‘This Fanciful and Colorful Image’: The Image of New Media Within the Contemporary Art Scene – Anna Munster

In 1638 the Reverend John Wilkins, founder member of the prestigious Royal Society of London, keen taxonomist and contemporary of Newton, Hooke, Boyle and Wren, published a short discourse ‘. . . tending to prove,’ as he states on his title page, ‘that it is probable there may be another habitable World in the Moon’ (Wilkins, 1970). The hypothetical tone of its first section entitled ‘That the Moon May Be a World’, gathers more steam as the treatise continues, and moves from the general deduction that strange propositions can nonetheless hold true, to the analogy in which he proposes that ‘as the World is our Moon, so our World is their Moon’. From here he moves to the grandest proposition of all, that future conveyance to the moon may be possible in order to engage in commerce with its likely inhabitants. The piece reads like a raw mix of wild conjecture and careful argument, dream and likelihood, drawing on the Baroque taste for curious ideas but equally supported by the accepted astronomy and mathematics of ‘the natural knowledge’ of its day.2 Today we would more than likely read this mixture as well-written science fiction, assigning it to the realm of fantasy and speculation more clearly identified with artistic vision. And yet contemporary science accords fantastic powers to the role of visualisation that currently take the image, particularly the computer-generated image, into a realm of speculation and wonder. New media technologies associated with delivering these marvellous images, such as virtual reality simulations, three-dimensional visual fly-throughs and data modelling, also occupy a firm place within scientific speculation as the key to unlocking increasingly fantastic visions of the world.

But it would be a mistake to credit the contemporary scientific imaginary with maintaining a collaborative relation between its technical, informative function and its aesthetic, visual display, in spite of rhetoric to the contrary. The status of the scientific image, and thus the place and function of the imagination within science, fundamentally changes with the advent of photography. As Vilelm Flusser has argued, the relation between photography and science is more than historical contingency; it is evidence of an epistemological reorganisation between image and world (2000: 15-17). Scientific images, the likes of which we see scattered throughout treatises from the ‘scientific revolution’ are in Flusser’s terminology ‘pre-technical’. The 1638 diagrams that accompany Wilkins’ text are quite clearly symbols, supported by two levels of abstraction: one from world to text or concept, and one from concept to diagram or the symbolic rendering of concept.3

The technical image proper is only ushered in with the intervention of an apparatus, such as the camera, that stands between the conception and production of the scientific image. The camera itself is constituted through a series of abstractions, no longer working to inform or extract meaning from the world as other kinds of image-making tools such as pens might do, but instead to store and process a new kind of world. The photographic image is related to the world through an exponentially multiplying series of abstractions, which, if placed in the series that starts with the scientific diagram, might proceed something like this: from world to concept/text, concept to symbol, symbol to a series of complex scientific texts that then condense to produce a scientific program aimed at extracting knowledge of the world through the capture of images (Flusser, 2000: 25-6).

Yet the surface of the photographic image does not openly display its levels of abstraction: ‘What one sees on them therefore do not appear to be symbols that one has to decode but symptoms of the world through which, even if indirectly, it is to be perceived’ (Flusser, 2000: 15). Like any image, we may understand the technical image as a surface resplendent with meaning. Unlike other images the technical image appears not as a symbol of the world available for conceptual interpretation but as a symptom. The scientific photograph only allows for an aesthetic of beauty as truth rather than the speculative wonder to which Baroque scientific diagrams lent their support. As we have come to see (and hence to know), almost 330 years after Wilkins allowed himself to commit his wonder to argument, actual transport to the moon only refuted the possibility of its prior occupancy. The famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph taken by the Apollo 8 crew during their lunar orbit of 1968, presented in stark relief certain confirmation of the absolute isolation and fragility of a planet, the Earth, which alone in the known universe would be capable of supporting life. Both the hope of any correspondence, encapsulated in Wilkin’s hypothesis that ‘. . .our World may be their Moon’, and the elevation of the earth to a position of ecological and imaginary grandeur in the solar system, were accomplished through the stark contrasts conveyed in that one image. The desolate grey tones of the moonscape provided a platform for a first person perspective that looked back to the saturated colour of earth.

