Transvergence in Art History
Ami Davis

Transdisciplinary art doesn't always fit into Western society's comfortable and complacent definitions of art. It is problematic because transvergence doesn't have a pre-established canon or other point of reference for us to distinguish "good" transvergence from "bad" transvergence. Academicians scramble to cram transvergence, or transdisciplinary arts, into the canon, to legitimize them and thrust them into academic discourse. Leonardo da Vinci was a transdisciplinary artist--is he is the icon of new media arts? Canonization, however, has been exposed as male-dominated, Eurocentric, and power-motivated. Transdisciplinary art history may be the perfect opportunity to explore a new academic discourse, one conscientious of such unbalanced and imperialistic motivations. However, the traditional tools offered by art history, a discipline with cultural baggage of its own, need to be re-examined if transdisciplinary projects are to fall within its scope. By exploring the aims of transvergence, and the historical limitations of art history, perhaps a dialogue can begin regarding how these projects can, or should be, labeled as "art." 

The term "transvergence" is an invitation to take an opportunity to rethink art history, science, and the inevitably permeable lines that arbitrarily divide these disciplines. Transvergence demonstrates an attitude that the boundaries separating academic disciplines are restrictive. It exposes the artificial construction that art and science are opposites. However, societies continue to struggle with the idea that art and science can have compatible goals. Is the linear nature of art history therefore an appropriate means of documenting and discussing transdisciplinary arts? What does transvergence mean in the context of art?

Transvergence creates a distinction between art that is interdisciplinary and art that is transdisciplinary. In interdisciplinary pursuits, disciplines collaborate. Scientists and artists, commonly regarded as ideologically opposed practitioners, can intersect and contemplate their common relationships. However, these interacting disciplines ultimately retain their identities as isolated from each other. Transdisciplinary projects also have an agenda to explore common practices among disciplines, but with a more holistic approach. By transcending conventional notions of what appropriate activities within a discipline are, participants attempt to bridge disciplines in innovative ways. The result is that new commonalities are discovered among disciplines, which have implications for future innovative transvergent events. Interdisciplinary projects may not necessarily have this result. Gunter Von Hagens' plastination technique for preserving cadavers is one such project that attempts to touch on art and science as opposing disciplines, but results in little innovation for how these disciplines are culturally constructed.

An anatomist, Von Hagens developed plastination in 1977 when he discovered that replacing body fats and fluids with plastics could preserve entire corpses. The pliable results of plastination meant he could also sculpt the cadavers to hold poses. He regards this as âÄœanatomical art," as he has invented an aesthetically sensitive method of preserving corpses to appear lifelike and artistically well-composed. Somatic structures such as the muscular system are isolated and sculpted to depict frozen moments in time, like a flayed man riding a skateboard. As indicated by Von Hagens, anatomy and art have a long historical connection among scientists and artists. To further emphasize this connection, there is even a play off of Rodin's âÄœThe Thinker," where a man consisting of only his skeleton and arteries contemplates a head sculpted of yet more arteries. 

Despite its casual references to composition and form, the exhibition of specimens from Von Hagens’Ä™ work, entitled Bodyworlds, is featured in science museums and mainly billed as a scientifically educational exhibition. The intent of the plastination procedure and exhibition is to educate professionals and non-professionals alike about human anatomy. While onlookers are encouraged to contemplate the aesthetic qualities of cadaver plastination, the exhibition's label text and installation make a clear point that Bodyworlds is a scientific, and not artistic, exhibition. The characteristics of art and science are not necessarily viewed as sharing innately common traits. The science of plastination has approached the art of display, but has not substantially challenged long held beliefs that art and science are opposing fields. To be transdisciplinary, one may have to consider not only how these specimens are displayed, but where and why they are displayed. 

Transdisciplinary pursuits also attempt to bridge traditionally opposing fields of study. However, transdisciplinary arts differ from interdisciplinary arts in that the constructed distinctions between fields are often subverted. Artists and scientists begin thinking about the mutually inclusive nature of their respective disciplines. Practitioners of art and science collaborate and question the conventional boundaries that divide their efforts. Eduardo Kac questioned the commonly assumed distinctions between art and science when he conceived of the GFP Bunny. Kac recruited a zoosystemician and scientists to help him breed a rabbit that glows bright green under certain conditions, a result caused by the integration into the breeding process of a green fluorescent gene found in jellyfish. Interested in establishing life invention as art, Kac wished to transcend the boundaries of what science and what art can be. He employed so-called transgenic art to experiment with genetic engineering; to explore the public’Ä™s reaction to genetic engineering; and ultimately, to provide loving home for a genetically altered animal--laboratory specimens rarely regarded as companion animals. The traditionally established boundaries between art and the science of genetic engineering demonstrated permeability, and new connections between fields were explored, ranging from ethics, biology, aesthetics, and even human-animal relationships. One âÄœproduct," the rabbit, was the vessel for the interaction of all these fields of study. 

