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The Absurdist Scientific Art of Dopamine Collective

Dopamine Collective’s Sean Stewarts talks science, art, and the space between the real and unreal.
December 2, 2015, 1:20pm
Representation of the Said Reality by Arthur Richardson, courtesy the artist

Before Dada, before strange new media art, there was Alfred Jarry. With the play Ubu Roi and novels like Exploits & Opinions of Doctor Faustroll Pataphyscian, the diminutive, anarchic writer sketched the absurdist details of pataphysics, “the science of imaginary solutions”—an anti-philosophy that was the dark side of the moon to metaphysics and physics. The Canadian art group Dopamine Collective, which may or may not be real, occupies a similar artistic territory.

Dopamine Collective’s Sean Stewart, who by all accounts exists, speaks for the rest of the group, whose existence is arguably theoretical—or, rather, pataphysical. Each artist, excluding Stewart (the group’s director), applies their mathematical or scientific background to art: Gerard Kopek (mathematics), Leslie Park (biology), Stuart Harrison (physics), Richard Lee (chemistry), Kelly Norman (environmental science), and Arthur Richardson (radiology).

Asymmetrically Squared, a computer chip x-ray from the ‘Silicon Secrets’ body of work, by Arthur Richardson, courtesy the artist

Stewart tells The Creators Project he was a born pataphysicist. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology, Stewart finished an MFA in art at Lesley University College of Art and Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a necessary step given his own admission that he never could talk coherently about art.

The collective grew out of Stewart’s thoughts on how things like objects and common reality are perceived in life and in the art world. He wondered what would happen if he took seven names and seven individual pieces of work, “cooked them down,” and recorded what people projected onto them.

Two Electronic Dwelling Structures, an antique light box with x-rays by Arthur Richardson, courtesy the artist

In forming Dopamine Collective, Stewart was heavily influenced by Fernando Pessoa’s invention of the heteronym, an imaginary character that had its own literary style. Pessoa created 81 known heteronyms. Stewart was also inspired by absurdist playwright Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of an Author, an absurdist metatheatrical play about six people who arrive at a play’s rehearsal and demand that their story be finished by a writer.

By his own admission, Stewart’s work never gets selected for Dopamine Collective. It is, as he claims, “quite boring.” Instead, Stewart produced and shot a video for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that details the group’s perspectives on art (watch below).

Geothermal Inversion, a plastic sculpture with cord by Kelly Norman, courtesy the artist

“The approach of Kelly Norman is very different from Arthur Richardson because of how the audience perceives their beings,” Stewart says. “Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions. But what if in Canada we can prove that imaginary solutions are real, turning pataphysics on its head?”

Stewart says that Harrison, the collective’s physicist, is currently working with latent images on film. The artist wondered if the image on film could be changed dramatically.

A petri dish of “failed” art projects by Dopamine Collective members handed out at the Toronto Art Fair for free, courtesy the artists

“At the moment that the shutter opens on the camera, you destroy that image with another form of radiation and you get a third image,” Stewart says. “So, there’s a latent image and you develop it, and now where does the true image lie because now you have an abstract image?”

Harrison is also currently exposing old Fuji film to a volatile exothermic reaction inside the camera, which destroys the camera body but allows the film to be reassembled with interesting exposures. Similarly, Richard Lee, the group’s chemist, recently developed an amphoteric (a molecule that can act as an acid or base) that can remove a photographic portrait without actually destroying the paper.

Untitled (Coverslip No. 82), black and white microscope photo by Leslie Park, courtesy the artist

“Conceptually, where does the photo lie: is it in the paper or ink?” Stewart says. “You can take the ink from the data from the portrait and draw a happy face. If you do this, is it still the original portrait because all of the original elements are still there?”

Lee hopes to apply this concept in destroying a painting’s canvas while preserving the paint. “What if you could destroy the canvas on the Mona Lisa, but preserve the paint,” Stewart muses about Lee’s ambitions. “What if you put it in a jar and say, ‘Here lies the Mona Lisa,’ or perhaps you could distend it in some sort of gel or solution so that the portrait is still there.”

Landscape No. 12 by Gerard Kopek, courtesy the artist

In the spring, Stewart says Kelly Norman will be exhibiting some pieces in Toronto at a show called Grow Up, which will be focused on the environment and related topics.

Beyond this, what’s the next pataphysical move for Dopamine Collective? Stewart says their work is still in its infancy. By his calculations, it’s probably a ten to twenty year project to take all of the collective’s data and make it a mutually agreed upon “reality.”

“Theoretically it’s impossible,” he says. “But what if you can make it possible with basic science? I get a lot of flak, but I always document things so you can prove that this actually happened and this is how you do it.”

Click here to see more of Dopamine Collective’s work. And visit the group's YouTube page to witness the members discussing their work.

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