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Objectivity Lessons

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Editor,

I would like to thank Fred Camper for his review of my installation, Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions, at the Randolph Street Gallery [March 17]. I find it odd that never in his lengthy description does he talk about the work within the context of contemporary art practice. Rather, he assumes with certainty that my primary intent is to stage an assault on science. If I were "antiscience" as Mr. Camper insists, then it is surprising I've been asked to speak on my artwork at many symposia and panels at scientific institutions, and have taught (among other institutions) at MIT, where my thoughts on metaphor, intuition, imagination and poetical thinking were seen as being an important ingredient in science and engineering education. The critique of science in my work is, if anything, a resistance to the reification that is implicit in certain types of scientific thought (this reification also exists in certain types of art theory and criticism). I also assert that the scientific gaze is as subjective as it is objective and is necessarily inclusive of error, desire and guesswork, as is art.

In the past three years since I've adopted the appearance and apparatus of science in my sculptural vocabulary, I've noticed some interesting things about the way viewers respond to the authority of those visual references. I discovered how potent the images and constructs of science are in our culture. This has led me to think about the authority of science, and hence, the "authoritarian" cultural voice of science, the notion that some people want to believe in the truthfulness of science so very badly, they feel tricked when encountering something that appears to be science but is in fact art. People want a path to knowledge, and science represents a reliable modern belief system. Mr. Camper's reaction reinforces my thoughts about the power and authority of the scientific image. Neither science nor art can propose a tyranny of truth. Approximations are commonplace in both. One of the most wonderful gifts art gives us is that it continually challenges our assumptions.

Mr. Camper's reference to the use of flowers in my work is revealing of his cultural attitudes towards nature. Why does he see my wrapping the stems of flowers with copper wire as trapping them in a "plant-electrocution device"? Does he also see the branches of bonsai trees as trapped in an aesthetic-configuration rearrangement-device or a lawn mower as a decapitation-device for grass? Probably not. One thing I investigate is how and why we formulate our cultural attitudes towards nature. The belief that through science nature is objectifiable and knowable makes the assumption of an objective reality which is cut off, existing totally independent of us as observers. This radical dichotomy between subject and object implies that reality is composed of clearly delineated objects. This is why we are more comfortable with flowers in a vase than with flowers connected to a pseudoscientific apparatus. My work connects when it's supposed to divide, or breaks a connection where there "should" be one.

I am glad Mr. Camper used the example of Erwin Schrodinger and would like to add that in addition to his contributions to quantum mechanics, Schrodinger is important in the evolution of scientific thought by controversially pointing out the tendency in science towards reification: "There is a tendency to forget that all science is bound up with human culture in general, and that scientific findings, even those which at the moment appear the most advanced and esoteric and difficult to grasp, are meaningless outside their cultural context. . . . A theoretical science, where this is forgotten, and where the initiated continue musing to each other in terms that are, at best, understood by a small group of fellow travelers, will necessarily be cut off from the rest of cultural mankind; in the long run it is bound to atrophy and ossify however virulently esoteric chat may continue within its joyfully isolated groups of experts" (from Erwin Schrodinger, "Are There Quantum Jumps?" in the British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, Vol. III, pp. 109-10).

Although the definition of "postmodernism" is up for debate (and I don't consider myself an expert), these theories embrace indeterminacy, ambivalence and multiple points of reference, placing into question systems of meaning: art, politics, science, religion, as social constructions of reality. It also marks a dissolution between boundaries.

Duchamp stated that an artist is never fully cognizant of his work. I believe all paths towards knowledge are pursued in a somewhat errant, wobbly manner. I am interested in how human beings formulate knowledge through both art and science in a way which embraces absurdity, contradiction and metaphor. The boundary between sense and nonsense is a slippery one indeed, and has quite a bit to do with point of view. I like to wander in such ambiguous zones.

Eve Andree Laramee

Brooklyn, New York

Fred Camper replies:

My statement that while it's "hard to know exactly what individual points she's making . . . at times her statements seem simplemindedly antiscience" hardly assumes "with certainty" that Laramee's "primary intent is to stage an assault on science." But the "types of scientific thought" Ms. Laramee critiques no longer exist. No scientist today would assert a "radical dichotomy between subject and object"; observation always changes the observed. Science, unlike art, is subject to experimental verification, and the theories and experiments of modern physics have utterly discredited the view that "through science nature is objectifiable and knowable," and shown that our view of the universe will always be incomplete. We should all be so modest.

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