Art and Science Converge at Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2020-09-16 10:48:31 –

“The Trajectory Series” at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum maneuvers within the slippery territory between fine art and science, “tracing the evolution and creative interplay between the two.” Despite enduring biases that the values of art and science are naturally oppositional, often as on sliding scale rather than a continuum, the work at Villa Terrace has located fertile parcel of stable ground on which to examine their symbiosis.

From a most literal standpoint, the two pursuits may be at odds, but in practice, art employs rational approaches to creativity, and science’s most innovative ideas have often originated from the wildest of intuitive hypotheses. This truth is confirmed by a video excerpt from a TED talk and supporting photographs documenting Thomas Thwaites’ hairbrained attempt to build a toaster from absolute scratch. Thwaites reconstructed the seemingly simple object at an elemental level, from mining his own metal to fashioning wires and heating elements by hand. The results are by turns crude, funny, formal, and cosmically informative. The photos of gnarly handmade toasters would stand alone as wonderfully grotesque representations of handmade objects if they weren’t so much more insistent as warnings about the humbling interconnectivity at play in our post-industrial world.

The distinction between art and science ultimately comes down to intentionality, and the show sensitively turns to projects with more willful artistic aims. Videos by Benjamin Bardou and Bill Miller explore the intersection of the observable and virtual universes, grappling with basic notions of phenomenology and perception. Bardou flirts with the concept of “transhumanism,” and the possibility of augmenting or even merging physical and virtual existences. Watching his 10-minute, trippy POV light show forces one to consider a Matrix-like existence, tracing back to idealist philosophers like George Berkeley, where the tree falling in the woods, indeed, makes no sound, suggesting a complete disjunction between physical and mental events. And if the discussion seems at all esoteric, consider the swelling concept of “fake news” and our increasing inability to corroborate and verify truth. 

Undeniably Dystopian

The show has an undeniably dystopian flavor, which mingles bizarrely with the glorious Renaissance-inspired interior of the museum itself. Staging the show in this particular space is a statement in itself, a credit to its curators. Alex Myer’s absurd animations appear ruthlessly chaotic next to an adjacent pre-Raphaelite stained-glass window, with its crisp and quaint 19th century optimism. One wonders how much of the prevailing pessimism is a naturally occurring product of any show focusing on radical contemporary technology. Have we been conditioned to be skeptical about scientific advances? Perhaps, but the anxiety at Villa Terrace is tempered by some breathtaking visual wonders by Eduardo Kac and Jess Holtz. Kac uses CRISPR technology to insert foreign genes into natural sequences. A bouquet of petunias propagated with pieces of Kac’s own genetic material leaves us with an image of striking beauty, but with a strange aftertaste. Jess Holtz’s electron microscope photos initially evoke the grand landscape photos of Ansel Adams, continued inspection however reveals them to be far less grand. 

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Oscilloscopes by Quinn Madson, ceramics by Sandra Byers, and textiles by Marianne Fairbanks also contribute to what amounts to a comprehensive, informative, stimulating, and important exhibition. Even the typeface for show, “Sans Forgettica,”designed by Stephen Banham and the Royal Melbourne Institute of technology Behavioral Business Lab is an experiment in visual technology. We read the title, “The Trajectory Series,” with both wonder and skepticism, noting that engineers, indeed artists and scientists, have managed to reverse-engineer typography for the sole purpose of better mental recall. This astounds only slightly more than it unnerves. Yuval Harari, who is invoked on several occasions in the show’s ample and informative wall text, notes in his groundbreaking text “Sapiens” that the notion of historical progress is not a natural human impulse. It turns out that through most of history we homo sapiens have not assumed technology would inevitably progress and improve our lives. But in 2020, we do assume as much…but with the caveat that the inevitable innovations may be setting a trap that sends us back to the stone age. Avoiding it will require the conscientious assistance of both art and science.

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