Tag Archives: Emily Carr University of Art +Design (ECU)

Leaning Out of Windows (LOoW): An Art and Physics Collaboration (2023 book) in Vancouver (Canada)

Be careful not to fall, is a familiar stricture when applied to ‘leaning out of windows’ supplying a frisson of danger to the ‘lean’ but in German, ‘aus dem Fenster lehnen’ or ‘lean out of the window’, is an expression for interdisciplinarity. It’s a nice touch for a book about an art/physics collaboration where it can feel ‘dangerous’ to move so far out of your comfort zone. The book is described this way in its Vancouver (Canada) Public Library catalogue entry,

Art and physics collide in this expansive exploration of how knowledge can be translated across disciplinary communities to activate new aesthetic and scientific perspectives.

Leaning Out of Windows shares findings from a six-year collaboration by a group of artists and physicists exploring the connections and differences between the language they use [emphasis mine], the means by which they develop knowledge, how that knowledge is visualized, and, ultimately, how they seek to understand the universe. Physicists from TRIUMF, Canada’s particle physics accelerator, presented key concepts in the physics of Antimatter, Emergence, and In/visible Forces to artists convened by Emily Carr University of Art + Design; the participants then generated conversations, process drawings, diagrams, field notes, and works of art. The “wondrous back-and-forth” of this process allowed both scientists and artists to, as Koenig [Ingrid Koenig] and Cutler [Randy Lee Cutler] describe, “lean out of our respective fields of inquiry and inhabit the infinite spaces of not knowing.”

From this leaning into uncertainty comes a rich array of work towards furthering the shared project of artists and scientists in shaping cultural understandings of the universe: Otoniya J. Okot Bitek reflects on the invisible forces of power; Jess H. Brewer contemplates emergence, free will, and magic; Mimi Gellman looks at the resonances between Indigenous Knowledge and physics; Jeff Derksen finds Hegelian dialectics within the matter-antimatter process; Sanem Güvenç considers the possibilities of the void; Nirmal Raj ponders the universe’s “special moment of light and visibility” we happen to inhabit; Sadira Rodrigues eschews the artificiality of the lab for a “boring berm of dirt”; and Marina Roy metaphorically turns beams of stable and radioactive gold particles into art of pigments, oils, liquid plastic, and wood. Combined with additional essays, diagrams, and artworks, these texts and artworks live in the intersection of disparate fields that nonetheless share a deep curiosity of the world and our place within it, and a dedication to building and sharing knowledges.

Self-published, “Leaning Out of Windows: An Art and Physics Collaboration” and edited by Ingrid Koenig & Randy Lee Cutler (who also wrote many of the essays) was produced through an entity known as Figure 1 (located in Vancouver). It can be purchased for $45 CAD here on the Figure 1 website or $41.71 (CAD?) on Amazon. (Weirdly, if you look at the back outside cover you’ll see a price of $45 USD.)

Kind of a book

“Leaning” functions as three kinds of books in one package. First, it is documentation for a six year project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), second, a collection of essays, and, third, a catalogue for three inter-related exhibitions. (Aside: my focus is primarily on the text for an informal book review.)

Like an art exhibition catalogue, this book is printed in a large, awkward to hold format, with shiny (coated) pages. It makes reading the essays and documentation a little challenging but perfect for a picture book/coffee table book where the images are supposed to look good.

I particularly liked the maps for the various phases of the project and the images for phase 1 showing what happens when an image is passed from one artist to the next, without explanation, asking for a new image to be produced and passed on to yet another artist and so on. There is no discussion amongst the artists about the initial impetus (the first artist in the stream of four met with physicists at a science symposium to talk about antimatter).

Ingrid Koenig, Antimatter Process Design (detail), 2017. This diagram shows the process design of five different streams of interactions, mapping out routes for 26 artists and 26 physicists, as well as an experimental class taught by Koenig at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. [downloaded from https://canadianart.ca/features/searching-for-the-language-of-the-universe/]

Unexpectedly, the documentation proved to be a highlight for me. BTW, you can find out more about the Leaning Out of Windows (LOoW) project (e.g. participants, phases, and art/science resources) on its website.

Koenig should be congratulated for getting as much publicity for the book as possible, given the topic and that there are no celebrities involved. CBC gave it a mention (May 8, 2023) on its Books: Leaning Out of Windows webpage. It also got a mention by Dana Gee in a May 12, 2023 ‘Books brief‘ posting on the Vancouver Sun website.

Plus, there were a couple of articles in an art magazine highlighting the art/science project while it was in progress featuring the few images I was about to access online for this project.

A January 6, 2020 article in Canadian Art Magazine by Randy Lee Cutler and Ingrid Koenig introduces the project (Note: I’ll revisit the “metaphor and analogy” mention in this article and throughout the LOoW book later in this post),

The disciplines of art and physics share certain critical perspectives: both deal with how metaphor and analogy inform creative processes. Additionally, artists and physicists address issues of the imagination, creative thinking and communication, and how meaning is made through theoretical research and process-based investigations. There are also important differences in these perspectives. Art brings an appreciation for abstract or non-representational practices. Physics research addresses complex problems relevant to understanding the study of matter and motion through space and time. Physicists also contribute knowledge about how the universe behaves. Together, the achievements of art and physics allow the possibility of a much richer understanding of the nature of reality than each field can contribute individually.

There’s a January 13, 2020 article in Canadian Art Magazine by Perrin Grauer featuring Mimi Gellman, Note: A link has been removed,

Artwork by artist and ECU Associate Professor Mimi Gellman was selected to appear on the cover of the current issue of Canadian Art magazine.

The gleaming, otherworldly image graces the magazine’s issue on antimatter —a subject which “presents a mirror world of abstract phenomena: time reversals, mutual annihilation, cosmic rays, cloud chambers, an infinite sea of sub-atomic particles that parallels our ‘real’ world of matter,” according to the issue’s editors.

Mimi describes her work as approaching some of the affinities between the biological, the perceptual, the cultural and the astronomical.

“My drawings do not explore the exterior world we perceive but rather what I call the ‘architecture of consciousness’ which permits us to perceive it,” she says.

“Recalling astronomical diagrams and reflecting the mixture of hybrid cultural worldviews in my background, they reveal deep similarities between the dimension explored by sub-atomic physics and the implicit interiority of contemporary art.”

I’m sorry I never saw any announcements for the project exhibitions, all of which seemed to have taken place at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. There were three concepts each explored in three exhibitions, with different artists each time, titled: Antimatter, Emergence, and In/visible Forces, respectively.