In fact, as a scientific image that gestures towards a certain poetry, even aesthetics, ‘that photograph’ resolutely states that the world could no longer be considered fantastic as might have been suggested through Baroque visual display. In spite of its apparent poetry and the anecdotal evidence that surrounds its serendipitous capture by the Apollo crew who were not instructed to take lunar orbital photographs of the earth, the ‘Earthrise’ image is undeniably scientific. Or rather we could say it is a technical image. In the technical image the meaning or cause that produces the image appears directly on its surface. The world signified in the technical image seems to also be the cause of the image. The clearest example of this occurs with the fingerprint, also an image legacy of the nineteenth century, which leaves its impression on the image surface and is likewise the cause of that image. In the photograph shot from Apollo 8, the world literally, even captured somewhat poetically, seems to leave its direct impression on film; its isolation and fragility, only a symptomatic reflection of the perspective of the remote astronauts from which it was taken. The aesthetic quality of this image derives from the extent to which its symptomatic status distorts the direct causal relation between object and image. The symptom demands an interpretation of the image as somewhat fantastic because its poetry signals a distortion of the direct relation between manifest or surface content and causal content. Much the same way as the symptomatic status of the fantasy within Freudian psychoanalysis represents the distorted fulfilment of unconscious content.

The ‘Earthrise’ image that found its way into the public arena in 1968 via its publication in LIFE magazine exists precisely as a symptom of scientific imagination pushed by distortion to the brink of fantasy.4 For the actual photograph taken by crewmember Will Anders was snapped from the perspective of being in orbit about the lunar equator. His horizon was the spacecraft in which he was travelling. The edge of the Moon was vertical, with Earth a little to the left and with its poles aligned the same way as the North and South poles of the Moon. Rotating the image 90 degrees clockwise, as was done in the published LIFE version, also flips the perspective, simultaneously guaranteeing the production of a sublime moment – the earth ‘rising’ up over the moon. As Flusser suggests, within the technical image, art, politics and science are intimately conjoined (2000: 19). The mass reproducibility of the photographic image ensures that the concepts of science may be amply demonstrated; the aesthetics of that same image provide science with the public face of that demonstrability.

So, of course, the technical image within the scientific program, which we might also call the scientific imagination, is permitted some leeway. It can stray into the realm of art and the fantastic but only to the extent that it maintains, even indirectly, this fundamental relation to a chain of causation. A license is granted to the scientific or technical image to wander into fantastic realms as long as the relation between symptom and cause is maintained. This is achieved precisely by locating the fantastic impulse solely at the level of the symptom. If fantasy (specifically the visually fantastic) has the potential to distort and diverge from the causal chain that connects the surface with its impresser, then the balance between distortion/fantasy and symptom/reality-indicator will require maintenance. In this essay I will develop Flusser’s analysis of the technical image in the context of the contemporary scientific program and its extensive use of digital visualisation. This will require some exploration of the current policing of the boundaries between science and fantasy that occur with respect to the place and status of the image in science. In particular, I want to examine the impact of new media technologies on technical images and how this changes the place of the imaginary within science. There is a sense, conveyed through a spate of recent scientific popularisation, in which computer-assisted and generated visualisation returns the affective capacities of wonder to the scientific enterprise. At first glance, new media assisted and generated technical images appear to reverberate with the double-edged nature of Baroque wonder, which saw the latter accorded the status of both passion and aid to knowledge.5 If computer modelled images of science’s virtual worlds, such as the ‘dark matter’ supporting the universe or the invisible molecular robots of nanotechnology, regain a place for the bizarre and purely speculative within science, then metaphors connected with the impact of new media imaging capabilities also drive this imaginative impulse. Many of these metaphors deploy or are fundamentally shaped by the possibilities conjured by new media technologies, specifically in the realm of visualisation.

