POST BY JULIA HALPERIN
Vik Muniz, Manhattan II, 2001, From the series, Pictures of Clouds
Editor's note: AFC+ is a series in which interns respond to Internet culture and art world events.
Thursday night at the Whitney Museum,Vik Muniz mentioned checking the weather on his computer. “It said it was 35ËšC, or something,” he said, “but then it said, it feels like 20.” Muniz explained that this discrepancy seemed to exemplify an artist's job—to find and express a “binding agent” between the tangible world and how humans experience it. He cited his recreation of the backs of famous paintings as an example; we experience Demoiselles d'Avignon as an iconic image, he explained, but when we see only the back, we come to recognize it as an object.
Human experience, recognition, and tangibility were some of the many big ideas tossed around at Thursday's panel, Why Does Art Matter? Like Muniz, the other panelists—physicist Lisa Randall, pollster and fivethirtyeight.com creator Nate Silver, and choreographer Elizabeth Streb—attempt to make slippery concepts tangible and recognizable through their work. Though the concepts range from alternate dimensions to political trends to movement itself, each of the panelists works with scale and movement, is concerned with isolation vs. contextualization, and uses his or her work to expand previous definitions within their chosen disciplines.
The event professed to address how and why art matters now across a variety of professions. But the all-star panelists—two of whom have been among Time's 100 Most Influential People (Randall in 2007, Silver in 2009), one of whom has received a Macarthur Genius Grant (Streb)—did not shed any light on the relevance of art in political polling or particle physics. Rather than “Why Does Art Matter?”, the panel would have been more accurately named, “My Cool Job and Why Creativity is Relevant to It.”
The panel was structured more like a presentation, with moderator Peter Galison asking the same question to each panelist around the table (What helps you get un-stuck when you get stuck? Do you ever confront something you’re afraid of in your work?). The panelists responded with pre-prepared slides whose relevance to the question varied depending on the respondent. (At one point, Muniz screened a portion of a forthcoming documentary about his large-scale works created with garbage, although its connection to the question of fear was tenuous at best.)
Few panelists answered the questions directly, if at all. But each discussed how important creative thinking is to their work. Silver noted how looking at a census map which no one had previously thought to revisit ended up explaining previously confounding voting patterns in the Midwest. The block of states in which Democrats become more conservative during the 2008 election was the same as that which identified its ancestry as “American,” rather than identifying a country of origin, on the census. (Silver dubbed it “the redneck vote.”)
Streb, founder of an eponymous company and a form of dance called “PopAction,” is also concerned with isolating a variable. But hers is far less tangible than voting patterns. “I am looking for pure motion,” she explained. “Can the body do it without self destructing?” From seeing clips of her choreography, in which dancers dive under swinging I-beams and cement blocks, the answer is perhaps not. But like Silver, who works to unearth patterns through unlikely comparison, Streb's strength comes from juxtaposition. Her choreography has no music, and combines elements of combat, the circus, boxing, and Hollywood stunt work.
In contrast to Streb, Randall explained that her research on extra dimensions involved not making the abstract physical, but rather understanding the physical enough to deduce abstract theories. Perhaps because Randall’s work fits least comfortably into a 90-minute panel, she spent much of her time remarking on the way it was similar or different to that of the other panelists. In a panel full of liberal arts majors ostensibly trained in making connections, she was the one to note that each of the panelists dealt with questions of scale. Muniz works on the scale of warehouses and massive dirt fields, but then manipulates scale further by taking photographs; Silver's work involves deducing voting patters from small samples. As a cosmologist and a particle physicist, Randall's work is also intricately linked to scale—in this case, she was talking about the Large Hadron Collider, which must be 27 kilometers wide in order to answer questions about subatomic particles. Randall is no stranger to translating sciencespeak for a non-science crowd—she wrote a libretto for an opera about physics, Hypermusic: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes, which premiered at the Centre Pompidou last week.
Randall aside, these kinds of interdisciplinary connections among the panelists were largely left unarticulated. Of course, there was no single uniting factor, and most connections, like that of scale, linked several but not all of the panelists. It would have felt contrived, though, if they had spent their time drawing manufactured similarities across their disciplines. Instead, they allowed the audience members to find the commonalities. Why Does Art Matter? certainly wasn’t about art, nor was it necessarily about creativity. But like Muniz, the audience members spent their time looking for a “binding agent”—not between the tangible world and our experience of it, but among the panelists themselves.