The late physicist Freeman Dyson argued, in a lecture series at the turn of the millennium, that major scientific advances can be understood as being driven by either new instruments or the adoption of new paradigms1. The first type is described in detail by Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston, among others, and the second type by Thomas Kuhn2. In this first way of thinking, instruments are understood to deliver ­essential, incremental progress, as when they become more ­precise, and periodically there is a great leap, as with the first microscope, or the development of anesthesia. In contrast, the process described by Kuhn of the ‘paradigm shift’, which has become part of everyday language, is a re-alignment of previously-held assumptions about fundamental ­concepts. A good example is plate tectonics, the accurate theory of which was articulated first in the early 20th century but only accepted in the 1950s and ‘60s, leading to massive changes in the way we understand geology, biology, evolution and the fossil record. So too with the Germ Theory of Disease of the late 19th century, which, once accepted, upended countless entrenched practices and so-called ­conventional wisdom, some of which did patients harm.

The mechanism of the paradigm shift varies but, as Kuhn argued, the change begins with the accumulation of anomalies, the seemingly annoying phenomena or observations that cannot fit into the current model. When a sufficient number of these outliers exists, then new theories or models are ­suggested to explain them. The proposed new model often reveals flaws in conclusions widely regarded as sound or the shoddiness of previously gathered evidence supporting the old intellectual regime. The new paradigm can even make established fields obsolete. Herein lies the greatest challenge before the shift can occur: there is much invested in the old models, from publications to entire careers and reputations. Conversely, the new paradigm can birth new fields altogether, which we have seen happen as a result of the Human Genome Project and as we perhaps are witnessing as a result of the Human Connectome and Microbiome projects.

In the world of art, advances akin to paradigm shifts as well as instrument-driven innovation also occur. As in science, these can be complex and difficult to pinpoint, but it is doubtless that the rise of photography and cinema, for example, is owed to new light-capturing technology. As for paradigm shifts, the development of abstraction, Surrealism, or Pop Art, for instance, owe their existence to cadres of practitioners who found a new aesthetic vocabulary uniquely suited to their times. As in science, the flourishing of such new paradigms, or movements, cast new light on everything that came before them. They can also change how we use words, see and think, just as the Human Genome Project helped introduced ‘DNA’ into our vocabulary or Theo van Doesburg’s De Stijl magazine worked to change how people saw Modernism. Taken together, we can say that both ­science and art have the power to initiate paradigm shifts in our culture.

In art practice, as in science as Kuhn articulated, anomalies emerge that agitate existing models and expectations of what art should do. They can stir outrage and prompt ­dismissal, as have Kara Walker’s silhouettes depicting the violence of slavery or composer John Cage’s three movements of silence titled 4’33’; such works were first perceived to exist, perversely, outside of the intellectual framework carried in the minds of museum officials and art critics. Or, as with early performance art or land art, artists faced rejection of their work on account of violating the economic ecosystem of galleries and collectors: being difficult to buy, sell, or maintain.

When the paradigm shift occurs in the arts, it is not quite like Kuhn saw it in science, as following a crisis in the field prompting new paradigms to be articulated and put forth as replacements. Sometimes artists or artist-groups do publish manifestos, like that of the Futurists or Situationists, that establish a set of guiding principles, but they are largely void of any observational data or formulae, are forever up for interpretation and virtually impossible to test, unlike say, the Theory of Gravity or plate tectonics. And yet, like Newtonian and Quantum physics, art movements can sit together amicably while seemingly opposed or concerned with entirely different media, such as Minimalism and Pop Art. Perhaps the strongest signal of a paradigm shift in the arts is via the successful re-birth of traditional themes or interpretations of the human story following the new ­aesthetic vocabulary. This is why Wynton Marsalis is celebrated for interpreting classical music like that of Haydn and Mozart with jazz sensibility, or why Shakespeare feels universal as he rebirthed elements of Greek mythology, or why Andy Warhol invested so much energy to make his own version of the Last Supper after Da Vinci.

In the exhibition (UN)REAL, the first to open at the Science Gallery in Rotterdam, we see works that put forth prototypes of new aesthetic vocabulary, in images, film, and objects, as well as re-interpretations or re-births that hint at paradigm shifts underway. The exhibition is unique in its purpose relative to what you would expect from a museum or traditional gallery: the goals are engagement and community building, to foreground some of the scientific concepts underlying the work or linkages that exist between the artists’ projects and the research that happens at the host institution: Erasmus MC. The theme at the foundation of the Open Call, from which many of the works were selected, was the creative potential in the space between the actual and the perceived.

