Science+Design+Art+Rules - 2013

Benjamin Betts - Geometrical Psychology & Shea Zellweger - Patent # 4,504,236

Today, data visualization continues to grow in popularity as we find ourselves surrounded by an increasing number of representations of increasing amounts of information. Graphs and charts have been turned into 'interactive' montages on new and existing media, and computational graphic design has found itself responsible for describing the seemingly infinite amount of data that continues to flourish in the post digital revolution. The creation of forms to describe informational events is not new, designing around facts to create art forms has existed for millennia, but the speculative mingling of empirical values, artistic outcomes and a need to define hard to grasp concepts has perhaps operated on a different level to the humble pie chart. Two examples are exposed in this accompaniment to  “The Enthusiast” both revealing personal endeavours, pursuits of defining and organising hidden forms of information and new ways to view what we call reality.

In 1897 a book was published of Benjamin Betts theory on the relationship between mathematical principles and human consciousness,  illustrating a physical form to a variety of different emotional scales e.g.; the impulse of duty, or negative morality. 'Geometrical Psychology' is a fascinating document on 17th century metaphysical thought, offering a historical insight into the study of the human mind, psychology and a post enlightenment hunger for investigation and rationalising subjective experiences. The accompanying text by Louisa. S. Cook sets the scene for Bett's translation of consciousness:

“Mr Betts felt that consciousness is the only act that we can study directly, since all other objects of knowledge must be perceived through consciousness. Mathematical form, he considers, is the first reflection and most pure image of our subjective activity. Then follows number, having a code relation to linear conception. Hence mathematical form with number provides the fittest symbols for what Mr Betts calls "The Science of Representation" the orderly representation by a system of symbolism of the spiritual evolution of life, plane after plane.  "Number" Philo said, "is the mediator between the corporeal and the incorporeal." 

Beyond what is written in complement to the theories that Betts proposes (the complexity of which reads like an academic Borges novel) the diagrams themselves offer an aesthetic value which can be experienced immediately, and present a way to view mental states which although abstract in their form, convey a subtlety which enables us to contemplate the construction of human consciousness. What Betts produced can be viewed with hindsight as a wonderful combination of speculative design, drawing on high level thinking of the day to form illustrations, which can be enjoyed without the need to understand or appreciate the full weight of the theories and calculations.  We witness a bizarre collaboration between science and design, describing a felt reality with a rigour, seemingly creating a solution for the viewer.  Having been given certain codes to read human psychology with, we find that Betts has arranged the data into compositions which allow us to experience these ideas in a abstract and aesthetic form which bring to life the subject matter being discussed.

The employment of visual forms to indicate rational or empirical sets of information has a dual function. In Betts case, we can observe and appreciate a historical document, and marvel at a nostalgic aesthetic of diagrams, which we are more used to seeing in the depiction of natural history rather than cognition. Such renderings of scientific information also perform as insights into a set of rules, principles and decisions made to persuade us of a system, which is unperceivable to the eye.

With todays hunger for big data, the current trend of info-graphics continues to expand and create even more additions to the total noise of everyday informational life. Whereas Benjamin Betts could be seen to have unwittingly become a fine artist of diagrams, American logician Shea Zellweger continues to blend a highly sophisticated system of mathematical rules into appealing and artistic set of ‘info-objects’. Zellweger has developed what is known as a logic alphabet, where a group of ‘specially designed letter shapes can be manipulated like puzzles to reveal the geometrical patterns underpinning logic.’ Without approaching the actual systems and mathematics behind these sculptural learning tools, and concentrating on the aesthetic translation of information into forms we can appreciate a body of work, which places Zellweger in the role of an unwitting outsider artist.

Zellweger’s hand crafted apparatus provide a toy like quality to extremely complex and abstract ideas, performing perhaps a reversal of Benjamin Betts attempt to realise the invisible cognitive forms of our minds. Zellweger's ‘toys’ provide approachable and tactile experiences (even just for the eyes) which involve us in an acceptance of a system of information that may be too hard to grasp fully, but begin to formally explain their use value, as visual representations of symmetry and geometry within a mode of thought. We do not perhaps immediately understand what they are trying to tell us, (and most probably never will!) but almost instantly they offer themselves as functioning items, visually useful yet wonderfully esoteric.

Information displayed in this three dimensional format allows us to consider the world of logic in a wholly different way. These theories, which represent some of the fundamental ingredients of rational life, express the foundations of computing and cornerstones of philosophy perform differently in a physical form.  This is reflected through the reasoning that Zellweger gives for some of the choices behind him designing objects from his early theories on Logic. 

“Up to the mid-70s my papers always came back with rejection slips. So when I started making the models I figured that a record of my diagrams in the patent office would be at least one place where my work would be anchored publicly. You can’t patent ideas, such as logarithms, but you can get a patent on a slide rule, which is a material embodiment of them. My first patent was filed in October 1976, but not granted until June 1981” 

This provides a tangent to the systems at play between scientific thought and designed systems, as the ‘art object’ outcomes of informational logic are formed via a legal loophole, a separate rule based system dealing with authorship and intellectual property. What resonates between these two examples of abstracted info-making, is the personal and private worlds that they represent. Both Betts and Zellweger provide portraits of big thinkers, imaginative and highly skilled, with the time and the ability to perfect and distill dense ideas into abstract visual forms. 

These individual responses and endeavours to understand, create, explore and describe functions of reality offer ways to view esoteric, and abstract ideas, offer ways to consider our continued desires to objectify and concretise the invisible formulas that surround us. It is with this in mind that we can view ‘The Enthusiast’ as a portrait of a man who wishes to create his own deeply personal form of data-based-artwork – and reflect on the way we choose to rely or depend on information becoming physical.



Louisa S. Cook. Geometrical psychology : or, The science of representation : an abstract of the theories and diagrams of B.W. Betts (London, G. Redway, 1897) pg 9. Christine Wertheim Crystal Clear: an interview with Shea Zellweger Cabinet Magazine Vol 18 (N.Y USA, 2005) pg 19 Ibid