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Clumpy Quintessence
The alluring matter of art, science and mathematics
by Sara Diamond

Nature can be visible, open to description, but not necessarily known. Natural processes are often unseen, minute, sub-molecular. Data is already an abstraction, a numeric representation of nature, or a hypothetical model of that which is beyond our senses. Visualization is the end of a chain that starts with nature, and continues through its expression in the world, its translation into computer data, and its reinterpretation as a representation that researchers and others can share. Along this chain moves all of our pooled knowledge about images, metaphor, metonym, the tools of expression and abstraction. Visualization can confirm knowledge, or it can shake it up, creating vantage points that have not been available in the past.

Art and science share the desire for expression. There is pleasure in putting the unknown and the unknowable into language. There is tension between pure research, computer code, engineering and design: code requires precision, while theory and art share the need for abstraction and manipulation. As images, visualizations are powerful and often beautiful in their own right: some evoke erotic delight, others a sense of awe.

The Moon is an optical illusion created by the atmosphere, the lens of our eyes, the speed of light and time, and our brain. The Moon shadows the pull of gravity, the power of that which we cannot see, but feel. The Moon’s science (in fact, the science of the universe) is tied to the science of visualization. It is rooted in manipulating the large-scale data sets of planetary systems. Is the goal to replicate that which we observe through other media — the telescope, for example?

There is a deep distance between the source and its representation as visualization — a space where interpretation, inevitably, will enter. We bring models and assumptions about nature and aesthetics with us when we create visualizations. But perhaps visualization is most effective when it treats what we cannot see: cellular structures, nano worlds, or astrophysics. Visualization requires disciplinary data, computational processes, design — it is a fundamentally multidisciplinary enterprise. Scientists, designers, and artists visualize data in different ways. Artists take liberties, looking for metaphor, interpretation, and beauty. Scientists seek proof from data or new inroads into a problem. Designers try to bridge the source, match the needs of the viewer with a representation that reflects both source and application. Different disciplines might well visualize the same data in very different ways. “Truth” is tricky.

The Space of Interpretation
Visualization can introduce social narratives into the dialogue of space. A Mexican visitor to The Banff Centre recently explained that she was fascinated by the tall steel poles that poke out of the roofs of houses all over downtown Mexico City. These poles are markers, representing the dreams of the families who inhabit these buildings. They imagine adding floors to their homes as their families expand, building up to the top of the poles. She said, “In Banff you dream of the luxury of snow, there we dream about having shoes. We imagine that the children will get married, stay, raise their families in the building’s new story. We will become grandparents, and our grandchildren will stay with us. We dream of stories built on top of the stories that we live, but instead of building more space upwards, we fill the space inwards. Yes, the children come, the grandchildren come, we all live together.” This poverty is not one of narrative — the narratives of each family become more rich with time — but an absence of the material capacity to expand upward into space. When I heard this account, I imagined a vast, living, changing visualization of the city of Mexico: one where the markers are all in place, the stories expanding inwards, with the occasional upward growth as one or another family finds material rather than cultural wealth.

Quintessence is a vacuum energy that pervades all of space and exerts a negative outward pressure, inflating the universe. Quintessence may even form the majority of energy in the universe. Einstein’s post-quantum theory of relativity hypothesized that space-time is a curve, and that the expansion rate of the universe changes with time — the universe is going faster as time goes by. Think of a black hole as a place where gravity is extremely strong, as a place where the fabric of space-time is being pulled continually into a black hole. Yet, the world does not explode. Quantum field theory began its development in the late 1920s, and physicists believed that fields were the fundamental structures of the universe. (See What is Quantum Field Theory, and What Did We Think It Is?, a 1996 lecture by Steven Weinberg, University of Texas.) Quintessence explains the world as a set of fields that can coincide within space and time. This “fifth matter” is far denser than what we now know, and brushes up against matter as we know it. The friction of these fields may explain the constancy of the universe, “the cosmological constant”.

We see the Moon, but is it there? Quintessence makes us anxious about presence. Visualization allows us to explore perspectives where there are multiple dimensions, multiple planes. We can imagine, and try to represent, the fourth dimension, as does Sheelagh Carpendale in her research (which is featured in this issue of HorizonZero).

Can we can create embodiments — technical and teleological constructs — that allow us to play within the science of nature, the pulls of the Moon, and the dark other side of the irrational? These questions paint the space-time of theoretical physics, bouncing off of the study of quintessence, refracting beyond Einstein’s dream to explain negative matter. This science is a heartbeat moment where scientists close their eyes and dream of models beyond our perception. This space of invention, of imagination, is a space shared by art and science. Perhaps we must defy metaphor. We need emergent systems — algorithms where a process is started and then goes its own way. We need to initiate, observe, learn.

The Return to VR
In the early 1990s, The Banff Centre led in the creation of virtual reality systems as a form of cultural, as well as scientific, expression. Banff built eight VR prototypes, first during the Bioapparatus Residency (led by Catherine Richards and Nell Tenhaaf under the artistic directorship of Michael Century) and then through the Art and Virtual Reality Project (led by Douglas MacLeod). These projects used powerful soundtracks to navigate, offered up the first multi-player immersive networked experiences, and discovered the power of proprioception. They also hit the limit in terms of graphics, the encumbered weight of head mounted displays and data gloves, the feelings of nausea that accompanied immersion, and the huge computational demands of their creations.

