Artist Lab Report:
Wonder Practice

by Adrian Wood

A photograph shows a person standing in a prairie fen, holding up a square frame made of pvc pipe. The person is wearing a red backpack, a blue shirt and pants, and a white bucket hat with strawberries printed on it. The PVC pipe frame is about 1' square, and the person holds it up with one tan hand. The frame contains a portion of the horizon. Another figure stands further away, their blue shirt obscured by the grasses that dwarf their height. The sky is clear and it is a sunny day.

A researcher frames the earth and sky in her process.

Scientists and artists practice imagining better, more meaningful, more integrated futures. There are many forces that threaten this practice: existentialism; injustice; denial; scarcity. These threatening forces can be investigated in balance with the practice of imagination when the art-science partnership is most effective. At Lakeside Lab, artists connect with scientists in effective partnerships that support the practice of imagination. We co-create pathways for the universe to move fluidly through us. 

What does a scientist want from a partnership with an artist? Perhaps they want to connect with the public in meaningful ways. The scientist wants to share research findings through an emotional nexus that transforms data points into stories. The scientist wants a taproot to social and cultural context. The scientist may need the artist to reflect on the human impact of their research. For example, the artist may assist in finding a mode to acknowledge the role of indigenous people in ecological history when considering restoration projects. The artist may have insight considering the impact of research around human subjects. The artist may help build equitable understanding of language around invasiveness and control systems. The scientist perhaps wants the artist to participate in an alchemical process where data transitions to meaning. 

Meaning-making is the artist’s purview. And what does the artist want? All manner of things. Perhaps they want the value of perceived utility from their partnership with the scientist. Most frequently, the artist wants funding. Often, the artist also wants justice. The artist wants diverse audiences. The artist wants new modes of thinking, of conceiving of knowledge, and of learning. 

When the desires of the scientist and the artist align, new opportunities for both practices arise. The universe is moving through us. We witness this motion in forces we name entropy, organization, eros, cosmic intelligence. These are the overlapping interests of the scientist and the artist. As our subjects, the forces of entropy, organization and eros have their own plans. These forces perhaps benefit from being perceived by humans, because our collective intelligence can conspire to prevent our animal desires from decimating them.

What do I mean by “the universe moving through us?”

One example is from an experience I shared with strangers at Lakeside Lab. In this example, I am alone on the dock of Lake Okoboji in the dusk of a summer evening. The dock is shielded on one side by a steep hill of cottonwoods, sumac and all manner of prairie wilds. The other side is an algae-covered mirror stretching to the eastern horizon. On weekday nights like this one, there are few or no boats to interrupt the reflection of the sky peeking back between fluffy algae mounds.

I am laying on the dock, half-stretching, half-meditating. I look over towards the lake and see two figures stepping out of kayaks. From a distance, the duo appear to walk on water. They mill about on the barely submerged sandbar. I watch them move like stickbugs. Their silhouettes are rorschachs in the lake’s reflection. I close my eyes and then open them. The air is like peaches and the breeze has a freshwater tint. The two figures have converged to become one four-legged totem in the dusk.

The romance of the moment is thrilling. I do the only thing there is to do. I play “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star on my phone speaker and waved my lighter around, hissing to myself, “Yes. Yesssss. Love is good.” I enjoy romance the most when it is adjacent to me. 

All week, I wonder who the sandbar lovers could be. I stare at students and interns. Who has a glint in their eye?

10 days later, I am playing Settlers of Catan with four others at the Lab. One of the players flashes her shiny new engagement ring. She tells us how she had known the surprise engagement was coming.

“My mom asked me how the weather was. She never does that. Then my boyfriend asked me to paddle out to the sandbar.”

I tell her I saw it all, watched them dance on water at dusk. I tell her the song I played, and how I was internally rooting for the power of love. I was perhaps the only one who had seen them take this step together into their converging futures. Certainly something cosmic moved through us then. 

In physics, the observer effect is the process where the act of observation changes what is being observed. This is mostly used to describe the problem of trying to watch things that are affected by light hitting them, which changes their behavior. Physicists tend to get frustrated when the observer effect is interpreted as human consciousness affecting the behavior of the observed process, because this is a conflation of quantum mechanics. However, there is not a scientific counterpart for the inversion of this effect: the way that the observer is changed by what they observe.

Call it the observer effect — but inverted — the energy of their union, the beauty of the peach-colored air.

Perhaps the triangle needed to be connected by me revealing to the new fiancée that I had seen the moment of the proposal.

How many moments are longing to be perceived? What is to be gained from a dispersed attention that could allow those fragments the satisfaction of being witnessed? The artist and the scientist collide in the practice of wonder. We direct attention in order to create compositions out of observations, to draw meaning from chaos. In the words of acoustic ecologist R Murray Schafer, 

“The final question will be: is the soundscape of the world an indeterminate composition over which we have no control, or are we its composers and performers, responsible for giving it form and beauty?”

― R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World

I created several fragments while at Lakeside reflecting on these thoughts and processes. You can find them as part of a videogame prototype on my website at adrianwoodstudio.com.

“Artists and scientists are both asking questions about the world, they’re just doing it in different ways”
Alex Braidwood
Director, Iowa Lakeside Lab Artists-in-Residence Program
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