* WHAT: “High Tech/Low Tech Hybrids: Art in a Digital Age”
* WHERE: Bedford Gallery, Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust Street, Walnut Creek
* WHEN: 5:30-7:30 p.m. public reception today Through June 16. Gallery hours are noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 6-8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
* HOW MUCH: Free
* CALL: 925-295-1417
AT LAST, America may be entering its Renaissance.
Not that we’ve been mired in feudal backwardness for the past two centuries. Still, the Renaissance model that combines the inventor, thinker and artist as one has been a distant notion, as the realms of industry, science and art grew further and further apart.
In recent years, however, these divisions have begun to fade, especially within the creative arts. An emerging symbiosis has harnessed the creative energies within these disciplines, resulting in a fusion of technology, methodology and aesthetic insight.
Onstage, for instance, scientists both real and imagined have been conjured up in plays, including “R. Buckminster Fuller: the History (and Mystery) of the Universe,” “Schrodinger’s Girlfriend,” “Proof” and “Copenhagen.”
Simon Singh’s televised documentary about an agonizing, 350-year quest for a mathematical proof also became his 1997 international bestseller, “Fermat’s Enigma.” And Sunday night, the movie based on the life of John Nash, the Pulitzer Prize-winning mathematician, won the Oscar.
Now, the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek explores the use of digital technology and scientific tools in the hands of artists in its new exhibit opening today, “High Tech/Low Tech Hybrids: Art in a Digital Age.”
“Art has always mirrored the pulse of the time,” says Mills College professor Catherine Wagner, whose contributions to the exhibit include “Cross Section,” in which MRI scans lay bare the internal structure of onions, green beans and corn.
Hauntingly mesmerizing prints lift fruits and vegetables from still life conventions. Reminiscent of Mendel’s inquiry with his peas, Wagner chose fruits and vegetables to examine life at its most cellular level.
“It’s a journey through the inside of the body, although I’m not using the body per se — (but instead) a corporeal presence,” explains Wagner. The lovely images employ a “strategy of beauty,” in which the work draws in the spectator whether or not he or she has an interest in science. In turn, the spectator confronts how pervasive science has become in everyday life. “Current genetic research is shaping the way that the culture will live, not (only) now but in the future,” she says.
Another strategy is humor, which informs Alan Rath’s “Thumper III.” The Berkeley sculptor wryly concocted a breathing creature from three speakers.
“It’s totally false, the thinking of science and engineering as dry,” Rath says. “Scientists are truly seduced by the beauty.”
For the MIT engineering graduate, wiring together circuitry is like mixing paints: The vision — not the material — is what determines the art.
“What I’m trying to reveal is the intimacy between man and technology,” says Rath, who explains that technology is not external, but a part of culture. “It makes us who we are. We have a chance to make technology what it is.”
History has regarded the scientist and artist as problem-solvers and experimentalists. The “modern day split” between the two disciplines has existed only in the past 200 years, says Wagner. “We’re in a pluralist age,” she says. “People are absolutely ready to think about interdisciplinary instead of these different categories, embrace the light of the mind and not make such categorical splits. There are a whole field of people out there who are thinkers.”
Companies such as Xerox have set up programs in which artists worked in research laboratories, so that their insight might provide scientists and engineers with new approaches in research. The successful endeavors usually recognized all parties as innovative thinkers, rather than relegating one as creative mind and other as the tool-user.
The arts, however, must be careful not to become a public-relations stage for the corporate science world, which can have an invested interest — financial and otherwise — in their technology. The artist, points out Mills College professor Gail Wight, needs to question the meaning, relevance, effect and place of science in society.
Her “playful critique of ideas” in the Bedford exhibit includes “Linneaus Unbound,” a video of wind-up toy animals morphing according to the 18th century natural scientist’s classification system. Another work, “Evolution,” shows a small robot sitting and sobbing before a screening of “Metropolis,” Fritz Lang’s 1920 cautionary tale of society’s mechanization that ultimately — to the robot’s sorrow — makes a very pro-human statement
Ann Chamberlain similarly cast a critical eye on the human genome project with “Terra Incognita,” in which she took copies of 16th century maps and, using a laser cam normally used by mechanical engineers to make circuit boards and other precision parts, etched in DNA codes. The lacy, delicate strands underscore the fragility of our understanding.
“There’s a cultural egocentricism that we have conquered the human genome, and we really don’t know anything about it,” the San Francisco Art Institute professor says.
“It’s like the kind of relationship that explorers had with the New World. They were sort of feeling their way around a land they didn’t understand, without really knowing anything about it.”
Caution aside, the cooperation between left and right brain thinking has recognized the beauty within rigorous scientific precision, sometimes in its relationships, sometimes in its symmetry, perhaps in its very elusiveness.
Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at email@example.com.