Speculative Data and the Creative Imaginary - Movement and Music


By Pamela Jennings


15 April 2013

Dr. Wm. A. Wulf, President National Academy of Engineering of the National Academies, (July 1996 to June 2007)

My PhD diploma says that I’m a Computer Scientist – an old Computer Scientist! I wrote my first computer program almost fifty years ago. One of my observations from all those years of watching the field mature is that the “first use” of computers in a new area is to automate what we had been doing manually – but the profound use is to change what we are doing. Around 1965 an undergraduate, Lloyd Summner, asked me whether he could use the plotter on the University of Virginia mainframe to produce art. One of his works still hangs on my home study wall, but sure enough, he automated what could have been done with manual drafting tools. What we see in this exhibit, if not the profound use of computers in art – only time can judge that – certainly moves in that direction. In different ways, these artists are not just using the computer to render their work, but rather are exploiting the algorithmic nature of computers to create changing, evolving, interactive, interpretive or personalized experiences. I find that very exciting; I don’t see how it can fail to fundamentally change our notions of what art is – and reciprocally, how computers in the arts might influence technology research and development.


What is this stuff and why is it here? JD Talasek, Director, Office of Exhibitions and Cultural Programs National Academy of Sciences

If the commonly held stereotypes of artists and engineers hold true, then certain epistemological attitudes are often assumed. The artist will look at the engineer’s lab and white boards and declare, “I don’t understand it. It must be brilliant!” Conversely, the engineer enters into a contemporary art gallery and states, “I don’t understand it. It must be useless.” But in a time when cross-disciplinary discussions are almost trendy, the hard edges of both camps are blurring together and the stereotypes are slowly beginning to dissolve into outdated myths. Many artists are entering science and engineering labs to gain expert knowledge of the subject matter, adding authority to their work. Scientists and engineers, whose work is rocketing ever deeper into abstraction, continuously seek new ways of representing complexity – often looking to the artists’ processes for inspiration. The end result makes it difficult at times to apply labels such as “artist” and “engineer” in a traditional manner.

So the “stuff” in this exhibition is the physical manifestation of the shifting attitudes across disciplines. A function of art is to observe and critique the values and priorities of the society in which it is created. Arguably, there are few other forces that have impacted our lives more than computing technology, so it is no surprise that contemporary artists would find a rich new vocabulary within these advancements. The work in this exhibition, produced by the leading engineer-artist hybrids of the field, provides a platform on which to discuss the impact of technology on society, culture, ethics, and even our own personal identity. 

Why is it here? What better place could there be? Exhibiting artwork in a space associated with science, medicine, and engineering provides a unique context where layers of interpretation, that might not otherwise exist, can be woven throughout the work.

The Office of Exhibitions and Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences is pleased to exhibit Speculative Data and the Creative Imaginary. We thank curator Pamela Jennings for her work, dedication, and vision. We would also like to thank the exhibition’s cosponsors: the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) with special gratitude to Ben Shneiderman (ACM Creativity & Cognition chair) and Elisa Giaccardi (ACM Creativity & Cognition program chair). Special thanks to Mary Lou Maher, from the National Science Foundation CISE Creative IT program. Most importantly, we wish to thank the artists not only for participating in the exhibition but for their participation in the larger dialogue.