Navigating the Space between Art and Science

As a high school student, I had a love of technical subjects, such as physics, math and computer programming. I also spent a great deal of time in art classes. I was blessed with a generous and dedicated art teacher (thank you, Leona Mackey).

Those interests overlapped for me in photography, which I dove into deeply. While shooting, I immersed myself in my senses. When composing, I leveraged intuition and critical thinking. And in the darkroom, I practiced my analytical thinking skills as I developed and printed my photographs.

When I started college in 1995, despite my love for technical subjects, I told myself that the one thing I would avoid majoring in was computers. When I spent time at the computer, I had a tendency to forget the world and neglect my friends. I would get lost in computer games like Doom or Duke Nukem and chat with people on the local BBS (the precursor to the world wide web), which would also tie up the phone line so no one could call me. Tying up of the phone line, in hindsight, was actually a metaphor for the pleasure I experienced with the computer and the simultaneous disconnectedness this was creating with the real world at the time.

I saw that chasm developing in my life, and in the interest of a healthy social life, I avoided courses in computing. But in my second year, everything changed: I took the intro to computer programming, and I was hooked. The subject matter was fascinating, I enjoyed the modes of problem solving I was learning, and it even gave me hope that I’d find a decent job straight out of school.

In fact, I ended up with a job far better than decent: I got the chance to work as a graphics programmer for a couple years at Pixar Animation Studios. I worked on a small team that developed the human muscle animation simulator for The Incredibles. My coworkers were enthusiastic, ambitious, and friendly, and I was very fortunate to work under talented, compassionate management.

Discovering a Marriage of Science and Art at Pixar
jacob tonski art and science
Wireframe model of Sulley from Monsters Inc. From sciencebehindpixar.org

Everyone working on a Pixar film knows they’re maintaining an illusion that demands a combination of creativity and technical expertise. The story doesn’t have to be objectively true or real. It must be believable and compelling. The laws of nature can be broken, virtual objects can occupy the same virtual location in space at the same time. It just can’t break the illusion for the viewer. “Story is king” was always the driving motto. So when the question arose of whether to do a mathematically accurate simulation of something, or whether to allow an animator to simply manipulate that thing until it “felt right,” the answer was always found by looking at the effect on the story. Accurateness, in the scientific sense, was secondary to the experience.  

So, while I worked with technical teams filled with sharp, scientific minds, once in a while, their analytical thinking would conflict with the free-form thinking of the art teams on the other side of the office. But in general, I found that everyone – artist and technician – understood that they were working in service of the same goal – to produce a powerful story with rich, visual appeal. My most important takeaway from this experience was that when artists and scientists have shared goals, they work side by side pretty easily.

Pixar also taught me really important lessons about the value of integrating what seemed to be the opposing disciplines of art and science. The tools I was using came from the minds of scientists and engineers, but the goals of the projects I was working on were established by artists and storytellers. Despite being built out of technical expertise, these films provided much more than a scientific product: aside from their economic function, they provided entertainment and escape, distributed cultural messages, evoked strong emotional responses, and inspired hope.

Transitioning from Computer Scientist to Artist

Despite all I learned at Pixar, I still felt that spending all day in front of a computer screen, staring at computer code, did not satisfy my mid-twenties desire to continue trying and learning new things. I spent some time traveling and began spending more and more time on personal creative projects. I started to notice just how hard I worked on my personal projects – yet it never felt like hard work. This started me down a path that ultimately led me to apply to graduate school to study creative applications of technology, seeking ways to blend my professional skills with my other personal creative pursuits.

In my current position teaching technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I constantly see how computer programming empowers some students to do interesting things they could not otherwise do, and teaches them to think in modalities in which they’ve not before thought. Therein I find its value.

But despite the practicalities of using technology to create art, we’re still left with the more interesting cultural question of why so many art students want to learn computer programming.

Perhaps the reason there’s such a strong degree of separation between these disciplines today is that their dominant goals have diverged so dramatically. And yet at the same time, I know, through and through, that both start with basic human curiosity and a desire for knowledge.

I believe that our innate human ability to reason supports the analytical methods taught so well to students of science. We sometimes iconify this as left-brain thinking and oversimplify it as the domain of scientists. Meanwhile, creativity and all its constituent habits, often taught so well in art programs, are likewise innate human abilities, yet our capacity for creative thinking is imagined as separate from scientific reasoning and reduced, in cultural messages, to right-brain thinking.

The culture of art and art education is very good at modeling and encouraging lateral and critical thinking. There is a faithful embrace of intuition as a method for producing knowledge, or perhaps as a path to self-knowing. Those paths are not direct or goal-directed like the scientific method, but they often lead to profound knowledge all the same.

It saddens me when I see school systems with posters of DaVinci on the wall, yet their curricula cause students to internalize the messages of “I’m not creative” or “I don’t think like a scientist,” leaving no option where both of these notions can be false.  I believe that the goal for us, in society, should be to foster well-integrated humans, capable of oscillating easily between expansive creativity and rigorous analysis as need and opportunity demand.

