Logics of scientific discovery

Toril Johannessen is a Norwegian artist whose research-based practice explores points of intersection between art and science. The results of the artist’s study of scientific subjects and natural phenomena, variable stars, synthetic stone and Icelandic spar, for example, are often presented as installations that make reference to pedagogical models and scientific methods of analysis, classification and display.

I first met Johannessen when she visited the Western Front in Vancouver as a Media Arts artist-in-residence. At the time, she was working on a research project entitled Words and Years (2010), which consisted of a series of graphs documenting the appearance of words like “crisis” and “miracle” in popular scientific and cultural journals. Subsequently these works were exhibited and other similar works produced. I spoke with her about this project, and the themes and ideas related to her practice.


MANDY GINSON Can you describe the project Words and Years?

TORIL JOHANNESSEN With this particular project, I set out to investigate the occurrence of specific words in selected journals. Most of the journals I worked with had been in publication for several decades and had searchable databases. This made it possible to analyze the frequency of use of specific words over the period of publication. The subjects of this research address disparate ideas and themes I’m interested in. For example, I had been interested in the notion of crisis and the relationship between science, rationality and spirituality or “the unfathomable” for a while. I also played with false dichotomies, hope/reality and logic/love for example, in this series.

The first word I charted was “crisis.” I wondered if this way of thinking about or describing a critical situation was more prevalent now, if the word itself was used more frequently, if there is not an ongoing need for crisis in contemporary culture and how these things might be reflected in the cultural domain. This is how I came to the idea to search for specific words in journals and graph the results.

After “crisis,” I searched for “miracle.” I thought this would be a good partner for crisis since the word represents another kind of critical or unusual situation.


MG What have your findings been?

TJ Crisis is used much more than miracle and was used much more 40 or 50 years ago than it is now; it peaked in the late 60s and early 70s. One pattern I observed was that when crisis peaked, miracle would peak a few years after. I think that more than being able to read patterns, it’s a matter of being able to project. I project my own history and experience onto the research; I project what I think was going on at the time and I connect the data to historical events, though sometimes [to] singular or personal events.

MG What other questions or possibilities for analysis might the collection, analysis and display of data that is responsible to nothing, that answers nothing, generate?

TJ With Words and Years, I wanted to achieve a tension between the formality of the diagram and a more poetic quality. This tension is something I search for and one of the reasons I am interested in science. I don’t want to be reductive about what science is and does, but I think there’s a poetry to the aesthetics of science and the questions it poses. After all, the quest for knowledge or truth, or the desire to uncover what is hidden from us, materially and philosophically speaking, is a romantic quest as well as an ideological matter. I’m interested in the interactions between fields such as science, art and economy, where these interactions take place, and how the fields inform each other. These thought systems, agendas and ways of reasoning seem clearer and more understandable to me at the crosspoints where different pre-set categories intersect.

MG Your work makes use of scientific tools and teaching methods–graphs, pie charts, scientific instruments, display and cataloguing methods. It feels a bit like play or performance to me. I like this element of play coinciding with work that essentially probes the integrity of dominant knowledge-producing systems and questions how we know what we know.

Science and art have play and indeterminate exploration in common. Both also have a tendency to close in on themselves; structures and systems becomes arch and singular. This makes me wonder: what is the nature of knowledge in a closed system?

TJ I want to clarify that I don’t pretend to use scientific methods. Although I do gather data, make graphs, grow crystals and create archives, it doesn’t begin with an hypothesis that I am methodically researching in order to test it–it is more open-ended. What I do is disentangle scientific material or methods from the field of science. Perhaps this is what you describe as the playful part. In many my works, I play with the idea of a stringent method and the quests I undertake, reassembling a quarry in In Search of Iceland Spar (2008) or “teleporting” starlight in Variable Stars (2009), for example, are impossible tasks.

My interest is not to add knowledge to the field of science but to look at the way that science influences society and the way we think and feel, as well as the inverse of this: the way that what we think and feel influences science. I think it’s important to discuss and consider because science is shaping our ideas and beliefs as well as our physical surroundings at this very moment. These discussions can take place in popular media, politics and school; and also in art.