A bouquet or two and a few nitpicks

Randy Lee Cutler and Ingrid Koenig have a wonderful quote from Karen Barad, physicist and philosopher, in their essay titled, “Collaborative Research between Artists and Physicists,”

Barad introduces the concept of intra-action and the fluidity of materialization through our bodily entanglements—through intra-action our bodies remain entangled with those around us. “Not only subjects but also objects are permeated through and through with their entangled kin, the other is not just in one’s skin, but in one’s bones, in one’s belly in one’s heart, in one’s nucleus, in one’s past and future.This is a true for electrons as it is for brittlestars as it is for the differentially constituted human.” As Barad asks herself, “How do I know where my physics begins and ends?” … [p. 13]

To the left of the page is a black and white photograph of entangled cables captioned, “GRIFFIN (Gamma Ray Infrastructure for Fundamental Investigations of Nuclei- TRIUMF.” It’s a nice touch and points to the difficulty of ‘illustrating’ or producing visual art in response to physics ideas such as quantum entanglement, something Einstein called, ‘spooky action at a distance’. From the Quantum entanglement Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,

Quantum entanglement is the phenomenon that occurs when a group of particles are generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in a way such that the quantum state of each particle of the group cannot be described independently of the state of the others [[emphasis mine], including when the particles are separated by a large distance [emphasis mine]. The topic of quantum entanglement is at the heart of the disparity between classical and quantum physics: entanglement is a primary feature of quantum mechanics not present in classical mechanics.[1]

Some of the essays

One essay that stood out in LOoW, was “A Boring Berm of Dirt’ (pp. 141-7) by Sadira Rodrigues. She notes that dirt and soil are not the same; one is dead (dirt) and the other is living (soil) and that the berm has an important role at TRIUMF. If you want a more specific discussion of the difference between dirt and soil, see David Beaulieu’s February 23, 2023 essay (Soil vs. Dirt: What’s the Difference?) on The Spruce website.

Rodrigues’ essay (part of the Emergence concept) situates the work physically (word play alert: physics/physically) whereas all of the other work is based on ideas.

In “Boring Berm … ,” radioactivity is mentioned, a term which is largely taboo these days due its association with poisoning, bombs, and death. The eassy goes into fascinating detail about TRIUMF’s underground facility and how the facility deals with its nuclear waste and the role that the berm plays. (On a more fanciful note, the danger in the title of the book is given another dimension in this essay focused on nuclear topics.) Regardless, the essay was definitely an eye-opener.

Aside: The institution has been rebranded from: TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics) to: TRIUMF (Canada’s national particle accelerator centre). You can find a reference to the ‘nuclear’ name in my October 2, 2018 posting although the name was already changed, probably in the early to mid-2010s. There is no mention of the ‘nuclear’ name in TRIUMF’s Wikipedia entry, accessed August 22, 2023.

Gellman and language

Mimi Gellman’s essay, “Crossing No Divide: Mapping Affinities in Art and Science” evokes unity, as can be seen in the title. She’s one of the more ‘lyrical’ writers,

There is a place in our imagination where east or west, or large or small, or any other opposites cease to be productive contradictions. As an artist and educator, I have become interested in the non-binary and resonance between Indigenous Knowledge and physics, between art and science, and between traditional ways of considering cognition and thinking with the hand. [p. 33]

This is how Gellman is described for the January 13, 2020 article in Canadian Art Magazine, which is archived on the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECUAD) website,

Mimi Gellman is an Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi (Ojibway-Jewish Métis) visual artist and educator with a multi-streamed practice in architectural glass and conceptual installation. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Culture + Community at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada, and is completing her research praxis PhD in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University on the metaphysics of Indigenous mapping.

She highlights some interesting observations about language and thinking,

The Ojibwe language, Anishinaabemowin, like many Indigenous languages is verb-based in contrast with Western languages’ noun-based constructions and these have deep implications for the development of one’s worldview. …

I suspect anyone who speaks more than one language can testify to the observation that language affects one’s worldview. More academically, it’s called linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I find it hard to believe that it’s considered a controversial idea but here goes from the Linguistic relativity Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,

The idea of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis /səˌpɪər ˈhwɔːrf/ sə-PEER WHORF, the Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language influences its speakers’ worldview or cognition, and thus individuals’ languages determine or shape their perceptions of the world.[1]

The hypothesis has long been controversial, and many different, often contradictory variations have existed throughout its history.[2] The strong hypothesis of linguistic relativity, now referred to as linguistic determinism, says that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and restrict cognitive categories. This was held by some of the early linguists before World War II,[3] but it is generally agreed to be false by modern linguists.[4] Nevertheless, research has produced positive empirical evidence supporting a weaker version of linguistic relativity:[4][3] that a language’s structures influence and shape a speaker’s perceptions, without strictly limiting or obstructing them.

Gettng back to Gellman, language, linguistic relativity, worldviews, and, adding physics/science, she quotes James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson “a research fellow at the Native Law Centre of Canada, University of Saskatchewan College of Law. He was born to the Bear Clan of the Chickasaw Nation and Cheyenne Tribe in Oklahoma in 1944 and is married to Marie Battiste, a Mi’kmaw educator. In 1974, he received a juris doctorate in law from Harvard Law School,”

[at a 1993 dialogue between Western and Indigenous scientists …]

[Youngblood Henderson] We don’t have one god. You need a noun-based language to have one god. We have forces. All forces are equal and you are just the amplifier of the forces. The way you conduct your life and the dignity you give to other things gives you access to other forces. Even trees are verbs instead of nouns. The Mi’kmaq named their trees for the sound the wind makes when it blows through the trees during the autumn about an hour after the sunset, when the wind usually comes from a certain direction. So one might be like a ‘shu-shu’ something and another more like a ‘tinka-tinka’ something. Although physics in the western world has been essentially the quest for the smallest noun (which used to be a-tom, ‘that which cannot be further divided’), as they were inside the atom things weren’t acting like nouns anymore. The physicists were intrigued with the possibilities inherent in a language that didn’t depend on nouns but could move right to verbs when the circumstances were appropriate.3

This work from Gellman is a favourite of mine, and is featured in the January 13, 2020 article in Canadian Art Magazine and you’ll find it in the book,

Image courtesy Mimi Gellman. Mimi Gellman, ‘Invisible Landscapes,’ 2017. Conte on Japanese Obonai paper, 63.5 x 48.3 cm. [downloaded from https://www.ecuad.ca/news/2020/canadian-art-magazine-features-cover-artwork-by-mimi-gellman]

There are more LOoW images embedded in the January 6, 2020 article on the Canadian Art Magazine website.

Derksen and his poem

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Theodor W. Adorno, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel were unexpected guest stars in Derksen’s essay, “From Two to Another: The Anti-Matter Series,” given that he is an award-winning poet. These days he has this on his profile page on the Department of English, Simon Fraser University website, “Dean and Associate Provost, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.”

