Ars sine scientia nihil est

Stéphane Baillargeon

One weave may conceal another. One title may mask another. The work that styles itself as a self-portrait of the universe, so to speak, is entitled Rayonnement Fossile (relic radiation)(fig. 1), but its working title was Hertz, which offers a clue as to what it seeks to convey. German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz contributed greatly to our understanding of electromagnetism, and indeed his name was given to the unit for frequency, or cycles per second. According to the standard model of cosmology, the Big Bang generated a massive amount of electromagnetic radiation. And this still observable diffuse microwave background is what Nicolas Baier’s Rayonnement fossileseeks to represent.

The existence of the cosmic microwave background was theorized in the 1940s, and its uniform signal was eventually discovered in 1968 by two young radio astronomers named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. When analog televisions display “snow” – those random black dots on a white background – some of the noise they are capturing is from the electromagnetic signal generated when the universe – everything that has ever existed and that ever will – came into being about 13.7 billion years ago.

This work reproduces one of these portrayals of the primordial background noise, and thus represents the entire universe. The original projection of the cosmos was woven from wool and cotton thread on an antique loom at a mill in France using historical techniques but with a computer-designed weave. Weaving consists of interlacing separate sets of threads into connections and knots to create a fabric. Like any thought process, it is both art and science. And in fact, the metaphor of weaving has deep roots in our interpretations of the world. In Republic andCratylus, Plato used it as an allegory for politics: just as weaving produces clothes to protect the body from the weather, politics produces models to protect the soul from the body – the reasoning part, attracted by justice and harmony, must achieve dominion over the irrational and impetuous part.

Themise en abymeemployed in this work generates multiple interrogations, references, and metaphors. Visible radiation allows us to perceive invisible radiation. Weave upon weave evokes the modern conception of the world as a network of networks. The act of creating art “breaks the skin of things” and, as so beautifully and aptly stated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, shows how “things become things and the world, world.”

Above all, Rayonnement fossile/Hertzreminds us that science presents models that can be in turn interpreted by art. There are many ways for these two demonstrative modes to come together. Art and science form what the philosopher John Dewey called “experiences of meaning.” Historically, the most fertile periods of art often coincided with times of great scientific innovation, as was the case in the Renaissance and since the 19th century. Art and science both rely on analytical ability, inventiveness, and creativity. Both express their notions about the world through abstractions, symbols, and language. Both make use of observation and experimentation. And both are frequently highly technical.

“Poetry and astrophysics have much in common,” said astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan. “While it may be difficult at first to conceive of links between the two arts, that is likely due to our ignorance. Both disciplines tell the story of Life in their own way.”

Nicolas Baier also rejects the isolation of these disciplines and acknowledges their fundamental connection, drawing upon science as a direct source of inspiration for his art and borrowing from the science and technology of his time. In short, he concentrates into its purest form what the Québec philosopher Hervé Fischercalls “scientific art,” in the same way as one might speak of expressionist art or conceptual art. For Fischer, this trend best represents the early 21st century, with artists adopting the new “mythical metaphor” of science as inspiration, especially in drawing upon imagery of the digital world, networks, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, mathematics, astrophysics, and biotechnology. Just like their predecessors, today’s creatives are turning toward current knowledge and techniques. Georges Seurat, the most scientifically knowledgeable of all the impressionist painters, summed up his process by saying, “I try to give an image of my time using the methods of my time.” In the year 1400, Parisian architect Jean Mignot, visiting the worksite of the Milan cathedral and noting that the pillars of the transept crossing were too weak to support a dome, apparently stated “ars sine scientia nihil est.” Today, we might say that practice is nothing without theory, or perhaps that beautiful work must also respect the rules of knowledge.

Nicolas Baier is the practitioner who proves the theory – a scientific artist. Trained in drawing and initially attracted to painting, after university he soon abandoned these traditional techniques in favour of the new digital creative tools that have been developed since the 1980s: image-sensor photography, laser printers, scanners, computers, and 3D printers. These new knowledge machines allow him to explore the world in his own way and show how things become things. For example, he used a microscope to enlarge a tiny slice of meteorite 4,000 times (fig. 2). The image, recorded and reproduced at impeccable resolution to a size of four square metres, evokes an all-over painting from the mid-20th century by creating a similar effect of immersive depth. Like the hope described by a certain poet, the art of Nicolas Baier strives to be “a pale incision into the skin of night.”

Technology itself can also be a direct inspiration. In 2008, a computer malfunction caused a field of pixelated red lines to appear on his monitor, evoking a kind of sea of fire below a flaming sky. He recorded the image and reproduced it as-is in a light box, with the title Failed(fig. 3). Another anomaly, this time by a 3D printer used to produce other works, gave rise to the sculpture Monolithe(2016, fig. 4). The defective machine spat out a tiny but complex jumble of white plastic several centimetres long. The object, enlarged hundreds of times, now exists as a sculpture in black bronze.

