Wednesday afternoon 14th August, third discussion around the issues of art, science, environment, monitoring, CO2.
Andrew Patrizio started us off by taking us back to Renaissance Florence. His summer reading had been Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy. In that he found a description of the particular characteristics of the mercantile mind, the ability to gauge quantity, weight, volume and space accurately. According to Andrew, Baxandall argues that the circumstances in which Florence was a nexus for trade meant that a significant proportion of the population were involved in activities requiring gauging. By gauging I imagine we mean forming accurate judgements about things which can be weight and measured, but where some of the technologies for doing that which we take for granted didn’t exist or were relatively unsophisticated. We can perhaps imagine parallels with the emergence of monitoring in the 21st Century. Can we imagine the flows of energy through the grid when we are told about the impact of everyone turning on their kettle in the break for advertisements during a major sporting event? Or that animation of aircraft moving across the Atlantic and then moving back? As we have previously discussed, the calibration of our experience of CO2 through art is a particular challenge.
Renaissance Italy was at a critical point of social, economic and cultural development and the arts were deeply enmeshed in that. Trade was central, but the ramifications are much wider. The emergence of the new painting characterised by the use of perspective, but equally importantly including specific identifiable individuals such as patrons in real space with divine figures also treated as if they were human, is well known. We can imagine the pleasure that a painting which expressed space through perspective, and depicted fabric realistically, would bring to a person who could fully appreciate the space, volumes and sumptuousness – the play between the aesthetic and the mercantile mind. The late 20th and early part of the 21st Centuries has as Andrew drew our attention to, been characterised by conceptual, performative and participatory practices, sculpture in the expanded field, systems theory, data visualisation and new media.
In Renaissance Italy we know the practices of art and science were not separated out in the way that they are now. The enquiry into what can be understood about the world, whether through philosophy, science or art, was a process that individuals participated in as what we might now call public intellectuals, rather than as distinct disciplines. The methodologies were broadly similar and compatible if the manifestations were different. We know of Leonardo’s sketchbooks but we are less familiar with Piero della Francesca several treatise on mathematics of which the most well-known are those on perspective. The emergence of the artist researcher who plays across these two fields is a relatively recent not always welcomed development. It is criticised on the one hand as institutionally driven, and on the other perhaps because it seems to ‘explain’ the work, which by rights should stand on its own. The 20th Century in particular has been dominated by a resistance to the instrumentalisation of art, a resistance to a ‘unified reading’ of the work of art. The artist researcher, writer of papers as well as maker of art, seeks to understand the world and share that understanding. The artist researcher might seek to intentionally change the world (though probably not through simplistic cause and effect processes).
Setting aside the question of who writes papers and who makes artworks, Andrew was asking us to think about the comparison between then and now, the extent to which we are living through a period of more than just social, cultural and economic change. The shift taking place in Renaissance Italy might be characterised as the emergence of the idea of the human as being at the centre of everything, able to shape the world according to our desires and for our convenience. The word ‘environment’ means the circumstances or conditions that surround one, or that surround and organism or a group of organisms. It is predicated on an assumption of a ‘thing’ which has ‘an environment’. Without a ‘thing’ there is no ‘environment’ because the word is describing that relationship. Perhaps the Renaissance is the point in modern history where the human moves to be the de facto ‘thing’ – where the human environment division is crystallised. If we look at the paintings we see the human at the centre of the environment, the focal point.
We feel that we are living through another key paradigm shift, or rather that we need to be living through a paradigm shift, because the current paradigm, that we can use the planet and everything on it for our own convenience and comfort and it will just carry on, isn’t working anymore. If 500 years ago it seemed that we needed to learn how the world worked so that we could control it to make it safer (and make no mistake life was short and painful 500 years ago), at that point it seemed that nothing we could do would impact on ‘nature’. Science and technology offered ways to protect ourselves, live longer, avoid illness, be warm and comfortable.
If we accept that our world view is changing again, that the Anthroposcene is the result of a trajectory that has social, economic and cultural roots in the deep past, it is interesting to imagine the arts’ involvement in the process 500 years ago. Did artists sit around and worry about being instrumentalised? How would they have felt about Samuel Beckett’s statement, “Art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear.” Of course that resistance of Beckett’s is precisely because art has been implicated in the paradigm that created the problem. And Beckett has contributed to our understanding of the world. But Ian Garrett, one of the founders of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, led us into another possible construction of the avoidance of ‘making clear’ in a simplistic sense (where frankly Design Communication has the task of ‘making clear’). He talked about the project Fallen Fruit which used maps in a way which is reminiscent of the work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, where the layering of information creates a density that requires thought and interpretation. CO2 Edenburgh layers information on carbon dioxide monitored in the City over greenspace and urban fabric, it performs the movement through the landscape of CO2, and overlays the social cultural activity associated with the Edinburgh Festivals. It could add economic layers or regular traffic movement layers, or any number of other factors. The point is to create questions in the mind of the person engaged with the work of art.