27 January 2014

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Some readers of this blog have been thinking with me about issues to do with art and archaeology. Here’s one interesting response that I have had. The reader, an artist, says:
“I think there’s a link between art and archaeology in terms of interpretation – the archaeologist interprets all data from the site to create a theory of its usage and meaning – and I think we do the same with visual information – sometimes at a subliminal level – hopefully consciously, if we are artists and visual language is our business.”

I agree. Interpretation is something that archaeologists and artists have in common. It’s an important tool in both disciplines, but I wonder if there are differences here as well? As an artist, the way I interpret the work of other artists plays a large part in how I respond to them, which is inevitable. Yet when it comes to the viewer interpreting my own work, the situation is more complex. I make work hoping that signals will have been communicated which encourage the viewer to interpret my images along the lines that I had originally intended. This only happens occasionally, it has to be said! In practice, I find that I feel I’ve achieved something if the viewer feels interested enough to make any interpretation at all. So how important to the artist is interpretation? Perhaps some artists would like to tell me how they view this aspect of their work?

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The whole issue of interpretation seems to be more of a fraught one for archaeologists. The reader continues:
“Archaeologists have the same prejudices as the rest of society and so impose their framework of understanding on their data – we do the same interpreting visual information. It seems laughable now that archaeologists denied the scientific data that important burials were those of powerful women because to them power and women in prehistory [and in their present academic world?] were mutually exclusive. This was only 10 years ago!”
I remember an archaeologist giving a talk and saying that this was something he was very conscious of, that data can be given a twenty first century gloss even if such an outcome is undesirable purely because archaeologists are twenty first century people, and it is virtually impossible to do otherwise. How do the archaeologists reading this blog respond? Is it a problem you are highly conscious of? Or is it of peripheral importance? Or important in a way which differs from that of the artist? The artist does make interpretations using their knowledge of art history (albeit limited to Western art), their practical understanding of how materials work, and to some extent their knowledge of other specialist fields as well. I would think that archaeologists must also bring to the table a wide range of knowledge and training which will help. Maybe archaeologists face a different range of problems?

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This past week I have come across a couple of interesting things to note in the continuing discussion about the links between artists and scientists (and archaeologists, who seem to see themselves as having a foot in both camps?) :
Firstly, that collaboration between science and art is becoming more acceptable. There is a group called the Scientist Artist Collaboration Group which has been brought to my attention, and I learn from them that there is a science-based art magazine being produced now in the States called ‘SciArt’. It would be really interesting to see a copy.

Secondly, that archaeologist Professor Michael Shanks of Stanford University is basing his work on what he calls “hybrid practice”, which combines archaeology with various creative disciplines. His lab is called Metamedia, which is a combination of archaeology and media or mediating practices. Why is he investigating this combination of disciplines? Because he says:
1. Time and memory are at the heart of media
2. Mediation is at the heart of time, our sense of history and memory
3. Media includes artifacts, and archaeology is the discipline of things
4. Media is so much more than the communication of messages, texts and images
These are very creative ideas, and ones which appeal to me as an artist. On his university website he explains that the way he sees archaeology is about “how making things is at the heart of the human condition” and that “making and using things makes us who we are.”

Thirdly, that Shanks is not the only archaeologist who is exploring interfaces. In 2001 he co-authored a book with Professor Mike Pearson called ‘Theatre/Archaeology’. Pearson trained as an archaeologist, but now he is Professor of Performance Studies at Aberystwyth University. This seems like quite an unusual combination of disciplines, but as he explains, his interest is in performance that has connections with landscape. “Performance can constitute a methodology for the examination and explication of the complexities of landscape,” he says, “landscape as both field of research and site of artistic engagement.” He is coming to Aberystwyth next week to perform a piece at the National Library of Wales, and I shall be going along to see what it’s all about.

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Why should I be taking an interest in art and science in this way? This week I have come across an answer that I had not thought of. Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, writes in his book “From Here to Infinity”:
“Science isn’t just for scientists. We should all have a voice in ensuring that it’s applied ethically – and to the benefit of both the developing and developed world. We must confront widely held anxieties that genetics, brain science and artificial intelligence may run away too fast. As citizens, we all need a feel for how much confidence can be placed in science’s claims.”
In other words, even though I am an artist, my view on the ethics of various branches of modern science is valuable because as a citizen, I will be living in a world that will feel the effects in practice, whether in my own generation or those yet to come. And that encourages me to try and keep up to date with scientific developments as I am able.

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