Jiri Kočica: Interview with Ellen Levy, the artist and the scientist

stealing_attention_overlay_low_resEllen Levy is an artist and Doctor of Philosophy whose work constantly opens up subjects on the border between science and art. Her CV is impressive and her work is incredibly interesting and intriguing. She lives and works as an artist in New York and as a lecturer at Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).

I met Ellen levy in the basement of an interesting pub in Soho where they host scientists and artists to hold lectures on their work. The basement space is entirely ordinary, perhaps even slightly ‘sloppily’ decorated and yet it was clear at the very entrance that there would be too many of us. Since I had learnt about the lecture from friends, American artists (Don Porcaro, Leslie Wayne), who presented themselves last year in Slovenia, I fortunately booked a spot for myself …

Ellen Levy introduced her view of complex systems through very interesting examples, among which was also her short video in which she deals with ‘unintentional blindness’. The video shows the shelves of a Baghdad museum with various works of art and in front of them there are magic card tricks beside which one can notice the works of art disappearing from the shelves: in the end of the video the shelves are empty and the majority of viewers do not even notice that … Examples such as this one present an obvious proof about how people are vulnerable in the visual world: manipulations with recordings, in advertising, in media, in political and other public appearances completely distort the picture of the world.

With her work Ellen Levy addresses many subjects that deal with science, its influence on everyday life, its political implications, and at the same time she deals with research of complexity of these mutual relations and research of potential solutions for better insight into reality.

In her large studio near Union Square where we met we had a long, interesting talk during which we touched upon many subjects – from very specifically artistic topics to political topics. Her confident, calm voice surprised me since it was no different than at her lecture …

levy_this_image_is_unavailable_1_lowresJK: You were a guest editor of Art Journal- Genetic code when the Human Genome project wasn’t finished yet. Can you please tell our readers why you wanted to connect these two quite different fields (art and science) and why you saw that particular topic of genetics so important?

EL: Actually, I had initially proposed to explore the topic of art and complex systems in 1993, rather than art and the genetic code.  It was rejected by the Board of the A.J. as being too little known as a topic. (This was true; the Santa Fe Institute headed by Murray Gel-Man did not get underway until 1985.) I then suggested the topic instead of art and the genetic code.  I knew that once the results of the Genome Project were announced, this would inevitably be a significant event, culturally as well as scientifically.  On a personal level, many friends in the arts were dying of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and hopeful that genomics might supply some leads for treatments.  For these artists, genetics became a source of imagery and process for making art.  A good example was the art of Frank Moore. He was an activist who helped create the red ribbon design that became an international symbol for AIDS awareness.

JK: How is science connected to art and where are the most important bonds?
EL: I believe that the connection between art and science is largely to be found in parallels between the thought and creation process.  I have given a lot of thought to your question in past years and therefore read a great deal about this subject by Thomas Kuhn and George Kubler, among others. Kuhn and Kubler agreed that art and science were problem-solving activities, but both saw art and science as fundamentally different kinds of endeavours. Kubler tried to understand periodicity in culture.  To do so he needed to observe not only a fixed set of features, but a set of features that may vary over time in order to determine degrees of similarity and difference under dynamic conditions. Now, with the ability of artists to use imaging methods,  to see deep into the living cell, to simulate biological processes, and even to fashion new life forms, biology has become very relevant to the history of art.

JK: Even though you quote philosopher Stephen Toulmin1 in your paper Contemporary Art and the Genetic Code, I would like to ask you this question, mostly because of so many differences between art and science (especially if we think of art traditionally as connected to feelings, senses, emotions and uniqueness and on the other hand of science as connected to logic, argumentation, verifiability and repeatability …)?

EL: The passage by Toulmin is best understood if the term ‘representation’ is taken very broadly.  What he was getting at was that viewing phenomena with fresh techniques could lead to new observations.  Similarly, aesthetic and technological factors are inseparable in creating art. Nevertheless they are different enterprises for many of the reasons that you just stated.

JK: In your paintings you have interesting inter-play between the, let’s say, “traditional« modernistic parts” of paintings and also post modernistic, conceptual and contemporary “parts”. Even your decision that you paint “classical” paintings (we use term “panel painting” and I’m not sure if this is the right term) is almost unusual when I consider that the content is strongly connected to complex, scientific and political issues which are very dynamic. How do you choose different “media” (painting, video, lecture, written words)?

EL: I am interested in communication with the public.  That is why I retain a vocabulary that is familiar in addition to employing ‘conceptual and contemporary parts.’

levy_this_image_is_unavailable_3_lowresJK: It seems to me that you build your painting as some kind of a collage of colours, shapes and strong images, (sometimes images are slightly blurred or hidden “behind”); some of these “elements” are strongly connected to political and scientific themes and some of these elements are almost abstract visual sensations. What is your opinion of abstraction and its connection to the figure when talking about science and art? And also abstraction and figurative art when talking about the politics?

