“Performing” experimental culture

Perspectives on the use of visual strategies and the logic of practice in the space between disciplines

The intention of the following interview texts is to illustrate the different positions that meet in the “Art & Science Visualization” master degree programme and their varied disciplinary backgrounds and heterogeneous knowledge structures. Members of the teaching staff Georg Glaeser, Alfred Vendl, Virgil Widrich, and Bernd Kräftner answer questions about their everyday work and the guiding principles in their research.



Georg Glaeser. What do simulated models visualise for mathematics and how do they influence thought and calculation?


It is quite interesting that mathematics and geometry, although they are mental constructions, nevertheless have the idiosyncratic capacity to simulate natural processes and procedures incredibly well. Perhaps this emerged in an evolutionary way and one could also practise mathematics in some other fashion, but mathematics as it is currently being advanced is extremely well-suited for describing nature, biology, physics, etc. Today, with computer simulations one can explain relations and causalities that earlier would have simply been put to the side. For example, like how irregular shapes were often ignored. It is quite plain today that they are based on mathematical laws and formed under the influence of certain interference factors, which previously were not taken into account.


In order to help mathematicians and geometricians solve their tasks I developed the software “Open Geometry”. With it one can visualise mathematical formulas and physical laws as models. Often one visualises results that must be proven after the fact. For example, it can become clear in an animation or motion sequence that a point is located on a certain trajectory. Naturally, it is an involved process when I do not precisely know something at the beginning. Through various parameter settings I can try to find out what would change and thereby come up with conjectures about how this could be solved in a formula. The outcomes of the formula can immediately be confirmed once again with a simulation. Of course, a mathematician must still turn off the computer and calculate the whole thing again on paper. Even when it works a hundred thousand times on the computer, it is still not proof. Speeds and accelerations can be calculated from animations, but the connection to reality depends on the number of parameters the object is built upon. When something is very complex, it can be that the slightest change of one or another assumption results in a completely different image. Let’s say I want to observe the evolution of the universe over four million years, and at the beginning I enter a wrong parameter; then it produces something totally different. Ultimately, I could never claim to simulate all phenomena in compliance with the laws. One can, however, set forms in a dependency with movements that are not there but will perhaps happen. Or take the constructions by Leonardo da Vinci: It seems as if Leonardo Da Vinci had a computer when he conducted his experiments 550 years ago and could predict certain things. He was far ahead of his time and tackled questions that weren’t even thought about. When I first visited the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in the Minorite Church, signs with “DO NOT TOUCH” were all around the models of his inventions. I thought if I cannot try it out then I cannot understand how it really works. Subsequently I convinced the organiser of the exhibition to equip all exhibits with 3D computer simulations. This was warmly welcomed by the visitors. If one wanted to see how an invention should work, one could start the animation. A simulated model helps demonstrate an underlying principle – and this is also what makes it so interesting for mathematicians. Otherwise, it would just be pure computer graphics and a virtual illustration.


As one can see, many questions for me come from practical work, especially in interaction with artists as I teach at the University of Applied Arts. Often people address me with apparently dumb questions, which are actually not dumb at all and could open a completely new window. As I have a very inductive approach to my work, it is not important to me to analyse something to the last theoretical detail; it would seem to be an interplay between theory and practice. The process of talking and explaining is very important because when we talk we are constantly forced to explain our thoughts to the others. One often thinks that something is like this or that. And then, by talking, completely new ideas come about. And also by writing. One simply begins to write and to summarise what has happened so far, what the departure points are, and on the next page one has insights that one previously wouldn’t have had. Through writing, communicating, building models, always in search in all directions for new input – that’s how ideas emerge for my projects.


(Georg Glaeser is a professor of geometry at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and the author of different books in the field of computer geometry and the programming system “Open Geometry”. Among others, Bilder der Mathematik was published by Spektrum Akademischer Verlag in 2009.)


Alfred Vendl. In the universe of microworlds: How does science visualisation enter educational television?


For me, science visualisation means making visible what evades normal human receptivity and is invisible because it is too small, too big, too fast, too slow, or because it is outside the wavelength of visible light. All these subjects are connected to scientific facts, to physics and chemistry. Within the scientific community, the mediating function of science visualisation is employed to present the results of scientific research to a broader audience and to make them more comprehensible – above all, in order to reach possible sponsors as well. In Anglo-American countries there is a longstanding tradition of sponsorship, and hence there are more institutions there dealing with science visualisation than in Europe, for example. In this context I find collaborations between artistic and scientific institutions quite interesting, such as the “Art|Sci Center” at UCLA or the “SymbioticA” art and science collaborative research lab in Perth, Australia, where I was recently invited to make a lecture. Furthermore, I see my activities in the realm of televised scientific documentaries as an opportunity to prepare scientific knowledge in such an intriguing fashion that it can serve as popular entertainment, albeit without faking or simplifying anything. Ten years ago I began specialising in this field, making animated sequences from electron microscopic images, which have been used quite successfully in science films. A virtual world evolves around a scientific artefact, such as a SEM (scanning electron microscope) image, which nevertheless remains oriented upon scale and the laws of nature. Nature writes many interesting stories that don’t need enhancement. On one occasion, however, in order to depict the processes in a mitochondrion, the power plant of the cell, in a clearly understandable manner for laypeople – which is next to impossible – I had to resort to an abstract translation. But the basic statement remained unaltered; it was shown through interlocking gear wheels, which correlate with the interlocking of the chemical processes. In my experience, another useful abstraction is, of course, the one for the centre of the atom, where, according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, one cannot simultaneously measure the location and the impulse of the electrons. For this, one must find a translation that is tangible but doesn’t fully comply with reality. A realistic representation ends with the atomic shell. But there are also laws here that can be visualised. I always try to operate at the latest state of research and sometimes decide to only depict certain aspects, but then as close to reality as possible.


