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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Collaboration as camouflage : the mobilization of art during Cold War scientific exceptionalism Wang, Alice Ruo Ran


The proliferation of art-science collaboration in contemporary art necessitates a critical history. This paper is an attempt to do so. One of the first places in which this genre of art was cultivated was at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies founded by Gyorgy Kepes at MIT in the late 1960s. However, this essay is not an examination of what Kepes did—but what was achieved through him. Cold War ideologies from the late 1940s was marked by what Audra Wolfe characterizes as a “scientific exceptionalism” that sought to place science above and beyond the reaches of politics. The parameters structuring art-science collaboration at MIT were in conformity of this exceptionalism: displacing issues of value onto the arts; locating democratic participation downstream of technoscience, in its application, not its epistemology. These parameters in turn contributed to the propagandist engines at large that worked to dissipate efforts to examine the sociopolitical dimensions of science, such as those by the Vienna Circle expatriate Philipp Frank in Kepes’ vicinity. The proliferation of any genre of art suggests vested interest in its saliency. In seeking to understand the science politics in which the Center for Advanced Visual Studies was situated, I contend that art-science was never a collaboration between the artists and the scientists—but a public engagement effort for technoscience through the arts. The distinction drawn between art and science was predicated on, and in servitude of, an exceptionalism that depressed the sociopolitical understanding of science and curtailed its democratic engagement. If we understand how scientific exceptionalism operated through Kepes, we can understand how art was mobilized to help configure the relationship between science and democracy. That art and science exist as distinct entities is irrelevant; that they are entities so profoundly distinct that they need to be reconciled to bring about social betterment is the misattribution of Cold War propaganda.

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