( Translated transcript of the Jahreskonferenz der Dramaturgischen Gesellschaft, Oldenburg, 26. – 29. April 2012)

The possible - as well as the impossible - relations between the arts and sciences has been addressed afresh in manifold ways, one could even say conjured up. Events where artists appear together with natural and cultural scientists of various kinds often eloquently talking past each other, have been nurtured, on the part of sciences, mainly in the name of a renewing understanding of science and the public. Sciences seek proximity to the arts, which they once had, but historically lost, in order to portray their own actions as cultivable and interoperable. While the arts likewise look for the company of the sciences, either to appropriate scientific materials, or because they perceive themselves as researchers, and hope to participate in the glory of generating knowledge. Finally, seen from a cultural-scientific perspective, one can examine the diversity and the conditions of scientific and artistic image production, as a medium, where such encounters take place and are capable of justification. Often, visualisation is the keyword; in the search of images behind images, images before images are found and images beyond images are on the upswing, visual culture now is the new slogan. Yet, these aspects are not the main concern of this essay. Instead I intend to discuss how science explores the unknown, and that in this respect, it is conceivable that artists and scientists are not too far apart from each other.

Each artist works on in the dark, guided only by the tunnels and shafts of earlier work, following the vein and hoping for a bonanza, and fearing that the lode may play out tomorrow (Kubler 1982).

This sentence is taken from the book The Shape of Time by the American art historian George Kubler, with the descriptive subtitle “Remarks on the History of Things”. Kubler, once a scholar of Henri Focillon in Yale, focused on the colonial arts of the 16th to 18th century in Spanish and Portuguese occupied America. Inspired by colonial baroque, he developed his ideas about the emergence of new, primary architectural, form elements, which he extended to a history of material cultures. Kubler argued that this “history of things” concerns both art history as well as the history of sciences. In his book we read: “Although both the history of art and the history of science have the same recent origins in the eighteenth-century learning of the European Enlightenment, our inherited habit of separating art from science goes back to the ancient division between liberal and mechanical arts. The separation has had most regrettable consequences. A principal one is our long reluctance to view the processes common to both art and science in the same historical perspective.” (Kubler 1982) Kubler didn’t imply that the differences between scientific and artistic things are reducible, especially not in form of their specific products, but in particular saw their comparability in the processual character of their occurrence, with shared “traits of invention” and “their shared change and obsolescence”. (Kubler 1982)

What the art historian has to say about the artist should also be applied - cum grano salis - to the scientist, who is searching for the “novel”. The scientist, who researches, “works on in the dark, guided only by the tunnels and the shafts of earlier work, following the vain and hoping for a bonanza”. (Kubler 1982) The historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, once described it like this: the research process is “a process driven from behind” (Kuhn 1992) and not definable through anticipations, through a Telos - a goal - which is known beforehand and which is directly pursuable. In other words, the sciences are not moving towards something, rather they are moving away from something.

This topic could be further elaborated under aspects of hope and fears of the individual, which Kubler refers to, and which are familiar to every researcher. However, I will not, since my interest is to assess this “dark” and those “tunnels and shafts of earlier works”. In short, the material culture of the sciences, whose description and understanding I am soliciting as a historian of science. Particularly interesting for me is the question: How does novelty occur in science? It appears, quite clearly, almost like a commonplace, that the emergence of the new in modern science is linked to the experiment. But how to get a grip on what happens in the core of events, there in the dark, facing the tunnels and shafts of earlier work? A scientist never starts at the very beginning, but rather at the end of a path where others already went, but the direction this path will take remains unclear. A lot, maybe most of it, already lies behind (us). And this determines the point where one is standing, and defines what one is able to see from there.

This line of thought led me to take a closer look into experimental environments in their historical context. It was particularly the history of molecular biology I dwelt upon. After all, it is a field where my previous work as a biologist took place. There it became clear to me that the creation of a whole new research field, such as molecular biology, goes back to a multitude of smaller working contexts or systems, to which the protagonists often refer to as their experimental systems, model systems or, simply, systems. There is a quote by François Jacob, the molecular biologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who together with Jacques Monod, in about 1960, revealed the basic processes of gene regulation, and thus jointly received the Nobel Prize; a dictum to be found in his beautifully-titled autobiography The Statue Within, which I often quote and will continue to cite: “In order to analyse a problem, the biologist is forced to direct his attention to a section of reality, a piece of reality, that he arbitrarily singles out, in order to define certain parameters of this reality. Thus in biology any examination begins with the choice of a ‘system’. The scope of activity of the experiment, the character of the questions he can pose and very often even the nature of the answers he can give, depends on this choice.” (Jacob and Jakob 1988)

