Friday, March 15, 2013

A Brief History of Time, Briefly

(image taken from Georgia Tech)

(image taken from Tennessee Lawman)

(image taken from Art Observed)

I was recently vacationing in London, visiting a dear friend from university who has been living on that side of the pond for the past few years; she took up residence as a curatorial graduate student, immersed herself in the art and exhibition milieu, and even found the time to snag and subsequently foster a positive, committed relationship with a dashing British artist. While there, her beau performed at a temporary installation at King's Cross, Black Maria, a structure and series of programs designed and curated by Royal College of Art professor and artist, Richard Wentworth. The sculpture and performance space, named the Black Maria, a broad and sweeping allusion to the famed film studio of inventor and gangster Thomas Edison, as well as to the still prevalent slang for British police vehicles, a concept that has been repurposed and reinvented across geographies and chronologies. Simple sand-colored wood, unadorned and naked, the structure was immediately reminiscent of a tree house or a fort, a fantasy cavern for children, simultaneously real and visceral and yet somehow also a bit of an illusion. Perhaps purposefully, Edison and his brutish ways in invention monopolizing were not deeply addressed in Professor Wentworth's introduction. 

Patrick, the boyfriend, for his performance, reads a single line from each page of the infamous text A Brief History of Time, a philosophical and scientific meditation of theoretical physics, seeking to elucidate and explain the force that impacts us all, to us all, scientist and layman alike. He is a seasoned and entertaining performer, sure of his voice and his pace and his tone, confident but not pompous, self-conscious in a manner that is meticulous to audience and space, and willing to be playful and infuse some humor, comedy from truth, without relying on kitschy tricks or a slap-stick tone that would ultimately cheapen his subject or his perspective. His fastidious and precise gleaning ultimately creates a languid lyricism from Hawking's articulate and poignant description and musings, one that maintains the integrity of the content, the notions of time, physical and biological and cosmic and spiritual, while successfully sculpting into a format both fresh and unique. Between crouching on the new and impermanent wooden amphitheater bench, like a small child in a game of hide-and-seek, triggering a recess of my nostalgic hindbrain, and the riveting flow of Hawking's words, strung together anew like small pearls scattered, collected, shuffled, I enjoyed the performance immensely. His poetic, performative oration preceded a film debut, also, ostensibly, concerned with scientific themes, specifically the impact of human contagions and general human existence on the environment, and the ability to now create virtual environments free from such contamination; this piece, less subtle and less playful, and notably less textured, I did not enjoy, save for the accompanying live chorus. Singing in soft harmonies, while featuring almost robotic guttural gesticulations, the group showed discipline and prowess that the film lacked.

Although, in this case, I found Patrick's reappropriation and molding of now iconic scientific material on time to be both engaging and beautiful, reverent to the inherent beauty of Hawking's mind and explanations, his work invariably sparked a cascade of textured thoughts on how visual artists interpret scientific theory, principles, research, and data in their work, whether an accurate portrayal or a direct lift, or whether contorted and made anew in some sense. Having attended a university with prominent visual arts and architecture programs, and having forged either close friendships or social relationships with many of these artists and architects, I have discovered that there is a pervasive, albeit generalizing, attitude that science, or perhaps more appropriately "Science," as an entire and vast field, is something quaint, potentially irrelevant, and while a veritable source for neat facts or fonts of inspiration, is not a subject area that need be understood by creatives. For a liberal arts institution, replete with armies of purportedly intelligent and intellectually curious beings, the either ignorance or active disdain towards understanding a huge field, labeled as unnecessary for their particular output or academic agendas, was, simply, shocking. Unfortunately, of course, this attitude is not reserved for artistic or creative types alone, and is ashamedly and rather unabashedly adhered by multitudes of people who decided grade school biology or chemistry or physics was not for them, and a life blind to entire areas of knowledge, understanding, illumination, and intellectual satisfaction deemed acceptable. Whether academics in certain social sciences fields, whose work would benefit immensely from a consilient approach that incorporates or at least takes into consideration certain fundamental scientific and biologic principles, particularly those that, to date, data supports guide human nature and behavior, or whether it is lawyer and politician types, or media establishment journalists, this cavalier attitude is detrimental and fosters a myopic societal outlook.   

This harangue is wildly general, and perhaps inappropriate to link so closely with my friend's performance, which was not overtly guilty of a narrow approach, and was a performance I admired deeply. As academic specialties become increasingly extreme and fragmented within particular fields, and as access to immense amounts of knowledge, information, and public dialogue, some more accurate and discerning than others, it will be fascinating to see how the traditional liberal arts approach to education evolves. With regard to visual and written arts, I also am curious to see what synergies emerge, and what deficits remain. 

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