A work that distinguishes itself as intriguing exploration of that space and which also reaches back to art history in multiple ways is The Neuroanatomy Lesson by Dan Lloyd. In this work we are confronted with the reality of how our eye captures only small specs of detail at a time from the scene before us. This video work begins with the familiar image of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp from 1632, and then proceeds to explain through text and demonstrated visual effects what information is really being received by your eyes, as the narrow cone of light falls on the area of the retina known as the fovea. The effect is that of shifting focus and distortion, a depiction of the raw materials of vision before they are processed by the brain.

The work is a fitting addition to an exhibition at a Dutch ­university hospital, where indeed the study of neurons, the eye, and brain are all pursued. However, unlike during the time of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, who would present such a ­lecture annually, it is no longer necessary to use a cadaver of an executed criminal, as the grip of religious tradition has loosened. The work can also be seen as an unintended confirmation of what those who developed Cubism, such as Picasso and Braque in the early 20th century, intuited about visual experience and the mind, that in fact sight is fragmentary and to make a portrait of it forces the maker of two-dimensional images to break the rules of perspective and proportion that are, as Lloyd has demonstrated ­elegantly, illusions that our brains conjure for us.

The artist Ani Liu also presents a work about visual experience that considers its temporal and cumulative dimensions, based on the habit of the eye, evolved over millions of years, to be drawn to different parts of the body. In her work Algorithmic Animal Gaze, she presents three light boxes, each with images from her own body, arranged ­according to the tendency of the human eye in one and a computer algorithm in the other, to dwell on parts of the body which they find ‘interesting’ or hunger for information to feed their predictive functions.

What is apparent in the work is a thought-provoking similarity between the machine and the human eye, that both ­gravitate toward glances at the eyes, lips, breasts, vulva, ­fingers, and nose. These glances are presented in a hierarchy, depicting the most-to-least interesting features that attract, arranged on the light boxes. It is an invitation to ponder the mechanisms in all our minds that we may or may not notice, which direct our gaze and send signals to others about our intentions and attention. The work is also a provocative glimpse at the use of tools such as the Shannon-fano algorithm for ranking and organizing images, which anticipates our likely future wherein what and how machines ‘see’ will determine or influence much about our everyday lives. Few of us realize the extent that surveillance combined with algorithmic processing of data is proliferating in our cities, workplaces, and homes, with scant reflection or debate.

Also relating to rapid changes wrought by technological ­possibility, the work of Charlotte Jarvis, In Posse, presents an upending of human reproductive reality, as it has been known and accepted since homo sapiens arrived on the African savannah. She has made the world’s first known female sperm, theoretically capable of fertilizing a human egg and producing a viable embryo. To appreciate the scope of the implications or applications of such a feat, accomplished in close collaboration with scientific expertise, it’s useful to consider how in the past we have thought of reproduction, fraught with the legacy of patriarchy.

Throughout much of history, semen has been upheld as a sacred substance, referred to as a drop of the brain, a life ­force, even that which sows the seeds of virtue in the female soul. In contrast, the uterus and vagina have been labeled as inert vessels, the latter as a sheath, or that which houses the all-important sword. The hierarchy implied in these and other examples is plain, in which language perpetuates male ascendancy3. But, as implied by the title In Posse, a Latin term for having the potential to exist, a new and different set of conditions for the gender and genital power balance might be brought into being. A potent, symbolic means to this end is to remove the exclusivity of semen as a male-made substance.

The installation, recalling an altar, includes evidence of the process as well as a series of artifacts and film of rituals that constitute a creative re-enactment of the ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria, widely celebrated in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, and intended to bring about female and agricultural fertility. Although little is known about how the women-only festival took form, In Posse includes and expands on scant elements of it passed down through surviving commentary, including the burial of a pig, the use of pine branches, and the making of serpentine and phallic offerings.

With the collaboration of Dr. Susana Chuva de Sousal Lopes and the Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana, Jarvis converted stem cells from her own blood into sperm producing cells found in adult testes. These are combined with seminal plasma, the basis of which is blood collected from several women. The other substances added include proteins, fructose, ­lactic acid, and cellulose, in total representing a collective act and a rejection of hierarchy. The science behind this work has been rapidly advancing, particularly since the ­achievements of Shinya Yamanaka, the Nobel prize-winning researcher who found in 2006 how adult cells could be ­converted to induced pluripotent stem cells which, in turn, can be prompted to become sex cells, or any other type4. This is helpful for regenerative medicine, which struggled because the availability of stem cells hinged on access to fetal ­tissue, as well as for fertility treatments. It suggests the ­possibility, although perhaps still years away, that any ­couple, regardless of their sexes, can create an embryo that blends their genetic material.

