To scientists, "experimental" is a technical word, one with a precise meaning: that which relates to a procedure of methodical trial and error, to a systematic test for determining the nature of reality. I got in trouble on this blog once, with commenters, for using the word "experimental" too flippantly.
But artists experiment too, of course. Their method of inquiry is different, free from the rigidity that characterizes the scientific method. Artistic experiments are designed to be singular; they aren't supposed to be repeated. They have no control variables. Often, even the hypothesis itself is left undefined. It might seem that when artists use the word "experiment," they're missing the point entirely. And yet, the underlying spirit is the same. An experiment is learning by doing. Seeing what happens. Trying something new, in the hope that from within the noise will arise a form, idea, or emotion that might in itself be repeatable.
The uncanny thing about art in its experiments is that the same results can be achieved through different means. We can be moved by an inexhaustible list of things, depending on how and where we look. The results can't be analyzed systematically. Instead they slowly unfold, although rarely with grace, within each individual.
Science, like art, is a process by which we study the behavior of the physical world through observation and experimentation. There are no strictures in this definition that absolve science from needing to be creative, or playful; in fact a creative approach to science often breeds important results unachievable through strictly empirical means. At the same time, artistic practice often benefits from a systematic process borrowed from the scientific method; many artists create constraints for themselves, with the aim of circling around an idea until its essence is reached.
Search, discovery, wonder, creativity, trial, error, none are reserved solely for either art or science. Simply, the "Eureka!" moment happens to everyone.
It's in this spirit of open-ended discovery that I curated Beautiful Evidence, a one-night experimental science cinema at the historic Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon. The films of Beautiful Evidence range from the baroque black-and-white deep sea documentaries of French surrealist Jean Painlevé (who lived by the credo "science is fiction") to time-lapse light experiments by Al Jarnow and a journey into the insect kingdom by Stan Brackhage, with a healthy dose of dreamlike space vistas in between.
The term "Beautiful Evidence" is borrowed from the statistician Edward Tufte, whose book of the same name explores how science and art both practice a form of focused "seeing" that generates empirical information. All the films demonstrate precisely this kind of seeing-which-turns-into-showing, in which artists mold the raw visual information of the world, employing film as a method of inquiry, performing a rogue, kinetic science of their own design. Ultimately, these efforts reveal fragments of fundamental truth.
If you're in the Portland area, I encourage you to come and behold these strange, non-experimental experiments. Local performers Jeffrey Jerusalem and Golden Retriever will be performing live scores along with the films, which will be sure to lend a dreamy, aleatoric cast to the evening. The show begins at eight p.m. this Saturday, July 28th, and is part of the Hollywood Theatre's excellent Sound & Vision series.