This is a good term that I haven’t heard before. It arises in an actual letter to Nature (access may be restricted) from K. R. Jolls:
Graphic artists who collaborate with scientists have often been shaped by the other of C. P. Snow’s ‘two cultures‘. Although well-intentioned, many artists’ understanding of basic science is inadequate for meaningful participation in high-level technical work. Cognitive art is like commercial art and technical writing: it has never garnered respect from the artistic establishment, and its practitioners are left to fend for themselves.
Discussion about the validity of Snow’s dichotomy abounds, and I’m not interested in commenting on that now (see the links above and the books cited therein). There have been a few examples recently of folks trying to push data beyond ‘good presentation’ to actual art.
Though not true for the case of Karel Nel’s work with the COSMOS data set, the creation of images from Thomas Briggs’ fluid simulation data and that X-ray cluster plot (ignore the axes if you find them distracting) use mapping processes, in both cases density → colour, though Briggs treats this relationship more loosely, and the cluster image also contains other mappings, such as redshift → colour and mass → distance.
It is not clear to me why these mappings transform scientific data more easily into visual works than aural ones—the latter being, as regular readers will have gathered, my preferred medium*. (I would nonetheless expect there to be a vast literature on correspondences between visual art and music, & would gratefully receive suggestions for accessible examples from this oeuvre.) I can think of some possibilities:
- Colour is an obvious choice for the map range, with any scalar field (density the most common) transformable in this manner, while there might not be a similar obvious choice for sound;
- Perhaps, and I feel this might be a contentious statement even though I don’t wish it to be, there is a more restricted range of potential output in visual art than in music, or equivalently, the range of ‘acceptable’ or ‘pleasing’ arrangements is broader in visual art.
But then immediately I can think of counter-arguments
- Pitch is, of course, an obvious range to which to map any scalar field arising in scientific data; indeed, it is composed of frequencies just like colour. Yet relationships between pitches seems so much more complicated than relationships between colours. Why is that?
- Sure, timbre, tempo or duration as well as dynamic and tonal effects abound in music, but they may have analogues in art, and it could simply be that limited theoretical knowledge of the latter leads me to consider it to be more restricted.
This is about as far as can take this line of thought at the moment. I would love to be able to convert my data to music in a methodical, if not standardised fashion, but there is no way it would ever sound interesting (let alone pleasing), whereas even my meagre aesthetic sensibilities can render unto the Matlab figure window vibrant images of some intellectual depth (I mean, the points, they represent X-ray clusters—what more do you people want?).
Lastly I note with pleasure that during the writing of this post an obvious link with Luke’s earlier post on synethæsia became apparent; that’s the constructive interference of collaborative blogging at work.
* Well, most preferred if one doesn’t count Fortran 90.