Footprints to gain understanding

With regards the cross-curricular educational theme of ‘making tracks’, Italo Calvino in his Invisible Cities writes:
“You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger's passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are”.

‘Making tracks’ is an aspect of being human; a behavioural imperative which drives us to simplify the complexity of our environment. We do this by unscrambling information to establish relationships in time, which we call knowledge, and making patterns, which we call art. We do this by deciding to behave in a certain way to our perceptions of environment, by either posing questions or extracting ‘essences’, which lead to bursts of creativity and a trail of footprints to a purpose.

John Keats famously encapsulated the idea of extracting essences from meeting up with 'an eye lighting thing'. in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Replacing the urn with a photograph of footprints and displaying it as art thereby gives the viewer an opportunity to make a subjective 'knowing-response', adding a personal truth to the image as an example of artistic beauty. The experience of beauty is enough to lead a good, fulfilling, meaningful life. Keats thinks that we don’t need truths that can be expressed in words. Indeed, Calvino's message is that creator and responder are never speaking the same language, which leaves many decisions for the individual viewer. The reason of creating is undoubtedly important to the meaning of the final product. However, an image of footprints stands between art and science because the photograph also exists, like an artefact in a museum, as a record of reality available for scientific investigation to determine ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘who’ 'how' and ‘why’. However, Keats would probably say there are lots of things we would like to know about the world, like how animals move. But we don’t need to know such things. Beauty is the only absolutely necessary idea.

Footprints to meeting places

Another metaphor to extend the idea of making tracks to a purpose is to think of the emergence of meeting-places where moving beings come up against a focus for convergent streams of footprints expressing territoriality, migration, aggression or a geneological stream of kindred. In a human context this is reflected in the development of the sophistication of sedentary agriculturists who generally have a different way of conceptualising the land to mobile peoples. The latter often see territories through the paths and views that make them up, rather than as blocks of land defined by boundaries. Agriculturists tend to impose their own constructs upon the land such as settlements, boundary markers and meeting-places, and their conceptions of territoriality become more sophisticated as their social institutions develop. Power can come to be defined in relation to territory: the more land an individual or group controls, the more powerful they become in comparison to competitors or those who pay them tribute. In Anglo-Saxon England, social groups increasingly defined themselves in relation to their territories from the sixth century onwards. Within each territory, social groups assembled at marked meeting-places. In early Anglo-Saxon societies, controlling the land on which meetings took place could imply a degree of control over the meetings themselves, since power flowed from the land. Perhaps for this reason, important Anglo-Saxon meeting-places often seem to have been located away from centres of population, on the boundaries of estates or tribal lands. Territorial behaviour is also a significant factor in the land art movement, which began in the 1960s, using the earth as an artistic medium. Making land art may be regarded as staking out a claim for personal territory.

Footprints to order and beyond

" I have tried to show that the activities of nature and of man cannot be said to be basically at odds with each other. Man's striving for order, of which art is but one manifestation, derives from a similar universal tendency throughout the organic world; it is also paralleled by, and perhaps derived from, the striving towards the state of simplest structure in physical systems. This cosmic tendency towards order, I maintained, must be carefully distinguished from catabolic erosion, which afflicts all material things and leads to disorder or more generally to the eventual destruction of all organized shape".

This was written in 1971 by Rudolf Arnheim in an essay on the relationship between art and science, when he applied the scientific principles of 'homeostatis' and 'entropy' to art . The essay may be taken as a starting point to discusss the proposition that art, as a complex humanoid artefact, never reaches a state of equilibrium . Once the work has been declared a finished example of order in the eyes of its maker, it begins to deteriorate through chemical and physical processes initiated in the environment in which it is positioned. Over time the work may present a new aesthetic experience, as for example in Leonardo di Vinci's 'Last Supper'. The tendency is for art historians to react and try to maintain or restore it to its original state of perfection. In contrast, land art is made with the expectation that it will undergo change. For example, Robert Smithson's 'Spiral Jetty', was built on the edge of the Great Salt Lake in 1970, whose level rises and falls, uncontrollably with climate and human management of the watershed. Like much land art, Spiral Jetty is subject to the cycles of nature and vicissitudes of the variable environment in which it exists. As water levels rise and fall with the tides or amount of rain, Smithson’s great spiral also changes. In fact, two years after its completion, Spiral Jetty completely disappeared under water. After years of only brief, periodic reappearances, a major drought brought Spiral Jetty to the surface again in 2002, when the originally black basalt rock against ruddy water, was largely white against pink due to salt encrustation and lower water levels. Sometime in the distant future, the repeated process of submergence and re-emergence will ultimately lead to the erosion of Spiral Jetty and the work will cease to exist. Like Arnheim, Smithson embraced the scientific notion of entropy—a complex concept, originating in physics, that describes an irreversible trend towards disorder and chaos. This leaves future viewers to grapple with the questions, will the spiral remain a work of art in its ever-changing form and if so, how will it be evaluated?.

