Encounters: Science and Art at the Chazen [photos]

A part of the Wisconsin Science Festival, WID gathered together scientists from the Discovery Building to give a tour of the Chazen Museum of Art through the purview of science.


>Jessica Flack on Encounters tour by Ben Shapiro


Abstraction is a critical part of the both the scientific and artistic process. Jessica Flack, (pictured above) co-director of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation at WID, discusses the use of a particular kind of abstraction by Charles Gifford Dyer is his painting of the Grand Canal in Venice. The artist only offers hints of the structure and character of boats and buildings through crude shape and color, she says.

Dyer chose to paint the Grand Canal from a coarse perspective. In physics and biology, a coarse-grained description is a model where some of this fine detail has been smoothed over or averaged out. Replacing a fine-grained description with a lower-resolution coarse-grained model is called coarse graining. In coarse grained descriptions, there is no outside information or anything that doesn’t already exist in the details. This is what distinguishes coarse-graining from other types of abstraction, in both art and science, Flack says.


Encounters tour photo by M. English/WID


A closer look at Dyer’s painting.


Rock Mack on Encounters tour by M. English/WID


Rock Mackie, director of the Medical Devices research group at the Morgridge Institute for Research (pictured above), relishes in a painting by Maximilien Luce. He says the piece’s artistic style is post-Impressionism, which was influenced by pointillism (an artistic movement that emphasizes the use of colorful dots to collectively convey larger pictures).

Mackie, an artist himself, focuses on medical imaging in his research and thinks there’s much to learn from art and printing approaches. In art, the better an artist can create and replicate pixelated images, the better the bigger picture will be for the viewer. In the medical devices world, improving technology to represent medical images with more texture could help scientists glean more information from images to improve health services.
Encounters tour photo by M. English/WID


The painting Mackie chose to discuss.


David Baum on the Encounters tour by M.English/WID


Looking up at a hanging piece of art, David Baum (pictured above), professor of botany, director of the Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution and associate director of students at WID, sees similarities between this abstract mobile sculpture and the “evolutionary tree-of-life” metaphor.

“Comparing evolution to a tree misses the point,” Baum says. “The horizontal dimension doesn’t have meaning; it’s the relationship between individual branches — or lineages — that matters.”

Much like Alexander Calder’s kinetic sculpture (as pictured), evolution doesn’t respect a fixed orientation and does not define a single endpoint. But there’s another reason why Baum chose Calder’s work.

“Visual art and science are not two ends of a linear spectrum,” he says, noting that humans, with an ancestry that required us to navigate in the three-dimensional spaces of real trees, are inherently visual, which is why scientists often fall back on spatial or geometric models. “They’re more like two points on a circle, distant if you look in one direction, close if you look in the other. Visual reasoning helping us make sense of the world.”


Encounters tour photo by M. English/WID


Another view of the hanging piece of art.


David Krakauer on the Encounters tour by M.English/WID


Can art provide a visual explanation of the universe? David Krakauer, (pictured above) WID director and co-director of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation, makes an intriguing argument with Joseph Cornell’s Sun Box. Inside the rectangular wooden structure, the artist has set up a planetary model, including metal rings and earthly objects such drinking glasses, drift-wood and an acorn-shaped, Meerschaum pipe bowl. In the scene, Krakauer suggests that the use of circles reflects the coherent nature of the universe — how orbits in the solar system resemble the birth-death cycles of life, each made from the same underlying atomic building blocks.

“The artist connects the geometric to the divine and unites the universe with the cycle of life and objects,” Krakauer says. “Crafting a small model of the solar system, the artist uses a modest box of found objects to connect daily existence to phenomena at astronomical scales.”


Encounters tour photo by M. English/WID

A close-up Cornell’s box.

Meg Mitchell on the Encounters tour by M. English/WID


Approaching a tome-inspired visualization by artist Olafur Eliasson, Assistant Professor of Digital Foundations Meg Mitchell (pictured above) is interested in how everyday technology provides a new way of seeing the world. In this case, the basis for communication — the book — influences how the viewer perceives the message. In a sense, the physical space that the artist’s house occupies is translated into another space in the pages of the book. Mitchell says the tendency for art to be solely hand-crafted is gone — and we’re all the better for it, considering the creative ways people incorporate technology into expression.

Encounters tour photo by M. English/WID


A side view of this work of art.

Encounters art tour image by M. English/WID


Educators everywhere use metaphors to demonstrate scientific ideas. But Ben Shapiro, (pictured above) a scientist at WID’s Games+Learning+Society research group, finds richness in visual examples that can be interpreted in multiple ways. He shows the crowd a horizontal painting resting on top of other pieces — The Planet on the Table by Judy Pfaff. He discusses how its elements can resemble more than one idea.

For example, black and white images could look like neurons to one crowd and molecules to another. What’s unique, Shapiro notes, is the idea that scales and shapes repeat themselves in science and nature, which is in itself profound and beautiful.

Encounters tour photo by M. English/WID


Shapiro focused on the work on the very top.