From LOoW,

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are well known as materialists, having helped define a materialist view of history, of economics and of capitalism. And both Marx and Engels aimed to develop Marxism as a science rather than a model based on naturalizing capitalism and “man.” … [p. 89]

Derksen includes a diagram/poem, for which I can’t find a digitized copy, but here’s what he had to say about it,

My mode of looking at this [antimatter] is through poetic research —which itself does not aim to arrive at a synthesis but instead looks for relational moments. In this I also see a poetic language emerge from both discourses [artistic/scientific]—matter-antimatter thought and dialectical thinking. For my contribution to Leaning Out of Windows, I have tried to combine the scientific aspect of dialectical thinking with the poetic aspect of matter-antimatter thought and experimentation. To do this, I have taken the diagrammatic rendering of Carl Anderson’s experiment which resulted in his 1932 paper … as a model to relate the dialectical thinking at the heart of Marxism and matter-antimatter thought. …

Towards the end of his essay, Derksen notes that he’s working (on what I would call) a real poem. I sent an email to Derksen on August 21, 2023 asking,

  • Have you written the poem or is still in progress?
  • If you have written it, has it been published or is it being readied for publication? I would be happy to mention where.
  • If you do have it ready and would like to ‘soft launch’ the poem, could you send it to me for inclusion in the post?

No response at this time.

Flashback to Alan Storey

I think it was 2002 or 2003 when I first heard about an artist at TRIUMF, Alan Storey. The ‘residency’ was the product of a joint effort between the Canada Council for the Arts (Canada Council) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC).

I spoke with Storey towards the end of his ;residency; and he was a little disappointed because nothing much had come of it. Nobody really seemed to know what to do with an artist at a nuclear facility and he didn’t really didn’t seem to know either. (Alan Storey’s work can be seen in the City of Vancouver’s collection of public art works here and on his website.)

My guess is that someone had a great idea but didn’t think past the ‘let’s give money to science institutions so they can host some artists who will magically produce wonderful things for us’ stage of thinking. While there is no longer a Canada Council/NSERC programme, it’s clear from LOoW (funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada [SSHRC]) that lessons have been learned.

Kudos to David Morissey who acted as an interface and convenor for the artists and to Nigel Smith (Director 2021 – present) and Jonathan Bagger (Director 2014 – 2020) for supporting the project from the TRIUMF side and to Ingrid Koenig and Randy Lee Cutler who organized and facilitated LOoW from the artists’ side.

Now, for the nits

“Co-thought” is mentioned a number of times. What is it? According to my searches, it has something to do with gestures. Here’s one of the few reference I could find for co-thought,

Co-thought and co-speech gestures are generated by the same action generation process by Mingyuan Chu and Sotaro Kita. Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2016 Feb;42(2):257-70. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000168. Epub 2015 Aug 3.


People spontaneously gesture when they speak (co-speech gestures) and when they solve problems silently (co-thought gestures) [emphasis mine]. In this study, we first explored the relationship between these 2 types of gestures and found that individuals who produced co-thought gestures more frequently also produced co-speech gestures more frequently (Experiments 1 and 2). This suggests that the 2 types of gestures are generated from the same process. We then investigated whether both types of gestures can be generated from the representational use of the action generation process that also generates purposeful actions that have a direct physical impact on the world, such as manipulating an object or locomotion (the action generation hypothesis). To this end, we examined the effect of object affordances on the production of both types of gestures (Experiments 3 and 4). We found that individuals produced co-thought and co-speech gestures more often when the stimulus objects afforded action (objects with a smooth surface) than when they did not (objects with a spiky surface). These results support the action generation hypothesis for representational gestures. However, our findings are incompatible with the hypothesis that co-speech representational gestures are solely generated from the speech production process (the speech production hypothesis).

It would have been nice if Koenig and Cutler had noted they were borrowing a word ot coining a word and explaining how it was being used in the LOoW context.

Fruit, passports, and fishing trips

The editors/writers use the words or variants, metaphor, poetry, and analogy with great abandon.

“Fruitful bridge” (top of page) and “fruitful match-ups” (bottom of page) on p. 18 seemed a bit excessive as did the “metaphorical passport” on p. 5.

I choked a bit over this on p. 19, “… these artist/scientist interactions can be seen as ‘procedural metaphors’ that enact a thought experiment … .” Procedural metaphor? It seems a bit of a stretch.

A last example and it’s a pair: “metaphorical fishing trips whereby artist and scientists received whatever they might reel in …” on p. 42 (emphases mine). Fishing trips are mentioned in a later essay too, one of the few times there’s some sort of follow through on an analogy.

Maybe someone who wasn’t involved with the project should have taken a look at the text before it was sent to the printer.

Using the words, poetry, metaphor, and analogy can be tricky and, I want to emphasize that in my opinion, those words were not often put to good use in this book.

Moving on, arts and sciences together have a longstanding history.

Poetry and physics

One of the giants of 19th century physics, James Clerk Maxwell was also known for his poetry. and some of the most evocative (poetic) text in the LOoW book can be found in the quotes from various physicists of the 20th century. The link between physicist and poetry is explicit in a September 17, 2018 posting (12 poignant poems (and one bizarre limerick) written by physicists about physics) by Colin Hunter for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

Going back further, there’s De rerum natura, a poem in six books, by Lucretius ((c. 99 BCE– c. 55 BCE). Amongst many other philosophical concerns (e.g., the nature of mind and soul, etc.), Lucretius also discussed atomism (“… a natural philosophy proposing that the physical universe is composed of fundamental indivisible components known as atoms; from the Atomism Wikipedia entry). So, poetry and physics have a long history.

Leaving aside Derksen’s diagram/poem, there’s a dearth of poetry in the book except for a suite of seven poems from TRIUMF physicist and professor at UBC, Jess Brewer following his “Emergence, Free Will and Magic” essay,

Emergence / An extremely brief history of one universe, expressed as a series of science fiction poems by Jess H. Brewer, June 29, 2019

Inspired by Dyson Freeman’s delightful lecture series , “Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe,” Reviews of Modern Physics (51) 1979

1. Bang
Why not?
For reasons known only to itself,
the universe begins
The quantum foam of spacetime seethes
with effortless energies,
entering and exiting this continuum
with a turbulent intensity
transcending the superficially smooth
expanding cosmos
and yet it kens the glacial passage of “time”,
because it waits.
And kens the vast reaches of “space”,
because it watches,
Its own experiences has taught it that
from each iteration of complexity,
awareness will emerge.

… [p. 149]

My thanks to Brewer for the poetry and magic and my apologies for any mistakes I’ve introduced into his piece. I was trying to be especially careful with the punctuation as that can make quite a difference to how a piece is read.

While Muriel Rukeyser is not a physicist at TRIUMF or, indeed, alive, one of her poems leads the essay “Leaning into Language or the Universe is Made of Stories,” by Randy Lee Cutler and Ingrid Koenig,

Time comes into it
Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms..
—Muriel Ruykeyser, Speed of Darkness, 1968

Before getting into the response that physicist, David Morrissey, had to the poem, here’s a little about the poet, from the Poetry Foundation’s Muriel Ruykeyser (1913-1980) webpage,

Muriel Rukeyser was a poet, playwright, biographer, children’s book author, and political activist. Indeed, for Rukeyser, these activities and forms of expression were linked. …

One of Rukeyser’s intentions behind writing biographies of nonliterary persons was to find a meeting place between science and poetry. [emphasis mine] In an analysis of Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry, Virginia Terris argued that Rukeyser believed that in the West, poetry and science are wrongly considered to be in opposition to one another. Thus, writes Terris, “Rukeyser [set] forth her theoretical acceptance of science … [and pointed] out the many parallels between [poetry and science]—unity within themselves, symbolic language, selectivity, the use of the imagination in formulating concepts and in execution. [emphasis mine] Both, she believe[d], ultimately contribute to one another.”

