Thursday, March 5, 2009

March 5-12, 2009

I’d like to make a provocation over the theme of appropriation, or rather the verb, appropriate, which according to the Oxford American Dictionary, is a word that has two meanings: to take something for one’s own use (usually without the owner’s permission); and, to devote assets for a special purpose. And I’d like specifically to deal with appropriation by artists of scientific constructs and terminology.

I’m thinking about this because of the word “environment,” which we all deploy with abandon in the arts community. My dictionary defines the word as “the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates,” and we most often think of it as a word taken from the science community. In fact, the word comes from “environs,” which means the neighborhood, or the surroundings. The sense in which we use it today stems from usage in 1827 by Carlyle, the Victorian Scottish writer, philosopher, and friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. So here’s a case where science took a word from the literary world.

As a side note, I’d draw your attention to the fact that the word “appropriate” when used as an adjective--as in “It was the appropriate use of the word”--means something which is suitable to a circumstance. So we appropriate ideas and words because they are suitable to the need at hand. I would argue that calling the world, our environment, our neighborhood, is supremely apt--but as a rhetorical trope to promote environmentalism, and not as a scientific term.

In terms of the first definition of “appropriate,” the science community doesn’t care if artists borrow from their endeavors. They do care about accuracy, however--if a term is used appropriately. And that’s the beginning of a controversy, because it seems to me that artists don’t really care if their use of the word is exactly that of the scientists. A term such as entropy might mean one thing in the mind of physicist Freeman Dyson (an equation in classical thermodynamics) and another to artist Robert Smithson (a term in information theory). The first might be used to design a nuclear rocket, the second Spiral Jetty.

I’d like to hear a bit about how any of us have borrowed constructs and terms from science for the purpose of art & environment projects, and how we’ve bent them to our purposes. In short, instead of arguing about whether we’re using a scientific concept correctly or not, I’d like to propose that it may not matter--that, in fact, it’s the entire point to not use the word or concept in the same fashion as a scientist. That’s a mechanism typical of a living language, hence a culture.

1 comment:

Caryn said...

It isn't really a scientific term, exactly, but the concept of "scale" and scale shifting comes up a lot in the introductions people have made to their work. Scientists investigate phenomena using microscopes and other technologies that shift the visual/aural/tactile/time/space scale. Artists have long appropriated these investigative technologies. In our own group, just to pick a few examples, Chris's juxtaposed scales-- echogram and echocardiogram--call attention to each and invite us to consider the relationship between them. Julia's BigBoxReuse (I love this project) documents the scale shift as communities take over nationally-based, large scale buildings and turn them to local, community-based uses. The Canary Project tracks the time-scale of climate change.