Olafur Eliasson comes to mind when thinking of science in art. His practice bears a relevance outside of art, his work is reviewed in science journals and his large-scale, physical experiments are popular with diverse audiences. I’m more interested in artists like Lindsay Seers, Joachim Koester and Michael Stevenson, who make use of history–sometimes scientific history–to create a space for imagination, reflection and critical thought. I’m not interested in a kind of art that sets out to illustrate or express a given theory, but rather [in] how such theories become part of our thinking and our world view even if we don’t understand the theories themselves. By partially inhabiting the role of researcher, I’m able to comment on the processes and methods that produce these kind of facts, while also compiling source material.

I agree with you that the discourse in both art and science tends to be hermetic, despite the fact that “interdisciplinary” has been a buzzword in academia for years. One attribute of a closed system is that it reproduces given facts and truths. Perhaps more than closed, the current situation in artistic discourse and production follows an editorial model, where the ready-made is raw material and our job is to rearrange it. Much of the art that influences me is referential; profound thoughts can be well expressed through appropriation and this editorial logic. I don’t think that art is running dry of “raw materials” but I do share your concern that discourse becomes formatted when it closes in on itself and when we are recycling. Sometimes I wonder if the notion that there is nothing new actually hinders creativity, why not be bold and try?

I still believe that collaboration between disparate professional fields is very important. That said, I claim the right to be difficult and specialized in what I’m doing … I think an interdisciplinary approach changes institutions over time but I produce and exhibit my work mainly within an art context and the notion of “interdisciplinarity” and “research” within my own practice primarily has to do with exchanging ideas.

MG Some of your work, Variable Stars and Words and Years for example, reference certain patterns and perceptions of time. I’m curious about this idea of crisis and renovation as a cycle and expansion as a line. One repeats while the other is infinite. I wonder how these contradictory perceptions of time inform our ability to imagine the future.


TJ What I’m presenting in the Words and Years project is very much a linear perspective of time and history. It’s extremely hard to imagine circular time because we’re so accustomed to thinking of time as linear. At this moment in time, we can’t properly access a mode of thinking where time is cyclical, or square for that matter, but for all I know, in the future we might be able to experience time as parallel or something else which we are not capable of just now. The time theorist J.T. Fraser suggested that the notion of time undergoes processes similar to that of evolution, that the notion of time itself is subject to change, continuous change or more revolutionary change. So, to answer your question, I think a linear concept of time makes several futures possible. A return to cyclical time is often advocated as a necessary psychological shift to better apprehend ecological sustainability, but I am not sure that this is productive or even possible.

Another idea I’ve been interested in is the notion of growth, which I explored in Expansion in Finance and Physics (2010). The idea of an ever-expanding universe is relatively novel; our idea of the scale of the universe has changed tremendously in modern times. Considering that constant growth is the core logic of our economic system, I’ve been wondering if it could be that the idea of an infinitely expanding universe coincided with the idea of seemingly limitless expansion in society and economics. Actually, in the 80s several theoretical physicists moved from academia to Wall Street, and their theoretical tools and methods are quite present in the economy today. Obviously “expansion” and “recession” have different meanings in physics and economics, but I think that it’s also possible that they inform each other.

The expansion of the universe and our understanding of its size and scale is something I explored in the Variable Stars project. Before the turn of the century, it was thought that the physical universe was Planet Earth and the Milky Way. There were huge debates in astronomy and physics arguing over the size of the universe. At this time, scientists at Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began the extensive project of photographing and mapping the entire night sky. One of the theories developed through this work was a method to calculate distances in space based on observations of variable stars–stars that vary in brightness over a period of time.

In astronomy, you don’t get to touch the physical object of research, except for meteorites and the tools you have at hand, such as the photograph. Working on the idea of space travel and the materialization of the intangible, I travelled to the Harvard College Observatory and collected images of variable stars visible from my location in Norway. I made photographic copies from the glass plates and I cut stars from the photos to use as seeds to grow crystals of alum, a substance used in photographic paper. I installed the photos and corresponding crystals, as well as drawings and telescopes, by the gallery window, directed at the stars in the photos.

