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Welcoming Uncertainty: How Curiosity of the Unknown Continues to Spark Our Imaginations

Marc Fichou, "Wall 6," 2016 (primary)
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Marc Fichou, "Wall (4,5,6,2,9,8,7)," 2016
Marc Fichou, "Wall (4,5,6,2,9,8,7)," 2016. Mixed media assemblage. | Photo: Juan Posada/Art Center, courtesy of the artist

Uncertainty” is the latest in a series of Williamson Gallery exhibitions pondering the intersection of science and art. The art, artifacts, and visualizations in the exhibition symbolize the edges of knowledge and perception, and an encounter with the poetics of scientific quest. For millennia humans have sought to acquire and cling to the comforts of certainty while it’s anxious opposite — uncertainty — has revealed mysteries and sparked the imaginations, instincts, creativities, and curiosities that have shaped us into perennially disruptive seekers.

In the exhibition's catalog essay, curator Stephen Nowlin explores our oddball relationship with uncertainty:

“To the best of our knowledge” is never a phrase frozen in time. It’s a bit like asking for 10 percent of eternity, but that which cannot be counted also cannot be halved or quartered. A percent of infinity is the same as all of infinity. We can’t even say “all,” really, when speaking of something limitless. Likewise, what is knowable keeps expanding, trailed by our best of it, and it summons the realization that there’s something else... still... and then even more — even if all we know is all we think there is to know. Fractal-like, what we know drills down to reveal more places to drill down. It’s exhausting. Knowledge is the minuend; to our best of it, the subtrahend. Uncertainty is the difference. 

In most of its manifestations, the insecurities that sprout from uncertainty, those little unknowns that plague us, are irritants from which we yearn to be sheltered. But in the world of seeking knowledge, they’re just as many irritants we cannot do without. There, in the seeker’s world, uncertainty is not its stereotypical composite of timidity, equivocation and threat, nor is it license to fill the void with gods leaping the gap. It simply means we acknowledge the vacuum as nothing more than what it is — a tantalizing frontier just beyond the best of what we know. It’s where we place a temporary “end of road construction” sign on the grand and noble journey.

Thomas McCauley Higgs, "Boson Candidate Event (8 TeV)," 2012
Thomas McCauley Higgs, "Boson Candidate Event (8 TeV)," 2012. Data visualization video, dimensions variable. | Image: Courtesy/© CERN

To the best of our knowledge, the nature of things and what happens to them is determined in conformance to cosmic laws. Ancient mythological memes paid no attention to those hidden axioms, and so in the deep past uncertainty was a grand petri dish nurturing wild speculations. As a result, we used to know everything, or lots of everythings — about how the world works, and how we fit in. And we knew it absolutely, because, in order to certain-ize what we thought we knew but didn’t really know, we just made up things. In fact, for most of human history we knew enough of everything, or at least enough of the explanations we’d invented and presumed were everything, to feel comfortably certain as a result. It’s only very recently, because of science and its shockwaves across the seeker spectrum, that knowing more means confronting how much less certain we are than we thought we were. The hubris lingering from an ancestry of knowing everything is what yet impedes the humility of knowing uncertainly.

For many millennia before the mere few hundred years that precede our modern era, for example, diseases were known to have been the mischief of spirits and demons; the entire universe orbited our planet Earth; and the genesis of humanity was ignited in morality plays whose storylines featured prosaic props of their time — garden variety creation dramas entangling apples, serpents, dust, ribs and the free-will choices of humans. These stories were believed because they turned the cosmos into a cul-de-sac whose boundaries were certain and therefore comforting, even though pretty weird in retrospect. It was a comprehension warped and deformed by edicts declaring Earth as the good and evil planet. So as one popular myth goes, we rejected the edict and gobbled up fruit from the forbidden knowledge tree — we chose the naughty quest for knowledge and got kicked out of the garden and into raw unfiltered reality, yet found ourselves so overwhelmed by its proliferating unknowns that we had to start making things up to regain some balance. It’s just a perennial irony, if one follows the narrative, that incomplete knowledge — innocent, courageous human curiosity and a simple desire to know more — somehow got pegged as the bad guy, and feature-length fanciful stories became sacred. Stubborn throughout time, the persistence of mythology-based beliefs is really human history’s big swirling black hole of misunderstandings — and it’s given uncertainty a bad name.

Jonathan Corum, "Kepler's Talley of Planets," 2013-16
Jonathan Corum, "Kepler's Talley of Planets," 2013-16. Digital motion graphic. 17 x  20 ft. projection, dimensions variable. | Photo: Courtesy of The New York Times

Stuck on that black hole’s event horizon, certainty and uncertainty continue to perform their push/pull. The reflexive impulse favoring deific versions of an eternal world persists, from which perspective is seemingly earned a meaningful existence — as if meaning is more likely, or only, to come from the sensation of knowing something for sure and forever. As if certainty is innately better and more respectable than the implications of its villainously unsettled antonym. 

Science, meanwhile, has been retrofitting fabled misconceptions about the world with real explanations since at least when the Copernican tsunami crashed ashore, circa the 15th century. The metamorphosis from comprehension based in the imaginary certainties of the past to comprehension based in the uncertainty-embroidered domains of science today is a zeitgeistian theme of history since that time when the Earth and Sun’s positions got swapped. It’s an arc of change that continues today, slowly but inexorably transforming the knowledge landscape with snaps, jerks, and the determination of a tectonic plate. 