An important step in this process, which was supported by a Vici grant made to De Sousal Lopes, a high-honor for ­research in the Netherlands, is to utilize CRISPR-Cas9 ­technology. This gene-editing tool is used to make it possible for the artist’s pluripotent cells to produce male sex cells, despite not having a male Y chromosome to begin with. They must be modified, replacing genetic instructions for female sexual development with those for a male. In sum, the work is a multi-layered demonstration of what is possible when artistic sensibility and new science are united in a culturally-relevant speculation transformed into reality.

Two additional works help capture the possibilities offered by genomics research, an area of significant activity at Erasmus MC. These speak about the potential impact new biotechnology built on recent research advances may have on our everyday lives, and invite us to have a deeper understanding of its applications and implications. The first is Coming of Age in a Biohacking Era by Gavin Vaughan. Through the presentation of speculative tools for altering the body and adopting the format of the popular Youtube ‘unboxing video’, the artist highlights the likely future in which body-modification, through genetic or hormonal interventions, becomes as common as a tattoo or ear-piercing. The journey of identity-exploration that all adolescents ­experience is already changing rapidly with the dimension of the digital persona that must be managed, but soon too there may be CRISPR-Cas9 treatments or other means by which to construct the new self.

The second work that addresses genomics is Food Processor by Atelier Van Lieshout, a sculpture of an imaginary future farm, a so-called utopian being that blends the human and the machine to make a useful hybrid species. It can be seen as both earnest and scathing: maybe science will help deliver such amazing solutions to produce more food cheaply, in an ever crowded planet with diminishing resources, or...maybe this sculpture is a dystopian capitalist ­nightmare taking form, an expression of despair that we may be marching towards a future full of inhuman creations designed to sate our insatiable appetites.

The rough-hewn sculpture of Atelier Van Lieshout also helps anchor this exhibition in its context: a port city that has been hammered into shape by industrial potency and entrepreneurial vigor. Rotterdam is characterized by a continual willingness to begin from scratch, as its experience of the 20th century demanded, to forge with raw material, both ­literally and figuratively, to achieve re-birth, to re-invent the real. Perhaps this is a reason why scientific and artistic innovation enjoy fertile ground in the city and in a young institution like Erasmus MC, environments that champion an iterative approach, while discouraging any fear of failure.

This small sampling of works in the exhibition, which are given thorough attention in the catalogue descriptions, help support the point that the exhibition is meant more as a platform for question-asking than answer-finding. Crucially, artworks such as these, like science, do not make a firm claim to certainty. In their processes and eventual presentations, they acknowledge the circuitous path to truth as well as to beauty. And such paths, as has been demonstrated, materialize as conversations rather than pronouncements, which is to say this exhibition, if successful, will beget new exhibitions, works of art, and unexpected collaborations, rather than being recognized as a standalone object. So it is with scientific knowledge or achievements like the writing of Kuhn, which offer a foundation upon which to make progress.

The Science Gallery Rotterdam, like the other science ­galleries based at major universities around the world, ­prioritizes building community and accelerating and multiplying the processes by which scientific research comes into conversation with society. At best, the artworks, workshops, events, and interactions that arise from the Science Gallery programming can work as an enzyme does in a biological reaction, speeding along, sometimes dramatically, a process, which here is of a large institution becoming more human-centered, reflective, and inclusive. The project of the (UN)REAL exhibition prioritizes these values and endeavors to announce, like a welcome sign, a new meeting place for research, society, art, and health care.

The presentation of art in such an exhibition, given this ­mission, can be understood as a means to offer new ­language, or aesthetic experiences that act as bridges to new ­concepts or way of thinking. Much like what Shakespeare did when experimenting with language as a chemist might splice together elements to make new and potentially useful molecules, he attached ‘un’ to several words for the first time, such as ‘real’ to introduce an idea that was not quite a negation of the original but an expansion or broadening5. To say something was ‘unreal’ implicated that the ‘real’ did not quite encompass the ­complete, complex nature of experience; we now benefit from that opening up of meaning, and relish the opportunity to drive it further, to yet unimagined versions of the real.

  1. The summary of those lectures is published as a book: The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, Oxford University Press, 1999.  

  2. The following books are helpful introductions to these and many concepts: Objectivity, MIT Press, 2007, and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962.  

  3. Analysis of these issues and how they connect to language usage, see Natalie Angier, Woman, Mariner, 2014. Also see Inga Muscio, Cunt. Seal Press, 2018 edition.  

  4. On the significance of this development, a concise summary can be found in Megan Scudellari, ‘How iPS cells changed the world.’ ­Nature News, June 15, 2016. 

  5.  For further reading on the language innovations of Shakespeare, see the work of James Shapiro of Columbia University, New York. Among the many creations credited to Shakespeare are eyeball, uncomfortable, unaware, undress, unsolicited, unwillingness, and uneducated.) 

View the floorplan of Science Gallery Rotterdam’s exhibition (UN)REAL