In transdisciplinary projects, the traditionally assumed binary nature of art and science is exposed, and not taken for granted. Transvergence philosophy implies that the conventional distinctions between art and science have been artificially constructed and must be transcended for innovative artistic possibilities to happen. Creating permeable boundaries between art and science is a positive leap out of a restrictive, historical Western mind set that dictates these fields are dichotomous. Many have argued that art and science in fact share many common elements in conception and practice. According to Robert Scott Root-Bernstein, a self-proclaimed ’Äœpracticing scientist and amateur artist," âÄœboth scientists and artists are engaged in the common pursuit of new ways of perceiving and of controlling nature." Writing on the burgeoning field of research-inspired art, Stephen Wilson shapes his analysis by listing differences in, and similarities between, the fields of science and art. What follows is a culturally constructed system of dualities: science is rational, art irrational; science is associated with reason, art with emotion. In order to successfully subvert this duality, it is important to examine preconceived assumptions of what âÄœart" has implied historically. Perhaps transdisciplinary arts don't fit into the structure that art history has traditionally offered.

In Western art, an assumption has been constructed that has implications for how historians perceive and document the transdisciplinary arts. Art historians have constructed history to fit into a neat, chronological package that implies art evolves. An art chronology hints towards a future, perfect art era, when art techniques and subject matter have been refined, and the extraneous ideas and media removed. The traditional role of the art historian, according to art historian W.E. Kleinbauer, is ’Äœto analyze and interpret the visual arts by identifying...their place in the scheme of history." This implies that there actually is a scheme: the notion that history has a predetermined course. In an effort to authenticate and legitimize transdisciplinary artists, this molding process is being perpetuated by transdisciplinary artists themselves and their supporters. Is this art historical structure relevant to transdisciplinary arts? Before submitting to the structure of traditional art history, it is important to examine the methodology traditionally offered by art history and determine if it is appropriate for transdisciplinary arts.

Transdisciplinary arts are often compared with celebrated Western artists. While artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Marcel Duchamp provide convenient, interdisciplinary models of comparison for transdisciplinary artists, care should be taken when contextualizing artists in terms of a pre-fabricated art historical scheme. Da Vinci has been culturally constructed as a sequestered, eccentric, literal âÄœRenaissance Man:" an icon of genius and a veritable mascot for transdisciplinary pursuits. In acknowledging the exciting future implied by a symbiosis of art and science, Art Journal editor Samuel Edgerton, Jr. recognized the association of art-science interactions with da Vinci: he is âÄœtoo often taken to represent a unique instance" of such interactions. The contemporary nuances and future implications of transdisciplinary arts are ignored by a superficial association of transdisciplinary arts and da Vinci. This is not to say that da Vinci has not been influential, or does not provide a profound source of inspiration for new media artists. However, it is crucial to examine the vastly different kind of society transdisciplinary artists are a part of. The society of the Renaissance did not necessarily entertain the science/art duality we currently struggle with, while contemporary transdisciplinary artists are confronted by a challenging, historically constructed system of dualities. Historians and practitioners of transdisciplinary projects must tread on this association lightly, and thoroughly examine what it means to associate transdisciplinary arts with a figure such as da Vinci.


An association of transdisciplinary artists with an iconoclast such as Marcel Duchamp deserves similarly critical examination. Despite being a classic example of subversion of the art world canon, Duchamp is arguably a questionable choice for comparison, as his legacy is choice itself. Duchamp's significant contribution to the definition of art is choice: an artist has the ability to choose for themselves what can represent an artistic effort, from a snow shovel to a bottle rack. The object is imbued with meaning by who has chosen it; and the artist chooses the meaning they wish to associate with the object. In âÄœThe Tyranny of the Possible," Irina Aristarkhova addresses the element of choice in new media pursuits. To make a choice implies there is a set of possibilities to choose from.11 If an individual is exercising a subversion of disciplines, choice is stifling and sometimes irrelevant. The objective of transvergence is to transcend choice, to consider impossibilities, and to critically examine artificially constructed disciplinary divisions. 

The mentality that disciplines such as science and art are dualities can be seen as an outmoded perspective that practitioners of transvergent arts are attempting to transcend. However, as transvergent events happen every day, and become so entrenched in the discourse of art that they warrant their own festival, it is imperative for historians and practitioners of transdisciplinary arts to question the dualistic, linear tradition of art historical documentation. It is worth considering what transvergence will look like in the art history books of the future, and how transdisciplinary arts are presented to the public. Possibly, it is implicit in the non-linear, transdisciplinary, polymathic spirit of transvergence that it not be included in art history at all.
 


1. Steiner, Christopher B. "Can the Canon Burst?" The Art Bulletin June 1996: 213.
  1. van Dijck, José. "Bodyworlds: The Art of Plastinated Cadavers." Configurations Winter 2001: 99.
  2. "Topic of the Exhibitions." Gunther von Hagens' Bodyworlds. April 2005 .
  3. Kac, Eduardo. "Artist's Article: GFP Bunny." LEONARDO April 2003: 97.nt>
  4. For example, see Kuhn, T.S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970. See also Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.
  5. Root-Berstein, Robert Scott. "On Paradigms and Revolutions in Science and Art: The Challenge of Interpretation." Art Journal Summer 1984:109.>
  6. Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002) 18.
  7. Kleinbauer, W.E. as quoted by Preziosi, Donald. Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science (New Haven: Yale University Press: 1989) 14. 9. Preziosi, 14.
  8. Edgerton, Samuel Y. "Editor's Statement: Art and Science." Art Journal Summer 1984: 109.
  9. Aristarkhova, Irina. "The Tyranny of the Possible." LEONARDO February 2005: 1.>
Last modified 2005-05-15