Saturday, 13 August 2011

Experimentation and Discovery (art and science)

©/Hamlyn/ Punton, SCA Sydney 2011

The Swiss artist Roman Signer is renowned for the quirky and inventive “events” he stages using a diversity of familiar objects (suitcases, canoes, bicycles, umbrellas etc.) transformed through explosions and other dynamic forces of change. Constantly varying the conditions and combinations of materials and setting, Signer has compiled a vast compendium of varied and thought provoking works that span more than 35 years of continual practice.

Much of the work is modest in scale, resisting the temptation toward grand gesture so common amongst established artists, and whilst the work often refers to the idea of the spectacle it rarely reduces (or exceeds) to the merely spectacular, preferring rather to explore the more familiar and personable scale of everyday experience. This contrast becomes all the more provocative due to his careful balancing of proportions processes and materials.

Commentators upon Signer’s work frequently make reference the terms “experimental”, “experiment” and “experimentation”. These terms are clearly intended to suggest the testing of volatile substances, the combination of unpredictable circumstances and the uncertainty of the result. In this sense the word “experiment” is used loosely to refer to the idea of trying something out to experience a process and result.

Scientific experiments, on the other hand, are more rigidly defined:

noun |ɪkˈspɛrɪm(ə)nt| |ɛk-| a scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact”

It would seem unfair to apply a scientific expectation to Signer’s practice, after all, it was never intended to prove or disprove a hypothesis, nor to demonstrate a fact nor even make a discovery (though many would disagree with me in this last instance). I would contend that the “discoveries” have already largely been made in the initial imaginative visualization/conceptualization of the ideas and in the more speculative testing of methods and materials. For example, we rarely, if ever, see the many failures that inevitably occur in preparation for the work we do see. This is not to say that beautiful incidents and accidents are absent from Signer’s work but, due to the often hazardous materials and circumstances involved, there is perhaps less room for improvisation than might otherwise be the case.

AS Do you have any expectations when you’re working on something?
RS Never, but I imagine certain scenarios. The ideal-case scenario is the one I had imagined: for instance, there’s a puff of smoke and a helicopter disappears into it and then emerges again. But when I do an action it might turn out completely different. That’s the adventure. I’m actually looking for small adventures in art. Otherwise art gets boring.

This process of allowing the work to lead to unforeseen conclusions – of courting the unpredictable - is a major compulsion for many, perhaps all, artists. In so many instances of creative production there is such a demand for control of materials, of skill in manufacture and realisation that little room is left for surprise and serendipity (or failure for that matter). Too much expertise too rigidly applied often results in the most stilted, preconceived and lifeless work. No doubt this is why Signer is so fascinated with the explosive moment. It is a dangerous game and one in which a great deal of care must be taken to ensure that even the desire for unpredictability remains within certain given tolerances. In many ways it is this implicit threat, this frisson, that fuels the underlying appeal of Signer’s work.

In a scientific experiment the outcome is paramount and is intended to either prove or disprove a theory. Once again, as with Signer, the result of the experiment is less a discovery than the realisation (or in the case of science – possibly the contradiction) of what has already been imagined. For Karl Popper this potential for confirmatory or dis-confirmatory outcome (testability and falsifiability) exactly differentiates science from pseudo science.

Scientific discoveries then, are the result of a two part process, first of theory formation followed by proof through experiment. If a test fails, either the experiment was poorly conceived, poorly conducted or else the theory was flawed. For this reason science attempts, wherever possible, to limit the number of variables in any given experiment in order to avoid rogue results. Art, on the other hand, often multiplies the variables in order to do the very reverse. Unexpected results in art, when they are not detrimental to the result, are often perceived and presented as discoveries since anything that contradicts expectation is likely to provoke curiosity and may even have instructive value, if only on a technical level. Discoveries, thus encountered, are valued but rarely, if ever, become part of a systematic inquiry since the object of art is less about illustrating facts and securing knowledge than producing meaning and experience (and that’s a subject for another blog post).


Post a Comment