Performative Experiments

Performative Experiments: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Art, Science and Technology

In this dissertation I argue that artworks that mimic scientific experiments can transform our philosophical understanding of scientific experiment itself. The collection of artworks that form the basis of my case studies includes artificial weather systems, imaginary scientific instruments, responsive sound environments, genetic portraits and live scientific demonstrations. Despite their heterogeneity, each of these artworks embodies a certain idea of experiment through its physical form. I read these artworks as material representations of the logics and practices described by philosophers and historians of scientific experimentation. Much as scientific models mediate between theories and the real world, artworks, in my analysis, mediate between the philosophical descriptions of science and its material instantiations. Like models, artworks are not merely illustrations of preconceived ideas but also have lives of their own. The very idea of using artworks to explore the nature of experiment has its roots in Kant’s theory of exemplarity, developed in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. Artworks are considered exemplary when they give sensuous embodiment to an idea that has not yet been fully formed in thought. To regard artworks as exemplary for the philosophy of science and technology is to regard them as generative of new ways of thinking about experimentation as a mode of material and conceptual practice that art and science share. My dissertation opens up a new archive for the philosophy of scientific experimentation in the form of what I call performative experiments—a term that I reserve for artworks that at once enact and query the logic of scientific experimentation.

The dissertation is comprised of four chapters, each of which places one or more artworks into conversation with a set of philosophical questions that arise at the intersection of aesthetic theory, philosophy of science and philosophy of technology. Philosophers of technology have observed that tools, by their very nature, tend to recede into their context of use and in doing so become transparent and invisible to their users. My first chapter aims to recover the role of instruments in the epistemology of scientific experimentation through a close reading of Eve André Laramée’s Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions (1994-98), a glass sculpture installation that embeds within itself a virtual archeological record of continuity in instrumentation from alchemy to modern chemistry. The second chapter examines the methodology of so-called “natural experiments,” in which investigators treat occurrent situations as if they were intentionally created for the purposes of controlled experimentation. Through my analyses of Natalie Jeremijenko’s work Tree Logic (1999-present) and Stacey Levy’s Seeing the Path of the Wind (1991), I argue that performative experiments dramatize how we export habits of seeing and patterns of inference from the carefully shielded conditions of the laboratory to the unruly world outside its walls. My third chapter investigates the use of molecular genetics as a new medium of portraiture and shows how the specific aesthetic possibilities and constraints of this medium transform the genre of portraiture so as to capture changing conceptions of personal identity, kinship and subjective temporality in the genetic age. Finally, the fourth chapter explores the ethical, political and institutional limits governing the transformation of experiences into the basis of experimental knowledge as these limits become sites of contest in IRB# G10-02-066-01 (2010), an artwork qua social psychology experiment for the artist Jennifer Gradecki failed to win approval from her university’s ethics review board. Drawing, in part, on the primary data of my own repeated trials as a subject in this illicit experiment, titled “Social Interaction as a Function of Voluntary Engagement With a Shock Machine,” I reflect on how the epistemic and social value of experiences are mediated by the institutional context in which research is regulated and legitimated.

Throughout the dissertation, I demonstrate that artworks transform material and epistemological practices derived from the sciences into formal devices for directing perceptual attention and imaginative reflection. When practices of experiment are used to organize aesthetic responses in the context of the art museum or gallery, they draw attention to aesthetic and phenomenological dimensions of scientific practice that tend to escape notice in the context of science itself, and therefore to remain under-theorized within the history and philosophy of science. The emerging genre of performative experiments opens up a site of critical self-reflexivity within the methods and material of scientific practice itself, a site in which it is possible both to explore the cultural significance of scientific knowledge and to critique the empirical methods that are used to produce the scientific image of the world. Performative experiments are exemplary, in this respect, of a new form of critical literacy that arises at once within the sciences and the arts.