The Whole Thing at Once: thoughts ahead of teaching the First Ever Studio-Science course at SAIC / by Paola Cabal

I am collecting my thoughts ahead of my first substantive, course-building meeting with Kathryn Schaffer, a dauntingly brilliant research physicist at the University of Chicago and current tenure-track liberal arts faculty at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. We are co-teaching the first ever studio/science course at the School, “Articulating Time and Space”, and while we have already wrangled with the broader structure and general overview of the course, it’s time to get down to the details and figure out precisely what, exactly when, approximately how much.

  the poster for our course


the poster for our course

I’m going to go ahead and propose that in essence, and in spite of a whole host of affinities which I will also think about and celebrate, the sentence above might encapsulate the central tension between artist/makers and scientist/researchers: “precisely” vs. ”exactly” vs. ”approximately”.

Let me back up and announce my selfish intentions: who wants to explore more than I do, as a maker, my almost-inadvertent, at best awkward, relationship to astrophysics? I would have killed to advise with a physicist while I was earning my MFA! (Luckily, it would seem, lots of artist/makers do, since we’re overenrolled by one student already, and have a wait-list of at least another two, in an unbelievably content-rich context where students have their pick from among a crazy array of options. There are any number of questions our students could have opted to address over Space and Time and yet, here they are.) I want to signal that these questions are very much live wires for me, with all of the awesome potential to augment my making in impossible dimensions or, conversely, zap me in the ass.

I began my approach strictly through studio because that was what I knew. “Articulating Space” was a multi-level drawing course I created and taught three or four times between 2009 and 2011, when larger curricular changes shifted the topics-based offerings in my department to more established, senior faculty. The course attracted designers as much as studio makers, and I threw questions at my students that I wanted to see taken on through their multiple approaches. “Articulate a 24 hour day”, for instance, was one such question, as was “Generate a piece that re-creates walking through an exhibition through the lens of your, subjective experience of it”. In each instance my only insistence was completeness. Not because some parts of your piece turned out less interesting than some other parts, did it mean you got to eliminate part of a day, or part of an exhibition. I wanted Whole Things. As I reflect on this sentence it shows me a stubbornly literalist position. It’s kind of embarrassing. It’s also true, though. I mean: I recognize myself there. And maybe I don’t need precision but maybe I do need completion. The opposite of poetry. It might be sloppy but leave it all in, if for no other reason than to offer me the experience of a Whole Thing at Once.

In retrospect and even as I look forward to what our course will become: that was crazy, to approach an astrophysicist as though I had the least inkling of what I was doing and to say to her, whose mind holds within it’s folds unimaginable, simultaneous layered multiplicities and abstractions, “let’s approach the description of time and space through physics with art students”. I’m so lucky that Kathryn Schaffer was game, and I’m so lucky that my department chair, Terry Myers, was into it. At an all-faculty meeting at some point in 2013, dean of faculty Lisa Wainwright announced a new art and science curricular initiative and I jumped on it. And I have so many questions to explore with and through the multiple nodes of our students: a deluge that I know will have to be edited if I want to avoid overwhelming them.

Here are some of them, in no particular order:

What is the relationship between attempting to describe higher-dimensional space and materiality? If higher dimensional space can only truly be articulated mathematically, are our options as material makers reduced to metaphor? Or, conversely, are adequate descriptions (by adequate I mean reasonably accurate, reasonably representative, reasonably precise) the exclusive domain of process-based makers, such as artists who write code? Is metaphor satisfying as an articulation of scientific concepts? Is it satisfying as artwork? How can we as artists simultaneously reach for an accurate articulation of time of or space (or of spacetime, to bring marginally more current vocabulary into the mix) while still accommodating and enriching a viewers’ subjective experience? Does what “works” in science never work in art because in it’s scientific working it is too factual, too monolithic, too exact? Imagine that you are tasked with the artistic manifestation of a complex concept in astrophysics, and that your artistic response is beholden to accuracy: can you be right and still be interesting? Indeed (as often happens during the instruction of observational drawing) is your beholdenness to accuracy what makes the piece interesting- the tension between your attempt and the reality of the thing you were trying to describe?

I hope to continue to update here on Love and Fear as we develop this course and as we teach it. I would love for you to weigh in with your own thoughts and ideas, but I’m not yet sure how to enable comments in this space so, for now, please email me