Tracking grass


Art has been and continues to be recognized as a means of communicating ideas through the technology of the times. From lasers, holograms, lumino-kineticism, light art and photography to cinematography; from conceptual and performance art to video; from computational design and computer design to virtual communities, robotics and artificial intelligence -- the progression towards the evolution of art has coalesced in a pool of inspiration of diverse electronics and science. Nancie Clarke

In 1967, Richard Long, then twenty two years old and an art student, walked back and forth along a straight line in the grass in the English countryside, leaving a track that he then photographed in black and white.The work, taken as a milestone in contemporary art, balances on the fine line between the performance (action) and the sculpture (object). In fact he was just a step away from a line defining a new constructivism that can blend art with science. This boundary is the ecological truththat the increasing deterioration of protected areas is caused by recreational trampling. In this context numerous studies have been conducted in many regions in order to assess the vulnerability of vegetation to human use and to evaluate the carrying capacity for recreational activities. In general, the biodiversity of permanent grasslands world wide is affected by the management procedures, e.g., grazing, fertilization, and mowing, as well as by the configuration of the surrounding landscape, e.g., landscape heterogeneity, habitat fragmentation, and connectivity, which acts as a filter to define the regional species pool and seed flow. However, despite its obvious aesthetic appeal when encountered in field and lawn, grass in art is the 'unseen' mass of green into which people, animals and buildings blend happily. Painted grass as a background, sometimes has the subtlety of its complexity captured in dabs of green and yellow, as in the mowed and trampled tennis court depicted by Horace Henry Cuty in his mid 19th century painting 'The Tennis Match'. It is not possible to use painting or photography to make scientific comparisons between lawns, or between different places on the same lawn. But a digital scanning procedure is not only able to reveal useful information on biodiversity, but also provides a two-dimensional image where the diversity is represented in a warped coloured grid. An artistic outcome of this method of ecological recording is presented in the following image of one square metre of a weedy, but diverse and tidy, backgarden lawn. It is a representation of the entropy of the cut-grass ecosystem, which is really a rainforest in microcosm. The image raises many ecological questions regarding the factors governing the distribution of the different species of grasses, bare patches and 'weeds'. We can be certain that the picture will change with the frequency of mowing and the time of year. This raises the same questions regarding the role of the scientific principles of entropy and homeostatis already posed in the previous section regarding the permanence of land art. There is also the question of what is artistic reality but the search for free expression of our own inner visions,

Harold Rosenberg: 'The big moment [in art] came when it was decided to paint—just to paint. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value, political, aesthetic, moral.'
Andre Malraux: "What then was painting becoming, now that it no longer imitated or transfigured? Simply—painting.'
Sheldon Cheney: 'I cannot do better, in trying to help you to an under­standing of modernism, than to point out the devastating effect the realistic movement had on the arts as a whole.'
Piet Mondrian: In order that art. . . should not represent relations with the natural aspect of things, the law of the denaturalization of matter is of fundamental importance.'
Clive Bell: 'Creating a work of art is so tremendous a business that it leaves no leisure for catching likenesses.'
Kasimir Malevich: 'From the supremist point of view, the appearances of natural objects are in themselves meaningless. . . . The representation of an object ... is something that has nothing to do with art.*
Laurence Binyon, in 1911: 'The theory that art is, above all things, imitative and representative, no longer holds the field with thinking minds.'
Ortega y Gasset: 'Painting completely reversed its function and, instead of putting us within what is outside, endeavored to pour out upon the canvas what is within: ideal invented objects.'.

If we had evolved with the eyes of insects our museums would be full of pixelated images of reality.


Googling tracks through art and science