Curatorial Comments

 

The team that was assembled to create the original exhibition at the Exploratorium drew on a variety of people with different perspectives. Artists, staff scientists and museum professionals worked closely to produce a show that would combine these different views into one cohesive show. What follows are statements from key members of the development team: Jim Crutchfield, a visiting physicist; Kathy McLean, the director of the Exploratorium's Center for Public Exhibition;
Peter Richards, Curator; and Melissa Alexander, Project Manager.

 

Kathy McLean
"In addition to combining the best of Exploratorium practice--thoughtful prototyping of each exhibit over long periods of time--we also experimented with a variety of ways to communicate through environment and exhibit design, graphics, minimal text, and an audio tour. We tried a new exhibition development process, with artists, designers, writers, and planners all working together in a spirit of consensus. And we evaluated the exhibition during its six months at the Exploratorium, refining and changing it for this traveling version. Please let us know how your visitors respond to it."

-Kathy McLean, Director, Exploratorium's Center for Public Exhibition

 

Jim Crutchfield
"Turbulent Landscapes celebrates a new view of nature-a view that, when coupled with recent scientific innovations, allows us to understand much of nature's inherent complication. We now ask, How do simple systems produce unpredictable behavior? And, in a complementary way, How is it that large complicated systems generate order? Most importantly, we are learning how to answer these questions. It appears that much of what is intricate and highly structured in nature arises from a delicate interplay of order and chaos. All of the exhibits illustrate this, not only in how patterns emerge, but also in our perception of those patterns."

-Jim Crutchfield, research physicist at University of California Berkeley, and a Research Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. He was a project advisor and visiting scholar supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation during this development of the exhibition.

 

Peter Richards
"A group of artists working at the Exploratorium have recently completed a body of work that examines those systems in nature that are inherently self organizing. At a time when scientists finally have large enough computers to study these complex systems, these artists, working here with simple materials, have created works that model these same systems in ways that not only capture the physical essence of this phenomenae, but also their essential beauty. Be it the filagree of an a-cellular slime mold, the sensual flow of water over eroding terrain, or the organic nature of a video feedback system, it is the beauty of these phenomenae that lead to questions and deeper observations; observations that have led to significant learning experiences for those working in this field, for ourselves and for our visitors.

Historically, artists have always played an important role in Exploratorium's creative laboratories. Each artist who works here brings an individual perspective; a viewpoint, when considered in the context of the Exploratorium, often lends to the discovery of fresh and creative ways of looking at familiar subjects. The artistic and scientific research that goes on here is based upon the underlying conviction that art and science are closely related and that exciting new insights and discoveries can come from this integration. Through its formally organized Artists in Residence Program, the Exploratorium has offered residencies to three to four artists annually for more than twenty years; collaborative relationships that have resulted in the creation of many of our more popular and provocative works.

Turbulent Landscapes in many ways can be thought of as the culmination of this programs work over the years. It was the creative climate of a place dedicated to unrestricted exploration that provided a base for staff and for the artists working here, to create an unpresidented collection of exhibits and artworks. Ned Kahn, whose work is featured prominently in this exhibition, was given the luxury of following his own interests for over 10 years - time that has resulted in an incredible body of work - one that is largely represented in the Turbulent Landscapes exhibition. Juanita Miller, on the other hand, is a young artist, just a year or two out of school, who had been working in our shops as an apprentice. Intrigued with Per Bak's thinking about self organized criticality, she proposed and then created a disarmingly simple piece that explores the behavior of a continually regenerating pile of seeds. The form that the seeds assume (its angle of repose); the dynamics of the continual erosion and its re-building provided much for the mind to ponder from a physical and metaphorical standpoint. Her observations along with Ned's, and the other artists in the show have contributed to a legacy; one left by the scores of artists who have worked here since the museum opened almost thirty years ago."

-Peter Richards, Curator Turbulent Landscapes

 

Melissa Alexander
"The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is. It's how nature creates itself on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm. It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing. People were talking about the end of physics. Relativity and quantum looked as if they were going to clean out the whole problem between them. A theory of everything. But they only explained the very big and the very small. The universe, the elementary particles. The ordinary sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about -clouds-daffodils-waterfalls-and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in-these things are full of mystery, as mysterious as the heavens were to the Greeks. We're better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside the nucleus of an atom than whether it'll rain on auntie's garden party three Sunday's from now. Because the problem turns out to be different. We can't even predict the next drip from a dripping tap when it gets irregular. Each drip sets up conditions for the next, the smallest variation blows prediction apart, and the weather will always be unpredictable."

-from Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

 

I think this quotation from Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia sums up the vision of the artists presented in this show and the dialogue between the artists and scientists that accompanies the exhibition in the audio tour. The character speaks of the "ordinary stuff that surrounds us." These are the things that we see every day. We may tend to take this ordinary stuff for granted: There is a cloud, that is a tree, the traffic is unusually bad today. They are just everyday objects and events that we bump into, notice casually, or brush off as we concern ourselves with the larger issues of working and living.

Yet, at the same time we do process these things, and when we can't see the pattern, we see chaos. But in the practice of science, technology is changing our vision. Because of computers and new forms of scientific visualization, we are now beginning to see and describe rhythms and patterns and order in places where before we could perceive only chaos or disorder.

Scientists are beginning to see an underlying order as they peer into the center of turbulence in a cloud, or even as they examine such prosaic things as the flow of traffic or groceries in and out of a community. They are beginning to describe natural forces in different ways. Some call this phenomenon self-organization, some call it non-linear dynamics, or complexity. Some scientists say it's nothing special, nothing new. Others say that we are on the verge of a new understanding of the universe.

The artists who are presented in this exhibition have made the illumination of these same patterns and forces of nature their life's work. That is what this exhibition is really about-presenting an opportunity for people to consciously and deliberately notice and enjoy the patterns formed by the ordinary stuff that surrounds us.

We deliberately left out the complicated technologies from this exhibition wherever possible, but what is going on in the sciences is as extraordinary as the forces presented by these artworks. So we designed the audio tour that accompanies this exhibition as a way to give visitors a taste of those scientific explorations.

Nature is not a static thing; it is always in motion. So are the processes of science and art. It is stunning to me that scientists are developing a language and understanding of these processes that is so different from how we have described nature in the past. It is an honor to bring you their ideas, together with the artworks in this exhibition.

We hope this show provides an environment, a setting that encourages your visitors to stop and contemplate some ordinary stuff-slime molds growing across logs, water drops and reflections, or the simple patterns and forces of magnetism-because when you look at them closely, they are mysterious and extraordinary.

 

-Melissa Alexander, Project Manager



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