The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Making Strange

Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies
Photo by Lorenzo Prendini . Source:
Lorenzo Prendini, "Scorpion" UV fluorescence imaging
Perhaps the most interesting consequence of the visual revolution pioneered by 19th century photography has been the variety of imaging technologies spawned in its wake. Conventional photography still dominates popular usage, but for the specialist there are even more extraordinary ways of enhancing sight. Beginning with visible light, we have successively mined the riches of the electromagnetic spectrum, each new technology revealing another previously hidden aspect of the universe.

“Astonish me!” commanded Diagiliev, famed impresario of Les Ballets Russes, his comment paraphrased in one way or another by almost every modern artist; even Victor Shklovsky, the great Russian formalist literary critic, maintained that the goal of the poet is making strange. Yet all along it has been science not art quietly finding strangeness in every corner, a strangeness so profound the most bizarre and outré artwork seems rudimentary.

For if, as curator Nathan Lyons once insisted, photography is a ‘model of perception’, these other technologies might be considered models of revelation. Showcasing some of them is a small, informative show at the AMNH called: Picturing Science.

The range of available techniques is almost as astounding as the techniques themselves. Alongside the most up to date computer simulations are old-fashioned x-rays while ultraviolet fluorescence imaging permits arachnologist Lorenzo Prendini to distinguish among species of scorpions. Coronography “masks out the bright light from a star so that faint nearby objects can be seen”. Using this technique Curator Ben Oppenheimer and Research Scientist Douglas Brenner and their associates have discovered a star in the Big Dipper.

Photo by Nadine Duprr . Source:
Nadine Dupérré, "Goblin Spider Claw (Scanning electron micrograph)"
The scanning electron microscope, or SEM, bombards an object with electrons, producing images of the most remarkable sharpness. Often revealing worlds both hideous and elegant, its knife-like definition enables scientists such as entomologist James Carpenter and zoologist Nadine Dupérré to minutely examine goblin spiders, incidentally offering the rest of us an opportunity to discover bizarre and marvelous architectures of form.

Ironically in an exhibit meant to showcase the latest visual tools of scientific research, we confront the deep inadequacy of much contemporary artwork. If the pictures on display at AMNH are not great art (and they are not, nor were intended to be,) they do raise the question of whether science is doing the business of art better than art is.

For it is science that is revealing hidden worlds, strange and astounding and bizarre, science that marries the beautiful with the hideous, science that throws everything into new and startling contexts, conjuring scenarios more imaginative than fiction.

When is art going to take the hint and follow suit?

Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies
Curator: Mark Siddall

American Museum of Natural History
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Saturday, June 25 to
Sunday, December 14, 2014
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