Art and science: what do we see when we open new eyes?

The James Webb Space Telescope transdisciplinary team includes specialists in the arts and visuals.


Perhaps the more accurate question is not what we see, but how we interpret what we see for the first time. Because humans have only two eyes (as opposed to eight in spiders or twenty-four in jellyfish) and, furthermore, we do not see in certain vision ranges such as infrared (as mosquitoes do).

Technoscience offers us new eyes, like those of the Hubble Space Telescope or the new James Webb , and, like newborns, we have to learn to look again.

Contemplate the most beautiful abyss that can exist and question the truth

Art and technoscience produce and expand knowledge by contemplating the most beautiful abyss that can exist in the universe: mystery.

Albert Einstein said that the contemplation of the abyss is the source of all “true art and science”. Questioning a non-conjugated phenomenon, explaining nonsense or giving shape to what has never been seen, heard or felt… True creativity emerges when the mind has fun connecting indeterminacies. All its plasticity also emerges when it questions the concept of truth, in its representation and public dissemination.

Gustave Flaubert said that art was, of all the lies, the one that deceived the least.

Overcoming the vertigo of artists and scientists

The impulse to overcome the vertigo that contemplation of mystery produces is inherent to art and the most innovative technoscience. Nicolás Copérnico and Galileo Galilei broke the worldviews of their time, overcoming that vertigo of falling into the abyss and condemnation. Filippo Brunelleschi and the Renaissance artists opened new windows through which to peer into the abyss, they invented new spaces for representation.

Isaac Newton ‘s discovery of gravitational forces revolutionized the physics of the future. And the romantic revolution in art pivoted on the navel of human feelings and on the so-called Frankenstein syndrome , that is, on skepticism and the fear that techno-scientific discoveries would turn against the human species or even destroy it.

Overcoming the abyss is in artists like Anna Akhmatova , who expressed her loneliness through poetry, or in the lucidity of the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky , who sculpted light in the assembly of the new audiovisual language, without forgetting the radical turn of Marcel Duchamp , by displacing interest in the artistic work towards the process of its ideation.

Art versus mystery: Dalí and Pollock

Art’s attitude towards mystery is also present in Salvador Dalí’s soft watches , recognizing the influence of the Theory of Relativity in his particular imaginary, and even in the most performative Jackson Pollock , who explored the possibilities of pictorial automatism as a process of shaping frequencies, intensities and darkness in an endless spatial framework.

Harun Farocki confronts us with the critical void of the current cultural production of images, by showing us what its logistical and automated production was hiding, and Trevor Paglen reveals how images look at us today, produced as they are by and for machines, with almost no involvement of the human eye.

Paglen’s contemporary art points to the sky so that we look at the reflection of an unconventional orbital satellite in a different way , as a symbolic –and certainly controversial– act of what technoscience is capable of telling us about ourselves.

The greatest potential of art, as Vassily Kandinsky maintained , continues to be that of forcing us to redirect our gaze, as if we were opening new eyes, to ask new questions. Something that is especially stimulating when art joins forces with technoscience to address, for example, the challenges of particle physics and high-energy physics, as Mónica Bello , the Spaniard who directs the Arts at CERN program , points out . The world today floats in a universe that is by no means simple, nor can it be claimed to be observed (or interpreted) with the “naked eye”.

Look farther and much earlier in space-time

The James Webb Telescope is now about 1.5 million kilometers away, and from there, unlike Hubble (which is basically an optical telescope), it sees what we cannot see at the farthest frequencies of space and time. James Webb is fundamentally a telescope that looks in the infrared frequencies, which means that it looks farther and much earlier in space-time , also penetrating into regions of high light absorption density (such as gas clouds or dust clouds). . And it does all this by offering higher resolution images and in less exposure time than its predecessors.

That James Webb observes in the universal infrared means, roughly , that thanks to him we can observe those traces left by the actions of the universe at the beginning of time. That is to say, actions that slip towards frequencies that are already almost elusive, or, as physicists and astronomers say, frequencies in the redshift in the least energetic (reddest) part of the visible spectrum.

The first images of the distant universe

James Webb does see something there, even if we two-eyed human animals can’t. But what you actually see does not correspond visually to the first images of the distant universe that Joe Biden , the current president of the USA, so strategically and opportunely presented to us. On the contrary, what it really does is capture images that do not yet have color and that, of course, it is necessary to model, clean of interferences and assemble from thousands of data to, finally, translate its multiple light frequencies into a single image that is perceptible and understandable by our eye-brain vision system.

This is where the dance between art and technoscience begins: we need to work with the melody of the data and the rhythm of the fiction of its formalization , but not to falsify anything (at least not in this case) but to translate the data. to what our eyes would be able to see if they could see it in the infrared. That is, we need to qualify the data, assigning colors to the different frequencies of light so that our eyes automatically correct and understand them.

Imagine what the invisible looks like

A team of specialist image artists and craftsmen (those capable of lying in the most truthful way) have formed an essential part of the transdisciplinary team of the James Webb Space Telescope. Thanks to them and them, we can approach these images, imagine what the invisible, the remote and the past looks like, from a tangible fiction that risks reconstructing the formation of worlds, stars, galaxies and universes.

But be careful, the function of art here is not only to illustrate the advances of technoscience. Art has its own autonomy. Art knows how to look differently, and knows how to think about what is perceived to create objects of transversal thought.

Art is an active engine of knowledge in itself that, when it establishes synergies with technoscience, operates as a critical beacon, as an imaginative collaborator of its formalization processes or as an inquisitive decoder of its precision walls . Be that as it may, the truth is that we have never needed so much a comfortable and fluid, at the same time critical and unprejudiced collaboration between both engines. The future of our imagination depends on this collaboration.The Conversation

Santiago Morilla , Professor and researcher at the Faculty of Fine Arts UCM, specialized in the connections between contemporary art, technology and nature, Complutense University of Madrid

This article was originally published on The Conversation . Read the original .