Art of Uncertainty

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Art of Uncertainty

One difference I find striking between artists and scientists is the way in which these two groups deal with uncertainty. My scientist friends and colleagues are usually determined to ‘pin down’ the uncertainty in their models, define the error bars on their measurements, and then move on with assumptions and caveats carefully defined. For artists, on the other hand, uncertainty is a valuable currency: something to explore, play with and sometimes even revel in. While these are generalisations to some degree, I do wonder whether from this antipodal viewpoint, artists can bring something important to light about how we think about and understand uncertainty in science. Climate change is one area where the communication of uncertainty has landed scientists in dangerous territory. Can artists do better?

A few weeks ago, I attended a fascinating workshop exploring scientific and artistic approaches to uncertainty, organised by Tipping Point—an organisation that works to catalyse the cultural response to climate change—together with the King’s Cultural Institute and the Geography Department at King’s College London. It was a fantastic evening in which a diverse mix of artists, scientists, sociologists, writers, thinkers and other fascinating folk gathered to discuss the problem of uncertainty from a myriad of angles. While the issue of uncertainty has been well-examined from a scientific perspective by the Royal Society and a recent publication from Sense about Science, this gathering brought a range of other perspectives to bear with an emphasis on the role of art and artists in understanding/communicating uncertainty.


The joy of uncertainty

Is uncertainty itself actually a bad thing? In science, uncertainty is inherent in everything we do: from our descriptions of the basic laws of physics (as described by quantum mechanics) to the measurements taken by almost any our tools. As such, in general it is something that scientists should be quite comfortable with. Moreover, even as science advances, uncertainty advances with it. Where scientists tend to run into trouble is in their communication of uncertainty, and an expectation from the public/media (generically speaking) that they can provide certainty. This is a world where scientists are expected to provide answers—ideally boiled down to a single bullet point—and not more questions or caveats. So it’s not altogether unsurprising that the communication of uncertainty goes awry, but unfortunately it does so with serious consequences.

Edward Burtynsky. Nickel Tailings no.34 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Flowers London

Edward Burtynsky. Nickel Tailings no.34 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Flowers London

In contrast, artists do not have this burden. Interesting art is not didactic. Even when photorealistic, it usually isn’t just showing the world how it is. It is asking questions. Telling a story. Exposing contradictions. Consider Edward Burtynski’s photographs of polluted rivers and gaping strip mines. By all rights, these images should invoke horror—and they do—but they are also luscious, beautiful, and don’t lend themselves to a single judgement. Artists like to practice towards uncertainty, where there are multiple perspectives on an issue to explore. They are not often interested in literal interpretations; rather, artists often come at an issue sideways, using inherently uncertain devices such as narratives or metaphors.


Showing, not telling

Doing this well is a lot trickier than it sounds. In science, uncertainty is told with words and visual diagrams. This isn’t necessarily wrong, and a great deal of thought is now being put into the visualisation of uncertainty. However, do we really want art that lectures us? A great deal of art dealing with climate change unfortunately tends to be didactic: melting polar bears, giant sizzling globes and the like? While the message from these works is clear, they lack nuance and are aren’t particularly thought-provoking because they make very clear, unambiguous political statements.

My suspicion is that art that is a bit more uncertain and that provides more space for individual engagement is likely to be more effective and affective. Consider, for example, Breaking the Ice by Kjetil Berge: the artist drove an ice cream van across Europe, exchanging ice cream for conversations about the weather and climate change. In some senses, it was a bit of an experiment, and as he revealed at a discussion I attended last March, it gave rise to conversations that were as varied and mutable as the weather itself.  Or consider Roni Horn’s classic series of portraits, You are the Weather, where we see all four seasons on one face. There is no fixed answer in these works, and I like that.


High Arctic at National Maritime Museum, 2011, Image © United Visual Artists

High Arctic at National Maritime Museum, 2011, Image © United Visual Artists

Similarly, I found that the High Arctic installation at the National Maritime Museum, inspired by Matt Clark’s trip to the Arctic with Cape Farewell, provided territory for exploration by the visitor. No explanatory plaques were provided, just a UV torch. Exploring this abstracted arctic landscape, the visitor came across the names of islands of the high arctic, listened furtively to the poetry of Nick Drake and to the writings of arctic explorers, and discovered what happened when they shone their torch on a moving field of shapes resembling ice-bergs. It acted as a ground for exploration, allowing the visitor to explore an unknown landscape that reacted in unexpected ways and where we encountered interesting tid-bits of its history. Intuitively, we experienced and explored the fragility of the landscape, without being subjected to a lecture on climate change.


