Extra curricular: science

by A.L. McMichael

Editors’ note: Sometimes presumably simple questions are the most elusive to address. A deeply storied and likely eternal example of such a question is the following:
What is art?

Writings on After Vasari bearing the new heading, “extra curricular” are attempts to explore this query in various ways, to probe the ever-nebulous boundaries of ‘art’ in hopes of grasping, however fleetingly, why it is that some endeavors and objects merit such a name.


In The Brodmann Areas ballet from Norte Maar, dancers interact with video projection and sound by After Vasari’s own Paul D’Agostino.
PHOTO: Norte Maar.

Science and art are, at times, uneasy bedfellows—one explores the concrete and measurable while the other incorporates our entire realm of possibility and fantasy. This was not always the case, of course. In Renaissance Florence painters were incorporated into the guild of physicians and pharmacists, emphasizing their skills in mixing and measuring pigments. Leonardo da Vinci became the essence of a ‘Renaissance man’ with his plans for a helicopter and anatomical sketches created alongside his painted masterpieces. His anatomical drawings, on exhibition at Buckingham Palace, were produced with near-photographic accuracy, capturing the nuances of how a spine supports the body and how the heart pumps blood.

Dancers are often at the forefront of exploring the human body and its movements as a nexus of art and science. The Brodmann Areas, a recent collaborative ballet at Norte Maar, was named for a map exploring the cerebral cortex. Choreographer Julia Gleich introduced the final performance by sharing with the audience, “the dances are experiments.” And in that phrase, she summed up aspects of scientific experimentation that are driven by human creativity.

Each piece danced was a meditation on kinesis and memory. In a section called “Motivi esteriori e cosi via,” a film of collaged images was projected behind the dance floor. Each figure on the stage danced a response, emphasizing the temporal nature of fleeting images and the physical presence of the studio wall. As the images disappeared or changed, the movement continued, incorporating our memories of the images as an additional medium in the work.

In a segment titled “Folium: a wrinkles on the surface of the cerebellum,” Jace Coronado danced a solo with a small ladder strapped to his back. His jubilant leaps were a manifestation of pure human achievement. The accompanying clack of castanets in Antonio Martin y Coll’s music referenced the flapping ladder. Stepping away from clinical references to the brain, the piece offered instead metaphors for subtlety, subconscious connections, repeated thoughts. The ballet was an ever-changing incorporation of dance, visual stimulation, music, and vocals that speak to the myriad connections and collaborations in the activity of the human brain.

Harnessing neuroscience is also a way to decipher creative impulses. An Xiao of Hyperallergic has recently pondered the scientific impetus for art, exploring “what’s going on in artists’ brains” while they create. Jeremy Dean has pointed out that embodied metaphors such as “jog one’s memory,” can be put to literal use: movement, gesture, and even posture are connected to problem solving.

But what about the inherent element of science that is creativity? Experiments, even when tightly controlled are the result of intellectual curiosity, of innovative problem solving. My response is to contemplate and challenge my own notions of medium and materials in the construction of art. Leonardo’s painstaking draughtsmanship was a vehicle for both scientific observation and visual expression; perhaps it offers the most tangible example of the human body as a loca sancta of both science and of art.