out of the blue. I've been doing this arts/science/technology writing, mostly on the science end of things, for five or six years. I've been writing a blog called Universe that was first in the L.A. Alternative newspaper in Los Angeles and did a blog on Urban Honking for a number of years and then on Science Blog's blog. So I suppose I was something of a figure in that world. Once the project was explained to me I said yes right off the bat. I mean, how often does someone call you and ask to write a book with you? And it was such a self-contained project I actually had time to do it. I'm usually on the road and who has time to write with a bunch of strangers that's not in such a weird kind of context that's only seven days of my life that are going to be devoted to this project. And seven amazing days they were. We did it. I couldn't believe it but we did it.
You had never met any of your collaborators before?
No, I'd never met a single one of them before which was amazing. I mean, I knew them by reputation. Regine Debatty writes this amazing and well-recognized blog about new media and art. She's internationally recognized and travels all over the world and knows a lot of artists and is really connected and is a huge figure in that world. And I knew of Andrea Grover who organized the project because she used to run an amazing thing in Houston called The Aurora Picture Show which was a microcinema. I knew who these people were. It's not like I was going in blindly, but I'd certainly never met them before.
How did everyone go about picking who you were going to focus on in the book?
It was more about methodology than people. The project was the culmination of a Warhol Grant Fellowship that Andrea was working with at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon. She had spent six months at Carnegie Mellon researching the art and technology world of the 1960s, the period of time when there was a lot of institutional support for arts, science, and technology collaborations. There were experiments in arts and technology collaboration at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Bell Labs was giving money to a lot of artists to do all kinds of interesting things. She had been working on that and she was trying to figure out what happened. Why did we stop having both corporate and academic support for these kinds of projects? And what's different about now today that we're having a huge resurgence in this kind of work? It has a lot to do with the fact that we're living in this interconnected age where people have not only access to each other—artists can communicate directly with anyone they please–but we also have access to tools. There's a lot of emphasis in the work on digital work, hacking type work where people are using software and programming software to do their own technological type artwork. She saw the space there where we could discuss this with a group of people. So we all came in and it was mostly about taking the huge wealth of work that is available...and the kind of stuff going on in the world is just phenomenal, there's so much internationally...and it was more about splitting it up into methodologies that made sense. And from there we picked projects that we thought would be good representatives of each methodology. The book is broken up into five sections. There's a section on Programming Art, which is artists actually making software themselves. There's hacking stuff, there's a whole chapter on The Maker Moment, and on Citizen Science which is people using scientific tools in a more collective way. There's a section on artists that are working with science directly and doing more white coat and latex gloves type work. More lab-based kind of stuff. And there's a section on more aspirational design, science fictional conceptual type things. Thankfully, we had Regine who knows everything about every project in the world. She's just an amazing resource. So we would name categories and she would throw out projects. We all threw out projects that we had heard of that people we knew were doing or things that we'd seen on the Internet, and started compiling a megalist. From then forward it was just tons and tons of research.
So, you have this huge list, and obviously you couldn't put everything in the book, so were there things that you liked that didn't make the cut?
Oh, absolutely. Given the nature the type of thing that we're writing about that doesn't have a very clear boundary, there's a lot of blurriness. There's lots of people that wouldn't consider themselves part of this movement that weren't in the book by virtue of one or two projects that they've done or there are things that were much too blurry and interdisciplinary to even make it in the book because there was no place that it would fit. It's a hugely vibrant and ever changing world. There was just no way that we could fit everything in. What we tried to do was provide a snapshot of this moment in time because it's a world of art makers and thinkers that don't necessarily have a lot of discourse with one another. Also because it's so emergent. There's no institution to really support it quite yet. We thought of ourselves as writing a piece of the history as it was happening. You get the book and you start looking at different projects and you can start following different artists down the rabbit hole if you want to. But it's really just a tiny cross section of what's happening. There's so much more.
Looking through the book, many of the works that were highlighted in the book have a very political aspect to them, particularly involving the damage being done to the environment. Why do you think that idea is so closely linked with this world of art and science collaboration?
I think that it's a very clear direction to take if you're using scientific and technological tools. We live in a world highly media-tized and highly technological and ever-changing digital world and the effect that is having on the world around us. In our generation, more than any other previous generation, people are seeing the tools that they are using to explore the ideas that they want to explore are the same tools that are sometimes causing great damage to the world. The project in the book called The Toaster Project, which is a guy trying to build a toaster from scratch over the course of five years or something. And just realizing that we don't have any connection to the technology that surrounds us, and we don't have any connection to the effect that it has on the world. He ended up mining aluminum himself and trying to smelt metals and realizing the damage that kind of work can do on a huge scale, and he could buy something like that for 10 pounds at a convenience store. I think it comes naturally when you start thinking about technology and the means of production, you end up thinking about the world. These are things that have a huge effect on the world.
I feel like we are coming out of a number of years, especially thinking about the Bush Administration years where there was a very suspicious attitude towards science and technology and many people taking an anti-intellectualist stance...do you think that we have recovered from that in some sense? Are we working towards that or are there still people standing in the way of that kind of progress?
It depends on the "we" you are talking about. If you're talking about America, I think there's still a great deal of fear and paranoia about science and what that represents. But if you're talking about artists and younger generations of people, I think there's a moment now where people are really starting to embrace science and realize the fact that we as intellectuals don't have the comfort of being able to stand divided any more. There's the famous C.P. Snow lecture about the two cultures, this division between the scientific culture of intellectualism and the humanistic culture of intellectualism causing this rift. Maybe it was easy to take sides before there was a completely anti-intellectual culture in our country. Now it seems more petty when there's so much more to fight against. I think that it just seems silly to separate anymore. I think people are coming to realize that science and technology aren't the bad guy, they are limiting. They're actually valid tools for understanding the world around us. I think if you define science as a method for trying to make sense of the world around you both on a small scale and on a universal scale, there's really no difference between science and art at all. That's what art is about as well. It's about trying to parse and explain and explore the vaster chaotic forces of the universe. They definitely share a language if you take a step back. It seems kind of ridiculous to try to ghettoize those two things.
How important was it for you and your collaborators to make sure this was available for free online?
Hugely important. The idea is that it's kind of a textbook for people that are becoming interested in this kind of work or maybe a Yellow Pages for artists in this world that want to meet other artists in this world. It is a compendium and we want everyone to have access to it. The whole idea of this book and the research that came out of it is opening up the conversation that were previously limited to different academic subcultures, making those conversations happen across disciplines so interesting work can come out of it. Making it hard to access would be absurd. And the whole project was funded by a grant so it's not like we're trying to make money on it. We want people to use it. We put so much work into it and so many different people helped and donated their time. All the artists gave us pictures for free and gave us interviews and access to their archives. We don't want to shut that off from anybody.
I want to finish by asking you the question that was posed to a number of artists in the book: as an artist, how do you see your role in a scientific or technological setting?
I think I wouldn't be the kind of artist that I am if I didn't have access to the tools that we all currently have access to. I wouldn't be a science writer because I wouldn't be able to connect so easily to incredible scientific and creative minds all over the world just by virtue of being able to find them online. I wouldn't be a musician if I didn't have the digital tools to create, record, and disseminate the stuff I do. I certainly would be an artist in another era, but a different kind of artist. And I wouldn't have the kind of reach that I feel fortunate enough to have. I see myself as a little zygote...a little molecule in some petri dish that we're all sharing and I'm happy to be a part of it.