Colliding Worlds by Arthur I. Miller

Reviewed by Peter Hobson

colliding worldsOne of the most enjoyable work-related things I have done in recent years was to collaborate with the British artist Jayne Wilton for a year after we managed to win funding from The Leverhulme Trust. I have always been interested in the visual arts and the opportunity, as an experimental physicist, to assist an artist I admired by extending her repertoire of techniques was not to be missed. Unsurprisingly this book caught my attention since it is about science-art collaborations, their origins, their variety and (perhaps) where they are heading today.

I’ll begin by getting out of the way my one real moan about Miller’s book and that is his desire to tell us what many of the artists he has met (and he knows an enormous number)  look like.  Here is a typical example (Brandon Ballengée)

A tall New Yorker who sports a cap and neatly trimmed triangular stubble sideburns, Ballengée speaks with calm assurance.

Now this just might be useful to the reader if they were trying to meet this man in a crowded art gallery but the descriptions struck me as an irrelevant and ultimately somewhat tiresome affectation.  Apart from this quirk this is an interesting book covering a somewhat neglected aspect of art but one which is receiving more attention recently, particularly with the instigation in 2012 of the artist in residency scheme at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics.

Miller starts his book by covering the momentous early years of C20 when incredible progress was being made in science, physics especially, and the influence this had on artists such as Picasso, Delaunay and Kandinsky. In this era artists were being influenced by what physicists were discovering about relativity and quantum mechanics and electromagnetic waves but there was little if any direct collaboration taking place and most artists still worked in classical media.

Miller explains convinvingly that the first real collaborative interactions took place in New York in the 1960’s He describes how the Bell Labs engineer Kluver became involved with artists such as Tinguely and Rauschenberg forming the organisation Experiments in Art and Technology which strongly influenced the first major art show in Britain (at the ICA) in which early computer generated art was shown. Miller’s book comprises a series of chapters in which he discusses the development of art-science collaborations usually with a chronological story of early ideas imperfectly executed (in a technical sense imperfect) leading up to the latest work of today. Overall the story is well told, plausible and interesting. Miller knows an enormous number of artists and the book resonates with their personalities (and sometimes their hair styles). There is a chapter, titled intermezzo,  in the middle which departs from the others in that it tells a detective story (still unresolved in some aspects) where scientific analysis, in particular detailed analysis of the intrinsic fractal nature of the image, was used to validate the probable in-authenticity of some recently discovered paintings claimed to be by Jackson Pollock.

It would be boring for you, dear reader, if I just provide a précis of the twelve chapters of this illustrated book. I will end with some comments about the overall thesis with which Miller ends. He has a very optimistic view that a third culture “artscience” is moving from gestation to birth and that this may be as important as art and science as separate cultures. Miller is absolutely enthusiastic about this possibility but to be fair he does also enumerate the actual or imagined road-blocks on the way. I remain less convinced and note that the influence is almost always one way traffic; that is artists make use of science and technology and also are influenced in their artistic vision by it but very rarely, if at all, does the influence of an artist impact upon science directly. My own view (shared by the current Director General of CERN) is that this is very unlikely to happen. One interesting point of conflict that has arisen in a number of collaborations is the question of acknowledgement; the artworks usually appearing only with the name of the artist and not with the addition of the collaborator. Let me not however condemn Miller for his enthusiasm, he has written an interesting review of the development of collaboration and influence between scientists and artists. His wide knowledge, particularly arising from his meetings with many of today’s practitioners, comes across well and the book is illustrated with over seventy pictures. Most importantly of all it is a book that asks you to think.

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Peter Hobson is a particle physicist who works on an experiment based at CERN and who helped the artist Jayne Wilton to record the breath of some of the many people involved in the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Arthur I Miller, Colliding Worlds (Norton: New York, 2014). ISBN 9780393083361, 352 pages, hardcover

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