Collective Conscience: Institute For Figuring And The League Of Imaginary Scientists


ALTHOUGH SCIENCE IS CREATED IN THE CONTEXT OF CULTURE, THE sciences are often thought to be apart from, above, or neutral in relation to our sociocultural beliefs and political motivations. However, one need only look at the recent history of the science of global warming (total denial, skepticism, popularization and finally acceptance) for a concise example of the ways in which political, social and cultural views shape science.The League of Imaginary Scientists and the Institute For Figuring use whimsy, a sense of humor and an inclusionary approach to get the viewer to think about some of the more difficult issues that face our world, in a way that makes what informs science itself more approachable to lay audiences.

THE LEAGUE OF IMAGINARY SCIENTISTS Self-described as being “like kids who get to build a fort,” members of the League of Imaginary Scientists inspire thought and demystify science by taking complex subjects like global climate change and using them in exercises promoting creativity and social responsibility. Really Real Estate™ playfully asks, “What will happen when the Earth is uninhabitable?” Their solution: moving to outer space or the bottom of the ocean, two areas that they propose as being better alternatives than a climate-compromised surface of the Earth. Supported by a pseudo-scientific promo video and a kit of DIY materials including stickers with beautifully drawn data graphs and a telescope that you can make at home to scout out your potential outer space home, their suggestion functions simultaneously as comic relief, in light of actual scientifically-based outer space and undersea colony proposals, and provocation to think about the dire consequences of global warming.

Like a league of superheroes, LIS members contribute to projects with their own areas of expertise. The league also draws on real scientists who are happy to collaborate because of the intellectual freedom offered by an art-world context. For The Earth’s Biological Clock, league scientists Dr. L. Hernandez Gomez, Dr. Gouldstein, Professor William T. Madmann, Dr. Stephan Schleidan and Professor JoJo Johansen are working additionally with an environmentalist, a synthetic biologist, a neurologist, a genomic researcher and a science exhibit designer. An offshoot of the Really Real Estate™ project, The Clock is described by league members as a kind of “sea monster” or a new life form that has adapted to thrive in our increasingly toxic environment, tracking climate conditions via interactive data uploading.

Take note and mark your calendars: NYC-based ApexArt recently awarded the LIS a $10,000 curatorial grant for a show called X, Y, Z and U that will debut at Outpost for Contemporary Art in June. Beating out more than 450 other proposals internationally, the show will feature “mapping projects by artists and scientists who combine field research with DIY tactics,” according to league scientist Dr. Gomez.

THE INSTITUTE FOR FIGURING The Institute For Figuring, whose mission is to explore the poetry and artistry inherent within science, is also interested in the under-sea environment, specifically, the Great Barrier Reef. The Hyperbolic Coral Reef takes the threat global warming poses to the Great Barrier Reef and makes that issue accessible through a worldwide collaborative crocheting project.

The Hyperbolic Coral Reef is the brainchild of the IFF’s co-founders, Christine and Margaret Wertheim, Australian twins who are respectively an artist and a science writer. Inspired by the work of Dr. Daina Taimina, who proved the existence of non-Euclidian geometry with her hyperbolic crochet, the project began as a call on the IFF’s Website. Interested crocheters were asked to create different parts of the coral reef using Dr. Taimina’s hyperbolic crocheting techniques. The resulting “corals” are displayed together in installations that are astonishing, not only for their beauty, but also for the sheer amount of labor represented by the collected specimens; one Reef, shown recently at Track 16 in Santa Monica, included contributions from more than 60 crocheters. In its fourth year, the project has expanded into various satellite reefs shown around the world, and will include an upcoming show at the Smithsonian. Wertheim notes that tending to the project has become a full-time curatorial job.

Interest in The Hyperbolic Coral Reef comes not just from the organized art world, but more importantly, from crocheters, whose enthusiasm for the project points to the feminist issues raised by its collaborative, craft-oriented structure. Dovetailing with the surging interest in critical craft practices, Wertheim sees one of the project’s unexpected outcomes as opening “a wormhole into an alternate universe of creative feminine energy,” and providing a hopeful indicator of possibilities for collective creativity.WHIMSY IS THE HOOK THAT DRAWS THE VIEWER INTO THE PROJECTS OF BOTH THE LEAGUE AND THE IFF, BUT THE SERIOUS QUESTIONS AND COLLABORATIVE POTENTIAL FOR ADDING TO OR BEING A PART OF THOSE SYSTEMS ARE WHAT MAKE THEM SO COMPELLING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING. ■

Artillery Magazine May/June 2009

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