Negative Capability: Imaging and Imagining Fundamental Science Through Productive Doubt

This article was published in the journal GeoHumanities in 2015 and outlines some of the formative thinking behind Material Sight.

Boulby 2013. Film still, single-channel digital video. © Fiona Crisp


In 1817, English poet John Keats proposed the idea of negative capability as a desirable state of creativity that embraced uncertainty and doubt. Fiona Crisp, an artist and academic, has co-opted Keats’s phrase for an on-going, practice-based research project that uses non-documentary photography and film to interrogate extremes of visual and imaginative representation in fundamental science. Evolved through contact with a number of organisations, the project, Negative Capability, places artistic production in the spaces where experimental and theoretical science is performed, foregrounding the “site” or laboratory as a social, cultural, and political space where meaning is shaped and constructed rather than received or observed. Historically, Western culture has measured space and time through the body, but the twin extremes of macro- and microscale associated with fundamental physics and astronomy often operate beyond a lay public’s perceptual and cognitive grasp, when, for example, we attempt to approach the philosophical conundrum of dark matter or the possibility of assimilating eleven dimensions.

Here Crisp proposes the use of visual, photographic means to approach that which is literally or conceptually imperceptible via the suspension of a desire for empirical knowledge to engender a productive state of unknowing or productive doubt. These ideas are explored in relation to an earlier, extended body of work, Subterrania (Crisp 2009–2010), that featured images taken in various underground locations where many of the conventional coordinates of photography (light, movement, geographic and cultural location) were either absent or suspended; through these works, Crisp evolves the idea of “impossible space” as a phenomenological entity and advocates the production of knowledge through looking.

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