Rokeyser’s poem raised a few questions. Is her poem a story? Or, is she using symbolic language, the poem, to poke fun at stories and atoms? Is she suggesting that atoms are really stories? I found the poem evocative especially with where it was placed in the book.

Morrissey takes a prosaic approach, from the essay “Leaning into Language or the Universe is Made of Stories,”

… [in response to Rukeyser’s claim about stories] Morrissey responded stating that “scientific theories are stories—but how we evaluate stories is important—they need to be true, but they do probe, and some are more popular than others, especially theories that we can’t measure.” He surprised us further when he said that wrong stories can also be useful—they may have elements in them that turn out to be useful for future research. … [pp. 205-6]

In general and throughout this project, it seems as if they (artists and physicists) tried but, for the most part, were never quite able to articulate in poetic, metaphoric, and analogical forms. They tended to fall back onto their preferred modes of scientific notations, prosaic language, and artworks.

Both sides of the knife blade cut

Everybody does it. Poets, academics, artists, scientists, etc. we all appropriate ideas and language, sometimes without understanding them very well. Take this for example, from the Canadian Broadcasting’s (CBC) Books “Elementary Particles” August 16, 2023 webpage,

Elementary Particles by Sneha Madhavan-Reese

A poetry collection about family history and scientific exploration

Through keen, quiet observation, Sneha Madhavan-Reese’s evocative new collection takes us from the wide expanse of rural India to the minute map of Michigan we carry on the palms of our hands. These poems contemplate ancestral language, the wonder and uncertainty of scientific discovery, the resilience of a dung beetle, the fleeting existence of frost flowers on the Arctic Ocean.

The collection is full of familiar characters, from Rosa Parks to Seamus Heaney to Corporal Nathan Cirillo, anchoring it in specific moments in time and place, but has the universality that comes from exploring the complex relationship between a child and her immigrant parents, and in turn, a mother and her children. Elementary Particles examines the building blocks of a life — the personal, family, and planetary histories, transformations, and losses we all experience. (From Brick Books)

Sneha Madhavan-Reese is a writer currently based in Ottawa. In 2015 she received Arc Poetry Magazine’s Diana Brebner Prize and was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her previous poetry collection is called Observing the Moon

As you can see, there’s no substantive mention of physics in this book description—it’s just a title. Puzzling since there’s this about the author on Asian Heritage Canada’s Sneha Madhavan-Reese webpage

Sneha Madhavan-Reese’s award winning poetry has been widely published in literary magazines in North America and Australia. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 2000, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 2002. Madhavan-Reese currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario. [emphases mine]

It seems the mechanical engineer did not write up her book blurb because even though the poet’s scientific specialty is not physics as such, I’d expect a better description.

In the end, it seems art and science or poetry and science (in this case, physics) sells.

Alchemy, beauty, and Marx’s surprise connection to atomism

It was unexpected to see a TRIUMF physicist reference alchemy. The physicists haven’t turned lead into gold but they have changed one element into another. If memory holds it was one metallic atom being changed into another type of metallic atom. (Having had to return the book to the library, memory has serve.)

The few references to alchemy that I’ve stumbled across elsewhere in my readings of assorted science topics are derogatory, hence the surprise. Things may be changing; Princeton University Press published a November 7, 2018 posting by author William R. Newman about Newton and alchemy. First, here’s a bit about William Newman,

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Now for Newman’s comments, from the November 7, 2018 posting,

People often say that Isaac Newton was not only a great physicist, but also an alchemist. This seems astonishing, given his huge role in the development of science. Is it true, and if so, what is the evidence for it?

WN: The astonishment that Newton was an alchemist stems mostly from the derisive opinion that many moderns hold of alchemy [emphasis mine]. How could the man who discovered the law of universal gravitation, who co-invented calculus, and who was the first to realize the compound nature of white light also engage in the seeming pseudo-science of alchemy? There are many ways to answer this question, but the first thing is to consider the evidence of Newton’s alchemical undertaking. We now know that at least a million words in Newton’s hand survive in which he addresses alchemical themes. Much of this material has been edited in the last decade, and is available on the Chymistry of Isaac Newton site at www.chymistry.org. Newton wrote synopses of alchemical texts, analyzed their content in the form of reading notes and commentaries, composed florilegia or anthologies made up of snippets from his sources, kept experimental laboratory notebooks that recorded his alchemical research over a period of decades, and even put together a succession of concordances called the Index chemicus in which he compared the sayings of different authors to one another. The extent of his dedication to alchemy was almost unprecedented. Newton was not just an alchemist, he was an alchemist’s alchemist. 



The ‘beauty’ essay by Ingrid Koenig was also a surprise. Beauty seems to be anathema to contemporary artists. I wrote this in an August 23, 2016 posting (Georgina Lohan, Bharti Kher, and Pablo Picasso: the beauty and the beastliness of art [in Vancouver]), “It seems when it comes to contemporary art, beauty is transgressive.”

Koenig describes it as irrelevant for contemporary artists and yet, beauty is an important attribute to physicists. Her thoughts on beauty in visual art and in physics were a welcome addition to the book.

Marx’s connection to atomism

This will take a minute.

De rerum natura, a six-volume poem by Lucretius (mentioned under the Poetry and physics subhead of this posting), helped to establish the concept of atomism. As it turns out, Lucretius got the idea from earlier thinkers, Epicurus and Democritus.

Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which focused on Lucretius, Epicurus and more, suggests an interest in science that may have led to his desire to establish economics as a science. From Cambridge University Press’s “Approaches to Lucretius; Traditions and Innovations in Reading the De Rerum Natura,” Chapter 12 – A Tribute to a Hero: Marx’s Interpretation of Epicurus in his Dissertation,


This chapter turns to Karl Marx’s treatment of Epicureanism and Lucretius [emphasis mine] in his doctoral dissertation, and argues that the questions raised by Marx may be brought to bear on our own understanding of Epicurean philosophy, particularly in respect of a tension between determinism and individual self-consciousness in a universe governed by material causation. Following the contours of Marx’s dissertation [emphasis mine], the chapter focusses on three key topics: the difference between Democritus’ and Epicurus’ methods of philosophy; the swerve of the atom; and the so-called ‘meteors’, or heavenly bodies [emphasis mine]. Marx sought to develop Hegel’s understanding of Epicurus, in particular by elevating the principle of autonomous action to a first form of self-consciousness – a consideration largely mediated by Lucretius’ theorization of the atomic swerve and his poem’s overarching framework of liberating humans from the oppression of the gods.

