RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

Special Issue - March 2004

‘Should we resign ourselves to viewing science as simply a machine for producing truth or formulae that work? Or rather shouldn’t we see in both its theoretical and practical aspects an incessant quest for intelligibility and creation?’ asks mathematician Luciano Boi. ‘Once again, we need to think of beauty in all its temporal and timeless, tangible and intelligible, natural and artificial complexity’, says art theorist Roberto Barbanti. Together, the two men have launched the Pharos centre at a former convent, heavy with silence and memory, near the Italian city of Urbino. It is a place where scientists, philosophers and artists of every discipline can discuss, reflect and ask one another questions.

Mathematician and philosopher Luciano Boi (left), and artist and art theorist Roberto Barbanti (right).
Mathematician and philosopher Luciano Boi (left), and artist and art theorist Roberto Barbanti (right).
Montefeltro Valley lies 40 kilometres outside Urbino, where the four regions of Emilia, Tuscany, Umbria and San Marino meet. The little town of San Leo, built on a rock guarded by a granite fortress, lies close to the cathedral, with a few palazzi also around. This is archetypal – or postcard – Italy, a peninsula traversed from end to end by history. Leaving the town by a rough-hewn track that leads to the convent of Sant’Igne, the sense of history continues. ‘We wanted somewhere that was quiet and intimate, not institutional; a relaxed place where people can come to think, work, create and rediscover their own sense of time.’

This site forms part of the Franciscan heritage. ‘There is an extraordinary cultural history here. The monks respected and developed a relationship with nature which they discussed, contemplated and explored. We felt it was an ideal place to recreate this dialogue between thought that reflects and seeks to understand, and the type of thinking that contemplates and rediscovers the value of things (1).’

Meaning and meaninglessness
A few buildings surround a cloister at the heart of the Pharos centre, the brainchild of two long-time accomplices, Luciano Boi(2) and Roberto Barbanti (see box). Their objective was to bring together scientists, philosophers and artists who were keen to undertake a critical discussion on the meaning of their work and the ‘destiny of human knowledge’. ‘Many of us sense a lack of meaning in our work, whether its in life sciences, the humanities, or artistic creation. Interests and motives that are alien to the very raison d’être of our disciplines increasingly dictate our efforts. The sciences are becoming less and less a form of creative, detached knowledge. Why? Because they are becoming increasingly dependent on economic, political and social interests which obscure their original intent.’

For Barbanti and Boi, this erosion of meaning, which affects all forms of knowledge, is accompanied by the danger of a much greater loss. Entire fields of culture are disappearing (languages, or Buddhas massacred in Afghanistan), human artefacts disfigure the coasts and mountainsides, biodiversity is constantly in retreat. Such desertification and reduction to the lower common denominator also have social effects. ‘The less shape and harmony we encounter in our environment, the more limited our perceptive and intuitive potential. If you live in surroundings devoid of all aesthetic sense and a certain organisation, your understanding and sensitivity can disappear. Socio-economic problems also stem from this. We believed we had found a nodal point to which we needed to draw the attention of researchers, politicians and economists, architects, etc.’

Beauty and form
The Franciscan convent of Sant’Igne, which houses the Pharos centre, close to San Leo, in Italy.  ‘We wanted to create a relaxed environment where people can think, work, discover, be creative and recover their own sense of time.’
The Franciscan convent of Sant’Igne, which houses the Pharos centre, close to San Leo, in Italy. ‘We wanted to create a relaxed environment where people can think, work, discover, be creative and recover their own sense of time.’
The first interdisciplinary symposium that Pharos organised was on the subject of beauty, both as an intrinsic factor of knowledge and as a criterion of style and life. The second symposium examined the genesis of shapes in science, nature and the arts. Each time, these meetings went beyond their strict – and prima facie elitist – topics, crossing the artificial frontiers separating the various disciplines, and suggesting new points of rapprochement between theoretical research and the practice of knowledge.

Boi and Barbanti believe that reflecting on these subjects is also a way of entering into the fight to preserve the Earth. ‘It is a fight, not for any old development or progress, but for the valorisation and respect of all natural, vital and human resources. All from the perspective of a new humanism that is able to reconcile science – as the creator of concepts and not as an appendage to technology – with philosophical thought and aesthetic imagination.’

