Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt)
Last fall I stopped by the Hirshhorn Museum’s Black Box theatre to watch a short film by Semiconductor (the artistic team of Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt). Magnetic Movie is a color-drenched, imaginative tour of Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. The film is below the fold, but before you watch it, take a moment to consider your expectations when you’re watching a film about “lab science”. Ultimately, does this film transcend or offend those expectations? And what are your expectations for scientific art in general?
So. . . did you like the film?
What do you think it says about science?
Would you use it when teaching, or show it to your non-scientist friends? If so, how would you preface it?
Magnetic Movie represents a genre that can be uncomfortably ambiguous for scientists: art based on, but not faithfully reproducing, scientific data. The film represents physical concepts in simplified, colorful visuals, a design strategy perfect for an illustrated textbook. Indeed, brightly (and artificially) colored illustrations of scientific concepts are de rigeur in modern science textbooks (contributing to the high prices of said textbooks). But Magnetic Movie transplants these idealized artistic representations into a “real” environment of labs and offices, making what you’re seeing suddenly ambiguous. It’s like a brief hallucination suffered by a freshman dozing off during physics 101: a fantasy inspired by science.
What parts of the film are “real”? According to the creators, the sound is “actual VLF recordings” capturing “the product of the combined turbulences of the earth’s molten core, weather systems and electrical storms, ephemeral ionization in the upper atmosphere, and the solar winds.” The expert commentary is accurate (as far as I can tell at least). But the visual imagery, the heart of any film, is the product of imaginative artistic license. The images don’t seem to represent any specific experiment, much less the work they’re actually doing in the labs at SSL (which is probably a good thing, given the ominous green bubble looming out of the building in the final sequence).
Is interleaving data and fantasy potentially confusing to nonscientist audiences? Possibly. The expert commentary, for example, cuts both ways. On the one hand, it clearly states that “magnetic fields are by their nature invisible,” which should warn viewers that what they’re seeing has been interpreted imaginatively. On the other hand, the very existence of a dry voice-over narration makes the film a dead ringer for a NOVA-style educational documentary. There’s no clear indication that we’ve crossed the line into a world of pure imagination. An inexperienced layperson might assume that those clever Berkeley physicists are surrounded by this kind of thing all the time – hopping over a fluorescent orange field line as they pop down the hall for coffee, perhaps?
The artists might respond that the Berkeley physicists are constantly surrounded by invisible magnetic fields – as are we all. Fair enough. But invisibility isn’t the only barrier to our perception of those fields. The events described in the voiceover operate on different scales of time and space than your typical office or cubicle. It’s not like you could put on special goggles and see rainbows of current and clouds of olive-sized dipoles dancing around your keyboard. That’s not how it works.
All of this invites an important question: how firmly and carefully should “scientific art” be grounded (sorry, I couldn’t help it) in science?
The most obvious answer is that it depends on the intended audience for the artwork, and on the message the artists wish to convey. Some engineers and physicists may know too much about these phenomena to relax, suspend their informed disbelief, and enjoy the film. Indeed, there’s been some grumbling in response to this film’s inaccuracies. But Jarman and Gerhardt aren’t trying to teach physics, and they don’t claim to depict “real” science. They’re trying to introduce the museum-going public to a world most never see (the labs of SSL) and an important phenomenon most never think about (magnetic fields). If they give the public a visual handle on which to hang their vague impressions of magnetism, however fantastic, is that a bad thing?
Art is fundamentally imaginative. Artists don’t have an implicit responsibility as artists to impart an accurate picture of scientific phenomena and processes. However, scientists may understandably feel uncomfortable with art that fudges science or takes it out of context, because the scientific community has such strict taboos on misrepresentation of data. There’s going to be some inevitable tension between a discipline that embraces multiple dissonant views of reality, and one that relentlessly pursues the most accurate view of reality possible.
But I think that lay audiences approach scientific art differently – perhaps more credulously – than they do other forms of art, simply because lay audiences feel insecure and uncertain about basic science. Audiences may have so much respect for science, that they extend respect reflexively when science appears in other contexts – like art or entertainment. Anyone who’s had to field the incredulous question “can they really do that?” from friends or family after an especially inaccurate Hollywood blockbuster knows exactly what I mean!
So: when artists specifically represent their work as scientific, or informed by science, or based on science, do they then have a certain responsibility to be, well, scientific? Or is that simply not part of the artist’s role? There’s no right or wrong answer here; it’s a question that has intrigued me for some time specifically because you can make a case both ways. What do you think? In the case of “Magnetic Movie”, does Semiconductor leave the audience more knowledgeable about science, more interested in science – or simply misled?
Let me know your thoughts – and to those of you at ScienceOnline09 today, please chime in with your feedback after you get home!
More thoughts on art inspired by science later, in Part 2…