Whence Now?

Artists are not going to solve scientists’ problem of communicating uncertainty pertaining to climate change. This is something that scientists themselves need to do, perhaps with help from sociologists and innovative designers. But in so doing, scientists must recognise that in the communication of uncertainty, they must not just win minds, but also hearts. This does not necessarily come naturally. I suspect that there is a great opportunity for artists who are interested in collaborating with scientists to engage in this area. We need people who can help us navigate uncertainty not just intellectually, but also emotionally. And to remind us that the complexity of our world is no bad thing.

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Matter of the Mind: Transience by Susan Aldworth

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Neuroscience is a subject area of science that provides a rich source of inspiration to artists. After all, it is here where scientists study consciousness, where we explore our sense of Self. It is also where we confront the potentially devastating consequences of a brain that isn’t operating as it should. In other words, many of the big questions of neuroscience are also the big questions that relate to what exactly it means to be human. And that calls for a cultural response.


English printmaker Susan Aldworth is at the forefront of artists working side by side with neuroscientists, and her new show—Transience, in which she made prints directly from human brain tissue—takes her work to a new level.  During a recent Q&A at the GV Art Gallery, Aldworth explained how the project was a natural, but unexpected, extension of her work on notions of Self and the interface between body and mind.


Susan Aldworth, Passing Thoughts 3, 2013, giclée print, 29.7 x 26.7 cm.jpg Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

Susan Aldworth, Passing Thoughts 3, 2013, giclée print, 29.7 x 26.7 cm.jpg Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

Aldworth was one of a group of artists invited to observe a brain dissection at the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital. She asked doctors if she might be able to hold a brain and this became a transformative experience: for the first time she touched the ‘thing’ that she had been exploring for so many years. Susan recalled that she hadn’t expected it be such a visceral experience, and that she suddenly connected with the brain both as an object—very strange, unexpectedly heavy, and very cold—and, for a split-second, as the embodiment of a real human being. It was at this point that Aldworth saw slices of brain lying on a metal tray and, as a print-maker, found a source of inspiration.


I found Transience a brave and moving body of work. Although fascinated by neuroscience and working with colleagues who are former neuroscientists, I am very much a layperson in this field. I looked at Susan’s images with wonder. While brains are heavy, fatty, slippery and cold objects, her images have an otherworldly glow. In some senses, they aren’t much different from scientific images—in that they are documents of the brain—and it could be argued that she is continuing in Da Vinci’s tradition of anatomical art (he also printed from a human heart). What makes Aldworth’s prints so moving is that they are simultaneously documents of the brain as an object,  and also uniquely unconventional and respectful portraits of people who lived through degenerative brain diseases.

Susan Aldowrth, Transience 1, 2013, etching and aquatint, 14.6 x 9.3 cm, Image courtesy of GV Art

Susan Aldowrth, Transience 1, 2013, etching and aquatint, 14.6 x 9.3 cm, Image courtesy of GV Art


Transience demonstrates what can arise from artist/scientist collaborations: Aldworth worked closely with the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital, and this collaboration was essential to her executing the artwork. Her partners on the project were Professor David Dexter, who manages the brain bank and master printmaker Nigel Oxley. In a conversation with Dexter, she recently recalled the huge responsibility she felt printing directly from the brains of real people who had been looking to the future when they decided to donate their brains to science. Dexter had to travel with the brains at all times, and Aldworth and Oxley had an intense two days to make the work, which (as it turns out) where filled with happy accidents, which resulted in a more varied body of work than had been anticipated at the start.


In this collaboration, Susan did not seek to answer questions about how the brain functions, but to ask them. Paired with her older work, it is clear that Aldworth is engaging in creative ways with Descartes’s mind/body problem, and tackling that pesky problem of how our sense of self emerges from our very material brains. Transience highlights the brain as a physical object—so much so that you can actually print from it—but it is impossible to ‘escape’ the people behind them.

Susan Aldworth, Transience 6, 2013, etching and aquatint, 34.5 x 24.7 cm.jpg Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

Susan Aldworth, Transience 6, 2013, etching and aquatint, 34.5 x 24.7 cm.jpg Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art


David Dexter also argues that Transience, while fulfilling one purpose as thought-provoking art, fulfils another as a back door to neuroscience and provides an opening to a dialogue of the sometimes-touchy issue of brain donation. Researchers studying Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases require real brain samples, which means that real people—who are facing a difficult end of life but are looking to a future where a cure for their condition might exist—need to donate their brains for this work to continue. Perhaps artwork, such as this, can help navigate this tricky territory.