In this quote, emphasis is placed on the limitation of the operating radius and on the necessity to concentrate on one detail of the events examined. It is such a limitation that has been the irreplaceable motor of research since the early modern period, if I see things correctly. Perhaps the most important philosopher of science of the 20th century, Gaston Bachelard, has consistently emphasised that the detailed classification of sciences, its „Kantonisierung“ (“cantonification” as he also called it), below the level of academic disciplines that we are familiar with, in the laboratory, not to be misunderstood as a fatal specialisation but as a prerequisite for the flexibility of modern research. Thus it is essential to understand not only the conclusive but also the unlocking character of such limitations. Experimental systems narrow the view and extend it in the very same breath.

This extension, this unlocking character of experimenting, can be contemplated in two ways. Experimental systems are the places where novel things in empirical sciences happen. I mean this quite literally in the local sense: the novelty occurs less in the brains of the scientists – where it finally has to arrive, though –than rather within the experimental system itself, in the ice-bucket, so to speak. Experimental systems are very ingenious constructions: One has to view them as places of emergence, as structures created by the evolution of science, in order to capture otherwise inconceivable things. They are cobwebs of sorts. Something which is neither known nor known when it is coming, has to be enabled to entangle itself. Experimental systems are arrangements to create events that can’t be forestalled. The molecular biologist Mahlon Hoagland has talked about “surprise generators” in this context (Hoagland 1990), and the aforementioned François Jacob about “machines for the creation of future”. (Jacob and Jakob 1988)

Such systems do not not simply stand in the landscape in total isolation. They are rather woven into rag rugs, into patchworks, as one could say, according to system biologist Stuart Kauffman. Via patchwork connections novelties can spread very fast within a rag rug and cause additional effects at other positions. Failings or non-events stay limited at the same time and don’t necessarily have to negatively influence neighbouring patches. There are good, albeit not easily quantifiable reasons for such a system structure, as they have been put on track by modern research.

Research can therefore be characterised as a searching motion, moving on the frontier of knowledge and non-knowledge. (Rheinberger 2005) The fundamental problem lies in the fact that one cannot know precisely what one cannot know. Hereby the very nature of research is spelled out shortly but precisely. In the end, it’s all about the acquisition of new insights, and what’s really novel is unpredictable by definition, and therefore can only be deliberately procured within a very limited scope. What is really new, has to appear. The only thing one can do is to create conditions under which it can indeed appear in. With the experiment, the researcher creates an empirical structure, a setting that allows it to be capable of acting in this state of non-knowledge about non-knowledge.

In an experimental setting – and that should not be forgotten here – a whole sum of knowledge embodies itself, which is seen as trusted at a certain point of time and assumed as unproblematic. This usually takes shape in the form of instruments, contraptions and apparatuses. They are often set into motion solely for the purpose of checking their own functionality – the calibrating and testing of apparatuses probably even consumes the largest part of a scientific experimenter’s working hours. The applied machines should do their work virtually soundlessly. The actual goal of experimenting is, however, to somehow make the examined phenomena speak. The exploring experiment has to be laid out in a way so that novelty can occur within. Claude Bernard once said: “So one has claimed I would find what I haven’t looked for, while Helmholtz” – Bernard’s German colleague – “only finds what he’s looking for; that’s true, but the exclusivity in each direction is not good/unpleasant.” (Bernard 1965) Herein the great French physiologist of the 19th century hit the decisive point precisely. The research experiment is setup to reveal something, about which one doesn’t have an exact preconceived notion; but without having at least a vague conception of something, one, on the other hand, cannot be surprised by something novel. The experimental spirit is therefore complementary to the experimental structure.

Researcher and object enter a close relation with each other; the better one knows “their” matter, the more subtle it will draw attention against oneself. The experiment is a search engine, if you will, but of a peculiar structure: it creates things that can only be declared as inevitably being “to be searched for” retrospectively. Therefore, Bernard is entirely right when he categorically states:

“Cognisance is always something a posteriori” (Bernard 1954) or in the words of Christoph Georg Lichtenberg: “One has to make something new in order to see something new.” (Lichtenberg 1991)

There is also this well-known thought about this by Lichtenberg: “ It would be once very well deserved to examine, for your own housekeeping, why most inventions have to be made by chance […] That’s why it should be once very useful to give an instruction how to deviate from the rule following certain laws”. Such an automatic invention machine hasn’t yet been invented by anyone, and I can offer you no such algorithm. But I think that with the experimental systems and their examination, I’m able to mark and describe the point where these things occur.

