According to Wikipedia, the great encyclopaedia of our time, “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a fictional or hypothetical encyclopaedia of a galaxy spanning civilization, containing all the knowledge accumulated by a society with quadrillions of people and thousands of years of history.” The concept originated with Isaac Asimov in his Foundation series as a compendium of all knowledge within the galactic empire, but was later co-opted by later writers including Arthur C. Clarke and (more famously) Douglas Adams. Of course it is a slightly ridiculous idea; despite mass digitisation projects and unprecedented access to information via the internet, the idea of encapsulating all human knowledge anywhere seems beyond the reach of even the mighty Google. And, indeed, we have moved well beyond the time in which one could be expected to have a reasonable level of expertise in a number of subject areas. But despite what could be considered a death knell for the ‘Renaissance Man,’ interdisciplinary collaborations are flourishing.
Encyclopedia Galactica is also an exhibition at GV Art in London, celebrating the gallery’s past five years exploring connections, collaborations and cross-fertilisations between art and science. Hand in hand with the ground-breaking work at the Wellcome Trust and The Arts Catalyst, GV Art has been instrumental in supporting UK artists engaging with science and serving as a space for interdisciplinary conversation. Indeed, it may seem from the recent explosion of art/science engagement initiatives that this is all something very new. But as Encyclopedia Galactica shows, in its recreation of the Gaberbocchus Common Room, the origins of the current movement actually go back as far as the 1950s.
The Gaberbocchus Common Room was a space, founded by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, that served as a mixing space for artists and scientists. In some ways, it was an extension of their activities with the Gaberbocchus Press, through which they published beautifully designed books by the European avant garde. The Common Room, which operated between 1957 and 1959, was a space for weekly discussions on art, science, film, poetry, philosophy and links between art and science. In the manifesto for the Common Room, they declare it a “space providing scientists and people interested in philosophy and science and art a place where they can meet and exchange thoughts.” They didn’t “identify science with gadgetry, nor art with a kind of romantic irresponsibility.” Rather, they saw “both sides as investigators and explorers of the universe.”
Jasia Reichardt, former director of the Whitechapel Gallery and former Common Room member, recently spoke at Central Saint Martins about the efforts of the Themersons. She noted that their attitudes were ground-breaking for their time and flew directly in the face of C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ argument about the increasing separation between arts and sciences. Although Snow published in an essay in the New Statesman in 1956 stating his basic premise, the founding of the Common Room preceded his famous 1959 Rede Lecture (apparently Snow was invited to the Common Room, but never attended). According to Reichardt, Stefan Themerson disliked the ‘categorisation’ of people—he himself was a writer, poet, publisher and film maker—and was far more interested in what people were interested in than what they happened to do for a living.
Simultaneously exhibit and reading room, the Gaberbocchus Common Room, as recreated at GV Art, contains ephemera from the original space. This includes excerpts from meeting minutes, photographs of its members, copies of Gaberbochus Press books, as well as the sorts of things that one was likely to have found within the space such as a chess board, and books and magazines pertaining to art and science. Sitting in this space, I was struck by something that Jasia Reichardt said about Stefan Themerson—he believed that a human is made of three layers: behaviour, instinct, and what we are (a layer often squashed by the middle two containing our passions, curiosity and interests). The Common Room existed for the protection of this middle layer—the place where our greatest curiosities and passions lie. Training as a scientist does not prevent one from picking up a paintbrush, musical instrument, or book on philosophy.
Although the Common Room existed for only two years, it may have provided the initial ripple that later became a wave. Jasia Reichardt went on to curate the seminal Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which displayed the first computer-generated art. And here we are now, where residencies for artists at scientific institutions are starting to proliferate and even flourish, and funding bodies for both the arts and sciences are starting to recognise the value of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Scientific institutions such as CERN champion the engagement of artists with their research, and it is even possible to get an MA in Art and Science.
It would be interesting to know what the Themersons would make of today’s world of art and science. In an article about the Common Room exhibited in Encyclopedia Galactica, the author Oswell Blakestone notes “in the past, artists had a monopoly of imagination, and scientists ‘observed’ and were not concerned with (say) problems of particles that were only presumed to exist.” Blakestone notes that Stefan Themerson believed that “science is now doing art work insofar as science is no longer powerless in an instance when experiments cannot be made.” Indeed this statement takes on a greater meaning in light of the stunning revelations of physics in the past year: evidence for the Higgs Boson and rapid cosmic inflation. Where would we be with these discoveries if not for the imagination?