EL: I think that issues of abstraction versus figure are largely beside-the-point today. The manner of their creation is what is at issue.  My belief is that the forms of art are typically more salient than those of science because of the ways artists deploy political and emotional references in their works.

JK: I saw your video, which explores “inattention blindness” and it is connected to the problem of deceiving or distracting our attention. Your research in this area is very unique and new but in this video it is also connected to political issues. Please tell us about the problem of inattention blindness – it has a very interesting place in the history of painting in my opinion, because paintings can also reveal some blind spots in society. (Russian icon painters called their colours also “razkrizke”- which can be translated as “re-vealers” because they saw their work as revealing something that cannot be seen with normal (plain) eyes …)

EL: I agree that much art has succeeded in showing us content that is otherwise invisible.  The challenge in my installation, ‘Stealing Attention’ was to create a situation in which the viewer would suddenly realize that he or she had not seen something directly in front of their field-of-vision. In this case, the difficulty was that images of antiquities were being removed from ‘museum’ shelves while a con game of cards was distracting the viewers. So I had to offer just the right amount of clues to prevent immediate understanding on the part of the observer but to ensure that realization of the theft would occur. What was placed in doubt was therefore the viewer’s own perception.

JK: And also: are political issues the beginning of your creative process or is the process more connected to the themes from science at the beginning of your creative process? 

EL: I do not set out to exemplify a theme from either politics or science.  I generally start with images that I find moving and then try to flash them out.  In the process of doing so I then analyse what is going on visually and emphasize certain aspects.

JK: Are artists the right group of people for introducing to us how to experience scientific discoveries and what are moral dimensions of them?

EL: I discussed these issues in a chapter in Ethics and the Visual Arts, G. Levin and E. King (eds.), published in 2006. At present, ‘amateur scientists’ continue to produce artwork that utilizes some of the methodologies of science but outside laboratory settings in order to challenge scientific hegemony. These artists believe that the adverse potential of science is so great that it should not be left to scientists and government to make critical policy decisions. At the same time, scientists have become involved in activities from neuroscience boot camps to the development of open-source primary scientific research in order to make scientific research more accessible. I think these developments should be welcomed. In 1975 a voluntary moratorium on genetic research was instituted by scientists during the Asilomar Conference to provide time to review the ethical implications of genetic research and set appropriate safeguards in place.  Although this was a good idea, it was justifiably criticized on the grounds that more non-scientists should have been included.

It has become apparent that artists with university affiliation are relatively well situated to gain access to scientists, laboratories, and expertise. The likelihood is that in time non-specialist access to genetic engineering will spread. Many of the artists working with rDNA technology generally believe it a good thing that non-specialists can participate in decisions regarding biotechnology and develop familiarity with the techniques.

JK: What is to be expected when scientists become artists; they have deep insight into the scientific way of doing and thinking and if they succeed to upgrade this with an artistic insight, could they be even more precise? And can we set boundaries between art and science (or should we overcome this distinction and have the same name for them)?

EL: Many individuals today have training both in the visual arts and in science, so we are gradually seeing more such hybrids. Critics of artists undertaking scientific research will often claim that artistic approaches seem serendipitously designed.  The aims of each group are clearly different; in general scientists aim for repeatability of findings whereas art is more free-wheeling, wishing to be a provocation.

JK: Science can be utilized through technology, but art doesn’t possess a connotation of applicability: what is your opinion about this?

EL: There are some artists whose expression lies in the development of codes and design of interfaces (e.g., Golan Levin); such art clearly has applicability.

JK: Which artists (or maybe scientists?) would you give as examples, those who successfully combine art and science (and why)? Which (if any) has influenced your work?

EL: As I have stated previously, artists such as Mel Chin (installation work involving genetically-modified plants called hyperaccumulators), Gail Wight (slime mould research), Rachel Berwick (research on language transmission in birds), and Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau (interactive work involving genetic algorithms) have brought insightful artistic eyes to the scientific study of complex systems. I owe all a debt of gratitude for the models they provided.

Vljudno vabljeni / Kindly invited
Predstavitev umetniškega procesa  »Znamenja znanja« Jirija Kočice / Presentation of the art project »Signs of Science« of the artist Jiri Kočica, Torek / Tuesday, 26. 11. 2013, ob / at 17h, Velika predavalnica na Kemijskem inštitutu / Lecture Hall at the National Institute of Chemistry, Hajdrihova 19, Ljubljana
17.00: Invited lecture: Dr. Ellen Levy
17.45: Tatjana Pregl Kobe: Predstavitev dela Jirija Kočice / Presentation of the artist’s work of Jiri Kočica
18:00: Druženje s pogostitvijo in ogledom Preglovega raziskovalnega centra Kemijskega inštituta / Gathering and visit of the Pregl research centre

(Korekture: Anja Ambrož Bizjak)

  1.  1953 Stephen Toulmin, The Philosophy of Science (London, Hutchinson, 1953), str. 34: The heart of all major discoveries in the physical sciences is the discovery of novel methods of representation, and so of fresh techniques by which inferences can be drawn- and drawn in ways which fit the phenomena under investigation.