Let me briefly introduce such an experimental track. It’s about the way of examining the problem of how proteins are produced by a cell. You shouldn’t and don’t have to deal with the details. It’s just about the impression of how instruments, objectives, diagnoses, inputs from outside and openings from inside

intertwine. Following the scheme it started top left in cancer research around 1945, bottom right one has arrived in early 1960 at deciphering the genetic code. In between lies the meandering path of a single experimental system. The system drifted from oncology into biochemistry and from there finally into nascent molecular genetics. The central mechanism, the way how the genetic message is translated and the building blocks of the proteins are connected with each other within the cell, has finally been codified in 1963 by James Watson in an article in Science magazine.

The twists and turns in such a system are many. Technical accidents can reveal a heretofore unnoticed phenomenon. A misfortune can therefore become a productive factor – control experiments can turn into research experiments. This is an unchallenged assumption – for it lies in the nature of control that it embodies the respective knowledge in compact form – turns into a problem. Applied techniques can evoke effects different from the originally intended. In this case, a substance causes an unanticipated “effect overspill”. Components perceived as contaminations of a system can prove irremovable and turn from being a disturbance into a research object. This was the case in the aforementioned system. A small soluble nucleic acid seemed to contaminate the system. It proved irremovable and was finally identified as the central mini-molecule procuring the translation of the genetic message. There are examples of the surprising incidental diagnose, where it’s basically only important not to miss it. A typology of unexpected turns in the experiment is ,to my knowledge, not written yet, but one can say, along with the physiologist and creativity researcher Robert Root-Bernstein, that in science, without experiments with serendipitous [that is surprising, unanticipated] results all theorising would come to a halt.” (Root-Bernstein 1989) Root-Bernstein summarises: “Science is change” in the very sense of “actual, effective surprise” (Root-Bernstein 1989) and he refers to Stephen Toulmin’s conviction that novelty occurs in science often just as unexpectedly and unintentionally as in nature. (Toulmin 1961)

One could view experimental systems therefore as structures that enable such twists in scientific cognitive processes, structures that allow processing chance productively, maybe even generate a form of accidents that can be processed productively in the first place. All nascent science – and therefore on the border of non-knowledge – all research is dependent on them. Where one doesn’t know any more, says Claude Bernard in his red notebook, “there, one has to find”. (Bernard 1965) And elsewhere he maintains: “One should well be able to say that no one ever has made a discovery by directly looking for it”. (Bernard 1965) The experiment is the form, where modern science has brought this indirect, searching, finding under – historically, once again self-changing – sets of rules. The luck that one has to have here, doesn’t just befall the researcher, nor can he force it. An imponderability remains. This is inescapably connected with the diversity of elements that are participating in an experimental constellation. They are of material, social, cultural and – of course – epistemic nature. There is no ideal type, nor an ideal mixture, to be quoted. “Everyone follows their own way,” remarks Bernard in one of his notes “and I got rid of the rules by going in between the disciplines, what others maybe wouldn’t have dared. But I think this didn’t do harm in physiology, because it led me to new insights.” (Bernard 1965) Some disciplines are historically in constant states of implementation, particular research strategies prove more or less successful according to that. And each experimental system is in the end concrete, tinkered with and in an elementary sense “of its time”.

Let me change sides at this point, to come back to the arts and discuss the relationship of art and science. When it comes to discussing this, the decisive task is to find a common reason for incontrovertible, historically innovative practices. As I see things, there has to be a reason, out of which the relationship between art and science can be formulated in a way where the engagement in the unanticipatable comes to the fore, without denying – and it’s important to stress this – the basic right of difference, maybe even irreducible difference.

Such an analysis will not be achieved through examining the products of the respective practices, if, or maybe even when, it’s the products who let both sides appear so differently. As the sciences as entities of cultural history cannot ultimately be understood through the structures of their completed theories, the arts as well won’t be grasped through the structures of their products. To once again pick up a sentence by Kubler: “We have long hesitated […] to see the processes that are common to art and science under the same historical perspective.” (Kubler 1982) Here just as much as thereit’s antecedently and preferentially about the practices of making, about the understanding of a production process with uncertain outcome, at which end things stand which haven’t determined its inception nor which have caused it. That’s what discerns, I think, research and art from the structure of technical fabrication processes and the production of goods. Both fields, the arts and scientific research, deal with forms of forward-facing open exploration of the world, not only the encircling of something that, maybe stubbornly, withdraws itself from access; it’s rather an exploration, where this “something” primarily takes form and where also the movement of encircling itself will always stay problematic and has to constantly be questioned.

