The Carter Blog

Carter ARTicles

Collaboration, part 2: Perspectives on science

Jul 03, 2024


Katherine Hillman, Communications and Marketing Manager

Part of  these categories:: Exhibitions

How do an art historian and an artist approach the studies of science together? We asked art historian Jennifer Roberts to find out!

Roberts is passionate about science and has collaborated with artist Dario Robleto on a variety of projects that blend the arts and sciences. We talked with Roberts to learn more about the ways she and Robleto have approached the studies of science from the perspective of an art historian and an artist.

Three White adults: a man with dark hair, a woman with blonde hair, and a woman with curly gray hair in a Carter gallery.

Artist Dario Robleto, art historian Jennifer Roberts, and Carter curator Maggie Adler at the opening of Dario Robleto: The Signal.

This blog post is part 2 of 3 in our series with art historian Jennifer Roberts. Read Collaboration, part 1 and Collaboration, part 3.

How do you and Dario Robleto approach studies of science as an art historian and an artist?

It does sound strange, doesn’t it? An artist and an art historian writing about science? But it feels completely natural to us. We’re both very serious about science. We both read scientific papers and dive as deeply as possible into the scientific topics we approach. And it’s not just out of a sense of obligation; it’s because we both truly love learning and thinking about this material. In various ways, each of us is trying to create a world where studying and communicating across these disciplinary divisions might feel natural: where no one would blink an eye at an artist speaking about occultation at an astronomy conference, or a synthetic biologist writing about bronze casting for an exhibition catalog. Dario has been a true inspiration to me in this respect, as in so many others. He has worked harder than anyone I know to create conditions for artists, humanists, and scientists to be able to trust each other, to respect each other, and to communicate humbly and honestly with each other. This is difficult and (at times) exhausting work, and he has devoted himself to it for his entire career.

It’s not that art and science are the same. They do differ. But not in the ways people tend to think they do. Generally, the art/science relationship is still stuck in the old oppositional paradigm. Art and science are understood as a binary, each defined by what the other is not. This model of difference is so blunt that it tends to override all of the actual subtleties involved, making it difficult to tap into the enormous latent capacity for reciprocal interchange between fields. We need to be able to think more precisely about what exactly goes on between these frameworks of knowledge.

A White woman stands in a gallery gesturing to art hung salon-style behind her.

Jennifer Roberts teaching at the Harvard Art Museums. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell

For example: what if we stopped fixating on the idea that art is “subjective” and science is “objective”? Sometimes this is true, but not always. There are plenty of non-objective aspects of science, and there are entire art movements (such as conceptual art) that seek to restrain or circumvent the artist’s subjectivity. And besides, the very definitions of subjectivity and objectivity are constantly shifting. What if we began with subtle similarities instead of stark oppositions? This would allow us to trace a new, higher resolution map of the disciplinary terrain. For example: I like to say that both art and science are about detection: both attempt to perceive and represent phenomena that are not available to habitual forms of understanding. The two fields differ in the way they frame and structure those detections, and in what they define as significant data, but the shared goal of detection is a great place to begin a conversation. In our book, Dario and I are doing something similar, looking at “sensitivity” as the shared term.

The more intricate your model of interaction, the easier it is to see the many ways that expertise can stretch across seemingly unrelated fields. Take our book, for example. An artist and an art historian might seem like the least qualified people imaginable to write a book about an electroencephalographic message for hypothetical aliens bolted to a NASA probe carving its way through the plasma and molecular clouds of the interstellar medium. But we think we are exactly the people to do this. Of all human endeavors, art may be the one that most closely resembles the kind of thinking that had to go into the Golden Record: how do we communicate with a form of intelligence that is truly alien and completely unknowable? What should we say, using what materials, and, on the infinitesimal chance that our message is found after orbiting around the galaxy for a billion years, how might it possibly be deciphered? It sounds preposterous, but this is just an extreme version of what artists do every day. Artists attempt to embed some kind of significance in customized configurations of matter. Then they release their work into an uncertain future, for an unknown audience, with no guarantee that it will be understood. Say you’re a painter. You always have to solve a series of problems of coding and delivery: how can I load up this contraption of oils, canvas, wood, and minerals with emotional and conceptual meaning in such a way that it will mean something to other beings in the near or distant future? Granted, these “beings” are usually humans, but the problem is analogous.

If artists are the senders, art historians are the receivers. We intercept signals of light and matter from the distant past, without clear instructions for decipherment, and try to sense the stories that they might hold. Interpreting art is a lot like interpreting a tattered, mysterious alien artifact that you find drifting through space. There is something ancient and otherworldly about all art: in the end, it always exceeds our codes and systems, and there is no definite way to decipher it. It speaks to us from a space beyond what we know.

—Jennifer L. Roberts is the Drew Gilpin Faust Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University

A film still showing outer space with the words, "Ancient Beacons Long for Notice."

Dario Robleto (b. 1972), Ancient Beacons Long for Notice (film still), 2023–24, UHD video (71:00), Courtesy of the artist, © Dario Robleto

Dario Robleto: The Signal is on view at the Carter through October 27, 2024. This exhibition highlights the artist’s multiyear exploration of the Golden Record and includes Robleto’s newly commissioned work Ancient Beacons Long for Notice, an immersive film that investigates the scientific, philosophical, and moral tensions of attempts to represent the totality of human life.