[The following pages are excepts from a paper called Painting the Multiverse, a version of which was delivered by Eyland at the University Art Association of Canada conference in Kingston in November 2003. Click on the image or the arrows to navigate.]
Science is getting strange and theoretical physics is getting even stranger. How should artists respond to to this strangeness and how can their responses illuminate scientific ideas, or can they? How can science influence art and art science? How do we bridge the gap?
Multiverse theories do not limit but rather exceed the mind's grasp, and for artists this is a problem. As we speak, the Standard Model of physics is being tricked out by string, loop quantum and multiverse theories, and as artists become convinced that scientists really have figured out the fundamentals, what effect will that finality of infinite possibilities have on art?
Artists are challenged to somehow depict everything.
A taxonomy of multiverse theories recently appeared in Scientific American magazine in an article by Max Tegmark. Some theories begin with probability calculations having to do with the number of planets in an infinite universe -- our universe -- that may be identical to earth (this is Max Tegmark's "Level I" multiverse). Other theories by physicists such as David Deutsch build on Hugh Everett III's 1957 doctoral work with John Wheeler and propose that every possible variation of the collapse of a superposition of quantum states really does occur in adjacent universes, or rather that there is no collapse of a superposition of states because they all "happen." (This is Max Tegmark's "Level III" multiverse). These ideas are accepted by the majority of scientists as credible descriptions of reality.
Tegmark's Level I and Level III multiverses are identical because of a principle called "ergodicity." In other words, our own infinite universe with its repeating Hubble volumes has the same morphology as a quantum state in which every possibility is literally expressed; even if one were to discount a quantum multiverse, then, and there are skeptics since the quantum multiverse is most odd, one still has to deal with a Level I cosmological multiverse that has the same implications.
What about art that tackles scientific ideas about the multiverse head-on? Artists and art scholars may wonder how a multiverse might be depicted in art. The easy answer that every possible painting, photograph, sculpture, installation art project and illustration of the multiverse either already has been made, is being made, or will be made in some universe. All possible works of art already exist, or will, and many more works barred from existence in our world are permissible in worlds run by other laws of physics (or within Tegmark's Level IV multiverse, which is a multiverse of the mathematical imagination.)
The harder answers for artists bear on how one might depict the multiverse in complex and allusive ways. What visual thought experiments can or already have been done that, like the thought experiments of physics, can test the limits of the imagination, propose new systems of representation and fit relevant works into coherent visions of the complexity of the world as suggested by multiverse theories? Artists can do some serious work here that can align itself with the latest in science.
Let's address the representation of the quantum world and multiverses step by step, drawing as we go and letting the digressions and confusions resolve or refuse to resolve themselves as we proceed. My illustrations quickly resort to a kind of symbolism we associate with mathematics, whereby arbitrary notations represent functions and values. A better parallel to what I am attempting would be medieval art, wherein ethereal things are represented symbolically.
The mathematical notation for pi is not accountable for its mathematical value, and yet we persist in thinking that a theologian imagining the Holy Ghost as a bird might believe that the Holy Ghost literally has feathers! We admit that an illustration can be inaccurate and misleading if the limits of its accuracy are not obvious or explained. (As we know, this is also true of the simplest measurement.) So we start by saying that what we want to illustrate cannot be illustrated even while knowing that we are compulsive visualizers.
At every stage in this investigation problems of representing and illustration what we cannot yet imagine is attempted; the quantum world resists depiction in a "classical" form (even if everyday representations can work to depict some versions of the multiverse) and so just as a religious is unsatisfied by the gross representations of God and the Spirit that she nevertheless uses, and just as the mathematician often uses notational systems which represent but need not resemble mathematical objects, so too must we draw and paint our way through the problems while making provisos about the "actual" look of our subject(s).
Scientific illustration should begin with an acknowledgement of its limits and the limitations of artists, who need to consult and to maintain at least some humility toward their scientist colleagues. Illustrating the quantum world is like making an observation in a quantum experiment: an illustration collapses a superposition of states such that only one state can be depicted clearly at a time -- that is a big limitation that we need to think our way through.
Meaning an illustration to be art causes some hearts to flutter. We should ignore that fluttering. Using art of the past to "illustrate" quantum theory is especially problematic because of problems of appropriation, but we should do that as well. Any method that works needs to be attempted.
This is an academic paper and a work of art. Aesthetic claims are tested by proposing agreements about what things look like and what sort of delight they produce, and tests in physics have to do with confirmation by experiment, or at the least the possibility of confirmation. This paper means to contribute to both discourses, or perhaps an in-between discourse, the liniments of which have not quite been formulated.