Convention Clash: Abstract Images in Art and Science

Report by Shirley Niemans

Descartes, R. (1644) Principia Philosophiae

On February 18th, I attended the workshop ‘Abstract Images in Art and Science’ at Utrecht University, organized by dr. Ann-Sophie Lehmann, prof. dr. Paul Ziche, and Pim Verlaek as a cooperation between the Descartes Centre and the Visualisations Group of the Centre for Humanities. The Visualisations Group explores interdisciplinary approaches to the study of images and visual culture, and aims to connect researchers whose work is related to visual culture and the intersections between art and science.

The main goal of the workshop was to create dialogue between different scientific cultures that deal with the issue of abstraction. To this end the scientific background of the contributors ranged widely, from art history to the history of science, from computer science to logics, and from philosophy to media studies. Throughout the workshop, it would become clear that each scientific field not only came with a specific take on abstraction, but with a specific approach to bringing the point across. Dialogue in this sense was certainly facilitated; translation of concepts was often needed and added to a more concrete outcome for an interdisciplinary audience of students and professors.

The main problems that are encountered when studying the history of scientific images were addressed in the first lecture by prof. dr. Christoph Lüthy (dept. of philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen). In the presentation “Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery” he states that today’s science is very pictorial, judging by the new kinds of imagery found in contemporary science glossies. But what is the status of these images? Following the reasoning of art historian Martin Kemp, Lüthy argues that we are the heirs of renaissance revolution, both in our notion of science and our assets of visual tools. Historically, there are no criteria to distinguish images from non-images, and as similar imagery moves across centuries it is impossible to produce a stable taxonomy. The converse is true as well; comparable objects or processes are being expressed by extremely dissimilar visual means. Lüthy concludes that the meaning of a given image can only be grasped in the context of the epistemological, metaphysical and social assumptions within which it is embedded.

The impossibility of understanding images either supra-temporally or, for that matter, ‘instantly’, turned out to be a recurrent theme among the morning presentations. In a formula-dense presentation called “Why do we have 2+3 = 3 +2 and 2 x 3 = 3 x 2?” logician prof. dr. Albert Visser (Utrecht University) illustrated the explanatory role of mathematical abstraction in acausal situations. He did so by addressing the (among logicians quite famous) case of the commutativity of addition and multiplication. In order to try to understand this fact, a general abstract pattern needed to be found that was applicable to both addition and multiplication. By using various examples Visser showed that most approaches merely increase confusion, but one is extremely helpful: Category Theory is concerned with mathematical structures and the relationships between them. Outcomes are consistently expressed in abstract diagrams showing connections of sets to other sets, by functions. This mode of gigantic generalization shows that addition and multiplication are, in essence, inverted instances of the same operation.

It is tempting to say that abstract diagrams facilitate a certain instant clarity, allowing the viewer to see relations and find meaning ‘in a glance’. As indicated by the last speaker, such seems possible only after lengthy conversations in advance. Not only immersion in the subject at hand, but also changing cognitive abilities play a role in the way abstract images are used and perceived.

Starting from a completely different background, art critic, editor and science historian dr. Julia Voss illustrated a similar point in “Picturing the Invisible: Charles Darwin’s Evolutionary Diagrams”. When sketching his evolutionary theory for the first time in 1837, Darwin drew a picture in his notebook. After writing “I think”, he sketched a diagram that expressed both time and difference. Voss’s claim is that Darwin compiled his diagram from several others that were around in his time. He combined their various levels of abstraction, but added a temporal factor that we are used to nowadays (in fact, we are conditioned to understand tree-like diagrams in an evolutionary mode) though in Darwin’s time was unheard of. It took Darwin the whole of eleven pages to explain the diagram when it appeared as the only illustration in his 1859 “On the Origin of Species”.

After lunch, the audience gathered for two more rounds of presentations. In general, the afternoon focused on the production of the image itself as a scientific product. Since the advent of photography, we have learned to distinguish between generative images (computer or otherwise generated) and pictorial or indexical ones. The latter aren’t often termed scientific, and vice versa. The afternoon lectures were to address this fact from various perspectives.

In his talk “Photographs and Abstract Images. On a Fallacious Confidence in Photography”, philosopher Rob van Gerwen introduced the concept of the abstract photograph. A challenging term, as photographs are usually the images in contrast to which certain other images are said to be abstract. In Van Gerwen’s view however, photographs are in fact abstract when things have been left out that require us to make use of external aspects or knowledge about a setting to come to an understanding of the image. Abstract photographs in fact often depict people; here it is the ‘moral space’ of the subject that is removed by neutralizing ‘address’ – the viewer is not, or merely circumstantially, addressed. Leaving out this moral space allows a photograph to become iconic for a broader situation instead of merely depicting a particular subject’s ‘this, here, now’. Iconic photographs of disasters, such as the Vietnam War, or the student protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, are such examples.

In the discussion following the talk someone asked whether the word ‘abstract’ in the title was merely there for the purpose of the workshop. In other words, would the concept survive outside of this context? Van Gerwen replied that the photographs commit to the concept of abstraction that seems to cross the disciplinary boundaries; 1) leaving something out (moral space or other aspects) and 2) requires us to make use of other aspects to understand. Harking back to the morning lectures; only when you have a theory in place can you read these images. Co-organizer Paul Ziche remarked that the challenge might be in how to arrive at a new property to understand particular situations.

Prof. dr. Frank Kessler (Media and Culture, Utrecht University) went on to discuss the use of moving images in science, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Chronophotography made images move by placing photographs in sequence. The technique has been very influential as a practical scientific method, based on the undeniable ‘truth’ of photographic rendering. The documentary quality of photography and early filmic experiments was foregrounded in ethnographic and medical studies, and was of great use as an analytical instrument for the study of movement by Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, who translated photographs and movement into diagrams and graphs displaying the specifics of movement over distance and time.

After the coffee break, the two remaining talks moved on to the subject of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Computer scientist dr. Peter Hall (University of Bath) presented “Is a functional picture aesthetic?”. Researching computer vision, Hall’s job is to get computers to ‘understand’ figurative images. Specifically, he designs programs that after input of a photograph synthesize 
”semi-figurative art”, like children’s drawings, 20th century 
Western art, Oriental art, cartoons and animation. This process involves transforming visual data into a meaningful 
language, using a full range of abstract images like graphs and scatter plots. Functional images help to understand what computers are doing, and at the same time help out computers understand the figurative images. All of this leads Hall to suppose there is a deep relation between abstraction, recognition, and 

In the final presentation, “Non-Photorealistic Renderings as Epistemic Images”, Pim Verlaek continued on the line of thought introduced by Peter Hall, while addressing the broader academic context of CGI. Specifically, Verlaek makes a case for non-photorealistic rendering (NPR) as a field of its own and a distinct epistemic style, as opposed to the ‘holy grail’ of photorealistic rendering. Used more often to communicate information effectively, than to be of artistic value, NPR functions as a form of abstraction. As the creation of images is often based on cognitive perceptual models, NPR can be said not only to abstract photographic representation, but also knowledge about vision and cognition. Highlighting the epistemic character of NPR imagery, Verlaek aimed to interest academic disciplines such as art history, media studies and visual studies in this relatively new topic within the field of computer graphics.

Throughout history, illustrators often refrain to state their intentions. As Christoph Lüthy indicated in the first presentation of the day, clashes of conventions are important means to get closer to the acceptance of certain explanations. With this wide array of speakers, the workshop coordinators organized a minor convention clash, bringing us a little bit closer to a model of abstraction that may help us understand how images work.

Descartes Centre
Centre for Humanities, Utrecht University

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