VR research then entered a black hole: time stood still, or seemed to implode — at least for the creative community. VR was labour intensive, the technology challenges continued, and it was out of the price range of cultural institutions. Attention moved elsewhere, to the Internet. Yet it turned out that VR’s particles were not blown to smithereens after all, but rather coalesced into a new form. The engineering and science communities, driven by the needs of corporate design as well as research, have since discovered new ways to create affordable VR (ie, visualization) environments, as well as strategies for networking virtual realities and allowing for less encumbered, multi-modal, tangible interfaces.

Whether 2D or 3D, immersive visualization is a space of great interest to visual artists. After all, space is the artist’s territory. Artists examine dimensionality, the visual strategies that make space meaningful and profound, the ways that light sculpts space, the qualities of the human body, and its scale and relationship to space.

Modelling the Right Questions
It is possible that new social collectivities will be formed through the attraction and repulsion between irrational and rational imaginings in the process of invention, using visualization as a unifying terrain. In the world of science, attempts are currently underway (in collaboration with social science) to codify the process of collaboration, understand best practices, and find ways of validating cross-disciplinary process. Shared objects, metaphors and social codes seem to be a necessary part of the collaborative process. Visualization and 3D software facilitate the capacity to share objects in virtual space, and to design with teams in this context.

In the collaboration between art and science, language matters. Both visual art and visualization are invested in the “model”. In visual art, the word “model” is a polyvalent term. It is the figure onto which the artist projects identity — that of self and others. The model completes the self-portrait. There is always a gaze at stake — many gazes, in fact: those of artist, model, and viewer. A model also refers to a maquette: an abstraction turned into code or a physical object; the conceptual space where viewers and artists can project completion; the prototypical space that is realized in the completed work. In post-modernism, a model can be all that there is of an artwork: an abstract thought. (This bears similarity to some forms of scientific visualization.) To “model” also suggests the physical manipulation of materials to create a representation that has a metaphoric quality in three-dimensions.

In visualization and computer graphics, the term “model” is also polyvalent, sharing some designations with art and design. To “model” is to strive for graphic accuracy of the “real”; to build through a process of coding software and rendering; to mimic the physics of actual forms in 3D graphic space; to capture the laws of visual representation (painting, drawing, sculpting) in a graphics methodology. In scientific visualization, the model can move away from this: it becomes an abstraction of data (which is already an abstraction) in computer code. In simulation environments, the model is also an abstraction, hovering close to understandings of the model in contemporary visual art, as described above.

In both instances the model constitutes a shared space, whether passive or active. It is a space where viewers, artists, and researchers can project their knowledge. The model needs to convince and engage. The model can allow intervention from discrete points of view or locations. The term “model” suggests an ideal, whether Platonic or contingent — it is a standard against which behaviours can be judged. This creation of illusory space is shared across painting and 3D graphics: the physics of light, colour, and shadow are elements which cross the boundaries of both.

Perhaps at least one dimension of the aesthetics of visualization should not hinge on realistic or naturalistic “modelling” of the world around us. Visualization potentially engages with the self-conscious mirroring effects of the camera obscura and the visualization room (where we move, and the graphics move with us). We might ask: “What do we learn about the model when we look in the mirror?” Could science as well as art acknowledge its aesthetics and ideologies? Both virtual reality and the camera obscura or painting can create a distorted or fully-imaginary (i.e., fictionalized) world. Can a sense of illusion and immersion be created that induces awe? Can a subtle aesthetics develop within visualization? Can a low, emotive perceptual threshold be induced? Can shared objects or experiences be created that mobilize the powers of abstraction, and allow new dialogues to appear between viewer/participants?

This is a time when we need to understand that the aesthetics of visualization reflect back on current design and art making. Scientists often intend their simulations to look like an actual process or natural form. Sometimes these are more meaningful, however, if the simulations are abstracted and applied to other semantic systems. If the process behind a visualization itself supplies the “real”, then computer science and art share the need to work with structuralist languages, abstraction, and aesthetics capable of expressing an emerging process, or even an emotional process, rather than just representing. Think of how a visualization might show a dream emerging and receding. When researchers in the fields of visualization, computational linguistics, simulation, aesthetics, visual arts and sociology work together, new forms of language, meaning and interpretation arise from their collaborations. What is the gap between recognition and meaning? These collaborations can transport us beyond the aesthetics of space and story. How can this new knowledge be applied to large-scale systems such as the Internet, forestry, and astronomy?

Clumpy quintessence creates unstable but exotic objects that repel other matter. Artists, designers, mathematicians, and scientists working together create a valuable friction, a tension of attraction and repulsion. With visualization we can use the methods of science and of art to understand the boundaries and possibilities of being human — to stretch experience into the negative spaces and frictions of collaboration between different forms and boundaries of knowledge.

Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.

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