Yet there is a simultaneous evocation and fear of the powers of metaphor and image in contemporary science. This manifests itself in debates about whether wonder occupies a necessary place in scientific explanations of the universe, in the associated belief that in providing such a place science connects to a deep and underlying aestheticism, and in the accompanying concern that too much metaphor leads to bad science. Mary Midgely has commented upon the recent role of the fantastic in scientific texts, drawing particular attention to the place of new technologies within the apotheosis of these fantasies (1996: 142). Speculation about the marvels of new technologies attract readers and popularise science, she argues, and in turn may act as a compensatory mechanism for scientists themselves, bored by the arid ground of empirical proof and procedure. It is useful here to compare this current experience of scientific legitimation, license and subsequent cultural anxiety to the parallel debates surrounding wonder and the power of images during the seventeenth century. If, as is usual in histories of the development of modern science, we take the seventeenth century as its birthplace, we can see, in this comparison, that the place and role of the image has been at the core of a scientific perspective upon the world. But this comparison also allows us to single out what was quite specific about wonder and its relation to the sciences and arts of the Baroque. The kind of correspondences, analogies and resemblances that litter the treatises of natural knowledge in the seventeenth century, and that effectively allow for certain kinds of correspondences between art and science, are no longer possible after the advent of the technical image. An enormous shift occurs when industrial technology conjoins with the visual to produce a new kind of image, and indeed a new kind of relation between science and art.

Consequently, although the computer-generated image within science opens the door to the fantastic, it nevertheless shares in the photographic image’s epistemological rearrangement of the relations between truth and imagination. There is now a deep asymmetry at work between science and art. Imagination and fantasy occur at the far reaches and boundaries of the image and metaphor, in the spaces where distortion of the world’s truth occurs. The image retains its scienticity insofar as its core concept requires no decoding and inasmuch as it offers us, axiomatically (however opaquely), a window to perception. Frequently though, the computer-generated image in science visualises the imperceptible: worlds that are too small or too vast to be directly seen or known. Here, the ‘art’ of the image lies in its capacity to lend its services to the technical image through collaboration with science. Indeed, the most overused metaphors describing the current relations between art and science are those of collaboration, intersection and convergence. What is actually taking place when art ‘collaborates with science’? If, as I am claiming, there exists an asymmetry between art and science, to whom do the benefits accrue in these collaborations? The more technically sophisticated contemporary art wants to become, in particular technologically sustained and executed new media art, the more it will have to rely upon access to the equipped and funded projects of scientific visualisation research. And perhaps in the grab for cash, science may see art, specifically art that participates in an aestheticisation of science, as its necessary partner. Does new media art, undertaking these collaborations with science and technical visualisation but positioned asymmetrically within the field, continue to play the role of publicising and demonstrating the scientific program, as did the scientific photograph?

Alternatively could there be intersections in which art is capable of changing the place that fantasy plays in the technical image? Here fantasy would no longer be conceived as symptomatic of a distorting process, but as constitutive of scientific visualisation itself. In other words, science fantasy, propelled by new techniques of visualisation, becomes the core activity of the scientific enterprise itself. It is time new media artists publicly challenged the tangential role and delegation to the place of assistant that the image and hence imagination are accorded in the contemporary scientific program. Rather than scientific visualisation and new media technologies being deployed instrumentally as aesthetic assistants, we could more critically assert the reliance upon image production as fundamental to the ongoing concerns of science as a speculative enterprise. There are a number of savvy artists working within the areas of new media art today whose work upends the familiar asymmetry of art-science relations. In their practices, these artists indicate an understanding of the mutation that occurs in the technical image with the advent of digital imaging technologies. We will see how they place the fantasy or symptom right back at the core of the scientific imagination challenging those anxiously policed boundaries between the aesthetic and the scientific. From the standpoint of artists’ claims to art-science convergence, these strategies that unpack the digital technical image may have a greater impact than the ill-conceived claims for collaboration.

