The Power of Science interpreted by the Means of Light A conversation with Alan Bogana

Alan Bogana often finds himself between languages, cultural contexts, and disciplines, zones of translation that inspire his inter- and transdisciplinary artistic practice. His work engages with the natural sciences: specifically with physics – more precisely the study of light – and mineralogy. Bogana approaches scientific assumptions through the visual arts: encompassing pictorial representations of visible phenomena and the translation of an image based on one system of representation to another. These don’t result in illustrations of scientific processes, rather in critical commentaries on the way science is being created.

Informed by conceptual and cybernetic innovations, and realised through various forms of “media art”, Bogana’s work draws inspiration from the artistic practice of Sol Lewitt, the complex cybernetic creations of Nicolas Schöffer, and György Kepes’s art & science discourse. The minimalist approach and symbolic aspects of Felix González-Torres’ installations and the colourful fantastic cities of Bodys Isek Kingelez alike bear a formal impact on his work, while Dieter Jung, James Turrell, Ivana Franke, and artists from the Light & Space Movement from the US West Coast inspire his artistic engagement with light and holography. Themes and approaches raised by artists of Bogana’s generation, born in the ‘80s, resonate with his practice in terms of their syntheses of different materials and idiosyncratic takes on the sculptural (Aleksandra Domanović, Oliver Laric, and more recently Matthew Angelo Harrison), or with their drifting generative computer-simulated worlds (Ian Cheng, Lu Yang).

The elements influencing Bogana’s work aren’t solely rooted in artistic practices. The scientific intertwines with his work in manifold ways: literary texts, primarily from the science-fiction genre, (Tom Stoppard, Arcadia, Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, Samuel Delany, Dhalgren) and theoretical non-fiction works, specifically in relation to the topics of reality, perception and simulation (Manuel DeLanda, Philosophy and Simulation, Stuart Firestein, Ignorance - How it drives science, Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality) nurture his practice.

Throughout our conversation we stumbled upon broad, rather non-specific questions, drawing out the ways in which Bogana’s art is produced, situated and shown. These concerned art and science and the diverse paths that intersect through related methodologies.

Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás:
Science has been produced for centuries in labs and under academic circumstances, in a manner that implies certain institutionalized hierarchies. Meanwhile the visual arts, especially from the dawn of the 20th Century onwards, have been constantly negotiating their boundaries. Nevertheless, a significant strand in the arts aligns itself with the sciences and technology. How do you relate to this tendency and in what ways do you wish to bring the arts together with science?

Alan Bogana:
There are institutionalized hierarchies and power structures in the arts too, but they emerge from diverse circumstances and some of them are more dynamic than others. There are different “art worlds” and “art markets”, as well as creations, which elude the label of art, and a growing multiplicity of art practices. I see this as a necessary “fragmentation”, which constantly redefines the boundaries of making art. This phenomenon mirrors the increasing complexity of our societies and the need for artists to get in touch with these constant evolutions, not least in order to avoid merely self-referential art. I believe that the coexistence (and survival) of these different strands in the arts is a necessity.

There are various degrees of alignment with the sciences and technology. I admire artists that bring imaginative and critical reflections in relation to the impact of technologies and scientific formulations on our societies. Artworks made with advanced technological tools demand a certain technical (and “scientific”) involvement from the artist, just like artworks that rely on more classical techniques. Such demands have the potential to cultivate a more detached (objective) stance and critical insight on societal issues. These are simplifications, but my artworks oscillate between these two poles of engagement: I try to find a balance between involvement and detachment (in relation to the use of advanced technologies for making art). I personally don’t like to be dependent on the latest technological novelties to make new artworks. Trends in the arts are very volatile: “new-media art” has been quite a slippery domain, whose preservation is also very complex. I am not particularly fond of the strong ephemeral dimension, which characterizes many of the artworks produced in these domains.