Richard Feynman, "1975 Dodge Extended Van,"1975
Richard Feynman, "1975 Dodge Extended Van," 1975. Dodge van with Feynman diagrams. | Photo: Stephen Nowlin/Art Center, courtesy of Seamus Blackley

In science, all knowledge is provisional. To the desire for certainty, a principle of provisional knowledge might be dually criticized as moral arrogance and/or laziness — a confusion that can be found in reactionary social domains where science is misunderstood as elitist, reckless or conspiratorial. But provisional knowledge is the essence of science — the means by which it avoids digressing into biased vanity or doctrine and remains an objective wayfinder. Humans have always used science to know things, even when they didn’t realize they were doing so in primitive forms of trial and error. Unlike its stereotype of being guided only by rigid methodology, science conceals messy hunches and creative leaps, by which it can traverse the iceberg tips of many uncertainties. Science is not only tolerant of the unknown but must, by its nature, include the possibility that its conclusions could be wrong — so it is uncertain even of its own certainties. While knowing something for sure may be the ultimate goal, uncertainty is the guiding conscience of science. As a worldview, it turns the edict in the garden on its tail: avoid the fruit and a bland monotonous certainty punishes the human spirit; consume it and an agitated uncertainty rewards and replenishes our seeker instincts. Getting tossed out of the garden was the best thing that could have happened — had it in fact happened. 

In art, the signs of embracing modern uncertainty showed up in the 19th century and spread into the broad artistic delta of the century-and-a-bit that followed. In painting back then, the modernist trek to abstraction and rejection of representation symbolized waning confidence in a world shaped in the certain manner in which reality appears to the eye. Narratives painted into faithful but illusory reproductions of how the world looks became disturbed by marks, brushy distortions, random drips, flattened space and splashes left behind to claim for painting the nature of a performative byproduct of real actions — an object in its own right, rather than a window through which imagined certainties were cloaked in reality. Illusionary realism had furnished erroneous worldviews with counterfeit certificates of authenticity for millennia. Its gradual deconstruction was a symbolic process as well as one of facture — rejecting the impulse to realism was a metaphor for rejecting certainty. It was a surrender of highly manicured understandings and tidy absolutes, thus symbolizing an assent to the messier unknowns of advancing new knowledge. It helped cast doubt over long-standing assumptions and doctrines regarding reality, skepticisms that reverberated in 20th-century modernism and have continued beyond — a paradigm shift in which art’s alloyed affiliations of emotion and intellect moved to the real world where art and art’s observers mutually reside. Reality, the place where fictional worlds are imagined but don’t exist, became the new pictorial space and aesthetic playground for much progressive art.

Lia Halloran, "M88" and "M1," 2014
(Left) Lia Halloran, "M88," 2014. Blue ink on drafting film. | Image: Courtesy of the artist

That arc of change continues today, embodied partly in the international movement to combine science and art, a movement flourishing in studios, university programs, new journals, conferences and a rising body of criticism. Among its meanings is a challenge to the still widespread anti-science belief that super-natural forces are concealed behind the curtain of nature — beliefs that posit a determined reality in which cornerstone uncertainty is deemed too unstable and gloomy a notion to provide existence with inspired value. 

Commonly, certainty is defined as perfect knowledge, free from questioning — maybe like so-called heaven — while uncertainty is defined as imperfect knowledge, tainted by doubt. We accede to the meanings trapped by language traditions and accept the authority of their built-in biases, perhaps without thinking or while forgetting that enviable qualities like imagination, instinct, hunch, intuition, creativity, resourcefulness, curiosity and innovation, to name a few, are all summoned by sparks of uncertainty. Uncertainty is the wellspring of knowledge even while, in our oddball relationship with the concept, certainty seems the shinier and safer side of the coin. Language and tradition have created the prejudice to hold certainty in greater esteem than its opposite, as the ideal to which we should aspire for both daily security and greater meaning. But that allure is like a mirage — the only true way for humans to know and to mean is imperfectly, step by step, simply to the best of our knowledge. In the perpetual void between what there is and what we know of it, uncertainty is purpose. Because of it, we are linked from mind to mind across untold expanses of time and ancestral ethos in which, as Charles Darwin intoned on a related subject, there is to be found an enduring grandeur. And so for the next and even better version of our best of it, in the realms beyond what we know for sure, we should continue to listen for that faint beckoning and alluring tug of uncertainty — it is indeed an irritant to savor.

The exhibition’s catalog essay continues. Read the full thing, here.

The Einstein Collective, "Black (W)hole," 2011
The Einstein Collective, "Black (W)hole," 2011. Digital animations, sound composition. | Photo: Stephen Nowlin/Art Center, courtesy of the artist
Marc Fichou, "Wall 6," 2016
Marc Fichou, "Wall 6," 2016. Mixed media assemblage. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Jim Campbell, "Wave Studies," 2002-2005
Jim Campbell, "Wave Studies," 2002-2005. Custom Electronics, treated Plexiglas. Photo: Juan Posada/Art Center, courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery

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