Preface to Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology

(by Stephen Wilson, MIT Press/Leonardo Books, 2001)

In my last semester at Antioch College, all students were expected to
complete an integrative final thesis. Since it was the late 1960s, most
students at this experimental college focused on the political and cultural
structures undergoing upheaval in that era. I approached the foment

Radio, television, amplified music, and cinema were everywhere. They
figured prominently as the arbiters of change even in the lives of those of
us focused on the arts and humanities. Yet it struck me as strange that
almost no one outside of engineering understood how devices such as the
radio worked. How did it magically manage to send sounds thousands of miles
through the ether? This acquiescence to ignorance seemed a critical gap in
our literacy and ultimately our capacity to act in a technological world.

For my final thesis, I proposed to teach myself how radio worked even
though I lacked any significant technical background. Ultimately, I did
learn how radio worked. I also learned some things that may be more
important: that the mystification of science and technology was
unjustified; that scientific principles were understandable, just like
ideas in other fields; and that technological imagination and scientific
inquiry were themselves a kind of poetry-a revolutionary weaving of ideas
and a bold sculpture of matter to create new possibilities.

Over the years these insights have guided my teaching and my work as an
artist. They are also the foundation for this book. There is a major
categorical flaw in the way we commonly think about scientific and
technological research as being outside the major cultural flow, as
something only for specialists. We must learn to appreciate and produce
science and technology just as we do literature, music, and the arts. They
are part of the cultural core of our era and must become part of general
discourse in a profound way.

Many artists have begun to engage the world of technological and scientific
research - not just use its gizmos-but rather to comment on its agendas and
extend its possibilities. Their work can be seen as part of this essential
rapprochement and as a clue to what art may look like in the twenty-first
century. I wrote this book because no resource surveying this remarkable
body of art and its relationship to research exists. Information Arts
includes the following:

* It surveys artistic work related to biology (microbiology, genetics,
animal and plant behavior, ecology, the body, and medicine); the physical
sciences (particle physics, atomic energy, geology, physics, chemistry,
astronomy, space science, and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology);
mathematics and algorithms (algorists, fractals, genetic art, and
artificial life); kinetics (conceptual electronics, sound installation, and
robotics); telecommunications (telephone, radio, telepresence, and Web
art); and digital systems (interactive media, virtual reality (VR),
alternative sensors, artificial intelligence, 3-D sound, speech, scientific
visualization, and information systems). Using summaries from the artists'
writings, it introduces their rationales and explanations
of their work.

* It considers artists approaching research from a variety of ideological
stances and reviews theoretical writing related to artistic work in these

* Exploring the idea of techno-scientific research as cultural acts, it
also reviews the research projects, agendas, and future plans of scientists
and technologists working at the frontiers of inquiry.

* It also lists resources (organizations, publications, conferences,
museums, research centers, and art-science collaborations); books useful
for further study; and Web sites for artists, theorists, and research centers.

The author wishes to thank the many who have helped to make this book
possible: the artists and researchers who have created these extraordinary
works and graciously allowed us to use images of their work. The
technologists who created the Web, which allows us all to access each
other's work. Students in my courses in the Conceptual/Information Arts
Program at San Francisco State University, whose enthusiasm and honesty
have helped hone my ideas. Student research assistants Joseph Schecter, Max
Kelly, Lisa Husby, and Torrey Nommesen for helping with image and
permission research. The reviewers and editors of MIT Press's Leonardo
series who recognized the value of the book and offered suggestions for its
improvement. Production editor Deborah Cantor-Adams and production and
graphics coordinator Sharon Deacon Warne at MIT Press who helped give the
book its present polished form. Doug Sery, my editor at MIT Press, for his
support and willingness to pursue these ideas. Catherine Witzling, my wife,
for editing the first two chapters and her frankness in questioning the
topics of this book. My daughter Sophia, for rescuing me from the obsession
with the book via demands to play. Sally and Julius Wilson for teaching me
to be curious about everything.

The main Information Arts information page is located at