Over the years, I have “flirted” with scientific domains and scientific knowledge in my artistic practice, in many different ways. In some cases, I was more interested in how science is popularized; in others, I spent time in scientific labs, witnessing experiments in the making as well as trying to develop lasting dialogues. I (perhaps naively) dream of think-tanks in which scientists, artists and researchers from the humanities freely communicate without specific purposes, just for the sake of exchange. I also think that specializations are necessary in all domains of science (as well as in the arts, to a different extent) as well as interdisciplinary structures and hubs which spark conversations between and raise awareness among different specializations.

Speaking of domains of science I inevitably think of the role of philosophy, being the mother of all disciplines. This implies the question of what the role of philosophy might be in terms of the relation between art and science. What’s your opinion?

I see philosophy as a discipline that provides verbalized concepts and intellectual frameworks to which artists might consciously relate to, or just simply ignore. When approaching science, philosophy might help providing a verbal language with (mainly) holistic concepts, but again I don’t really think that its presence is necessarily needed in the interactions between art and science. In the past, it happened a few times that I found confirmations in philosophical concepts of what I was intuitively imagining and experiencing through my art and my reflections, without having the theoretical background to formulate them by myself. Philosophers provided me with words for those intuitions and provided a conceptual map and framework in which I could “navigate” as well as “locate” myself, and what I do, via an undefined community of thinkers (and artists). A concrete example is what I am experiencing right now, with a residency at EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne). At the moment, I am confronted with science in the making on a daily basis. I came here with a project that conceptually references a series of philosophical currents (like posthumanism and panpsychism). These concepts helped me to constitute a broad intellectual framework toward which the artistic outcome of this residency could relate to. In my daily exchanges with the researchers these concepts are not necessarily relevant. For example, I found myself recently talking about anthropocentrism in scientific research with a mathematician and it felt like a rare opportunity to speak about this topic. The opportunity eventually arrived because the topic is very relevant to his domain and is also quite central to the project that I am developing here.

Considered the other way around, philosophy might rely on artworks to reflect on certain specific issues. This might lead to a permeable way of working, to a dialectic between these different fields, practices, or activities, where curiosity is the main driving force. At the same time, these domains do coexist separately and many artists don’t rely on philosophical concepts to keep doing what they do.

Alan Bogana

Boganium, handwavium et les autres, 2018 
Installation, impressions 3d, plexiglas, acier

Dimensions variables 

Photo © Musée de Minéralogie Mines ParisTech – Paris 

Beyond the philosophical, ontological level of your work, which is imbued with theories and praxes of natural sciences, you confront the viewers of your work with a structural critique of scientific processes and their results, i.e. how they are conveyed and displayed. An installation of yours, Boganium, handwavium, et les autres (2018) is openly critical of the ways science is constructed and displayed, through the presentation of non-existent minerals exhibited at the Mines Mineralogy Museum in Paris. Is this project, at its core, about institutional critique of the way sciences work?

I wouldn’t go so far as seeing the Boganium, handwavium et les autres installation as institutional critique, but the whole project definitely introduces a series of critical reflections that aim at nuancing the assertive image that certain fields of science appear to present in our societies. I’m not criticizing how science works per se, but rather questioning how science (and technoscience) may resonate in our societies as a holder of absolute truths as well as a tool of power. This project initially started as an exploration of natural, algorithmic and speculative mineral forms, with a specific interest in the topic of digital utopia. In 2015, I began a collaboration with the Mines Museum. I was able to 3D-scan various minerals from their collection and to interview the chief conservator of the museum. Our discussions helped me to acquire a refreshing and nuanced insight into the field of mineralogy: of its history, of its floating boundaries, of its frequently redefined taxonomies and of its contradictions. This installation from 2018 is the latest collaboration with the museum. The work presents a series of 3D printed objects on a display made of transparent Plexiglas tubes and metallic joints. Each object consists of a 3D scanned mineral that went through algorithmic modifications; in some cases, two minerals were even blended together. Some prints clearly resemble real minerals, while for others the results are more puzzling. The work was first exhibited at the Mineralogy Museum itself and later in different art spaces. The installation was also inspired by the epistemological melting pots that were cabinets of curiosities, or Wunderkammers, as a model that doesn’t correspond to contemporary scientific taxonomies. The work introduces an imaginary cycle of transformations of materials as well as fictional taxonomies. Although this museum is a very old and established institution, the chief conservator was very open to start the collaboration and to exhibit the installation stemming from our collaboration. The work also explores, with a certain irony, the culture around compounds that don’t exist, how people imagine them, and for which reasons: sometimes for purely scientific ones, but mainly for utopian, economic, extractivist and political reasons. I was interested in speculative compound names such as unobtanium, handwavium, computronium and other ones that I invented for various specific reasons, like boganium or indecisium. I was intrigued by how many and what kind of narrative details are needed for a fictional compound in order for us to believe in it.