For it is not preemptively constituted, where exactly the circle has to be tightened. In this context one can talk in a virtually constitutive sense about the uncertainty principle of epistemic things and should maybe also talk about the uncertainty principle of aesthetic things, as the French physiologist Bernard speaks about tâtonnement regarding the experiment. But with this the configurations of materials, instruments, arrangements and cognitive-practical lists – in the sense of agendas as well as in the sense of tricks – that go into the process, and that define inseparably together its epistemic design in constantly new forms, will also come to the foreground of interest. It’s these configurations, these constellations in which novelty occurs, that are worth a closer look. The science historical/art historical approach to their exploitation is but one amongst others, yet maybe a privileged one.

What seems to be my remaining challenge, is the necessity of fathoming the respective configurations of scientific and artistic emanation – the toils of the plains and not just the summits – in their own historicity, and of putting them under constant reflection. This could create cultural soil on which meetings of the presently temptingly intensified kind between science and art could resist the temptation to be drawn hither and thither in the brave different world of the other, instead of just looking over one another’s shoulders.

With these remarks, I wanted to direct your attention onto the space where knowledge is being created, no matter if epistemically or aesthetically connotated, in contrast to its social negotiation, its public declaration and its local and global distribution. Here one can, I think, look for structural correspondences between the sciences and the arts. I, however, do not belong to those who measure various cultural practices by the same yardstick, but I’m convinced that in an attentive scrutiny of the forms in which the respective materials are dealt with productively, that a study of the material convolutions and involvements of scientists and artists can lead to fundamental similarities in relation to the creation of artistic effects and the creation of knowledge effects. Both scientist and artist go after the unanticipatable and both know they can’t just miraculously pull it out of their heads. This notwithstanding they don’t have to fall into one. The fact that the sciences and the arts have historically created at least meta-stable, separated areas has to be acknowledged, even if this separation hasn’t existed at all times and all places, and even if it doesn’t have to stay this way forever. It could however very well be that this separation is a secondary effect, a collateral damage so to speak, of the respective stabilisation on the level of social negotiation, communication and distribution, and less indebted to the conditions of creating epistemic and artistic values. What we can do is to map out a discursive territory where it is possible that scientists and artists can mutually look at their hands, paying less attention to what they say but much more on what they do when they practice their craft. There are examples for such a discourse and transfer and I’m personally very glad to have had the opportunity to accompany a project over the course of the last few years – carried by the artist Hannes Rickli from Zurich – where it was all about transferring the creation room of the laboratory and the produced pictures and materials into the art room and to reconfigure them there – in constant exchange with the participating laboratory scientists, art historians and science historians.

  1. Bernard, Claude. 1954. Philosophie: Manuscrit Inédit. Hatier-Boivin.
  2. ———. 1965. Cahier De Notes, 1850-1860. Éd. Intégrale Du Cahier Rouge. Gallimard.
  3. Hoagland, Mahlon B. 1990. Toward The Habit of Truth : a Life in Science. Norton.
  4. Jacob, François, and Markus Jakob. 1988. Die Innere Statue: Autobiographie Des Genbiologen Und Nobelpreisträgers. Ammann.
  5. Kubler, George. 1982. Die Form Der Zeit: Anmerkungen Zur Geschichte Der Dinge. Translated by Bettina Blumenberg. Suhrkamp.
  6. Kuhn, Thomas S. 1992. The Trouble with the Historical Philosophy of Science. Deptartement of the History of Science, Harvard University.
  7. Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph. 1991. Schriften Und Briefe, Sudelbücher II, Materialhefte, Tagebücher. Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag.
  8. Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 2005. “Nichtverstehen Und Forschen.” In Kultur Nicht Verstehen, edited by Jure Albrecht, Jörg Huber, Cornelia Imesch, Karl Jost, and Philipp Stoellger, 75–81. Edition Voldemeer.
  9. Root-Bernstein, Robert Scott. 1989. Discovering. Inventing And Solving Problems at the Frontiers of Scientific Knowledge. Harvard University Press.
  10. Toulmin, Stephen. 1961. Foresight And Understanding. An Enquiry into the Aims of Science. Harper.