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Art, Science and the Sublime: 3 questions with Anna Dumitriu

Is the Romantic idea of the sublime still relevant? Yes, says Anna Dumitriu, and not just for art, but for science too.

Anna Dumitriu2

Anna Dumitriu is a Brighton-based contemporary artist best known for her work in bio-art. Her practice encompasses installations, interventions and performances, often incorporating diverse materials such as bacteria, robotics, digital projections and embroidery, Dumitriu seeks to blur the boundaries between the arts and the sciences.

Dumitriu is founder and Director of the Institute of Unnecessary Research and lead artist on the "Trust me, I'm an artist: towards an ethics of art/science collaboration" project working with the Waag Society in Amsterdam. She has written extensively on the notion of the "bacterial sublime".

Is science our new key to the sublime?

Nature has always been one of the most powerful ways of accessing the sublime. Edmund Burke, who published his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful as a young man in 1757 describes its effects as: “the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”

Science is a means of study the natural world, in all its forms, and for making predictions about it. In that respect the sublime exists in aspects of the natural world where science is not yet able to make predictions or where those predictions are very obscure to us as individuals, even if they are well known to others. For this we need to remember Immanuel Kant's assertion that the sublime can only exist in the mind of an individual experiencing some form of trigger rather than in the trigger itself. So I would say that science, rather than being a key to the sublime, is (when it is successful) our key to removing a sense of the sublime. Understanding and predicting something is the best way of destroying a sense of the sublime.

Is science is encroaching on art’s territory, or vice-versa?

Personally I am very against the idea that some form of knowledge would be the territory of a specific discipline. The thing people term “art” seems to be the lens through which I investigate the world, and microbiology is the area that most strongly fascinates and draws me in.

The sublime an experience somewhere between terror and awe. Artworks have the power to create that sensation, as do aspects of scientific endeavour. But art is freer to toy with our emotions and persuade us into new experiences. Science communication often attempts to employ similar forms of awe inspiring rhetoric to impress us but this can sometimes be quite superficial.

By placing bacteria in an aesthetic context, it enables people to experience them emotionally and physically – through the smell of the lab setting, the health and safety paraphernalia, or the way they grow. This may offer a certain kind of sublime experience in some cases.

The sublime lies, if anywhere, it the aspects of the universe that we don't understand and art is therefore better placed to investigate the notion of the sublime. Neuroscience may be able to destroy it entirely or turn it into something we can experience at will.

Will the galleries of the future be filled with scientific data? Or will our labs be filled with art?

Personally I would not have a problem with that. In my own work I am seeking to place working microbiology labs in gallery settings and facilitate members of the public to work with live bacteria inside. The key reason for doing this is to enable “the lab” to be experienced on a raw aesthetic level and to allow access to such spaces which are hidden, or only mediated through TV, films etc. to the wider public.

As an artist I work with scientists on a daily basis. I weave stories across many disciplines (philosophy, history, microbiology) to create my installations and artworks, and the thing that is key to me is to enable the wider public to participate in debates around the future directions of science, and to facilitate conversations about it. But my work is concerned with scientific research into bacteria and infection control, an area we are only just beginning to know better through whole genome sequencing. The bacterial world, and our relationship to it, possesses more than enough mystery, wonder and terror to keep us going!

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