Another recurring motif in your practice is light. Light posed as a question, eventually as a technique (as in holography), and light as an ambiguous entity, that can be defined as wave and as particle. How did you embark on the topic and which project of yours would you describe as iconic in this regard?

Light has progressively become one of the recurring motifs in my practice over the last ten years. When I was an art student, I was very interested in the history and aesthetic of technological media (and actually still am). The more I was looking into lumino-kinetic technologies of the past as well as of the future, the more I started to become intrigued by the physical phenomena that made (or would make) those technologies possible. This pushed me, therefore, to enquire into various experiences involving light, ranging from phosphorescence to computer graphics simulations of unlikely light phenomena.

In 2014, I started to teach myself how to make holograms, a technique that reveals the behaviour of light in quite profound ways, still preserves an aura of futurism, and which, at the same time, could be considered as obsolete in the arts.

Physical and fictional light as well as its multiple representations therefore became a subject of study as well as a medium for my works. Over the years, it has become important to use different techniques, not exclusively relying on real physical light, in order to approach certain topics more critically: for example, the iconography of laser technologies, for which I have created collages of found images.

The duality of light, which presents itself as particle or wave according to what we are looking for, keeps stimulating my reflections. During my residency at CERN in 2019, an inspiring mystery for me was the fact that many events in particle physics are simply considered rare. Collisions in the Large Hadron Collider accelerator take place millions of times per second and only rarely can things like the Higgs Boson be detected. It is hard to understand for me why, despite multiple repetitions, the outcome is different. It comes down to quantum mechanics, and to how nature is non-deterministic and reality (as well as light) is far more complex than we imagine.

In 2012, I started the long-term project Cave Caustics which explores caustics that we are unlikely to observe in the real world by means of computer-generated simulations commonly used in the entertainment industry. Caustics are common optical phenomena consisting of the natural focusing of refracted or reflected light. They can be observed most commonly at the bottom of swimming pools, as well as at the micro and macro scales (for example, in astronomy, in the form of “gravitational lensing”). Each artwork stemming from this project is a “case study” that visualises an unlikely set-up, like a floating flag with a dynamic index of refraction, a mountain made of diamond or flames made of quartz crystal. The project explores, in a speculative way, a hybrid reality reduced to its traces of light over a flat surface.

Alan Bogana

Stimmfarben, 2014

Sculptures, quatorze fragments de verre acrylique issus de quatre blocs (10 × 10 × 1,9 cm chacun)

Caisson lumineux 140 × 30 × 110 cm
Photo © Stefano Spinelli

Simultaneously, in 2012, I embarked on a series of sculptures, Stimmen, made of acrylic glass. I was initially intrigued by various patterns that emerge by means of natural and technological processes. I was specifically fascinated by Lichtenberg figures, a branching pattern that can be generated by electrical discharges within insulating materials, like acrylic glass. Over the years, I created various works involving these fractal patterns, which are actually traces of lightning.