Initially it seems the technical and aesthetic status the contemporary scientific image enjoys is reminiscent of the symmetry between the scientific and contrived image that inspired Baroque wonder. In his 1999 book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins argues for a ‘deep symmetry’ of art and science, based upon the wellspring of wonder, declaring that:

The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It’s a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. (1998: xii)

The scientific illustrations or diagrams that littered Baroque natural history texts also provoked the passion of wonder. It was not simply the revelation of fantastic, hidden worlds, revealed through the perfection of optical technology by the Dutch microscopists in the seventeenth century, but the art of imaging microscopic forms of life, evinced by the remarkable illustrations that accompanied Robert Hooke’s Micrographia of 1667. As historian Lisa Jardine notes, Hooke’s drawings were the outcome of imaging processes involving duplication and compositing, processes we more readily associate with digital imaging (1999: 101-2).6 True form, in the Baroque scientific image, was not itself necessarily on display; rather artifice was required in order to manage the series that manufactured perception into the final imaged object. In this respect, the true form of an object and its representation through metaphor were not considered at all far apart within Baroque culture. Metaphor, like truth, was a mode of composing the world, using similar techniques as were used for contemplation of the natural world, but leading instead to delight and pleasure. Debate concerning the role of the symbol, emblem, device, metaphor and deceit waged strong in mid-seventeenth century Italy. The influential academician Emanuel Tesauro, who published a book on the emblem in 1655, argued for the precedence of metaphor over authenticity:

Metaphor packs tightly all objects into one word: and makes you see them one inside the other in an almost miraculous way. Hence your delight is the greater, because it is a more curious and pleasant thing to watch objects from a perspective angle than if the originals themselves were to pass successively before one’s eyes. . . (Praz, 1964: 18)

Comparatively, the capitulations to wonder in Dawkins’ text that appeal to a revivification of the marvellous in contemporary science are tightly managed. He is quick to draw the line between ‘good poetic science’, in which wonder can inspire, and debased forms of colourful scientific prose whose overwrought metaphors lead scientists to ‘bad poetic science’ and the public down the road to charlatanism, superstition and seduction (1998: 18-25). The scientific image or text, albeit aesthetic, that leaves us with an impression that the world may be an orderly place is a useful addendum to the scientific worldview. We have here entered a world in which the technical image has historically superseded contrivance, conceit and metaphor. Whereas wonder could be equally invoked by scientific demonstration or artful contrivance in Baroque visual culture, after the advent of the technical image, the scientific imaginary ceases to revel in the marvels of its own making. It demonstrates instead the transparent encoding of the scientific. Hence the odd, bizarre or fantastic can remain as revelations performed by the technical image, provided that they maintain their chain of causal connection back to the truth of the world and demonstrate the functioning of an orderly universe.

Now it is here that things start to become very interesting. Although Dawkins and other contemporary scientists are keen to keep the boundaries closed to the excesses of wonder, they nevertheless open them at the other end by permitting the most fantastical distortions to emerge nonetheless, all in the name of maintaining explanatory order. Drawn to the remarkable capabilities of new media imaging technologies and their production of fantastic worlds, Dawkins is also constrained by the necessity of arguing for their instrumental transparency in imaging the world as scientific truth. Accordingly he is both seduced by the technicity of the digital image and swept away by its promise to immerse him in a fantastic world, all the while being forced to argue new media’s function as an aid to true vision. Extolling the possibilities of virtual reality environments for medical discovery and procedure, Dawkins recalls the science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, and imagines a telesurgery scenario in which the virtual and the actual are brought into perfect visual alignment:

The surgeon of the future has no need to scrub up for she need not go near her patient. She stands in a wide-open area, connected by radio to the endoscope inside the patient’s intestine. The miniature screens in front of her two eyes present a magnified stereo image of the interior of the patient immediately in front of the tip of the endoscope. When she moves her head to the left, the computer automatically swivels the tip of the endoscope to the left. The angle of the view of the camera inside the intestine faithfully moves to follow the surgeon’s head view in all three planes. She drives the endoscope forward along the intestine by her footsteps. Slowly, slowly for fear of damaging the patient, the computer pushes the endoscope forwards, its direction always controlled by the direction in which, in a completely different room, the surgeon is walking. It feels to her as though she is actually walking through the intestine. It doesn’t even feel claustrophobic. Following present day endoscopic practice, the gut has been carefully inflated with air, otherwise the walls would press in upon the surgeon and force her to crawl rather than walk. (1998: 272)