An extraordinarily difficult task is pending in a current project: My team and I want to show the inside of a mite, which in itself is only a fraction of a millimetre big. Inside the mite the symbiosis between protozoa and the intestines of the mite needs to be explained in an animated sequence. Numerous processes are required: We must generate multiple micro-tomographic sections of the mite and combine them into a model. The model has to be designed in such a way that a camera can journey through the body. As the resolution of the tomogram is not high enough to visualise all of the processes in the mite, we will also use dissections of pieces of the intestine with its micro-organisms, the result of laborious precision work at the Department of Biology at the University of Vienna. The intestine pieces will then be recorded with an electron microscope, fictionally implemented within the original image of the inside of the mite, and then animated once again. In the end, all of this produces the final animated sequence that one knows from scientific documentary films.


In my team I am the director and author, orginally also of entire science documentaries. In this role I do not see myself as an artist whatsoever. My objective is the highest level of technical quality. In television one must have a bent for popular education; you have to enjoy preparing complicated topics in such a way that people discover something they find worth knowing about and don’t flip channels. When the ratings come the next morning you quickly know if you were successful. My last “Universum” broadcast about the Weinviertel in Lower Austria visualised how the Weinviertel looked in former times, how, for instance, the animals looked and petroleum developed. The audience rating was very high, and this evidenced the general interest in this type of film. Hence, the “art”, in my opinion, is ultimately to attract a broad audience for my films and their contents.


(Professor Alfred Vendl is the head of the Institute of Art and Technology and head of the Department of Technical Chemistry with a focus on Science Visualization at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. In addition to numerous publications on material science, he has also been active as an author, director, moderator, and/or producer of science television documentaries since 1970 in Austria and abroad. The Science Visualization team was awarded an Emmy in 2008.)


Virgil Widrich. Between analogue and digitally animated images: How do anti-realistic representations win aesthetic credibility for film?


In the realm of the digital, I am especially interested in avoiding digital realism. It is a current trend in Hollywood films – and also in science – to animate microscopic or astronomic worlds with the latest 3D programs as if one was looking out of a spaceship or into a microscope, and as if what one is seeing was reality. Yet at the microscopic scale, for example, there are no colours at all and the depth of focus and perspective are different, and in space the stars do not move when a spaceship hurtles past. Nevertheless, these effects are ubiquitous. With the image quality that is possible today and the quality of CGI animations with shadows, reflections, etc. realism is faked. Therefore, I am interested in how animated images can evade this digital realism and do not stage everything that is technically possible. I am drawn by anything that finds its path somewhere between “digital” and “analogue”.


If we take a look at the history of images in the last 150 years, in (animated) film and photography, and also at the development and history of animation, we can see that before digital technologies came along in the last 30 years there were numerous other techniques employed to generate worlds that one normally cannot see. One filmed through lenses smeared with oil, through foils, and even through pantyhose. One can film through aquariums to create underwater effects or work with models, with lighting tricks, with forced perspective, with special optics, cameras, or film material.    These are all very inspired representational variants in film. I believe there is a vast hidden treasure on hand when one combines digital and analogue techniques. The image search begins, for instance, digitally and is then further elaborated in analogue and then again digitally. The repeated process of “in” and “out” from digital to analogue and vice versa can create entirely new images that have no claim of realism rather become more authentic precisely because of their abstraction.


Whenever science attempts to convey an experience it passes through the domain of art, which also wants and can do this very well. Art and science are then quite similar when it is about an open search that isn’t obliged to a specific result. The differences, on the other hand, are quite big: Science attempts to find something verifiable and repeatable, whereas art is preoccupied with the creation of something unrepeatable, something that doesn’t have to be verifiable in the sense of scientific correctness. The objectives of art and science are different, the methods, however, bear resemblances with one another. I believe that artists and scientists have a shared understanding in their exploration of the world and the cosmos. What image productions can convey is highly dependent on the context. Are we talking about a visualisation for a print medium? Are we talking about an interactive installation in a science museum or science centre, or a 3D film through which one travels in moving cinema seats? I find it quite exciting to burst open normal cinema, to expand the boring rectangular screen that has now gone unchanged lighting away for over a hundred years, and instead to create walkable, illuminable, tangible installations. As a multimedia artist, I am especially interested in this in connection with the communication of knowledge through exhibition design; here, the multimedia installation can also fuse with the architectural, resulting in a combined whole.


