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Articles - 31 October 2006

Strange Attractors: charm between art and science

Zendai Museum of Modern, ShanghaiStrange Attractors: charm between art and science was an exhibition of Australian new media art held at the Zendai Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai from 21 July - 31 August 2006. A one-day art/science symposium was held in conjunction with the exhibition and featured exhibiting artists and Australian and Chinese colleagues from the arts, humanities and sciences.

Preview of artists' work

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."   1

In the field of mathematics, an attractor is a stable factor within chaotic dynamics. The term 'strange attractor, coined by mathematical physicists Ruelle and Takens, was used to describe the pattern of the attractor that resulted from their investigation into fluid turbulence - that is, the dynamics of the attractor were unpredictable, 'strange'.

The curator, Antoanetta Ivanova, has used this term as the exhibition title to draw attention to the dynamics that evolve between collaborations of unlikely pairings - those between artists and scientists. The works selected for Strange Attractors illustrate the less apparent connections between art and science, providing insight into the shifting boundaries of creativity when two seemingly divergent disciplines converge. All of the artists represented have created their works through interaction with scientific collaborators, either in the form of organised residencies or partnerships with individual researchers or scientific organisations. Each seeks to challenge the perception that art and science are diametrically opposed, and to illustrate that the resulting nexus illuminates the pathways common to both - those of discovery and exploration, imagination, interpretation, enquiry and critique.

In Strange Attractors these pathways wend through territories exploring biological, artificial and social systems, enabling the artists to articulate issues underpinning contemporary society, that ultimately impact on the way we position ourselves within our universe.

Artist - The Tissue Culture and Art Project, Title - Tissue Engineered Steak No 1, 2000This is well illustrated in the work of The Tissue Culture and Art Project in Pigs Wings and The Remains of Disembodied Cuisine. Catts and Zurr have employed a witty response to recent scientific breakthroughs in genomics by producing a semi-living pair of 'pigs-wings' to enter into the discourse surrounding bio-ethics, xenotransplantation, and genetic engineering. In our hierarchy of life, how do we now define animals with human DNA, or for that matter, humans with animal tissues? Will pigs fly, and if so, will we continue to eat them? Audience response to these and other questions can be gauged from The Remains of Disembodied Cuisine an installation documenting gallery visitors dining on 'victimless meat'. These 'steaks' had been grown in a bioreactor from frog biopsies, and then presented as cuisine minceur, complete with scalpels and forceps for cutlery. Can we stomach eating what scientists dish up? Apparently not, judging from the spat-out food left on the plates.

But if we are not comfortable with the direction our food production is heading, how are we to sustain our bourgeoning population? Artist Jane Quon, in collaboration with WorldFish, a non-government organization based in Malaysia, seeks to address this question through research into marine ecology and the development of sustainable fish resources for the world's poor. Her video The Net is Cast is a poetic commentary on our fragile ecosystem and its systematic degradation, and encourages us to accept increased environmental responsibility. Its gentle approach provides the viewer with a space for contemplation - an individual reading between the lines that is cursive and mutable.

Artist - Jon McCormack, Title - Morphogenesis Series 3What happens once we have destroyed 'nature' as we know it - the earth's wild open spaces? This rhetoric inspires the work of Jon McCormack. In Turbulence his computer-animated images of plants seem vaguely familiar but defy classification, their genera just beyond our grasp. Unlike The Tissue, Culture and Art Project, McCormack creates his new life forms digitally, using computer science, biology and biological systems to create artificial life (AL). From the initial inspiration of Australian native plants, McCormack then utilises Lindenmayer (or L-) systems to produce hybrid flora from simple geometric rules, almost like digital genes, replicating them to create an impossible nature. Artificial evolution environmental factors are then imposed onto these life forms enabling them to devolve.

McCormack's powerful comments on man's desire to control nature are reflected in the works of several other artists - Peter Charuk's video Aqualux II, Julie Ryder's installation Art and the Bryophyte, and Justine Cooper's photographs Saved by Science. Man's understanding of nature, and his position within it, has been founded on empirical principles of science that placed him at the top of the food chain, one step below God. The methodologies of collection, classification and taxonomy to assert primacy became powerful social and economic tools of the 18th century. The scientific quest for truth and the metaphorical ownership of nature come under scrutiny in Cooper's poignant photographs taken in the American Museum of Natural History, whilst Charuk's video transports us deeper into unknown waters to collect marine specimens. Both of these works ask us to consider why we collect and for whom.