The point, however, is that this 20/20 alignment is only achieved at the expense of a collapse that Dawkins effects between the simulation/representation in which the future surgeon is immersed, and the surgical action is which she is engaged. Why, presuming that the surgeon’s avatar presence inside the patient’s body has been adequately shrunk to fit inside an intestine, would the feeling of moving through a space inflated by gas need to be matched exactly at a representational level in the virtual field? It is not for medical purposes that the ‘gut’ of the patient must be inflated in Dawkins virtual scenario, but in order to produce the ‘feeling’ of proprioceptive match between the surgeon’s actual remote movement and location, and her virtual immersion. Suddenly the surgeon is relocated, through the exact interactive correlation between her movements and the endoscopic camera’s actions, from image technology to the experiential sensation of an environment. Dawkins has taken the virtual for the real, the mediated, technical production for the actual situation; a move necessary to mask what is in effect the scientific fantasy of a perfect fit between image and world. Almost aware of his own speculative propensities, Dawkins admits that in his scenario for the future of digital images in science a certain amount of engineering of vision between the virtual and actual environments might be required: ‘The virtual world that was presented to the surgeon on her stereo screens was admittedly constructed in a computer, but it was constructed in a disciplined way’ (1998: 274). A certain order acts to ensure the correspondence between a constructed and uninhabitable computational space and a experiential locale actually inhabited by the scientist; an order, no doubt, that maintains a sense of the causal chain between the world and its interface with new technologies. But as Katherine Hayles has insisted in a different context, a ‘seamless transition’ must be produced to conceal the difference between the material space of the embodied world and the imagined space of an inhabitable computational environment that in reality exists only as executable code (1999: 229).

The oscillation between speculative fantasy and transparency of the computational image to the world arises the more the technical image appears in danger of losing its representational function. In the field of nanotechnology, an area funded largely on the promise of future advances, the computationally modelled image both illustrates ‘scientific procedure’ and introduces a fabricated world, the scale of which is fundamentally imperceptible. As Richard Wright has argued, the scientific image that exists purely as a result of techniques of electronic visualisation promises direct access to knowledge about a world that is primarily unrepresentable (1997: 24). Nanotechnology, encompassing research into the manufacture of molecular machines, has emerged as a research area attracting both public interest and prioritised public and private funding by government and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. On the website of the Foresight Institute, which declares itself to be ‘..a non-profit, educational organization founded to help society prepare for nanotechnology’, a gallery has been created to help us image the actions and interactions of these unseeable yet visionary machines (2000). The captions accompanying various of these images circumscribe their fluctuation between the role of the technical image as direct representation of the world, and the fantastic impulse that motivates the production of constructed scientific worlds. In the image of ‘Drillers I’, we encounter the transparent function of the scientific image, illustrating laboratory procedure, with its caption reading:

In a classical laboratory experiment which all first-year nanomedical students are required to perform, the simple mechanical drilling of a small tumor mass (seen in foreground) induces nonspecific adhesions of red cells and later of other cells in vitro. . .(Viktor: 2000)

But in another image from the Foresight Gallery of Nanotechnological Art we move into discovering the underlying order of the nanotechnological world, which it seems, if we are to believe the accompanying caption, not only demonstrates that molecules obey laws but that they intellectually function to manage these in a clever and friendly way: ‘A number of utility foglets hold hands with their neighbours, forming a reconfigurable array of “smart matter”.’ (Storrs: 1999)