In order to arrive at concepts for my films, I work very associatively, unstructured, and unfortunately also quite inefficiently. I try to approach a problem from a variety of directions, noting a number of ideas. Through constantly questioning these ideas anew, through the methods of copying and densifying, I try to uncover what these ideas want to tell me. For me, there isn’t a straight path from A to B, rather I usually collect thousands of pages of notes before I begin writing the first version of a script. And this is also just an in-between step to the second and third version. I am good at forgetting my own ideas, hence I can always look at them again from a new perspective. There are cycles of research and forgetting, research and forgetting – this lasts incredibly long. I do this digitally with a content management program called “Tinderbox” with which one can manage notes and tag them with different attributes. The notes can always be looked at anew in different combinations, like multifunctional index cards. I have also collected a terabyte of film clips with scenes that seem to fit. Additionally, I collect photos, music, and texts from all over the place. Everything is fed into my system and is hashed and rehashed. During the day I ask myself questions; at night I dream about them. And that’s how – after these many wash cycles – at some point, a finished concept for a film emerges


(Professor Virgil Widrich is the artistic director of the Art & Science department at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. He has worked on numerous film and multimedia productions. His short film Copy Shop (2005) was nominated for an Oscar. Currently his feature film Die Nacht der 1000 Stunden is in development.)


Bernd Kräftner. From experiment to transdisciplinarity: How can we intervene in images of science and art?


Experiment constantly fluctuates on the threshold between knowing and not knowing. It reacts openly towards a surprise, a phenomenon that cannot be classified. For me, this is a central point that constitutes science as a civilisational framework of our democratic culture. With Robert Boyle begins the experimental age in the seventeenth century, a time in which not only the observation and classification of existing phenomena commenced but also the construction of a mobilisation context, which today we call the “laboratory”. Experiment surprises with phenomena, and the experimenters and theoreticians attempt in collaboration to arrive at a stabilisation of the phenomena. The derived statements have to prove that they are not fiction. In the stabilisation practice, in the laboratory, and potentially outside as well, entities become reproducible and stable, which breeds a type of realism. We can relate to entities, rely on them, but they react to us and must always be understood as being in interaction with the observer. For me, this is the main point about experiment – it implies a risky intervention.


Now, if we speak about Art & Science and make reference to scientific studies, then this can mean for the artistic practice that I do not begin with the established scientific and social facts but enter into an unstable, chaotic, and controversial (discursive) space and have a look around. This implies not necessarily dealing with apparently established end products and results, or to at least become aware that it is about these kinds of results. Re-opening an already closed black box can be attempted in an artistic manner. Yet it would be a mistake to believe that one can create harmonious connections between disciplines when one looks at the actual practice, the workday of scientists and artists. Here is where the potential of transdisciplinarity comes into play, which also Helga Nowotny points out time and again. Not that one had found the philosopher’s stone, a type of metatheory that would make it possible to connect disciplines of different backgrounds and to deal consensually with knowledge transfer. One hasn’t found a miracle machine that makes everything commensurable and comparable, rather one arrives at a question: “Who says what the problem is – who defines it?” Thus transdisciplinarity serves to clarify which questions we even want to ask. With that one jumps into the political realm. And this makes it interesting for art. There’s not a better world, a utopia at the end, rather it becomes clear to us that we must attain a sort of experimental condition and try to sketch out – like Bruno Latour in “The Parliament of Things” – how we come to the questions and problems on hand. Up till now, one could put problems on the agenda rather quickly in the name of science. As society is becoming continuously more complex, the question arises all the more: “In whose name do I want to convince you?” It seems interesting to me to discuss transdisciplinarity from this perspective at an art university and not to start with the facts or the social realities but with the range of methods we have to play with. To use this diversity to generate cross-connections and unusual setups, to probe questions that one is probably not supposed to see in other contexts. Hence, art does not intervene in science – art shifts itself. The practices of art shift as a result; something begins to infiltrate that previously wasn’t even perceived as art.


In my own research projects I have been working for more than ten years in the constellation of a team comprising different fields of expertise, which goes by the name “Research Centre for Shared Incompetence”. The work method is closely linked to the long term and results in a process that leaves no participant unchanged. The projects consist of many parts, generate different outcomes, questions, and coincidences. Our focus is currently on the production of reality in the healthcare sector and emergency provision. We accept little as given and reflect upon our way of questioning. What is, for instance, a syndrome? Or emergency supplies? And how do we participate in these definitions as a research group? With our visual strategies – for example, enriching visual ethnography with artistic methods in a large fresco or challenging the data production of modern imaging techniques with artistic means – we do not want to represent our matters of interest but make them commensurable. Eventually, there comes a point in the communication in the field where it is no longer clear what we are doing, and then the gesture of showing can help.


(Bernd Kräftner leads the art/research project “Pillow Research: multiple diagnoses and hidden talents” (FWF, “Translational Program”) and “‘In the event of?’ Anticipatory and participatory politics of emergency provision” (WWTF, “Art & Science Call 2009”). He is founder and member of the Research Centre for Shared Incompetence, www.sharedinc.net, and teaches at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.)


Fact Box

“Performing” experimental culture
May 30, 2010