‘There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.’ H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
H.G. Wells’s vision of the future, in his 1895 novel The Time Machine, is a bleak one. It is the spectre of a world brought to its knees by triumphs of progress and human endeavour, where science, art and industry have been made obsolete through their own success. A place where the need to think for oneself – or the desire to strive forward – have become eradicated by man’s rapid achievement. Mankind was, for Wells, becoming weak and unable to think or act independently in a world that, through scientific and social achievement, ceased to pose any threats – which was sanitised to the point of being entirely without danger or want – and would eventually become so mollycoddled that they would become unable even to think.
The idea of science defeating itself and the human race is, of course, slightly farfetched. Science will always find a subject –though the subjects may become smaller and smaller: car seats will need to become more comfortable, tomatoes will need to be redder, teeth will need to be whiter and trainers will need to give athletes (and pedestrians) more assistance. You could describe these as micro-endeavours – small goals leading to small achievements, which allow us to think that the world and our quality of life are being improved. These are the ideas that seem to fascinate Daniel Stier. They are embodied by theses scientist, housed in basements of universities, hidden from the world and anonymously performing repetitive experiments, often on equipment lashed together from materials purchased from DIY stores. They are in the business of perfecting or improving one small aspect of our lives – not pursuing the great breakthrough or a Nobel Prize, but being content to explore their ideas and interests and thus moving slowly forwards.
The photographs shown in this magazine – a small selection of the many Stier has made – show the scientists demonstrating the use of the equipment they toil over daily. Some look like they are trapped by their machines or that they are being tortured for their scientific knowledge; others look like they have constructed the apparatus for some kind of carnal gratification and some look like they are images of performance artists or of actors employed to play out an artist’s vision. Some experiments look expensive and well made, but some look shabby and poorly housed maybe suggesting their potential, or lack of, commercial value or use to mankind, should experiments prove successful. All are, deliberately, without titles – leaving us, the viewers, to form our own narratives and to speculate on how their outcomes might impact on our lives.
Steir likens the work of these scientists to that of his own practice as an artist and, as a result, feels comfortable in their presence. ‘They are like artists’ says Stier, ‘They work hard on a project, researching their subject area obsessively refining their outcome again and again, until it is as perfect as they can make it’. Stier also suggests that there are direct comparisons to be made between the reliance on funding and benefactors in both science and art and the potential futility of both; in that both the outcome of the scientist and the artist will, in the end, probably be invisible to the public (if they are even deemed successful enough to make it out of the laboratory or studio).
I (and I would hope that scientists and artists would agree) consider human endeavour in art and science to be a necessary futility, and consider that it is mankind’s greatest achievement to find the space to countenance failure or defeat – rather than have to concentrate on the day-to-day survival, as do the rest of our planet’s inhabitants. Art and science are, after all, only made possible by this freedom to fail, as this freedom to fail is only made possible by, sometimes futile, human endeavour.