The direction of my work has resulted from me trusting fluid interaction of these mental processes. Where scientists ask and try to answer questions that have never been asked before, I pursue ideas I’ve not experienced before but wish to experience. As a result, like a scientist, I’ve discovered things about myself and about the world that I had never expected.

I try not to over-define my own creative work by placing it in a particular genre; I hope it represents a convergence of creative reasoning and analytical thinking that I cannot easily place in any simple category.  It may be, at times, kinematic, sculptural, timebased, thoughtful, contemporary, abstract, scientific, experimental, avant garde, or traditional. But if I were to place my art exclusively in one of these categories, I think I’d unnoticeably be placing a measuring stick for recognition and success in my audience’s hand, which I prefer not to do.  If the last century of art was about breaking free from categories, I find it ironic to now employ those categories, which at the time signified freedom from the past, but now simply point to similarity with the past. Just like I would like my students to feel free from having to choose exclusively between a creative or analytical career path, I’d rather increase the chances of the audience having the freedom to see what they see.

Looking Deeper into My Creative Work

Throughout the years, I’ve created several pieces of art that reflect this philosophy. My favorite piece is an interplay between creative design and social experimentation. It is called “I’m Taller than Most of the People I know”. The piece raises and lowers the floor under three people so that they come to stand at the same height, seeing eye to eye, regardless of their actual height difference. It’s a symbolic gesture if you like, but more importantly, it creates a specific, subtle experience. When you stand there with people you know well, the patterns you are used to, of seeing them just above or below your eye level, are abruptly disrupted. I’ve seen the look of quiet surprise and recognition briefly flash across people’s faces time and again. The experience contrives an alternate reality for one playful moment to make you aware of what you are so used to and take for granted all the time. By becoming aware that normal is not absolute, but rather a product of conditions in this moment, I hope we can our minds to the silent ways our differences affect our relationships with one another.

I’m taller than most of the people I know from Jacob Tonski.

“Balance From Within” presents you with a couch that is balancing precariously on one foot, gently wobbling side to side. The couch is able to stay upright because it contains two internal motors that I arranged perpendicular to one another. Together, they can create a force on the sculpture opposite of any direction it starts falling. Sensors detect the direction and speed of a fall and an algorithm determines how much counter-force to produce. After a not-insignificant amount of fine tuning, I was able to get this system to keep the sculpture balanced – well, most of the time.

Balance From Within from Jacob Tonski.

Each motor spins a heavy wheel. The theoretical model for this is called a reaction wheel. These actuators work based on Newton’s third law of motion, which states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When the sculpture starts falling, it spins the reaction wheel. But at the same time, from the wheel’s point of view, it is trying to spin the sculpture around itself, the opposite way. As the couch tips towards the ground and the wheel starts to accelerate, the sculpture also begins to rotate the opposite direction, back to its balanced position.

What’s fascinating to me is that the piece is actually balancing much the same way you or I do. When the sculpture is standing still and balanced, nothing is moving internally. But as it begins to naturally fall, it responds. Engineering calls this a control system: The output of the system (the falling) changes the entire state of the system itself (it’s position), including the inputs to the system (the relative forces acting on it), so it has to keep measuring and responding very quickly, in a feedback loop. When I started studying control systems, they were a mysterious body of theory, expressed in mathematical formulas using lots of greek letters as shorthand. After enough time spent making sense of it, however, I came to see that it’s in fact a near identical copy of how our bodies and minds manage all kinds of feedback systems as we navigate the world. For example, if I step on something sharp with my right foot, my foot sends a signal to my spinal cord that tells it to put less force on that foot and more force on the opposite foot to keep me balanced.

I found it very poetic that some of the core ideas in engineering, in fact, find their roots in biology. This shows us that convergence between two seemingly discrete disciplines, engineering and biology, just like science and art, does not have to be forced, but rather, can come naturally as we explore our ideas. At Pixar, my tools borne out of computer science became works of art, and in my own creative work, my pieces find inspiration in engineering, biological systems, and the forces of nature. It’s examples like these that make it easy to hope for a future where the cultural barriers between art and science converge, and scientists and artists learn that they share common goals that they can pursue together.

jacob tonski art and scienceJacob Tonski holds an MFA from the Design | Media Arts department at UCLA. He studied computer science at Brown University and worked as a Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studios. He has spoken at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft and The School for Poetic Computation. Recipient of an Ars Electronica 2014 Award of Distinction, he was awarded a 2013 Sustainable Arts Foundation grant and was a 2010 fellow at the Carnegie Mellon University Studio for Creative Inquiry.

He is currently an Associate Professor in the Art and Technology Studies Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  His creative work has been exhibited in China, in Brazil, and throughout Europe and the United States. Learn more at www.jacobtonski.com