In the catalogue for the exhibition, Susan reflects on the narratives that exist regarding our sense of self, particularly when it comes to a medical diagnosis. There is the visual appearance of the situation, the physical reality of the situation, the scientific explanation, and the lived personal experience. Transience elegantly navigates this territory, and I think it suggests that we shouldn’t be afraid of exploring what that wonderful thing inside our skulls is and how it makes us who we are.


Transience by Susan Aldworth is on display at GV Art until 20 July 2013. Another project by Aldworth, The Portrait Anatomised, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until 1 September 2013.

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Why Art and Science?

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Linkages between art and science are proliferating, and fast, but to what end? Whether it is a formal collaboration between artists and scientists, a call for artists in residence at scientific institutions, or a simple ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ to present a gallery of research images as ‘art’, there is something in air. Some of this work is truly brilliant, some is genuinely good, and some is well intentioned, but some may well be detrimental to both art and science.

So, what exactly is the point of this art and science movement? For those of us who are involved in this area, and generally see collaborations between artists and scientists as a good thing, what exactly do we hope for from this brave new world? Here I present what I view to be the most compelling reasons for collaborations between artists and scientists and my vision for where I hope things might go.


Exciting art

Science and scientific ideas have long inspired art and artists, from Leonardo DaVinci and Picasso, to Turner and Kandinsky. In harnessing the scientific zeitgeist of their times to the making of their art, they showed how scientific ideas can inspire great art. So in some sense, this is nothing new: science is simply part of a larger cultural discourse with which art can engage. However, more recently the ways in which artists are engaging with science are deepening.

Susan Aldowrth, Transience 1, 2013, etching and aquatint, 14.6 x 9.3 cm, Image courtesy of GV Art

Susan Aldowrth, Transience 1, 2013, etching and aquatint, 14.6 x 9.3 cm, Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

Science offers a range of new media and methods for artistic exploration. Who ever said that the tools of the artist were limited to the paintbrush, pencil, or chisel? Good artists, particularly those who are conceptually rigorous, will choose the medium that is most suitable for the questions that they are interested in exploring. Bio-artist Anna Dumitriu, frequently uses bacterial cultures in her work, as well as robotics and interactive media of all sorts. What better way to explore cultural and ethical implications of modern microbiology than with microbiology, itself? More radically, Susan Aldworth’s most recent exploration of human consciousness involves not only brain images, but also brain tissue. This was not done cavalierly: it was done with utmost care and in partnership with the Parkinson’s Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital. But, by using the tools of neuroscience as part of her pallet of media, Aldworth is able to provide an insight into ourselves that science itself cannot manage.

A precondition of this greater engagement with science is that artists themselves be literate in science. Well known for their reading of philosophers such as Proust, Foucault and Deleuze, should art students not read Stephen Hawking and Charles Darwin as well? I am not saying they need to become scientists themselves or ditch the philosophy (quite the opposite). Rather, by immersing themselves in the ideas of science, artists expose themselves to the big questions of life from a different perspective and add new and exciting set of media to the toolbox with which they are able to explore these ‘big questions’.


Better Science

In collaborations between artists and scientists the payoff for the artists may seem the more obvious: a piece of art. So, does science benefit? Or is this simply something for scientists who are also passionate about art or public engagement?

I would probably argue that both are correct in different circumstances.

The most obvious benefit to a scientist may well be be better communication skills resulting from prolonged engagement with a non-specialist. This should not be sniffed at: speaking at the British Science Association’s annual Science Communication conference, Brian Cox noted that many scientists are so used to playing to their peers as an audience, they tend to still do so when speaking to non-specialists. Rather we should speak at the level of which our audience is capable and prolonged engagement with non-specialists can help in this respect.

Construction of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Image: Wikimedia Commons

Construction of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Image: Wikimedia Commons

However, there is some evidence to suggest that engagement between scientists and artists may even result in better science. At the recent State of Matter symposium, Ariane Koek, who leads the Collide@CERN programme, reported that the scientists involved in the programme find that artists often ask questions they would never think to ask. Sometimes this is because they are very basic questions, but it is also comes from a different way of thinking.

Chemist James Gimzewski began collaborating with artist as he was looking for fresh ideas, pushing out reductionist thinking, and interested in being exposed to a different way of questioning. Rather than taking the direct way to solving a problem, artists may pay more attention to the potential detours that scientists are often trained to ignore.  Botanist Stephen Tonsor, who has collaborated with Natalie Settles, notes that an artist in residence explores areas that are related to the area of scientific practice, but do not get readily addressed by the scientific method. The artist thinks and acts upon ideas in ways that challenge and permeate their engagement with the world, enriching their scientific process.

