Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Award-winning author Weschler brings art and science together in presentations to arts community

<rd-winning author Lawrence Weschler delivered two talks Oct. 15 that explored the relationship between art and science. 

Often described as a writer of “creative non-fiction,” Weschler spoke first about the convergence of art and science, and later about the difficulty animators confront in creating a realistic human face. 

Speaking to a packed audience in the Weitz Center, Weschler began his first talk, “Art and Science as Parallel and Divergent Ways of Knowing,” with a quote by novelist and butterfly expert Vladimir Nabokov:  To be an artist, “you need the precision of a poet and the passion of a scientist.”

Only recently, Weschler contended, have art and science been considered opposing disciplines.  He presented several historical examples to show that ancient cultures believed a learned person understood both art and science.  Even before scientists had quantified such phenomena as ellipses or the relationship between time and space, artists depicted them in their work. 

 “The public has a distorted view of science because it is taught that it is an established set of truths, when in reality it is a source of mysteries,” Weschler said. 

Weschler devoted the second half of his talk to discussing David Hockney and Robert Irwin, who challenge this modern view by bridging the gap between science and art in their work.

Weschler’s second talk, “The Uncanny Valley: The Digital Animation of the Face,” explored the intersection of art and technology in film.  Addressing his audience in Boliou Hall, Weschler discussed the difficulty animators confront in creating a believable human face.  He demonstrated how interconnected the face’s muscles are, so that a smile affects the movement of the ears or even the eyes.  People are trained to recognize the subtlety of expressions, so it is a great feat for an animator to synthesize them. 

Indeed, animators speak of an “uncanny valley,” a point at which an animated face is so close to real that an audience is repulsed.  A face that is 95 percent life-like is acceptable to audiences because it looks distantly human. Because of that, 95 percent level is difficult to achieve, many early animations were of dinosaurs or toys. 

But once a face looks 96 percent life-like, it is disturbing to an audience – it looks like a human being with something unsettlingly wrong.  Weschler presented clips from several animations, including “Toy Story,” “Avatar,” various video games and even the popular YouTube video “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.”

Weschler claimed few if any animations have been so life-like as to move beyond the uncanny valley to a believable human face.  “Avatar” came close, but its use of blue skin and other alien features hid the eeriness to some extent.  However, Weschler added, voice and character can bridge that uncanny valley, as is partly the case for the lovable Marcel the Shell.

Weschler’s collection of essays and interviews exploring the harmony between seemingly disparate images, “Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences,” won the 2007 National Book Critics Award for Criticism.  He has been a staff writer at the New Yorker for more than 20 years, and has been director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University since 2001. 

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *