Learning from the Cornell Box

Simon Niedenthal
Art Center College of Design, USA


Abstract: The Cornell Box serves as a visual emblem of the divide between arts and sciences first articulated by C.P. Snow over forty years ago. To historians of American art, “Cornell Box” refers to the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell; in the world of computer graphics the Cornell Box is the evaluative environment in which the Cornell University Program in Computer Graphics refined its radiosity rendering algorithms. Considering both boxes with reference to the perceptual thought of James J. Gibson allows us to generate a site for collaboration at the intersection of light and art for designers and computer scientists devoted to the development of new digital media.

It has been over forty years since C.P. Snow first called attention to the divide between the “two cultures” of art and science. Since then existentialism has given way to post-structuralist critique, quantum mechanics has evolved into string theory. We now live in a period of unprecedented interest in interdisciplinary collaboration, as the development of new digital media has realigned the relationships between software engineers, artists, designers, business people and social scientists. And yet, Snow’s basic thesis—that artists and scientists fail to communicate adequately and that this lack of communication is reinforced by educational structures—remains valid, not only in the more rarified world of academic publication, but also, more crucially, in the assumptions embedded in our working relationships. All too often engineers engage designers only to provide a thin veneer of "look and feel" to their projects, while designers ask nothing more of programmers than to perform the digital equivalent of hewing of wood and drawing of water. The consequences of this dislocation are, if anything, more dire now than in Snow’s time. “Closing the gap between our cultures,” Snow writes, “is a necessity in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as the most practical.” But now, as then, this gap offers “creative chances” as Snow puts it. As a visual emblem of this gap, so full of opportunity, let us consider the Cornell Box.

Mention “Cornell Box” to art aficionados and they are likely to conjure up an image of “Medici Prince,” or another of the shadow boxes of the American artist Joseph Cornell. To computer graphics researchers, on the other hand, “Cornell Box” refers to the evaluative environment in which the Cornell University Program of Computer Graphics developed its radiosity rendering algorithms. This study will invite these audiences to contemplate these boxes together. Juxtaposing Cornell boxes reveals an unexpected program shared by a reclusive genius making objects in the art world and graphics researchers exploring computer modeling of light behavior. Imaginatively reconstructing the two boxes helps us to a better understanding of each, and throws the creative process of artist and researcher into greater relief. In both cases, the Cornell box functions as a space for the exploration of visual perception, the elaboration of how we see. Light enables vision; art refines vision. The intersection of light and art in perception offers us a shared language and site for collaboration by artists and computer scientists as we further explore the potential of new digital media.

About the Presenter: Simon Niedenthal is a member of the Photography and Film faculty at Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, CA), and helps administer the Digital Media department. Recent publications include "Building a Better Hothouse" in afterimage; recent presentations include "Six St. Jeromes," at the "History and Images" conference (University of Copenhagen).