Fascinating, eh? The rest of this is behind a paywall. For the interested, here’s a citation and link for the book,

Approaches to Lucretius; Traditions and Innovations in Reading the De Rerum Natura
Edited by Donncha O’Rourke, University of Edinburgh

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Online publication date: June 2020
Print publication year: 2020
Online ISBN: 9781108379854

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108379854

32.99 (USD) Digital access

It’s a little surprising Derksen doesn’t mention the connection in his essay.


It’s an interesting book if not an easy one. (By the way, I wish they’d included an index.) You can get a preview of some of the artwork in the January 6, 2020 article on the Canadian Art Magazine website.

I can’t rid myself of the feeling that LOoW (the book) is meant to function as a ‘proof of concept’ for someone wanting to start an art/science department or programme at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, perhaps jointly with the University of British Columbia. It is highly unusual to see this sort of material in anything other than a research journal or as a final summary to the granting agency.

Should starting an art/science programme be the intention, I hope they are successful in getting such it together and, in the meantime, thank you to the physicists and artists for their work.

We should all ‘lean out of windows’ on occasion and, if it means, falling or encountering ‘dangerous, uncomfortable ideas’ then, that’s alright too.

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know? Artificial Intelligence at the Vancouver (Canada) Art Gallery (2 of 2): Meditations

Dear friend,

I thought it best to break this up a bit. There are a couple of ‘objects’ still to be discussed but this is mostly the commentary part of this letter to you. (Here’s a link for anyone who stumbled here but missed Part 1.)

Ethics, the natural world, social justice, eeek, and AI

Dorothy Woodend in her March 10, 2022 review for The Tyee) suggests some ethical issues in her critique of the ‘bee/AI collaboration’ and she’s not the only one with concerns. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has produced global recommendations for ethical AI (see my March 18, 2022 posting). More recently, there’s “Racist and sexist robots have flawed AI,” a June 23, 2022 posting, where researchers prepared a conference presentation and paper about deeply flawed AI still being used in robots.

Ultimately, the focus is always on humans and Woodend has extended the ethical AI conversation to include insects and the natural world. In short, something less human-centric.

My friend, this reference to the de Young exhibit may seem off topic but I promise it isn’t in more ways than one. The de Young Museum in San Francisco (February 22, 2020 – June 27, 2021) also held and AI and art show called, “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI”), from the exhibitions page,

In today’s AI-driven world, increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, and evaluate our data, the question of what it means to be human [emphasis mine] has shifted. Uncanny Valley is the first major exhibition to unpack this question through a lens of contemporary art and propose new ways of thinking about intelligence, nature, and artifice. [emphasis mine]

Courtesy: de Young Museum [downloaded from https://deyoung.famsf.org/exhibitions/uncanny-valley]

As you can see, it hinted (perhaps?) at an attempt to see beyond human-centric AI. (BTW, I featured this ‘Uncanny Valley’ show in my February 25, 2020 posting where I mentioned Stephanie Dinkins [featured below] and other artists.)

Social justice

While the VAG show doesn’t see much past humans and AI, it does touch on social justice. In particular there’s Pod 15 featuring the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL). The group “combine[s] art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms of AI” as per their website’s homepage.

In Pod 9, Stephanie Dinkins’ video work with a robot (Bina48), which was also part of the de Young Museum ‘Uncanny Valley’ show, addresses some of the same issues.

Still of Stephanie Dinkins, “Conversations with Bina48,” 2014–present. Courtesy of the artist [downloaded from https://deyoung.famsf.org/stephanie-dinkins-conversations-bina48-0]

From the the de Young Museum’s Stephanie Dinkins “Conversations with Bina48” April 23, 2020 article by Janna Keegan (Dinkins submitted the same work you see at the VAG show), Note: Links have been removed,

Transdisciplinary artist and educator Stephanie Dinkins is concerned with fostering AI literacy. The central thesis of her social practice is that AI, the internet, and other data-based technologies disproportionately impact people of color, LGBTQ+ people, women, and disabled and economically disadvantaged communities—groups rarely given a voice in tech’s creation. Dinkins strives to forge a more equitable techno-future by generating AI that includes the voices of multiple constituencies …

The artist’s ongoing Conversations with Bina48 takes the form of a series of interactions with the social robot Bina48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture, 48 exaflops per second). The machine is the brainchild of Martine Rothblatt, an entrepreneur in the field of biopharmaceuticals who, with her wife, Bina, cofounded the Terasem Movement, an organization that seeks to extend human life through cybernetic means. In 2007 Martine commissioned Hanson Robotics to create a robot whose appearance and consciousness simulate Bina’s. The robot was released in 2010, and Dinkins began her work with it in 2014.

Part psychoanalytical discourse, part Turing test, Conversations with Bina48 also participates in a larger dialogue regarding bias and representation in technology. Although Bina Rothblatt is a Black woman, Bina48 was not programmed with an understanding of its Black female identity or with knowledge of Black history. Dinkins’s work situates this omission amid the larger tech industry’s lack of diversity, drawing attention to the problems that arise when a roughly homogenous population creates technologies deployed globally. When this occurs, writes art critic Tess Thackara, “the unconscious biases of white developers proliferate on the internet, mapping our social structures and behaviors onto code and repeating imbalances and injustices that exist in the real world.” One of the most appalling and public of these instances occurred when a Google Photos image-recognition algorithm mislabeled the faces of Black people as “gorillas.”


You will find as you go through the ‘imitation game’ a pod with a screen showing your movements through the rooms in realtime on a screen. The installation is called “Creepers” (2021-22). The student team from Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media (CDM) describes their project this way, from the CDM’s AI-driven Installation Piece for the Vancouver Art Gallery webpage,

Project Description

Kaleidoscope [team name] is designing an installation piece that harnesses AI to collect and visualize exhibit visitor behaviours, and interactions with art, in an impactful and thought-provoking way.

There’s no warning that you’re being tracked and you can see they’ve used facial recognition software to track your movements through the show. It’s claimed on the pod’s signage that they are deleting the data once you’ve left.

‘Creepers’ is an interesting approach to the ethics of AI. The name suggests that even the student designers were aware it was problematic.

For the curious, there’s a description of the other VAG ‘imitation game’ installations provided by CDM students on the ‘Master of Digital Media Students Develop Revolutionary Installations for Vancouver Art Gallery AI Exhibition‘ webpage.

In recovery from an existential crisis (meditations)

There’s something greatly ambitious about “The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” and walking up the VAG’s grand staircase affirms that ambition. Bravo to the two curators, Grenville and Entis for an exhibition.that presents a survey (or overview) of artificial intelligence, and its use in and impact on creative visual culture.

I’ve already enthused over the history (specifically Turing, Lovelace, Ovid), admitted to being mesmerized by Scott Eaton’s sculpture/AI videos, and confessed to a fascination (and mild repulsion) regarding Oxman’s honeycombs.