Light pollution and our intimate relationship to the night sky have been the starting point for a series of works begun in 2017, called Journeys of Light. They depict night skies at a speculative given moment in the future. Hundreds of tiny holes have been drilled and punched into screens made of black aluminium on the basis of astronomical data that predicts the position of stars at a given time and from a specific location. Various lasers are installed on the rear side of the screens to make the “stars” visible. The twinkling of stars is imitated by the unique properties of laser light. Initially, I wanted to create holograms that recreate our perception of stars in the sky, but I ended up displaying the process of this research, which I found even more interesting. The work deliberately relies on a naïve conception of the celestial vault.

These series of works are for me, and for the viewer, an invitation and reminder to contemplate the stars and to raise awareness of the necessity of keeping our night skies dark.
More recently, in 2020, I created the work Polarizing Times. This adaptable collage brings together images of laser beams collected from various sources, including science fiction movies and scientific illustrations, as well as documentation of recent protests in Hong Kong where laser pointers were used. Aligned to form a long and straight beam along a horizontal and vertical axis, the images create a visual map of laser technologies. The work examines the iconography of laser light and reflects on its real and imaginary applications, ranging from highly utopian fantasies to confrontational, mass and trivial applications. In 2021, I continued exploring the visual culture involving this technology with the web platform Laser Sensitive.

Alan Bogana

Polarizing Times, 2020 

Collage-Installation, quantité variable d’impressions numériques

Dimensions variables (chaque image ca. 13  ×  9 cm)

Édition de 5+1EA+1CE 

Photo © HEK Bâle

The engagement with light, especially because of its elusive and potentially double nature as wave and/or particle, leads to the ontological question of matter, which might even bring us further, to the question of reality itself. I would like to pose a question now that I quote from Bruno Latour, one of the leading figures in the social sciences of the early 21st Century, who investigated and questioned the authority and reliability of scientific knowledge, and thus his approach resonates with your artistic work. In his essential ontological investigation, Pandora’s Hope (1999), the first chapter starts as follows:

“I have a question for you,” he said taking out of his pocket a crumbled piece of paper on which he had scribbled a few key words. He took a breath: “Do you believe in reality?” “But of course!” I laughed. “What a question? Is reality something we need to believe in?” 1

What do you say Alan, “Is reality something we need to believe in?”

I think that we need to believe in it, of course, while maintaining an inquisitorial curiosity. Reality is a shared experience, in which we interact and function collectively, but there are definitely various twists about it. As an artist, I’m specifically interested in those twists.
I simply don’t think that there is “A” reality, but rather an endless multiplicity of realities, and an endless variety of differing perceptions of what is around us. There is something like a common reality, which our senses perceive, through which we manage to communicate with each other and on which we built our societies.

A few months ago, I was walking around with a dear friend of mine. We both saw a rainbow appear around the monumental landmark Jet d’eau in Geneva and spent some time looking at it. I know that my friend is colour-blind and out of curiosity I asked her to describe what she was seeing of the rainbow. Her description was highly fascinating to me and proved that she was perceiving a slightly different sensorial reality than I was.

As an artist, what interests me is rather how and what we define as reality, and for whom. Various types of scientific discoveries, theoretical postulates, or technologies, have redefined our definition of reality over the centuries. For example, X-rays reveal the insides of objects and bodies; or the more abstract and theoretical, dark matter. In my works, I focused on abstract and theoretical hypothesis, like the holographic principle and dark matter. Science infers the latter’s presence through a series of phenomena and observations, but we just don’t know if it is around and through us, or if it really exists or not. Various scientific projects are publicly funded with the formal goal of revealing dark matter’s existence and presented within a narrative about discovery.

These hypotheses help to nourish our imagination and redefine our ideas of how reality is structured. They reveal or gesture towards phenomena that are ungraspable by our senses, have an impact on our collective imagination (and on mine) and transform our idea of the universe and of what’s around us. This relationship to the unknown and the invisible is a subject of strong interest in my research. I think that this constantly redefined awareness should impact our collective mindsets and unite us in our stance towards the unknown as well as increase our modesty in light of the complexity of reality and the universe.

  1. Bruno Latour, Pandora’s hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 1

Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás & Alan Bogana, « The Power of Science interpreted by the Means of Light », Genève : DDA-Genève, 2022