Knowledge Production at DVK 2014

CH Waddington (British, 1905-1975). Epigenetic Landscape from The Strategy of the Genes. Published by Allen and Unwin, 1957


Knowledge Production at DVK 2014

The first panel of the DVK Symposium is currently underway in the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, an attractive lecture space on the ground floor of the Museum. Although physically situated in an institution committed to the display and collection of fine art, the symposium promises to address visual knowledge in a variety of realms. 

Colleen O'Reilly, a doctoral student at the History of Art and Architecture Department and an organizer of the event, introduced the symposium by addressing the topic of visual knowledge directly. Colleen emphasized that the aim of the symposium is by no means to determine a precise definition of visual knowledge, but rather to consider it as a "point of convergence," or a meeting point for interdisciplinary collaboration. Jocelyn Monahan, a doctoral student at the School of Information Sciences, reiterated that the process of organizing the symposium itself demonstrated the elusiveness of a precise definition of visual knowledge. Indeed, its lack of a definition is what makes it such an ideal topic for an event such as this. 

The panelists presented provocative arguments on various topics, including evolutionary and functional biology, data visualization, and agnotology, and I could not capture them all here. However, here are some of the main sticking points:

  • Through an analysis of CH Waddington's illustrations, and his epigenetic landscape in particular (1942), Matthew Allen (History of Architecture, Harvard University), discussed the tension that exists between concepts and scientific illustrations. Allen spoke about the challenge presented by scientific images that are intentionally obscure, and the ways in which these images actually impede knowledge transmission. Yet, Allen also alluded to the strange power of the seemingly nonsensical image. The most popular depiction of the epigenetic landscape is characterized by sharp, confident lines that are perhaps suggestive (or attempting to suggest) of the authenticity of the scientific ideas encased within (see image above). Allen suggests that this interpretation fits with the twentieth century notion of developmental biology. As mentioned above, I cannot attempt to capture the entirety of Allen's talk here, so hope you will forgive my somewhat abrupt summary. 
  • Catherine Falls (Art History and Information Science, University of Toronto), provided an absorbing narrative about Roman Ondák's "Measuring the Universe," eliciting comparisons between the interactive artwork and the genre of data visualization, as a whole. The human traces represented in Ondàk's work, manifested in dashes, names, and dates inscribed in black marker on a white gallery wall, accrete to produce what Falls identifies as a "norm": the thick black line. The installation suggests the primacy of gathering knowledge about ourselves as a group of people rather than of ourselves as individuals. 

More to come....

  • Visual Knowledge
  • Graduate Work


Thanks Aisling for getting

Thanks Aisling for getting this rolling.  I also found these papers to be very thought provoking.

Allen's paper and the questions that followed raised some key issues about scientific illustration and visual modelling.  The whole idea of translating a metamorphic process (cell duplication and selection) into a process of locomotion (train switching, rolling eggs or balls down through a topographical landscape) is fascinating but also highly problematic.  Is it a visual metaphor?  Does it change the way we think about the cell processes we are trying to understand?  Does it actually suggest new findings or new research questions?  Is the model merely a heuristic picture of a phenomenon that is more accurately described in scientific terms and sentences?  Or is the model a primary source of knowledge in its own right?  Where does the scientific theory actually reside, in an expository argument, in a chart, a string of numbers, or a picture like this one?

Falls' paper got me thinking about visualizations that are more than mere 2D pictures.  As she emphasized, this visualization was also the record of a series of participatory performances that took place within the space of the gallery, and which recalled similar performances of measurement done on our own bodies as we grow up and reach full height.  So rather than a computer generated visualization from a database, this was generated directly from the bodies and performances of the various collaborators in the visualization.  I was also fascinated by the spatial aspect of this visualization.  It was created in a specific gallery room, a "white cube" with certain dimensions.  The height of the room, in particular, is crucial, because in this case there was a very high ceiling, far above the line or bar that was created by the height measurements.  Within the gallery we would respond to the visualization while standing and looking at in a real space.  We face it as bipeds, aware of our own height in relation to the height of the visualization and the height of the room.  This is very different from looking at a chart on a screen.  

Hansen's paper focused on the infamous Colin Powell powerpoint used to bolster the Bush administration's (false) claim that Iraq was still harboring chemical weapons.  Her paper related this to newer theoretical work on ignorance -- and the Powell pp is a particularly Orwellian illustration of state-collected surveillance data being manipulated to exploit the preexisting ignorance of its audience and at the same time manufacture new ignorance.  It's hard to really process how deplorable this was, more than ten years later, after spending a half a trillion dollars (?), launching a civil war, displacing millions of Iraqis, killing hundreds of thousands, not to mention the thousands of American dead and permanently wounded -- all of this having happened in part because of a stupid powerpoint presentation.  Looking at it now, it seems very crude and dated, and it's hard to understand how otherwise intelligent people could have been so taken in by it.  Given that there was absolutely nothing in those images that proved anything, can the study of visual knowledge help combat this willful ignorance?