This calls on us to develop qualitative science without trying to dominate nature – of which we ourselves are an integral part. ‘Imagine the grandeur that we can still aspire to if we dare to envisage Nature differently, to reorganise our economic, social and cultural life in line with our current knowledge of the complex and interdependent relationships within the biosphere and the environment, of the self-organising and evolving capacities of nano-biological and nano-chemical structures, of land and marine biodiversity, and of alternative and renewable energies. Taking this risk would give us back our true human and cultural dimension. We need more scientific imagination, philosophical questioning and more artistic creation if we are to recover beauty and truth in our lives. We need to learn to marvel again in order to make the word an enchanting place once again.’

Concordance and discordance
The latest Pharos project clearly reflects this ambition. It seeks to examine the new frontiers between art and science, to contribute to reflections on Europe’s cultural identity. Various Italian, French, British and Belgian universities, together with a German research centre, are involved in the analysis of the relations between artistic and scientific approaches, with their various analogies and similarities. These include the concept of experimentation (increasingly present in contemporary creativity), the new dimensions of technology (memorisation, data processing and transmission, visualisation, cognitive modelling), the common use of certain working tools, questions concerning space and time, etc.

This approach refers us back to certain traditional conflicts between art and science, such as rationality/irrationality, consciousness/unconsciousness, causality/chance and truth/beauty. Analysing the frontiers between these two universes enables us to measure both what separates them but also what they have in common. ‘Artistic creation, for example, is opposed to every procedural or protocol-based methodology, whereas the validation of science is based on the ability to verify. Science integrates a certain concept of progress, for which art has marginal room. But discordances go hand in hand with concordances, and we would like, through discussion and reflection, to reveal the existing relationships between these scientific, aesthetic, philosophical, anthropological and other fields of research.’

Beauty and truth
But is the truth-beauty duality transmitted by positivism and scientism open to questioning? From the scientific viewpoint, beauty can be seen as a driving force of knowledge. ‘One talks of a beautiful theory. Elegance, simplicity, economy of means, symmetry, the relationship of the part to the whole, and intelligibility are all elements connected to beauty that form part of abstract thought. We also believe that science can no longer be identified with Truth. At the same time, from an artistic point of view, the concept of beauty has been shattered ‘ever since Duchamp and the Dadaists revealed the instrumentalisation of beauty’. Other artists have worked counter to beauty as a focus, with some intentionally seeking ugliness. But this latter trend concerns, in particular, the visual, ‘retinian’ area, i.e. the most abstract of the senses, favoured by Western culture to the detriment of other forms of perception. It would be like a cook seeking to create ‘inedible’ recipes. Coming to biotech art, Roberto Barbanti believes that we have entered an era of chimeras, requiring a new approach to aesthetic questions. ‘The problem of beauty becomes a fundamental issue in this new framework where reality can now be shaped by a human project. Seen from this viewpoint, every aesthetic question immediately becomes an ethical issue.’

(1) Quotations by either Roberto Barbanti or Luciano Boi. To simplify reading, and since they are not contradictory, the author is not specified here.
(2) Pharos would never have come into being without the efforts of founder members Simona Capra, Angela Gorini, Simonetta Piscaglia and Sabina Raggini. Enzo Tiezzi, Giuseppe O. Longo, Pino Paioni and Pascal Gabellone have also inspired and encouraged the development of this project. 

  The two voices of Pharos  
  Roberto Barbanti and Luciano Boi have talked together for many years. Mathematician and philosopher, Luciano Boi is the author of many research works and articles on mathematics, theoretical physics, philosophy and the history of science. He is currently working on demonstrating the importance of geometric and topological methods for developing an understanding of biological processes. His publications include The Human Problem of Space (Springer-Verlag, 1995), Science and Philosophy of Nature (Peter Lang, 2000) and Geometries of Nature, Living Forms and Human Cognition (Springer-Verlag, 2003). He is also a director of the collection Philosophiae Naturalis and Geometricalis, published by Peter Lang.

Art theorist and practitioner, Roberto Barbanti’s books include 20th century art and Utopia (L'Harmattan, 2000 – with Claire Fagnart) and Francis of Assisi and Marcel DuchampRudiments for an aesth-ethic (Danilo Montanari, 2001). He explores the evolution of the consciousness of time and space, as expressed in both science and art. He questions the ethical consequences of an art which experiments with new technologies and tackles a whole range of questions about life, evolution and consciousness. As a practitioner, Barbanti has completed several multimedia works of expression (performances, environmental music, installation, and ‘communication aesthetics’ events).