Often unacknowledged and impossible to manufacture, serendipity plays an enormous role in scientific discovery. While there is no guarantee that the collaboration between an artist and scientist will lead to that ‘Eureka!’ moment, at least some scientists hope this sort of engagement may help them to approach their science in a slightly different way. Although the pay-offs may be less immediate than the production of an individual piece of art, they are potentially more enduring.


A vision for the future

I would like to hope that the art and science movement isn’t just about the production of art and science in their own rights, but also about a more integrated society. Writer and historian of science Arthur I Miller has suggested that we are on the verge of a ‘third culture’ where art and science feed back and forth to each other, enriching each other [ed: this was my understanding of Third Culture, but please see comment below from Arthur Miller]. I’d like to hope this comes to pass, but also that it doesn’t result in a homogenization or dilution of what art and science individually bring to the table.

Good art and good science necessarily require high degrees of specialization. If we were to create large numbers of scientists who didn’t think ‘like scientists’ this would be problematic. And the same goes for art and artists. But, by creating spaces in which both scientists and artists can work together, communicate and learn from each other, both science and art can benefit.

While recognizing the degree of specialization required in both practices, I also hope that the art and science movement goes some way to addressing the way that we identify ourselves as ‘artists’ or ‘scientists’. Many of us begrudge our secondary education, where we were forced to pick one or the other, without an opportunity to continue the music alongside the chemistry. I’d like to hope that, as scientists increasingly collaborate with both artists and designers, being literate in both art and science becomes, once again–as it was, perhaps, in the Rennaisance–a critical element of being an educated person.

I don’t claim any of this will be easy. Along the way, some fairly bad art will undoubtedly emerge, as will scientists and artists who find themselves jaded by the whole experience. I suspect that in most cases, some sort of shared praxis is needed for the collaboration to truly be successful. But with all manner of collaborations bubbling away, with art and science programmes in higher education, and with increasing recognition of the mutual benefits of art and science, the future is bright.

What else would you hope for from art and science?

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Art and Science School

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Something interesting is happening in art schools these days: students are being encouraged to explore science. In London, the Central Saint Martins Art and Science MA Programme is celebrating its first crop of graduates; and, not far down the road, the Broad Vision Programme at the University of Westminster is demonstrating what happens when students from disparate disciplines meet and learn from each other.


The Broad Vision Programme is an interdisciplinary undergraduate programme at the University of Westminster that brings together students and faculty from both the arts and sciences for experimentation and collaboration. Broad Vision is an optional module within a regular programme of study for students in disparate fields such as photographic arts, molecular biology and genetics, psychology and illustration. Through ‘taster sessions’ and informal learning opportunities that sometimes amount to organised chaos, students are able to explore each others’ domains, be it scientists going crazy with paints or artists experimenting with bacterial cultures.

Face of Truth (bacterial portraitrue) © Fisher, Edwards, Bell, Clements, Broad Vision 2013-6

Face of Truth (bacterial portraitrue) © Fisher, Edwards, Bell, Clements, Broad Vision 2013-6

The results, displayed at GV Art, are a testament to this innovative and brave approach, with artworks where the art and science stand together in equal measure, provoking conversation and thought. Bacterial agar gels are used to surprising and interesting effect: In Face of Truth by Kitti Edwards, Mell Fisher and Freddie Bell, they are used as moulds of human faces (a first, even for science!) upon which bacteria grow in assorted spots. And in ‘Vibronacci’, Robbie Duncan and Benjamin Palmer present a logarithmically spiralling, living installation powered by bioluminescent bacteria. Meanwhile, in other work, students are inspired by the science of sleep, the ways in which data might be embedded in photographic images, and our perception of body image.


Vibronacci (bioluminescent sculpture) © Duncan, Palmer, Broad Vision 2013-1

Vibronacci (bioluminescent sculpture) © Duncan, Palmer, Broad Vision 2013-1

In a similar, but different vein, the Art and Science MA Programme at Central Saint Martins–with whom I have had the pleasure of working in the past–is celebrating its first crop of students finishing their studio based programme. Over the course of the past two years, the students have visited (and sometimes worked with) scientific institutions, exploring the critical and philosophical relationships between art and science. And making a lot of art. The work produced over this time reflects the diverse interests, practices and experiences of the artists; what unites them is an engagement with science—its methods, materials, discoveries, history and philosophy.