I think the idea of progress is another important consideration when thinking about how we situate ourselves and events in time. I grew up thinking that time is progressing, we are progressing. We are currently at the peak of progress and yet we are always moving toward something better. Paradoxically, we are at the same time learning to be self-reflexive and critical of this notion of progress and the privileged position it confers. I have the sense, though, that this idea of progress and of infinite expansion may have changed in recent years. I think that this is also one of the reasons I was interested in looking for words like “crisis”– such things have the potential to reveal something of a changing world view.

MG I’ve been thinking about the Internet, and how the Internet is, or feels, infinite. How do you think that this might inform current and future generations’ understanding of time and “progress” and growth? How might this be similar or different from apprehensions about the size and scale of the physical world as informed by global expansion and scientific discovery?

TJ Perhaps if progress and infinite expansion is no longer an option, the Internet is the perfect retreat for a self-reflexive, paradox-ridden generation. A place–which is not a place–that gives the sensation of limitlessness–although we know that IP addresses are running out–and freedom and sharing–although … it is not. It is often argued that the profound level of abstraction in our daily lives has supplanted a more material approach to understanding reality and the world. I sing along with that refrain but there are also counter movements that aspire to a greater sense of awareness and connection between our actions and the material world. Obviously environmental organizations do this, but it also surfaces in art in interesting ways. Think of Simon Starling’s projects, for example; they describe such connections with a playful logic. Or Christopher Williams’ compelling concepts, or artist and philosopher Manuel De Landa’s influential writing on material flows. All these artworks are about travel of matter in some sort of way: paintings made to be seen as sculptures; photographs made to be experienced as objects; emptiness that is form. It’s as though we’re as astonished to learn that the Internet is a network of cables and hardware, that Google requires a gigantic physical machine, as we would be if someone told us that mind reading was now possible. As if the abstract was the new actual.

MG I’ve been thinking about how the US cut their space program–it would seem that the place of science, or at least the role of science, has shifted. Some of the wonder and beauty of 20th-century science–complicated as it might be by some of its devastating applications–is missing from, for example, environmental science and technical innovation. Is there any part of these projects that take scientific history as their starting point that is interested in reclaiming wonder? Any attempts to regain a purity of mind, purity of insight–in essence, the ability to discover?

TJ I think that there is still a lot of wonder in contemporary science. Think of astrophysics and space travel, work being done at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (cern) and the quest to discover life on other planets, the discovery of new species in the largely unexplored deep ocean. I’m not so sure modern society really suffers from the “disenchantment” described by Max Weber–or at least, I don’t experience the world, nor art, that way. My perspective is that knowledge makes the world more wondrous.

A scientist once told me, “the world is magical; it is not the way we scientists say that it is.” I don’t know what he meant precisely but I think about that remark and its implications. I assume that he didn’t mean that science is a lie but rather that it is [only] one of many ways to describe the world.


Science, like religion, asks essential and existential questions; however, the methods employed to answer these questions are worlds apart. What I’m interested in is not religion but a secular kind of spirituality. For me, it has to do with looking at the world with curiosity and openness, as opposed to scientific, religious or ideological dogmatism–acknowledging that the world is just a bit too complex for us to actually comprehend.

I made a piece called Zollner’s Illusion and Agnes Martin’s Lines (2010), which was concerned with hypothetical points of contact between the German scientist Johann Zollner (1834-1882) and the Canadian/American visual artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004). Zollner discovered that parallel lines appear to be tilted when they are intersected by shorter lines at a particular angle, “Zollner’s Illusion”; Martin, of course, produced paintings of grids and lines. They both explored spiritual dimensions through their methodical, scientific investigations.

Looking at this work, a friend asked me why I was interested in spirituality given that I’m always seeking rational explanations. But I think that one can be both rational and emotional, pragmatic and playful, at the same time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *