The map is not the territory

the map is not the territory georgia ward dyer

Collaboration with Dr Jake Kennard and Max Wilson, Centre for Quantum Photonics, Bristol University.  

The Map is not the Territory shows the artist in perpetual motion, re-performing all the gestures used by quantum computing scientists Dr Jake Kennard and Max Wilson when they were communicating their work to her and to each other in group discussions.

From the beginning, the proposal was that the work for this show should develop based on how the collaboration happened to unfold, knowing that any preconceptions about how quantum computing might be done could prove far from the truth. It quickly became clear that even amongst the two scientists themselves, there was much animated disagreement and debate.  Were the disagreements about the how of the quantum phenomenon itself? Or were they ‘merely’ about how it could be explained and understood? And how were these two connected?

It is indeed telling that out of the process of identifying all the gestures that were used in our discussions, they emerged in two distinct groups.  Gestures were used either when the scientists were attempting to communicate technical scientific terms (such as ‘collapsed’, ‘polarizer’, ‘superposition’), or they were gestures about understanding itself (‘definitive’, ‘mystery’).  Gestures come to the fore when language is exhausted as the conduit for meaning.   But since we perform them unconsciously, by observing them we can gain insight into what these underlying structures of understanding are.  In the field of linguistics, communicative gestures are commonly categorised into distinct groups such as symbolic, deictic (indexical—referencing specific things, including spatial operators such as ‘that one there’/‘this one’), motor, and lexical, which aims to communicate the ‘co-occurring speech’ sometimes more literally, sometimes more metaphorically.  

Gestures which accompany common figures of speech in quantum physics such as ‘lower energy and higher energy’ reveal, in Lakoff and Johnson’s words, the ‘metaphors we live by’—of course ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ energy states do not spatially occur on vertically ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ planes.  But these metaphors are notably persistent, and problematically so when we remember that the phenomena being discussed do not operate in time and space in the intuitive ways central to our own existence.  Do they lead us away from other alternatives for engaging with them? Is it even realistic to attempt resistance?

Art practice gives us the freedom to find other, more lateral ways to approach these concepts.  The Map is not the Territory lets these quietly emerge from its contemplation, describing the space around them rather than trying to look at them face on in all of their transcendent contradiction.  It takes its title from scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski’s famous dictum, the full quotation of which reads: ‘A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. Do the maps and models we use—in quantum physics, but crucially also in how those of us who are not scientists talk about quantum physics—have a ‘similar structure’ to the territory? In an art/quantum computing collaboration, the artist can be identified as having great responsibility and great answerability.  

This work therefore is most importantly a critical provocation to move away from representational and conceptual tropes in art about quantum physical ideas—for example, entanglement as two opposing states which trigger each other, or superposition as optical illusion. In practice, I have found that what feels like the most important and vital part of art/science collaborations is often the discussions between artist(s) and scientist(s), so this work puts that (often lively and challenging) experience at its heart.  It asks what is possible of this kind of collaboration, when the scientific work being considered is at the bleeding edge—of the field itself, but also of what can be grasped by a human mind.