This expressive mechanism is thus based in a fundamental turn-of-the-century reality: the power of digital technology, “of technoscience completely subjugated by computers, binary language, and software,” as Fischer notes in La planète hyper : de la pensée linéaire à la pensée en arabesque (VLB, 2004). Baier’s art also brings to mind the importance of new methods of distributing scientific knowledge. Nearly a half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan had already observed that new media (including television) were themselves becoming the new reality: “The new media are not ways of relating us to the old “real” world,” he wrote in Counterblast (1969); “they are the real world and they reshape what remains of the old world at will.”

The invention of photography led to cinema and later to television, but also to radiography and holography. And this marvellous lineage continues with the development of the computer-generated image, which blends cutting-edge digital technology with artistry, since binary code often requires interventions and enhancements from the artist.

Data(fig. 5), a large natural landscape reconstructed digitally in Baier’s workshop, continues the obsessive fantasy of trompe l’oeil painters, but it does so by dialling back the illusion a notch. Where does reality end and reproduction begin? This new magic lantern aims to create false perfection. But it would be a mistake to focus too greatly on this technical achievement, because while it employs contemporary methods and cultural preoccupations, the work also takes up the eternal questions of art about our relationship with the world and about sensitivity. In its own way, Dataraises questions that were already being asked in Renaissance art. Using new tools, this computer-generated image also seeks the perfection of the simulacrum, the creation of the lie that could be true. It offers a new illusion, a visible presence that allows us to perceive the world differently.

This reconstructed landscape, realer than real, grander than nature itself, is in fact much more than a mere reflection of the world. It is not simply another variation on the realism debate that has already been fought between photography and painting and between cinema and theatre. It does not reproduce the world: it producesit. And it uses a language to do so, just as the Word created the world in Genesis.

“There is a kind of infinite mirror effect to digital language, a sense of being simultaneously description and reality,”writes Hervé Fischer in La planète hyper. “The effect of the algorithm is to confuse the language and its subjects, making it impossible to distinguish between intelligent agents and intelligible objects that have become intelligent. It thus serves both to represent and to constitute, and this gives it both an instrumental power and a constitutive power. While the languages of drawing, painting, and cinema have no instrumental effect on the objects they represent, digital language becomes a digital simulacrum of itself, as can be clearly seen with scientific imagery.”

 Mirror effect. Scientific imagery. This is Nicolas Baier’s approach in a nutshell. Time and again over the past two decades, his work has featured shimmering representations and reproductions of the real. A series entitled Paréidolies (fig. 6)includes the digitalization of landscapes imprisoned in a type of metamorphic limestone from Tuscany called “ruin marble,” of the clouds that turn up in wrapping paper, and, in Réminiscence(2016, fig. 7), of what each of us seeks to discover in cloud forms. The group of works Vanités(fig. 8), produced over the course of years and in many different forms, uses digital scans of old mirrors that are subsequently assembled into mosaics. These works are a tangible and updated example of painter Agnes Martin’s idea that art always acts as a mirror; they are the reflection of a reflection, a representation of a representation. The seeking/creation of surrounding art as an experience of meaning and reflection ultimately led to the production of Vanité / Vanitas (2011-2012, fig. 9), a self-referential photo-sculpture that reproduces a modern workspace – perhaps that of the artist – with a computer, scanner, and networking wires. A more recent version, Vanité (bureau astro)(fig. 10), is a trompe l’oeil reproduction of an astrophysicist’s office. The illusion is created using dozens of machine-printed pieces. The desk is black, like the infinite space scoured by the scientist to discover the universe’s hidden secrets. A new work will soon complete the trilogy on spaces of reflection, with a philosopher’s desk sculpted out of marble.

Scientific imagery is also the basis for a significant portion of the work inspired by some of the greatest and most impressive discoveries of “big science.” For instance, several works show the tracks left behind by ion or proton collisions made in the search for the Higgs boson (see p. 43 and 148-155). Baier has reproduced images from laboratories in both metal and on canvas, revealing the keystone of the universe’s architecture. Without this “God particle,” the basic elements of matter could not combine, and so nothing – not the universe, life, humans, conscience, or art – could exist. Physics, metaphysics, and poetry thus all ask the same fundamental questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? How is the world made world? And what is the heuristic value of our interpretations and representations of beings and things?

