21 Jan Intersecting Biology, Data, and Art, by Shloka Kini
Often, artistic pursuits are described as abstractions. They are interpretations of material. Rarely are they thought of as scientific pursuits. However, there are many new media artists who take it upon themselves to bridge the gap between what is seen as science and art. Especially when dealing with digital art, where so many computations are made to display the graphics we see, science can often be not the medium but also the subject of many artworks. Joseph Scheer and Andreas Müller-Pohle each have different takes on what scientific art entails.
Joseph Scheer’s work focuses on one miracle of nature—moths. Normally seen as the unattractive cousin of butterflies, moths are not considered beautiful by insect standards. However, Scheer brings to light their beauty with his photography by focusing on the elements of size and texture. Scheer uses a university colleagues access to a special scanner to develop his highly detailed photographs. According to National Geographic, “The scanner records so much information—67 million data points per square inch—that a single specimen may take 20 minutes to scan. The data files generated are huge: Two small moths fill an entire compact disc.”[i]
The large moth pictures are simply but very powerful. Looking at one of these prints, you can see the texture in the wings: its gossamer transparency and frail beauty. For example, look at Zeusera Pyrina:
You have a full view of the entire body and wings, and are even able to see the many tiny flecks of black on its thin wings. One can also see the detail segmentations and “furry” parts in the antennae and head.
Or take a look at Ctenucha Virginica:
This image would normally look like a normal uninteresting black moth in real time during the day. But with the incredibly zoom and digital detail in this photograph, we can see the shiny blue body, the orange head, and the slight brown-purple tint of the wings. To see more of Scheer’s work, click here.
The various pictures give a zoom-lens focus to one of life’s most overlooked creatures. And through painstaking work, Scheer recreates the moth’s image before our eyes with excruciatingly clear detail. Advances in digital technology birth Scheer’s work in recreating an element of natural science. Science here plays a double role. The question, of course, is, “Why moths?” Scheer says, “I have chosen moths to study and create work from because of their diversity (approximately 14,000 species found in the United States) and their rich mythology in history. They are also a family of insects that most people know so little about, both visually and environmentally. A goal of my artwork is to bring this information to a diverse audience who may not normally be aware of, or come in contact with, the beauty and diversity of moths.”[ii] With this singular goal, Scheer bring insect photography to a new level of appeal. Here is a site for an exhibit he held at Colorado University called Moth Matters.
However, science need not be natural for it to be considered artistic. It can also be found in the least artistic of mediums: data.
Andreas Müller-Pohle redefines what it means to present scientific art. Often, digital art is an image digitally encoded into pixels and into binary numbers, stored as data in a computer, and then through some output device, the image is recaptured. But Müller-Pohle in all of his works poses an interesting question: Who says data is not art? Müller-Pohle creates a series of works called Digital Scores, each which presents the numeric data representation of an image as the work itself. Transposing the pictures into millions of alphanumeric characters, Müller-Pohle creates a New Media Art that abstracts a picture into data, forcing us as views to find the beauty in the image.
Another work of Müller-Pohle that makes use of data is Blind Genes. Here the data is scientific. After numerous biological discoveries, we know now that all physical affectations are coded or expressed in our DNA, in sequences of nucleotides and amino acids. In blind genes, Müller-Pohle uses a database of genetic information and then picks out those that express blindness. He then visualizes those sequences in Braille, a language used by the blind to read written texts. Here, he merges the meaning of two coding systems, one linguistic and one genetic, to make a very powerful statement about the meaning of data while displaying it in a beautifully minimalist pointillism. Another one of Müller-Pohle’s works is called the River Project.
Both Scheer and Müller-Pohle take great pains to create their art. Each can boast a use of science and new technology to create their pieces. But from their collective work, we find science and art to be more interconnected than previously thought. In the days of still life paintings and portraits, data was not considered to be an appropriate medium for art. Now with digital artworks such as these, science is no longer the subject or the medium, but both.
Paul, Christiane. Digital Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.