It’s hard to remember all of the ‘objects’ as the curators have offered a jumble of work, almost all of them on screens. Already noted, there’s Norbert Wiener’s The Moth (1949) and there are also a number of other computer-based artworks from the 1960s and 1970s. Plus, you’ll find works utilizing a GAN (generative adversarial network), an AI agent that is explained in the exhibit.

It’s worth going more than once to the show as there is so much to experience.

Why did they do that?

Dear friend, I’ve already commented on the poor flow through the show and It’s hard to tell if the curators intended the experience to be disorienting but this is to the point of chaos, especially when the exhibition is crowded.

I’ve seen Grenville’s shows before. In particular there was “MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture, a massive survey documenting the emergence of a mode of creativity that materialized in the late 1800s and has grown to become the dominant model of cultural production in the 21st century” and there was “KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games + Art.” As you can see from the description, he pulls together disparate works and ideas into a show for you to ‘make sense’ of them.

One of the differences between those shows and the “imitation Game: …” is that most of us have some familiarity, whether we like it or not, with modern art/culture and anime/manga/etc. and can try to ‘make sense’ of it.

By contrast, artificial intelligence (which even experts have difficulty defining) occupies an entirely different set of categories; all of them associated with science/technology. This makes for a different kind of show so the curators cannot rely on the audience’s understanding of basics. It’s effectively an art/sci or art/tech show and, I believe, the first of its kind at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Unfortunately, the curators don’t seem to have changed their approach to accommodate that difference.

AI is also at the centre of a current panic over job loss, loss of personal agency, automated racism and sexism, etc. which makes the experience of viewing the show a little tense. In this context, their decision to commission and use ‘Creepers’ seems odd.

Where were Ai-Da and Dall-E-2 and the others?

Oh friend, I was hoping for a robot. Those roomba paintbots didn’t do much for me. All they did was lie there on the floor

To be blunt I wanted some fun and perhaps a bit of wonder and maybe a little vitality. I wasn’t necessarily expecting Ai-Da, an artisitic robot, but something three dimensional and fun in this very flat, screen-oriented show would have been nice.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-asset.jpeg
Ai-Da was at the Glastonbury Festival in the U from 23-26th June 2022. Here’s Ai-Da and her Billie Eilish (one of the Glastonbury 2022 headliners) portrait. [downloaded from https://www.ai-darobot.com/exhibition]

Ai-Da was first featured here in a December 17, 2021 posting about performing poetry that she had written in honour of the 700th anniversary of poet Dante Alighieri’s death.

Named in honour of Ada Lovelace, Ai-Da visited the 2022 Venice Biennale as Leah Henrickson and Simone Natale describe in their May 12, 2022 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Ai-Da sits behind a desk, paintbrush in hand. She looks up at the person posing for her, and then back down as she dabs another blob of paint onto the canvas. A lifelike portrait is taking shape. If you didn’t know a robot produced it, this portrait could pass as the work of a human artist.

Ai-Da is touted as the “first robot to paint like an artist,” and an exhibition of her work, called Leaping into the Metaverse, opened at the Venice Biennale.

Ai-Da produces portraits of sitting subjects using a robotic hand attached to her lifelike feminine figure. She’s also able to talk, giving detailed answers to questions about her artistic process and attitudes toward technology. She even gave a TEDx talk about “The Intersection of Art and AI” in Oxford a few years ago. While the words she speaks are programmed, Ai-Da’s creators have also been experimenting with having her write and perform her own poetry.

She has her own website.

If not Ai-Da, what about Dall-E-2? Aaron Hertzmann’s June 20, 2022 commentary, “Give this AI a few words of description and it produces a stunning image – but is it art?” investigates for Salon (Note: Links have been removed),

DALL-E 2 is a new neural network [AI] algorithm that creates a picture from a short phrase or sentence that you provide. The program, which was announced by the artificial intelligence research laboratory OpenAI in April 2022, hasn’t been released to the public. But a small and growing number of people – myself included – have been given access to experiment with it.

As a researcher studying the nexus of technology and art, I was keen to see how well the program worked. After hours of experimentation, it’s clear that DALL-E – while not without shortcomings – is leaps and bounds ahead of existing image generation technology. It raises immediate questions about how these technologies will change how art is made and consumed. It also raises questions about what it means to be creative when DALL-E 2 seems to automate so much of the creative process itself.

A July 4, 2022 article “DALL-E, Make Me Another Picasso, Please” by Laura Lane for The New Yorker has a rebuttal to Ada Lovelace’s contention that creativity is uniquely human (Note: A link has been removed),

“There was this belief that creativity is this deeply special, only-human thing,” Sam Altman, OpenAI’s C.E.O., explained the other day. Maybe not so true anymore, he said. Altman, who wore a gray sweater and had tousled brown hair, was videoconferencing from the company’s headquarters, in San Francisco. DALL-E is still in a testing phase. So far, OpenAI has granted access to a select group of people—researchers, artists, developers—who have used it to produce a wide array of images: photorealistic animals, bizarre mashups, punny collages. Asked by a user to generate “a plate of various alien fruits from another planet photograph,” DALL-E returned something kind of like rambutans. “The rest of mona lisa” is, according to DALL-E, mostly just one big cliff. Altman described DALL-E as “an extension of your own creativity.”

There are other AI artists, in my August 16, 2019 posting, I had this,

AI artists first hit my radar in August 2018 when Christie’s Auction House advertised an art auction of a ‘painting’ by an algorithm (artificial intelligence). There’s more in my August 31, 2018 posting but, briefly, a French art collective, Obvious, submitted a painting, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” that was created by an artificial intelligence agent to be sold for an estimated to $7000 – $10,000. They weren’t even close. According to Ian Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic, the painting sold for $432,500 In October 2018.

That posting also included AI artist, AICAN. Both artist-AI agents (Obvious and AICAN) are based on GANs (generative adversarial networks) for learning and eventual output. Both artist-AI agents work independently or with human collaborators on art works that are available for purchase.

As might be expected not everyone is excited about AI and visual art. Sonja Drimmer, Professor of Medieval Art, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, provides another perspective on AI, visual art, and, her specialty, art history in her November 1, 2021 essay for The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past year alone, I’ve come across articles highlighting how artificial intelligence recovered a “secret” painting of a “lost lover” of Italian painter Modigliani, “brought to life” a “hidden Picasso nude”, “resurrected” Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s destroyed works and “restored” portions of Rembrandt’s 1642 painting “The Night Watch.” The list goes on.

As an art historian, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the coverage and circulation of these projects.

They have not, in actuality, revealed one secret or solved a single mystery.

What they have done is generate feel-good stories about AI.

Take the reports about the Modigliani and Picasso paintings.

These were projects executed by the same company, Oxia Palus, which was founded not by art historians but by doctoral students in machine learning.

In both cases, Oxia Palus relied upon traditional X-rays, X-ray fluorescence and infrared imaging that had already been carried out and published years prior – work that had revealed preliminary paintings beneath the visible layer on the artists’ canvases.

