Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Martin Kemp: Response to questions

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From: Martin Kem
Date: Tue, 6 Mar 2007 11:17:17 -0500 (EST)

Here is my brief stab at opening answers, during the latter end of a flu. Such is the deluge of material already, I fear I will never catch up. There is nochance of my reading all the contributions given my schedule over the nextweeks. Sorry.I am a kind of visual historian, paid to teach history of art but also engagedwith images from the worlds of science and technology (see my monthly column inNature; the next one I hope to preview here once I've received permission).

1) What role do picturing practices play in your discipline of "knowledge production"
Pictures / images generated by others are the subject of my analyses. Theanalyses are a form of directed pointing, aimed at producing insights and freshperceptions of the images, above all (since I am a historian) in theircontexts. A hard and necessarily selective job, not least because the contextsdon̢۪t define themselves. It is of course possible (as much current arthistory vividly demonstrates) to produce seductive pseudo-insights that havemore to do with the state of the subject in academia rather than with theperiod generation and reception of the images.The tools I use are both traditional (verbal analyses and word-painting) andmodern (see below). In my analysis of the relationship of optics to westernpainting, I have used drawn diagrams (see The Science of Art). I still preferto conduct such analyses by hand, not least because manual drawing bears somerelationship (if conducted on as large a scale as possible) to the artists' actual procedures (but now see computer vision, below). Much of my research, teaching and publication concerns "knowledge generation" through the history of images from the Renaissance onwards. I am concerned with the relationship between claims of veridical naturalism and whatI have called the "rhetorics of reality". I am not using the term "rhetoric" in the now fashionable sense that rhetoric = false. Rhetoric was, after all, "the art of persuasion" and for Cicero involved the "invention of something that is true or plausible". Strategies of visual persuasion, often based on what Gombrich called the "eyewitness principle", can be laid bare, but it does not mean that the subject of the strategy has no truth-content (however defined). The same basic point applies tomachine-generated images, which are often suffused by the rhetoric ofhigh-tech.

2) How have your perceptions and attitudes of mind been challenged by currentdialogues within the "Art-Sci" arenas?
Having been involved in the so-called Art-Sci / Sci-Art territory for 40 years- from a time when it did not exist - the burgeoning art production, thecontributions of authors, scientists, historians and commentators have providedthe ever-changing context within which I have worked. My involvement withartists I regard as vital in refreshing perceptions and even in alteringconceptual fields. The historian on one hand has to avoid simply refracting thepast through the present, while on the other adopting fresh perspectives andmodes of interrogation that allow the past to speak to us in new and sometimesunexpected ways.

3) What role have new imaging technologies played in your conceptualizations ofvisual modeling or artistic application?
New imaging technologies have played a significant role in 2 respects: researchand public exposition (though there is in practice no clear separation betweenthem). In the Leonardo show at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1981 we workedwith the IMB Research Centre in Winchester to animate some of Leonardo's ideas (geometry, optics, perspective, branching systems, architectural design). This was undertaken in the conviction that the "architecture" of computers could be placed in creative dialogue with Leonardo's ways of thinking visually. Inevitably, generating the input for IBM and responding to queries resulted in having to ask new questions (or answering questions that I had neglected to answer). The same applies to the rather different types ofanimations used in the recent Leonardo show at the Victoria and Albert Museum(see now the book Leonardo da Vinci. Experience, Experiment, Design, V & A publications and Princeton UP). The new animations were based on the inherent sense of spatial movement in Leonardo's drawings - what he called "continuous quantity". I've called this "scratching itches thatLeonardo could not scratch". Another strategy has been my collaboration with Antonio Criminisi, specialistin computer vision (formerly Oxford, now Microsoft Cambridge.). We have used his technique of "single-view metrology" to undertake direct analyses of space in paintings (no extraction of data and insertion into CAD programmes). More recently, we have "Å“rectified" the convex mirrors in paintings byCampin and van Eyck, with astonishing results that demonstrate howNetherlandish artists used "actors" in real settings to "stage" their astonishing feats of naturalism (for Antonio's papers with me and others, see http://research.microsoft.com/~antcrim/papers.htm). The new techniques are not more"scientifically objective" than the old ones. Rubbish questions, misapplication of techniques and wishful thinking still generate rubbish. But they do provide potentially powerful tools to answer old questions and bring new questions into the frame.

Not much of this is to do with Bioscience. But you did ask.

Martin Kemp

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