What are we to make of these wonderful images drawn not from life but from the combined power of speculation, the tradition of science fiction cartooning and the engine of 3D computer imaging? Do they remain within the permissible boundaries of the contemporary scientific imagination, retaining a relation to an underlying universe of order? And what should we make of their claim to the status of art, and their subsequent display within an online gallery? Perhaps this crossover into art permits a certain license to be taken with the image, driving it across the regulated borders of scientific visualisation. Yet we cannot really make sense of their art-science status unless we analyse what has happened to the technical image in the age of digital technologies. By and large the technical image in science now represents not just the very small or the very large but, by dint of its capacity for infinitesimal and infinite scalability delivered via the digital, what cannot be humanly seen. Hence the world, however strange, no longer leaves its impression on the image’s surface. Too small or too large for representation, the world must instead be made manageable. In the digital, technical image, it is technology that marks itself on the image’s surface as a managed visualisation of that world via its conversion to data. When we look at a computer generated image we are seeing, not impressions of the world’s refracted light, but small units of information or pixels assigned a colour value by an algorithm that executes a command, decoding and encoding stored and converted image data. It is the conversion of external material to these sequences through digital image capturing devices, the storage of these sequences in the computer and the programmatic assignation of colour values to varied strings of these sequences that constitutes the technicality of the digital image. As Lev Manovich has demonstrated, a new media image maintains its representative status in order to continue interfacing with other cultural objects, but simultaneously loses its relation to the semantic, human world (2001: 46). It becomes an object of the informatic universe through its conversion to data.

Now on the one hand, it appears that the digital image produces greater levels of abstraction for scientific visualisation, removing us ever further from the thing or meaning that causes the representation to be made on the image’s surface. But on the other hand, the digital technical image also moves back a step, for in a sense what we are seeing, particularly if we look at a low-resolution bit-mapped image, are symbols. Or rather pixels, which are themselves symbols for sequences of binary code, a code that, in the case of scientific visualisation, stands in for the scientific concepts it is trying to demonstrate. Following Flusser’s distinction between the symbolic image signified in the scientific diagram, and the technical image, photographically occluding the scientific concepts it is supposedly demonstrating, we could say that the digital technical image sits at their intersection. It performs both a conversion/reduction of the image to symbols while at the same time striving to appear more technical by simulating the photographic and thereby edging closer to directly representing the world. In the case of the purely synthetic digital image, which might be used to map and visualise scientific or mathematical data, the relation between the symbol/pixel and the world/model reaches extreme proportions. The potential for absolute resolution of the image, in which the symbolic status of the pixel is completely visually obscured, is achieved in the algorithmic or purely vector-image, such as one sees in the example of the infinitely repeating and infinitely scalable fractal sequences. Here, the process of data conversion, or in Manovich’s term ‘transcoding’, of the world to image is entirely transparent as it is the informatic world, produced within the computer, that images itself (2001: 45-6). The likelihood that the synthesised scientific image might slide into pure aestheticism is historically verified by the fate of fractals, which ended their days as cheap wrapping paper. Science must labour visually to induce a faith in the worlds being modelled or fabricated within the informatic universe. Perhaps this is why it relies upon the resources of photorealistic imaging, particularly in the area of three-dimensional modelling.

The heightened photorealism of the computer-modelled image in science is achieved through a number of strategies, many of which are demonstrated through visualisations of nanotechnology. In the image ‘Three Tumbling Respirocytes’ in the Foresight Gallery, the nanomachines are isolated against a neutral background, as if removed for the purposes of specimen display and carefully considered image capture. Simulated light refraction on the models provides the sense of a scene lit for detail and exposure. The accompanying caption ties the image to the function of illustration:

Surface features are elevated to false height in order to emphasize the station layout and the dense-packing of molecular sorting rotors and molecular sensors on the respirocyte surface. (Bishop and Maxwell: 1998)

Here, the caption references the image’s own performance of manipulation but only to ensure an underlying fidelity to the function of exact representation.

At the same time the scientific image has become nothing but pure demonstration of visual technology, unmarked as an index in its place in the causal chain of connection to the world. The digital image within contemporary science appears at once purely technical, in Flusser’s sense of the term, proffering itself up as window to the world, and purely aesthetic. Operating in this latter respect, through what Andrew Darley has referred to as a visual digital culture of purely formal rather than representational difference, the digital scientific image can entertain a conception of itself as belonging to both the realms of technology and art (2000: 140). Importantly what has been circumvented here is the previous role the aestheticisation of technical images served in demonstrating and disseminating science within the public arena. The almost pedagogical role that photography such as Muybridge’s played in consolidating the status of the representative image within science as an evidential artefact, also revealed a certain labour the image undertook to guarantee the public of the viability of the scientific program. The purely synthetic image produced by the computer in the service of scientific visualisation need not labour its evidential status; the fetish of its technicity has come to function as assurance of its scientific status while also permitting it to operate as a formal aesthetic object.

