Through a series of conversations with graduate students at the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), brought together by the Arts, Science & Culture Initiative’s diverse programming, Fulla Abdul-Jabbar (MA candidate, Visual and Critical Studies, SAIC) asks what leads to and what emerges from collaborations between the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences.
In conversation with Abdul-Jabbar, contributors to this series share with us the impetus of their desire to work across disciplines; their expectations, assumptions, and surprise discoveries; and what new understanding they take with them back to their respective fields. We talk about past lives, current obsessions, and dreams for the future.
I wondered if an afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago speaking to Dylan Fish (MFA Candidate, Fiber & Material Studies, SAIC) and Daniel Johnstone (PhD candidate, Mathematics, UChicago) would be enough time to learn about the nature of collaboration between art and mathematics.
Dylan and Daniel have been recently awarded an Art, Science, and Culture Initiative Graduate Collaborative Grant, and they have started a project called Woven Relations where they will explore the linked histories of jacquard weaving and computer science.
But when I met with them at the museum, we discussed the step before that: what drew them to pursue the University of Chicago’s Art, Science & Culture Initiative grant, and what they hoped to accomplish with their project.
I met with Daniel first, and before Dylan could join us, we had the opportunity to chat while seeing the recently installed New Contemporary show. We walked through the galleries fairly quickly, and I was struck by his ability to walk so closely to the paintings without triggering the alarm.
I asked him about his work.
Daniel, who is in his fifth year of his PhD studies, describes his work as number theory but also part of representation theory. We drew in the air a hypothetical Venn diagram where representation theory was a large circle and number theory was a smaller circle but significantly overlapped it. “It’s an uneven diagram,” he said.
Specifically, he is concerned with finite objects. He described these as different from physical objects (the sort that physicists might study). What Daniel studies has no direct physical manifestation. Although very firmly in the realm of the abstract, he described these as an inverse of sorts, saying that his work was akin to “relying on something ephemeral to establish something about something real.” I compared it to studying shadows, and he agreed.
At this point, Daniel was sure to distinguish mathematics from the sciences. “Math can be very much about gut feelings and sticking to your guns,” he said, “which is not the same as in the sciences where the work is observation-based and usually has consequences based in the real world.” I wondered if that made mathematics closer to an artistic practice.
After a point, standing there in the galleries, my understanding of Daniel’s work reached its limit. Daniel lamented the problem of describing certain areas of complex mathematics to a lay audience—one, which he amusedly remarked, has to at least know calculus (but even my two years of it felt inadequate). He recognized this, and said, “That’s about all I can clearly describe without a whiteboard and eight hours of exposition.”
“Math can be very much about gut feelings and sticking to your guns,” he said, “which is not the same as in the sciences where the work is observation-based and usually has consequences based in the real world.” I wondered if that made mathematics closer to an artistic practice.
After Dylan arrived, I got to know more about how the two came together. Dylan and Daniel have known each other long before they moved to Chicago for graduate school. They were friends from high school, and Dylan met Daniel through his brother, with whom Daniel had taken an art class. “I have always been interested in art,”
Daniel said, “but at some point you have to specialize.” Dylan, on the other hand, has been making art continuously for most of his life. Coming from a background in painting, he now also works in textiles, sculpture, and new media. Lately he has been exploring the boundaries between public and private space which has also led to an interest in encryption.
“Every time we’d see each other,” Dylan said, “we would talk about how it would be interesting to do something together.”
But it can be hard to make something out of these conversations due to the risks of the investment of time, energy, and resources. And it became clear to me that this is exactly what the Art, Science, and Culture Initiative allows—an investment of that time.
In many ways, this may be what makes this type of pursuit experimental—these two elements are combined precisely because the consequences remain uncertain. And due to the fact that this is a collaboration, that risk extends outside one’s own work.
In many ways, this may be what makes this type of pursuit experimental—these two elements are combined precisely because the consequences remain uncertain.
And while they are both grateful for the space the grant allows them to carry through what before has remained in the realm of the thought experiment, Dylan and Daniel are both careful not to be too presumptuous about the other’s field nor equate them. Instead, both are excited for the opportunity to learn from one another.
“Already from our working together briefly,” Daniel said, “we have made visualizations that at least match the concepts, and so that alone makes them valuable in teaching.”
I thought that this was a curious aim since I had encountered many artists who rejected educational goals in their work, and so I asked Dylan to share his perspective.
“It feels misleading as an artist,” he said, “to make a claim that I can educate or communicate some greater meaning about the kind of mathematics that Daniel works with. I am not under the illusion that even a few intensive weeks of working together gives me any real authority on a subject that is so far outside of my own area of expertise.”
“Even six years barely scratches the surface,” Daniel added.
“Instead, I respond to it.” Dylan said. “It is a personal reflection about the greater social implications of how these concepts are implicated in our daily lives…But as a mathematician, Daniel can absolutely take it as a tool for teaching.”
Our conversation ended with a hypothetical discussion about office art. They described an ideal scenario where a mathematician would hang a painting in his office, not out of politeness toward his collaborator, but because he enjoyed it.
I asked whether that meant that for mathematicians or scientists, art had to speak to something in those languages for it to be worthy of hanging on that wall.
Both of them quickly, vehemently said no.
It’s about the personal journey, both of them reminded me.
“The best thing about this project,” Dylan emphasized, “is the excuse to have Daniel’s time. We probably wouldn’t have met up before to talk and work through these ideas had we not received this grant. Now that we have started working together, it has opened up a larger dialogue between us that doesn’t necessarily have a deadline. Plus, we genuinely enjoy spending the time together.”
For Daniel, he seemed to be emphasizing a desire to connect with that laymen audience which can be challenging for someone who works in such advanced mathematics. “My work may not have practical importance until 50-600 years from now, or it may never,” he said. “But on the level of personal development, it has been wonderful. Whether or not that’s useful to others is our question.”
Fulla Abdul-Jabbar is a writer and artist currently exploring the relationships between the disciplines and how they shape personal identities. She is an MA Candidate in Visual & Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.