You Don’t Need to Be a Rocket Scientist: Artistic Impressions Of Science


Markos Kay’s new short film features CERN-approved subatomic visualizations. But is this what it really looks like?

We’ve all heard the cliché, “a picture tells a thousand words”, but there is real value in using images to promote scientific content. Images help us learn, images grab attention, images explain tough concepts, and inspire. We are very visual creatures. A large percentage of the human brain dedicates itself to visual processing, in fact, half of all neural tissue deals with vision in some way. Our love of images lies with our cognition and ability to pay attention. Images are able to grab our attention easily, we are immediately drawn to them. Think about this blog, for example: did you look at the words first, or the image?

In a world where we are bombarded by stimuli, we often seek the easiest and most fluent way of acquiring and learning information. Reading can be a slow and time-consuming activity. It takes a lot longer to read a long sentence than to analyse a visual scene. For the average person, the principles of quantum physics are a cognitive obstacle course. Even more esoteric is the visualization of the movement of subatomic particles. Hoping to simplify and beautify the phenomenon of quantum physics, a new art project takes a swing at filtering the dynamics of atomic motion through abstract art. The project titled, Quantum Fluctuations, is the work of digital artist, Markos Kay. Kay’s innate interest in the intersection of arts and science contributed to the orchestration of a video documenting microscopic collisions.

Sometimes scientific findings, even the important ones, just don’t seem personal to us as individuals. People may not feel concerned about a certain disease or condition because they are not emotionally invested in it. Now, this isn’t because we’re all stone hearted monsters. It’s because sometimes these findings just aren’t reaching out to us in the way they ought to.

Markos Kay’s new short film features CERN-approved subatomic visualizations. But is this what it really looks like? Through the creation of his film and his extensive research, Kay learned that it is impossible to truly visualize quantum interactions. According to him, “they defy our ordinary macrocosmic logic, which is why I believe such knowledge can only be communicated through abstract mathematics and art.” This idea fuels the majority of his work. In 2011 he created the film The Flow that visually interprets the scientific theory behind layers of matter, and he is currently working with photographer Jan Kriwol to combine photographs of urban environments into anatomical renderings of the circulatory system.

Using virtual particle simulations, Kay meticulously renders the patterns and structures of processes at the subatomic level into a kaleidoscope of visuals with an eerie, cinematic soundscape. “For this project in particular, I looked at how scientists observe what happens during a particle collision, which involves measuring the energy of particles on sensors and comparing the findings with data collected from simulations,” Kay told Vice Creators. “It is perhaps the most indirect method of observation imaginable, a non-representational form of observation mediated by supercomputer simulations.”

Quantum Fluctuations hypnotically guides the viewer through the various processes of particle physics, each with its own soundscape and color scheme. Particle decay, for example, is marked by dark blues and browns and the somber, solitary echoes of an unanswered satellite signal. Each phase has a distinct purpose within the larger transformative process of particle collisions. “I am particularly interested in the idea of transformation of information which can be seen throughout the scientific narrative,” Kay says of his motivation for the film. “I hope to engage viewers with the complexity and beauty of quantum mechanics and evoke their imagination of what happens behind the scenes of our reality.”

We are seeing plenty of researchers and institutions taking advantage of images, especially through the microblogging service, Tumblr. Publishers, institutes, researchers, and schools are using Tumblr to promote scientific findings, with the help of vibrant and appealing images. Tumblr is also a great way to bring awareness to the research itself.

However, ‘artist impressions’ especially those validated by scientific institutions raise some interesting ethical questions, some of which are unprecedented, others well known from other contexts. ‘Artistic impressions’ may be informed by science but created with an unrelated technology and given a spin by the artist that does not represent the actual visuals.  These questions are often discussed within the framework of  the promotion of science with the aim of an increased understanding for the general public. But what are the ethics of Sci-art?. The basic concern of institutionalised science is to develop and implement science- but also to ensure that they continue to attract funding. Notably, discussions of ethical issues in Sci-art do not refer to existing discourses on art and morality from the field of aesthetics. The latter framework is primarily concerned with how the moral value of an artwork affects its artistic value.

It is assumed that a successful integration of these two frameworks will make possible an ethics of Sci-art that is adequate to its subject matter and relevant for practice. Such an integrated approach can give increased depth to understandings of ethical issues of presentation, inspire new ways of thinking about ethics in relation to artistic representations of science in general and give novel impulses to  assessment as the empirical starting point for connecting perspectives in art with those of science and  developing an ethics for Sci-art. The consideration of the effect of these artworks is vital in validating ethically problematical applications of art. It could be argued that the affective, visual qualities of artworks that present a false vision of science may spur the audience to adjust, revise or develop their personal understanding and ethical framework of science.

