The Museum of Science Fetish
I first met Jia Shizhen in 2003 when he was on a visit from the United States. A longtime friend of my grandfather’s, they came from the same village in China’s Hebei Province and both attended Tsinghua University in 1952. My grandfather and Jia studied theoretical physics during that post-war era, when China was trying to develop a nuclear weapon. While my grandfather went in another direction, Jia continued to pursue a scientific career. But with the Cultural Revolution of 1966, Jia was forced to stop his research in nuclear physics, and he began to work in theoretical physics: the field of scientific thought experiments. (Basically, a thought experiment considers some hypothesis, theory, or principle for the purpose of thinking through its consequences. The result is often so clear that there is no need to confirm the findings with a physical experiment. In other instances, physical experiments are not possible to conduct only thought experiments are used.)
Then, in the 1980s, Jia became as a visiting scholar in the Physics Department at the City University of New York. He returned to China for a brief visit in 2003, and my grandfather invited him to stay with my family. As a 14-year-old who was fascinated by astronomy, I was thrilled to talk to a physicist who could teach me more about thought experiments, especially when I learned that one of Jia’s had been explored by NASA.
In 2012, I also found my way to New York in pursuit of a master’s degree. Although my undergraduate major was material science and engineering, I was more interested in photography, and started by studies at the School of Visual Arts. While a bit reluctant to contact Jia and tell him that I had changed my focus from science to art, I eventually bit the bullet. Jia’s apartment looked more like a storage facility than a place to live, as it was filled with collections of all kinds of objects, and archive documents related to thought experiments. It was my entry, as an adult, to what science was and what scientists did. Their world was more playful and interesting than I ever thought. Throughout that afternoon I listened to him tell more stories about thought experiments, raising my interest in the history and philosophy of science.
I have become a regular guest. Jia has no relatives in America, and the history of his collections might be lost when he passes, so we have begun to build a filing system for archiving. I am also designing a website that includes every object, its description, and related stories. The website focuses primarily on thought experiments in the history of science, including Schrodinger’s Cat, Maxwell’s Demon, Quantum Suicide, the Twin Paradox, Infinite Monkey Theorem, the Lottery Paradox and Newton’s Cannonball.
The goal of my thesis project is to build this virtual museum called the “Museum of Science Fetish.” Just like we’ve objectified and commodified about everything—inventions, social relations, politics, art, gender—science, too, has become an object of desire, a fetish. Museums keep fetish objects safe and promote their uniqueness. Although science is often regarded as an objective process, the ways we look at science is often the opposite—we fetishize it. My goal is to discuss the phenomena of science fetishism through the subject of thought experiments.
The collections consist of two major components; the first includes scientific instruments and laboratory materials. Take Schrodinger’s Cat as an example. Schrodinger’s Cat presents a cat in a box that may be both alive and dead, this state being tied to an earlier random event. But people can’t know that before opening the box, so the cat goes into a superposition of alive versus dead. The other objects in the box include a Geiger counter (re-designed due to its accuracy problem), a poison container, etc. For each of these scientific instruments and materials, the website features an audio guide that describes its function. These recordings reveal a fiction of history that is different from what has been written in most science textbooks. To present these narratives neutrally, a robotic voice is employed.
The other component involves the derivatives of thought experiments, particularly as they appear in popular culture. On one hand, these functions as false evidence of the processing of thought experiments; on the other hand, the commodification of scientific concepts is also the evidence of fetishism.
Many science-fiction writers have integrated the evocative concept of Schrodinger’s Cat in their work. In the Hellsing manga series by Kouta Hirano, one of the depicted Nazis is an artificial catboy named Schrödinger. In Libba Bray’s Going Bovine (2010), three stoners argue whether the cat is alive or dead, or whether the person who opens the box creates the possibilities.
Many films and television shows also employ the narrative use of thought experiments, such as The Big Bang Theory (2008), FlashForward (2009), The Prestige (2006), Futurama (2011), and all of these make mention to the concept of Schrodinger’s cat in one way or another.
Today, culture is awash in references to Schrodinger’s Cat and the Uncertainty Principle. The use of scientific language metaphorically and in relation to human experience is widespread. Popular usage even tries to capitalize on these theories or concepts in branding commodities like cruise ships and jewelry. People’s attitude towards science has shifted from being afraid of the unknown to accepting and even fetishizing scientific theories and language.
When I first began this project, I looked through some artists’ work that deals with science and its representation as reference, and the most interesting to me are the works of Zhao Renhui, Joan Fontcuberta, Mark Dion, Marcel Broodthaers and David Wilson. Zhao’s Institute of Critical Zoologists presents a number of questions regarding authorship and the authenticity of documentation and nature. Zhao uses this obvious paradigm as a platform to present a subtler blend of intricate folly and genuine ecological interest. Clearly referencing the language of the museum archive, this collection of half-truths includes Photoshoped images of altered landscapes, fabricated research documentation and objects related to animal capture and study (both original, artificial and a blend of the two). Fontcuberta works in a similar way with Zhao; he uses photography to examine the truthfulness of an image, and one project in particular, Sputnik (1997) has been an inspiration to my project. There is also a section in my project, Twin Paradox, which deals with the topics of missing astronauts and government censorship.
Dion is best known for his use of scientific presentations in his installations. In When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1994), Dion interrogates the perilous connection between the popularization of scientific theories and commodification: mass consumption of products that bear dinosaur images enable the public to indulge a fetish for the creature. This is closely connected to my opinion about Schrodinger’s Cat, which is also an overly commodified creature.
I have also learned a lot about how to create a museum from another artist, Marcel Broodthaers, whose project “The Museum of Modern Art” (1968) is a conceptual museum that had neither a permanent collection or a permanent location. Finally, David Wilson’s “Museum of Jurassic Technology” (1988-present) is similar to my thesis. This museum refers to itself as “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” The book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, states, “The tension between what is real and imaginary is a source of its aesthetic tension as well as its subversive implications. Additionally, the work is ultimately playful. One could wax on about this, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.” This is also what I am seeking in my project.
All of the artists mentioned have challenged the ways that traditional museums present their collections and have questioned the extent to which we can trust the objects we see and the spaces we visit. A museum is not only a place to store and show artifacts and artworks, it is also a platform for discussion and interaction.
My project website will be as detailed as possible, like Fontcuberta’s work. It begins with Jia’s journey and how he started his collections of thought experiments. The museum will include three galleries and a small event space that can adapt to multiple functions, like screenings or lectures. The collections are categorized by each of the thought experiments. Viewers can find both original experimental artifacts and other materials (such as books, video and movie clips, and music) in each collection page.
The second and third “floors” of the museum will be used for permanent exhibitions, and I will curate special exhibitions on the first floor from time to time. In addition, the museum will “lend” its collections to other museums or institutions for exhibition. The first presentation of Schrodinger’s Cat, titled “Inside Boxes,” was held in Litmus Space, New York. The installation of my thesis project will include a computer (or Ipad) on which to show the website and allow visitors to explore its wonders; some posters of its recent exhibitions; a brochure with brief introduction of the museum’s history, collections, events and programs; a short video presenting a virtual tour of the museum; and finally, two or three objects from the museum’s collections presented on pedestals or in vitrines.
For more information on The Science Museum of Fetish. visit: mosife.org