Another source of Baier’s inspiration is the notion of network. Tree structures, rhizomes, and reticular development are metaphors of both our time and the art of our time. Networks can thus be found in the works’ imagery and in their references, steeped in the very roots of art. Hence the works based on asterisms – imaginary patterns formed by bright stars in the night sky. This is how ancient civilizations came to see shapes such as Orion’s Belt, the Square of Pegasus, the Autumn Triangle, and the Winter Hexagon. The work Hublot(fig. 11), an architectural tondo, offers a virtual image of some 100,000 stars visible from Earth. TAU PSAand ALP ARI, the Constellations (orand noire) (fig. 12), Dendrites(fig. 13), the various versions of Synapses(including sculptures) (fig. 14), and, of course, Astérisme(fig. 15),all manifest this reticular logic in their own way and employing their own materials.

This practice of using abstract interactions as an interpretive device also applies to the exhibition. The title points to the idea that an illuminating metaphor can emerge from different works when they are interconnected. The connectivity that now spans the world means that results, analyses, and images from research centres, labs, galleries, museums, and artists’ websites can spread far and wide, and, better yet, they are often freely available immediately for everyone.

Interaction is, of course, central to digital culture and scientific art. Baier’s work is not merely an illustration of technology through art, nor of art through technology: it draws the viewer in, elicits profound questions, and creates its own mise en abyme. It shows that digital technology not only bridges art and science, it provides a wonderful means of re-examining the art of the past, old practices, and neglected traditions. His body of work should therefore not be thought of in terms of a break with the past. It seeks, and finds, roots. The references to painting – in Matière noire(fig. 16), for instance, and in the two prints on steel of the Remixseries (Bluescreenand Greenscreen, fig. 17-18), presented with the 3D prints of Synapses 02(fig. 19)–are revealing in this respect.The quartet forms a concentrated sample of the entire oeuvre, with iconic images borrowed from traditional art (the path, the book, the labyrinth, the tree of life) developed using modern technology (3D printing, inkjet printing, computer-aided design). The initial impetus of this sequence, its organizing principle, was to remove the sculptures’ pedestals, then the frames, then the images, and finally the works themselves, leaving behind simply the concept and theory of art – in other words, the scientia in the ars.

This complex collection encapsulates the process, which is precisely why Baier selected it as a reference guide for the design of this catalogue – an untitled document dominated by the blue of blue-line process, and by bluescreen and greenscreen, which allow digital special effects to be inserted into screens and artworks. In the end, the mise en abymeillustrates that art cannot be reduced to a science or a technique: it is a cosa mentale.

Is this the only lesson to be learned? As it was understood and practiced for centuries since the Renaissance, science was based on the senses and on sensitivity, as mediated through geometry, for instance. The scientific revolution of our time, which began with modern physics, tends more toward abstraction and even the invisible. It often takes after philosophy and the conception of the universe. In drawing inspiration from recent scientific discoveries and their applications, Baier restores tangibility to conceptualization. He embodies philosophical and scientific thought. He puts theory into practice. He does not place rationality in opposition to sensitivity; on the contrary, in fact, since he practices their reconciliation. “The untruth attacked by art,” said Theodor W. Adorno, “is not rationality but rationality’s rigid opposition to the particular.” Baier does not shy away from intelligence, discourse, or concepts; at the same time, he embraces the sensitivity of the real world. Like Seurat, he gives an image of his time using the methods of his time. As Merleau-Ponty desired, he shows how “things become things and the world, world.”

The oft-used image of the cave also focuses this dichotomy between the world of ideas and reality. In a 2012 exhibition, Baier names Plato (him again!) to explain why he decided to develop the allegory of this “first and inescapable consideration of the relationship between the real and the virtual, truth and illusion, the tangible world and the dream world.” He relates it surprisingly but informatively to a sculpture entitled Engrammes (dans le monde des idées)(fig. 20), which represents a database: a computer-based container for collecting, storing, and using information. Technically, the files stored on a database of this size could contain all the books ever produced by humanity in every language – in other words, all human knowledge, whether scientific, philosophical, or artistic. There is an obvious comparison to be made here with Dendrites(2016, fig. 21) and its jungle of digital branches, with their opposing promises of release and control, opening and closure, emancipation and surveillance.

Which ultimately brings us to the purposes and raisons d’être of art. If Baier finds food for thought in the study, actions, and applications of technoscience, if he unearths a new way of looking at the world or even a new image of the world, is this not in some way comforting? Art cannot be seen solely as a self-referential discipline. The past century has seena narcissistic eruption of art that spoke only of itself, its roots, its definition, its ways and means, its media, and its contribution. This self-questioning has great merit, has been abundantly productive, and continues to create worlds – Nicolas Baier’s work included. At the same time, what this scientific artist creates and shows, using the means of his time, is that art can and must also undertake to examine the real world, which, in the end, is more important than art itself.