This leaves the digital technical or contemporary scientific image open to a certain irresolvable tension. The abstraction of digital imaging conversion in effect denies the possibility of that mark or trace of the world on the image’s surface. But what if the contemporary world of science is largely an unseen one? Would it matter under these conditions if this unrepresentable infinitely small or large world were mostly digital fantasy, a model of what the eye might see if only it were a computer? So, in fact, the orchestration of fantastic worlds or models of worlds becomes necessary for the production of a contemporary scientific imaginary devoted to bringing the world, now cast as unrepresentable via human perception, closer to the surface of the image. The mission statement of the Foresight Institute hosting the nanotechnological art aims ‘. . .to help prepare for nanotechnology’, and it is precisely the function of nanotechnological art to prepare human vision for a perception of the world that is too small and indeed too fantastic to be seen. Better then, in the case of the unrepresentable, for scientific ‘art’ to model a world of benign micromachines using comic devices and couched in a welcoming rhetoric that recalls the mid-twentieth century success of sci-fi’s diffusion of nuclear and cold war terror through the visual vocabulary of the cartoon.7

It is exactly this tension that is beautifully and cannily exploited by a number of contemporary artists using new media technologies. I will touch on the work of one of these artists, to demonstrate what I believe may be the possibilities for revealing, if not entirely reorganising, the asymmetries of current art-science relations. In Natalie Jeremijenko’s One Tree project that began in 1999, the exchanges between world and image, abstraction and materiality, the artificial and the actual create a complex intermeshing that suggests both a convergence and divergence of data-fantasy from and towards the empirical world. Working with a plant geneticist, Jeremijenko had one hundred trees cloned from the DNA of a single original tree and cultivated them to saplings. At the same time she released a CD-ROM with software allowing a representation of a virtual tree to grow on a home computer. These ‘e-trees’ ‘grow’ using common artificial-life algorithms for simulating self-replicating electronic organisms. These are roughly the same kind of algorithm used in the SIMCity, SIMLife games, and also resemble those deployed by scientists to model replicating systems such as viruses.

But the outcome of Jeremijenko’s double project is not a claim to model the vast processes and systems we call life, a claim quite frequently made by a-life researchers for their computational worlds (See Langton, 1999; Holland & Melhuish, 1997). Beginning with the artificial or ‘cloned’ production of the natural, the one hundred saplings continue life in the soil of various microclimates in San Francisco. The biological identity of the trees will materially render, in each tree’s growth and decay, the social and environmental differences to which they are exposed in subsequent years. Their development will record the contingencies of each public site in which they are planted. The artificial slowly diverges from the informational universe of model, symbol and data and stretches outwards to life, materially comprehended as diversity and contingency. In a move that echoes but does not mimic the way in which the world might leave an impression on the image, here the hermetic technicity of the informatic universe is disrupted by the trace of the world. The difference lies in the fact that the world is now not a guarantee of truth but instead disrupts the chain of causality and its necessary order by reintroducing strangeness in the form of chance and possibility.

The ‘e-trees’ on the other hand, have to contend with a virtual world for their growth, but not one that sustains the fantasy of a hermetic seal. They cannot replicate inside the computer without the input of additional data, taken from readings of a carbon dioxide meter that is distributed along with the CD-ROM and inserted into the back of one’s computer. Actual CO2 levels in the computational environment control the growth rate of the virtual trees. Indeed the implication here is that if biological science wants to take seriously its claim to model life through computer simulation, then it must remain open to the very entity it claims to be symbolising: that is, infinite complexity (Jeremijenko: 1999). The project of OneTree is produced by working out the tension between the real and the symbol that marks the current use of digital visualisation technologies within any discipline, be it art or science-based.