According to the paper Brain-Based Learning published in the American Journal of Opthamology in 1957 (summarized here), 50% of our neural tissue is directly or indirectly related to vision. The ethical importance of art has been discussed at least since the Ancient Greeks. Plato  was suspicious of the potential of poetry, painting and sculpture to sway people’s emotions, leading them away from the search for truth. Aristotle, on the other hand, emphasised the power of tragedy, in particular, to bring enlightenment through contemplation of an exemplary story. Although differing in their view of the value of art, they both evaluated it from what we would call a moralist point of view.

Moralists hold that art is subject to the same laws and norms as other activities in society. A moralist perceives the morality of art as having a direct impact on its aesthetic value. In other words: if an artwork is “morally defective”, it must be aesthetically flawed, too. The novel Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov is often mentioned as an example of the problem of moralism. The formally exquisite prose of the book stands in stark contrast to its storyline about an unrepentant paedophile. A moralist would have to condemn it as artistically flawed, despite its aesthetical qualities. Similarly, Andres Serrano’s aesthetically striking, large-scale photograph Piss Christ (1987), which was created by submerging a plastic crucifix in a tank of the artist’s urine, has been met with charges of blasphemy, but has also received critical acclaim. Moralists in the Platonic tradition view immoral art as dangerous because its aesthetic power might be seductive, whereas other moralists follow David Hume in arguing that art works with immoral contents will not be able to sway a morally conscious audience and will thus be aesthetic failures.

In the ethical criticism of art, moralism has long been considered an opposing tendency to autonomism, the view that ethical and aesthetic criticisms are separate. Moralism has traditionally been connected to the narrative and didactic power of art, whereas autonomism put more weight on formal aspects. Throughout the history of art, these two tendencies have existed side by side; now one taking precedence, now the other. The autonomist view can be found in the statement “art for art’s sake”, popular in Modernist art theory.The autonomy of art is directly connected to the idea of “artistic license”, that art should be free expression, unlimited by political and social conventions. R.W. Beardsmore  traced this idea back to Oscar Wilde’s demand that the critic ought to “recognize that the sphere of art and the sphere of ethics are absolutely distinct and separate” ( p. 191). An artwork can be ethically defect and still be aesthetically pleasing, and vice versa. Kieran Cashell points out that since autonomism does not acknowledge that works of art can validly possess ethical significance, it “is compelled to treat any works that do as hybrid deviations, as art mutations that cannot be considered purely artistic” (p. 28). This is an inherently formalist view.


In his ‘Biomorphic Live Art Action Painting Performance‘ at Nottingham Contemporary, artist Tom Estes questions ‘autonomy’ in abstraction and expressionism in painting.

Abstract Expressionism is the term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 1950s. It is often characterized by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and  with its emphasis on spontaneous, automatic, or subconscious creation. The movement’s name is derived from emotional intensity with an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, nihilistic. Action painting, sometimes called “gestural abstraction”, is a style of painting which often emphasizes the physical act of painting itself as an essential aspect of the finished work or concern of its artist.For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

Autonomism comes up short when confronted with certain artworks whose moral and societal relevance is simply too great an aspect to be ignored. For instance, in The Reincarnation of St Orlan (1990–92) performance artist Orlan underwent a series of plastic surgeries to attain features from art historical models of beauty, including the brow of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The surgeries were staged as performances; Orlan was placed in a cruciform position, reading themed poetry during the procedure, which was filmed in its entirety. This project is an uncompromising confrontation with Western ideals of beauty, and as such, it may serve to discourage women from undergoing such surgical procedures. A judgement of the artwork solely from an autonomist perspective (is the surgery performance and resulting facial and bodily features aesthetically interesting?) would miss the critical edge of this piece and, in the case of radical autonomism, would consider the work artistically poorer for containing such a politically charged message.

Paradoxically, moralists may sometimes be compelled to consider an artwork’s value in formalist terms. Daniel Jacobson, in “In Praise of Immoral Art”, emphasises how “the moralist”, when encountering “immoral” art, must either deny it any aesthetic value or continue somehow to accept it as art while remaining unmoved (or repulsed) by its offensive moral message. If the latter approach is chosen, what remains is a formalist judgement of the artwork separated from its content. Anthony Julius concludes that moralists and artists “cannot be reconciled, and that there is no third position available to harmonize the contrary perspectives” (p. 9).