Artist - Drew Berry, Title - Body Code - Central Dogma Part 2cMan himself did not escape the rigorous gaze of science, and from Hooke's discovery of 'animalcules' in the 17th century, investigation and research into human corporeal and psychological functioning has increased exponentially. Microscopic investigation has helped illuminate our inner world and, more recently, the technological advances in computer animation have helped us to visualise them. Drew Berry is one of the world's foremost animators working in biomedical visualisation. By using scientific data in combination with animation, Berry produces works like body code to take us on a microscopic journey through the landscapes of our interior. Similarly, George Khut's interactive biofeedback installation Drawing Breath v.2 enlists autogenic responses, in this case breathing, to increase our awareness of the interconnection between our physical and psychological states.

Mari Velonaki explores the psychology of identity in the dynamics of relationships to include the presence of a voyeur - the audience. In her projection work Embracement, two women move towards each other to embrace, their relationship to each other unclear. This movement is replayed over and over again, with each embrace playing out a different scenario. Eventually the viewer realises that the screen itself is actually a dynamic component to the drama. Made of light sensitive crystals, the screen is a two-way translucent surface that receives the projection and holds each image for several seconds, slowly fading away. These 'after-images' combined with the primary movements give an eerie effect, playing out endless 'what-if' scenarios in the mind of the viewer.

Artist - SymbioticA Research Group, Title - MERT The semi-living artistAs early as the 1960's, scientists experimented with recording Electroencephalograms (EEG's) from the scalp to issue simple commands to electronic devices. 2 The SymbioticA Research Group have expanded on this to create 'MEART: the semi-living artist'. To explain this in simple terms, an in-vitro culture of rat neurons, housed in a laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, respond to stimuli sent from the gallery in China. Another device captures these responses and transmits them back to the gallery where a computer drives a robotic arm. The arm is equipped with coloured crayons, and as the signals are transmitted, the arm begins to draw. This type of installation provokes the initial response 'is it art or is it science?' yet leaves us pondering about the robotics of the future, hitherto only seen in sci-fi movies.

And, as in all great sci-fi, we ultimately leave our planet for another cosmos. Performance artist, Hellen Skye's installation Deep Space encourages us to envisage our presence in space as more than a physical location. Her poetic installation incorporates spoken word, dance, and audio-visual components to enable us to experience the micro and the macro of being simultaneously.

Group shot of artists relaxing after the symposiumAlthough only the artists are mentioned in this article, we were fortunate enough to benefit from the presence of several of the scientific collaborators who also presented at the Symposium. The Zendai MoMA hosted the exhibition in an effort to introduce Chinese audiences to the possibilities of combining new technologies together with artistic concepts. Many Chinese are unfamiliar with the public presentation of new media art, and the subsequent panel discussion amongst Chinese and Australian scientists, curators and artists raised the many differences in what we perceive contemporary art to be. One of the Chinese curators stated that this type of art was too difficult to collect due to lack of funding, and that, in any case, the fundamental quality of the work was ephemeral. Indeed, rapid changes in technologies posit ongoing problems for curators of new media art, as the technology used to drive the artwork must also be collected in order to show it in the future.

The exhibition allowed us to experience the poetic, and aesthetic aspects of art/sci collaboration, whilst in the symposium only the physical and intellectual aspects of these residencies were articulated. Perhaps because it is rare to get as many artists, and scientists not only exhibiting together but also having the opportunity to spend time together away from a 'normal' life in Australia, we focussed on the nuts-and-bolts issues. The cultural and language differences experienced enabled the participants to work and bond together for the week, and the ultimate pay-off was the exchange of ideas and the forming of new networks and relationships which seems to happen so infrequently in your own country. The exhibition and the artists involved received generous media coverage through magazines, papers and television. Strange Attractors bought together many interpretations illustrating collaborations between art and science, however what transpired was a complex system of interactions rather than independent entities.

Julie Ryder
October, 2006

Julie Ryder is a Canberra-based textile designer, artist and educator.


  1. Albert Einstein, 1931
  2. Cyborg, Marie O'Mahoney, Thames and Hudson, 2002

Strange Attractors catalogue can be ordered for $30 plus GST, P+P from:

Julie Ryder gratefully acknowledges the support of the ACT Government for her attendance at the Strange Attractors: charm between art and science exhibition opening and Symposium. Novamedia produced Strange Attractors in partnership with the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australia-China Council, amongst others.