As Jeremijenko has herself remarked, scientific visualisation as a mode of representing the interests of science is now backed by very large corporate factions, and we should not be so naïve as to believe that under these conditions science and art can symmetrically stem from a deep aesthetic appreciation for the wonders of life (Jeremijenko: 2000). Indeed part of the strategy of the OneTree project is pitched against both aestheticisation and visualisation. Exhibiting part of the project as six identical saplings of the original one hundred in the now infamous Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution show at New York’s Exit art gallery in 2000, Jeremijenko’s work moved past the anti-aesthetic, operating instead as peripheral scientific vision. In this installation there is precisely nothing to see, or rather nothing to picture, if it is genetic information as a technical image that we hope to perceive. Instead we are confronted by the differences of the saplings from each other, already yielded in the interaction between their cloned origins and their growth as response to environment:

To demonstrate that you cannot see or picture genes; to demonstrate the irreducible complexity of genetic information; to demonstrate that in the relatively simple form of the tree (compared to such complex social behaviours as alcoholism or violent tendencies) there is no simple set of transductions that you can trace through. (Jeremijenko: 2000)

The reduction of the scientific imagination to a visualisation of scientific laws, or in the case of the curatorial logic of Paradise Now, a ‘picture’ of genetic instructions, leaves us with no doubt as to the functionary role aesthetics must play in disseminating the scientific program. Jeremijenko’s strategy is to recomplicate the relation between visuality and science by throwing the complexity of corporate, scientific and human interests back into the mix; a shakedown that reveals any proclaimed art-science symmetry to be a fantasy.

She leaves us with the question that returns us to Flusser’s analysis of the function of the technical image: ‘What is it that the artists have that these corporate interests are interested in? It is not the art, it is the access to the public imagination’ (Jeremijenko: 2000). Perhaps artists not prepared to service the digital technical image ultimately lose out under these conditions. But if capturing this imagination is symptomatic of the lengths to which science is prepared to go in order to adequately represent itself, it also indicates an unacknowledged willingness on the scientist’s behalf to fall right into the realm of sheer fantasy. In fact they can hardly help themselves when the substance of science is increasingly mediated and manufactured by computer-based visualisation and speculation about the instrumental possibilities of new media technologies. And it is here that science can indulge its wildest of fantasies: voyeuring the absolutely unseen.


1 T. Fonseca, ‘Image Description of Artery Cleaner III’, The Foresight Institute Gallery of Nanotechnological Art (2001). http://www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/Gallery/Captions/Image162.html (accessed 5/10/02).

2 Bruno Latour has argued that the beginning of science as a knowledge system that proceeds through the proffering of demonstrable proof occurs during the seventeenth century (Latour, 1993: 18). However, while it is certainly the case that a separation of opinion from proof occurs through the activity of members of The Royal Society in their demand that experiment be accompanied by eyewitness collaboration, conjecture and speculation remained part of science’s ‘style’ well into the early part of the eighteenth century. Rather than use a form of periodisation that instils the legitimation of modern science such as ‘the scientific revolution’ I will use the idea of the Baroque as an ongoing historical event, in keeping with Gilles Deleuze’s analysis (Deleuze, 1993).

3 Flusser’s use of the term symbolic seems to draw on the algebraic sense of the word, where the symbol abstracts from, substitutes for and generalises a more specific and defined entity.

4 The photograph, rotated ninety degrees clockwise, was published in Life magazine on January 10, 1969.

5 For example, wonder was judged by Descartes to be a helpful passion, because the sudden alertness and concentration it brought about assisted the retention of objective knowledge, which in turn laid the foundation for systematically knowing the world (Descartes, 1985: 353).

6 In the text accompanying Hooke’s drawings, he quite clearly states that a true rendition of the microscopic objects could only be captured by draughting from many perspectives and then handing over the rough sketches to a skilled artist who could draw a composite of the many views (Jardine, 1999: 101-2).

7 Thomas Disch has examined the way in which science fiction writing and films throughout the post WW11 period diffused the threat of nuclear war at the level of the Western cultural imagination (1998: 78-96). I am extending this argument into the realm of science fiction illustration.


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