Noël Carroll’s  “moderate” moralism, however, hopes to achieve this third way. He suggests that moral value is not always relevant to the aesthetic value of the artwork but that morally defective contents may interfere with the audience’s appreciation of it. In other words, the moral value of a piece may in some cases directly influence its aesthetic value, which he defines as the degree to which they absorb us. The intention of the artist is an important factor to Carroll: if an artwork does not evoke a moral response when one was intended by its producer, the design of the work is faulty, and the work itself, therefore, is an aesthetic failure. But, following this logic, a work of art that was not intended to have a moral impact may well be aesthetically and artistically successful without arousing moral feelings in the viewer. In Carroll’s view, artworks that do engage our moral feelings may thus be evaluated “in terms of whether they deepen or pervert the moral understanding” (p. 229). He argues that a moral artwork, when successful, can contribute to our moral education.

According to Jacobson’s “immoralist” view moral defects in art need not be aesthetical defects, even when relevant to the aesthetic judgement of the piece. They may actually increase its aesthetic value, rather than subtracting from it. Matthew Kieran argues “that morally defective imaginative experiences, including taking up attitudes and responding in ways that are morally problematic, are required to enable one more fully to understand things than one could otherwise have done” (p. 63). This view finds common ground with moralism in contradicting autonomism’s insistence that morality should not be taken into account.

Both Jacobson and Carroll’s views are examples of “ethical pluralism”, a term that refers to any view acknowledging “that conflict between mutually opposed yet equally reasonable attitudes arises because moral values are neither exclusively oppositional nor commensurate with each other” (p. 13, see also 10, 37). This relativist approach rests on the assumption that moral concepts do not apply equally to diverse situations. Another example of ethical pluralism is what Gaut has called “contextualism”, the view that, occasionally, the unethical aspects of a morally questionable work may contribute positively to its artistic value. This term is seen as preferable in that it does not share immoralism’s implication that moral defects “are automatically aesthetic merits”  (p. 45).Rather, the “deployment of whatever principle may be required in the particular circumstances” should be our guide (p. 46).

The above approaches showcase how the values of individuals influence their judgement of a work of art. How will these differing stances relate to Sci-art? Sci-art artists take widely different approaches, and their artworks, consequently, bring forth different ethical issues. On these grounds, a contextual position is the most productive perspective. A fundamental point is that these artworks should be treated locally, each artwork considered separately for its specific ethical relevance. In other words, the particular art work’s artistic context, its geographical and historical situation, its relation to the methods used, as well as its political and societal dimensions, should be taken into account in the analysis. However, in discussions of ethical issues there is a tendency of inferring from single artworks to the entirety of art.

Conceptually, a tradition that goes back at least to Plato has seen aesthetics and ethics as intimately intertwined, in the search for truth, beauty and goodness. However, in contemporary art, in contrast to the conventions of earlier times, the aim is rarely to give pleasure through the experience of harmonious beauty. Instead, artists seek to reflect some aspect of human existence, to provoke, critique or create immersive experiences. Although this can be done within the autonomist ideal, a large portion of contemporary artworks directly engage with issues in society, and most Sci-art works fall within this sphere. Some are explicitly political and activist, for instance targeting genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as in Critical Art Ensemble’s Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine, which combined two public fears, GM and bacteria, and sought to inform the public about both. The audience were left to decide for themselves, based on the information they were given, whether they wished to release crippled non-pathogenic gut Escherichia coli bacteria, transformed with DNA fragments, into the environment.

Ordinarily, we are made aware of our moral framework only when faced with difficult decisions, whether as individuals, as representing the interests of individuals (as is often the case for attorneys, next-of-kin, or GPs), or as a society (in which case politicians, various experts and NGOs tend to be key players). It can be argued that experiencing art can create an opportunity to critically examine or develop that moral framework. Although this need not be the raison d’être of the artwork, it can be an important factor for ethical validation. While discussions of art and morality from aesthetics scholars can serve to qualify and explain some of the responses to Sci-art, there is a good reason why these artworks are often discussed from the perspective of ethics: they touch upon a number of ethical issues customarily found within that discipline. But a work of art that is used to promote a particular agenda is in no way autonomous. Why did the CIA support abstraction? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Just as Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete, questions need to be asked about Markos Kay’s CERN-approved subatomic visualizations when it is impossible to truly visualize quantum interactions.



About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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