The company edited these X-rays and reconstituted them as new works of art by applying a technique called “neural style transfer.” This is a sophisticated-sounding term for a program that breaks works of art down into extremely small units, extrapolates a style from them and then promises to recreate images of other content in that same style.

As you can ‘see’ my friend, the topic of AI and visual art is a juicy one. In fact, I have another example in my June 27, 2022 posting, which is titled, “Art appraised by algorithm.” So, Grenville’s and Entis’ decision to focus on AI and its impact on visual culture is quite timely.

Visual culture: seeing into the future

The VAG Imitation Game webpage lists these categories of visual culture “animation, architecture, art, fashion, graphic design, urban design and video games …” as being represented in the show. Movies and visual art, not mentioned in the write up, are represented while theatre and other performing arts are not mentioned or represented. That’ s not a surprise.

In addition to an area of science/technology that’s not well understood even by experts, the curators took on the truly amorphous (and overwhelming) topic of visual culture. Given that even writing this commentary has been a challenge, I imagine pulling the show together was quite the task.

Grenville often grounds his shows in a history of the subject and, this time, it seems especially striking. You’re in a building that is effectively a 19th century construct and in galleries that reflect a 20th century ‘white cube’ aesthetic, while looking for clues into the 21st century future of visual culture employing technology that has its roots in the 19th century and, to some extent, began to flower in the mid-20th century.

Chung’s collaboration is one of the only ‘optimistic’ notes about the future and, as noted earlier, it bears a resemblance to Wiener’s 1949 ‘Moth’

Overall, it seems we are being cautioned about the future. For example, Oxman’s work seems bleak (bees with no flowers to pollinate and living in an eternal spring). Adding in ‘Creepers’ and surveillance along with issues of bias and social injustice reflects hesitation and concern about what we will see, who sees it, and how it will be represented visually.

Learning about robots, automatons, artificial intelligence, and more

I wish the Vancouver Art Gallery (and Vancouver’s other art galleries) would invest a little more in audience education. A couple of tours, by someone who may or may not know what they’re talking, about during the week do not suffice. The extra material about Stephanie Dinkins and her work (“Conversations with Bina48,” 2014–present) came from the de Young Museum’s website. In my July 26, 2021 commentary on North Vancouver’s Polygon Gallery 2021 show “Interior Infinite,” I found background information for artist Zanele Muholi on the Tate Modern’s website. There is nothing on the VAG website that helps you to gain some perspective on the artists’ works.

It seems to me that if the VAG wants to be considered world class, it should conduct itself accordingly and beefing up its website with background information about their current shows would be a good place to start.

Robots, automata, and artificial intelligence

Prior to 1921, robots were known exclusively as automatons. These days, the word ‘automaton’ (or ‘automata’ in the plural) seems to be used to describe purely mechanical representations of humans from over 100 years ago whereas the word ‘robot’ can be either ‘humanlike’ or purely machine, e.g. a mechanical arm that performs the same function over and over. I have a good February 24, 2017 essay on automatons by Miguel Barral for OpenMind BBVA*, which provides some insight into the matter,

The concept of robot is relatively recent. The idea was introduced in 1921 by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his work R.U.R to designate a machine that performs tasks in place of man. But their predecessors, the automatons (from the Greek automata, or “mechanical device that works by itself”), have been the object of desire and fascination since antiquity. Some of the greatest inventors in history, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, have contributed to our fascination with these fabulous creations:

The Al-Jazari automatons

The earliest examples of known automatons appeared in the Islamic world in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1206, the Arab polymath Al-Jazari, whose creations were known for their sophistication, described some of his most notable automatons: an automatic wine dispenser, a soap and towels dispenser and an orchestra-automaton that operated by the force of water. This latter invention was meant to liven up parties and banquets with music while floating on a pond, lake or fountain.

As the water flowed, it started a rotating drum with pegs that, in turn, moved levers whose movement produced different sounds and movements. As the pegs responsible for the musical notes could be exchanged for different ones in order to interpret another melody, it is considered one of the first programmable machines in history.

If you’re curious about automata, my friend, I found this Sept. 26, 2016 ABC news radio news item about singer Roger Daltrey’s and his wife, Heather’s auction of their collection of 19th century French automata (there’s an embedded video showcasing these extraordinary works of art). For more about automata, robots, and androids, there’s an excellent May 4, 2022 article by James Vincent, ‘A visit to the human factory; How to build the world’s most realistic robot‘ for The Verge; Vincent’s article is about Engineered Arts, the UK-based company that built Ai-Da.

AI is often used interchangeably with ‘robot’ but they aren’t the same. Not all robots have AI integrated into their processes. At its simplest AI is an algorithm or set of algorithms, which may ‘live’ in a CPU and be effectively invisible or ‘live’ in or make use of some kind of machine and/or humanlike body. As the experts have noted, the concept of artificial intelligence is a slippery concept.

*OpenMind BBVA is a Spanish multinational financial services company, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), which runs the non-profit project, OpenMind (About us page) to disseminate information on robotics and so much more.*

You can’t always get what you want

My friend,

I expect many of the show’s shortcomings (as perceived by me) are due to money and/or scheduling issues. For example, Ai-Da was at the Venice Biennale and if there was a choice between the VAG and Biennale, I know where I’d be.

Even with those caveats in mind, It is a bit surprising that there were no examples of wearable technology. For example, Toronto’s Tapestry Opera recently performed R.U.R. A Torrent of Light (based on the word ‘robot’ from Karel Čapek’s play, R.U.R., ‘Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti’), from my May 24, 2022 posting,

I have more about tickets prices, dates, and location later in this post but first, here’s more about the opera and the people who’ve created it from the Tapestry Opera’s ‘R.U.R. A Torrent of Light’ performance webpage,

“This stunning new opera combines dance, beautiful multimedia design, a chamber orchestra including 100 instruments creating a unique electronica-classical sound, and wearable technology [emphasis mine] created with OCAD University’s Social Body Lab, to create an immersive and unforgettable science-fiction experience.”

And, from later in my posting,

“Despite current stereotypes, opera was historically a launchpad for all kinds of applied design technologies. [emphasis mine] Having the opportunity to collaborate with OCAD U faculty is an invigorating way to reconnect to that tradition and foster connections between art, music and design, [emphasis mine]” comments the production’s Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, who is also Tapestry Opera’s Artistic Director. 

That last quote brings me back to the my comment about theatre and performing arts not being part of the show. Of course, the curators couldn’t do it all but a website with my hoped for background and additional information could have helped to solve the problem.

