Art, Science, and Soma

Among the more unnerving aspects of contemporary culture is the accelerating pretense of art to the aims, methods, and achievements of science. Call it art in drag, art in the costume of systematized knowledge, gained through observation and experiment, of the material world and its social structures. Art as counterfeit science, more accurately, as complement and accomplice to it, is proudly on show in the University of Buffalo’s current call for applicants to its PhD program in Media Study. The work below illustrates the program:

Marc Bohlen. Water Bar (2011-2013). Compromised water, rocks, minerals, electronics, glassware, tubing, valves, software.
Marc Bohlen. Water Bar (2011-2013). Compromised water, rocks, minerals, electronics, glassware, tubing, valves, software.

Marc Bohlen’s construction is the visual correlative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, science fiction brought up to date . Here is a rerun of Victor Frankenstein’s lab.
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The experiment underway is of a different order, but it remains grotesque, a Promethean dead end. The tell-tale ingredient is “compromised water.” Think waste water and threatened water table. Once you have caught that, the mind races on to the menace of hydraulic fracturing. The piece could easily be named Fear of Fracking . But that would expose an ideological bias toward what is proffered as the cool, analytical fruit of “scholarly research.”

Hard to believe it took the artist two years to assemble this thing. A clever bunch of ten-year-olds might have put it together, under Dad’s supervision, on a few rainy Saturdays. They, too, count in the wording of the press release as “a community of practice.” Unhappily, when Dad is not around to supervise, kids have to get a PhD to play in the garage.

Herewith, from the press announcement:

Designed to support new communities of practice that have emerged in the discursive space between media art, the sciences, and the humanities, the program responds to the rapid development and transformation of media stemming from advances in information technologies and to the growing number of artists working in technology-based art forms.

Recognizing the fact that this work is not easily categorized and often spans disciplines that traditionally have little overlap, the program offers a trans-disciplinary framework for practice-led and scholarly research that is highly individualized. Commensurate with traditional PhD frameworks, most credits are earned through research and independent study. Consequently, students are free to organize their course of study around their specific research interests. The dissertation combines both written and production components in a proportion and manner appropriate to the student’s research trajectory. We only require that the conversation between these two components be substantial and original. While this program is appropriate for artists looking to conduct practice-led research within an academic context, it is equally appropriate for artists who want to explore the theoretical implications of their work through scholarship. It also welcomes scholars who want to move from the purely discursive to other forms of media making.

Art is fast becoming has become the new soma. To anyone with an ear for cant discursive space, practice-led research, research trajectory Buffalo’s announcement is ominous. The hallucinogenic quality of this pseudo-alliance of art with R and D metastacizes exponentially to the detriment of students’ capacity for true scholarship, let alone logic. To take just one example, Parsons New School of Design (before merger, simply Parsons School of Design, a prestigious New York institution) now considers itself a research institution. It boasts twenty-twenty research laboratories.

Among them:

DESIS Lab : Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability

Global Exchange Lab : a transdisciplinary space for social scientists, architects, and designers to create hybrid methodologies for research and design interventions in global cities.

Center for Transformative Media : a transdisciplinary research center dedicated to the invention, critique, and understanding of transformative media practices, including gaming, social networking, creative mobility, data mining, and participatory learning.

Vera List Center for Art and Politics : organizes events and programs that respond to some of the pressing social and political issues of our time as they are articulated by the academic community and visual and performing artists.

Visualizing Finance Lab : explores the ways in which complex financial situations and dynamics can be explained through visual, metaphorical, and narrative representations.

You can find the entire grim list here. It bespeaks an unbounded, panoptic lust to redesign the world while bypassing solid, disciplined understanding of . . . well, of anything at all outside the bubble of one’s individual opium den.

The traditional studio assistant, the student gofer in a sculptor friend’s classroom at Parsons is now termed a “research assistant” and is paid according.
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Next time you take out the vacuum, think of yourself as engaged in domestic research. There must be a grant to apply for, somewhere.