The absence of the theatrical and performing arts in the VAG’s ‘Imitation Game’ is a bit surprising as the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) in their third assessment, “Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada” released in 2018 noted this (from my April 12, 2018 posting),

Canada, relative to the world, specializes in subjects generally referred to as the
humanities and social sciences (plus health and the environment), and does
not specialize as much as others in areas traditionally referred to as the physical
sciences and engineering. Specifically, Canada has comparatively high levels
of research output in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Public Health and
Health Services, Philosophy and Theology, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
and Visual and Performing Arts. [emphasis mine] It accounts for more than 5% of world research in these fields. Conversely, Canada has lower research output than expected in Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Enabling and Strategic Technologies,
Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics. The comparatively low research
output in core areas of the natural sciences and engineering is concerning,
and could impair the flexibility of Canada’s research base, preventing research
institutions and researchers from being able to pivot to tomorrow’s emerging
research areas. [p. xix Print; p. 21 PDF]


My friend,

I was a little surprised that the show was so centered on work from the US given that Grenville has curated ate least one show where there was significant input from artists based in Asia. Both Japan and Korea are very active with regard to artificial intelligence and it’s hard to believe that their artists haven’t kept pace. (I’m not as familiar with China and its AI efforts, other than in the field of facial recognition, but it’s hard to believe their artists aren’t experimenting.)

The Americans, of course, are very important developers in the field of AI but they are not alone and it would have been nice to have seen something from Asia and/or Africa and/or something from one of the other Americas. In fact, anything which takes us out of the same old, same old. (Luba Elliott wrote this (2019/2020/2021?) essay, “Artificial Intelligence Art from Africa and Black Communities Worldwide” on Aya Data if you want to get a sense of some of the activity on the African continent. Elliott does seem to conflate Africa and Black Communities, for some clarity you may want to check out the Wikipedia entry on Africanfuturism, which contrasts with this August 12, 2020 essay by Donald Maloba, “What is Afrofuturism? A Beginner’s Guide.” Maloba also conflates the two.)

As it turns out, Luba Elliott presented at the 2019 Montréal Digital Spring event, which brings me to Canada’s artificial intelligence and arts scene.

I promise I haven’t turned into a flag waving zealot, my friend. It’s just odd there isn’t a bit more given that machine learning was pioneered at the University of Toronto. Here’s more about that (from Wikipedia entry for Geoffrey Hinston),

Geoffrey Everest HintonCCFRSFRSC[11] (born 6 December 1947) is a British-Canadian cognitive psychologist and computer scientist, most noted for his work on artificial neural networks.

Hinton received the 2018 Turing Award, together with Yoshua Bengio [Canadian scientist] and Yann LeCun, for their work on deep learning.[24] They are sometimes referred to as the “Godfathers of AI” and “Godfathers of Deep Learning“,[25][26] and have continued to give public talks together.[27][28]

Some of Hinton’s work was started in the US but since 1987, he has pursued his interests at the University of Toronto. He wasn’t proven right until 2012. Katrina Onstad’s February 29, 2018 article (Mr. Robot) for Toronto Life is a gripping read about Hinton and his work on neural networks. BTW, Yoshua Bengio (co-Godfather) is a Canadian scientist at the Université de Montréal and Yann LeCun (co-Godfather) is a French scientist at New York University.

Then, there’s another contribution, our government was the first in the world to develop a national artificial intelligence strategy. Adding those developments to the CCA ‘State of Science’ report findings about visual arts and performing arts, is there another word besides ‘odd’ to describe the lack of Canadian voices?

You’re going to point out the installation by Ben Bogart (a member of Simon Fraser University’s Metacreation Lab for Creative AI and instructor at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECU)) but it’s based on the iconic US scifi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. As for the other Canadian, Sougwen Chung, she left Canada pretty quickly to get her undergraduate degree in the US and has since moved to the UK. (You could describe hers as the quintessential success story, i.e., moving from Canada only to get noticed here after success elsewhere.)

Of course, there are the CDM student projects but the projects seem less like an exploration of visual culture than an exploration of technology and industry requirements, from the ‘Master of Digital Media Students Develop Revolutionary Installations for Vancouver Art Gallery AI Exhibition‘ webpage, Note: A link has been removed,

In 2019, Bruce Grenville, Senior Curator at Vancouver Art Gallery, approached [the] Centre for Digital Media to collaborate on several industry projects for the forthcoming exhibition. Four student teams tackled the project briefs over the course of the next two years and produced award-winning installations that are on display until October 23 [2022].

Basically, my friend, it would have been nice to see other voices or, at the least, an attempt at representing other voices and visual cultures informed by AI. As for Canadian contributions, maybe put something on the VAG website?

Playing well with others

it’s always a mystery to me why the Vancouver cultural scene seems comprised of a set of silos or closely guarded kingdoms. Reaching out to the public library and other institutions such as Science World might have cost time but could have enhanced the show

For example, one of the branches of the New York Public Library ran a programme called, “We are AI” in March 2022 (see my March 23, 2022 posting about the five-week course, which was run as a learning circle). The course materials are available for free (We are AI webpage) and I imagine that adding a ‘visual culture module’ wouldn’t be that difficult.

There is one (rare) example of some Vancouver cultural institutions getting together to offer an art/science programme and that was in 2017 when the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery (at the University of British Columbia; UBC) hosted an exhibition of Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s work (see my Sept. 11, 2017 posting about the gallery show) along with that show was an ancillary event held by the folks at Café Scientifique at Science World and featuring a panel of professionals from UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and Dept. of Psychology, discussing Cajal’s work.

In fact, where were the science and technology communities for this show?

On a related note, the 2022 ACM SIGGRAPH conference (August 7 – 11, 2022) is being held in Vancouver. (ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery; SIGGRAPH is for Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.) SIGGRAPH has been holding conferences in Vancouver every few years since at least 2011.

At this year’s conference, they have at least two sessions that indicate interests similar to the VAG’s. First, there’s Immersive Visualization for Research, Science and Art which includes AI and machine learning along with other related topics. There’s also, Frontiers Talk: Art in the Age of AI: Can Computers Create Art?

This is both an international conference and an exhibition (of art) and the whole thing seems to have kicked off on July 25, 2022. If you’re interested, the programme can be found here and registration here.

Last time SIGGRAPH was here the organizers seemed interested in outreach and they offered some free events.

In the end

It was good to see the show. The curators brought together some exciting material. As is always the case, there were some missed opportunities and a few blind spots. But all is not lost.

July 27, 2022, the VAG held a virtual event with an artist,

Gwenyth Chao to learn more about what happened to the honeybees and hives in Oxman’s Synthetic Apiary project. As a transdisciplinary artist herself, Chao will also discuss the relationship between art, science, technology and design. She will then guide participants to create a space (of any scale, from insect to human) inspired by patterns found in nature.

Hopefully there will be more more events inspired by specific ‘objects’. Meanwhile, August 12, 2022, the VAG is hosting,

… in partnership with the Canadian Music Centre BC, New Music at the Gallery is a live concert series hosted by the Vancouver Art Gallery that features an array of musicians and composers who draw on contemporary art themes.

Highlighting a selection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music compositions, this second concert, inspired by the exhibition The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, will spotlight The Iliac Suite (1957), the first piece ever written using only a computer, and Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria (2006), which is in a large part dependent on a computer-generated musical process.

It would be lovely if they could include an Ada Lovelace Day event. This is an international celebration held on October 11, 2022.

Do go. Do enjoy, my friend.