Melanie King, Homo Bulla, 2013, image courtesy of the artist

Melanie King, Homo Bulla, 2013, image courtesy of the artist

The artwork on display does not merely illustrate science; the science is embedded in it. Melanie King’s fascination with soap bubbles as metaphors for the brevity of life led to an exploration of cosmology. Bubbles are compared to expanding universes, the foam-like negative space between galaxies and multiverses. Elegant photographs and an enigmatic glass bubble poetically convey this concept and bring us to ponder some of the big questions thrown up by modern physics. The art of Becky Lyddon engages with autism in a remarkable way, sensitively communicating the sensory experiences of people on the autistic spectrum. Lyddon’s hanging Perspex box, into which a viewer inserts their head, results in a surreal experience: it felt to me a little bit what it must feel like to be stuck inside a space-suit. I wondered what it would feel like if that was the way that I always experienced the world? Through her experiential installations, Becky creatively brings the viewer into an alternate, but very real, reality to raise awareness and understanding of autism. In the work presented by the artists on this course, art and science collide like subatomic particles—in some cases, they seem to deflect one another; in others, they create an explosion; and in some, the one is absorbed by the other.

Becky Lyddon, 2013, Image courtesy of the artist

Being Ben, Becky Lyddon, 2013, Image courtesy of the artist

I wish the MA Art and Science students well. Fortunately for them, there is a growing interest in the area of art and science—both from the scientific and art establishments (Susan Aldworth, who works with neuroscientists, currently has work in the National Portrait Gallery). At the symposium celebrating the Art and Science MA degree show, an audience member asked whether the programme was fixing a broken education system, where students are forced to specialise into a subject specialty at an early age. Perhaps for some, but I’d like to think that both the Central Saint Martins and Broad Vision programmes are doing something a bit more interesting; they are creating something new: a space for experimentation, for play, and for asking big questions in different ways. In the chaos that may ensue from collaborations between artists and scientists, new art is emerging, and the scientists are benefiting as well.


Take a look at the art from the MA Art and Science degree show on their blog.

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Botanical Beauty – Art – Forms – in – Nature

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“If I give someone a horsetail, he will have no difficulty making a photographic enlargement of it—anyone can do that. But to observe it, to notice and discover its forms, is something only a few are capable of.”—Karl Blossfeldt, 1929

Aristolochia spec. Birthwort Shoots of Tendrils n.d. Gelatin Silver Print Long-term loan from Berlin University of the Arts – Karl Blossfeldt Collection at Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne

Aristolochia spec. Birthwort Shoots of Tendrils 

Careful observation is critical to both science and art. This comes to the fore in a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery highlighting the art of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). Blossfeldt was a self-taught photographer who photographed almost nothing but flowers, buds and seed capsules for 35 years. His keenly observed photographs from the seminal Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) not only link Art Nouveau with Modernism, but also art with science.

Equisetum hyemale Rough Horsetail Top of Shoot Gelatin Silver Print Long-term loan from Berlin University of the Arts – Karl Blossfeldt Collection at Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne

Equisetum hyemale Rough Horsetail Top of Shoot

In Blossfeldt’s photographs, nature is indistinguishable from sculpture: horsetail stems become architectural towers; sandwort and silky milkweed could be waxworks; and the stem and leaves of a cutleaf teasel look as though they are wrought iron. Trained as a sculptor, Blossfeldt argued that all forms created by man had their roots in the natural world and the photographs in this exhibition make for a convincing case. Unlike photographers who seek to abstract the natural world and to make it something other, Blossfeldt’s photos heighten our awareness of the natural world in everything (as I write this, I look across to a fireplace with wrought iron tendrils not dissimilar to the image below).

Adiantum pedatum Northern Maidenhair Fern Young Rolled-up Fronds Gelatin Silver Print Long-term loan from Berlin University of the Arts – Karl Blossfeldt Collection at Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne

Adiantum pedatum Northern Maidenhair Fern Young Rolled-up Fronds

The magic of Blossfeldt’s photos is no mystery, but I believe that it comes from a mind that integrated what might be recognised as a scientific methodology into his art. Collages, which amount to a sketchbook of small photographs, provide insight into the decisions that Blossfeldt made when editing and organising material for his publications, drawing comparisons between a variety of natural forms. But while the exhibition curators compare these collages to Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, I was also reminded of a scientist’s notebook: botanical samples are photographed in black and white against a blank background, arranged in a grid-like pattern, sometimes with notes or references inscribed on the photographs themselves.

Sambucus racemosa Red Elderberry Bud of Blossom  Gelatin Silver Print Long-term loan from Berlin University of the Arts – Karl Blossfeldt Collection at Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne

Sambucus racemosa Red Elderberry Bud of Blossom

And yet, however scientific and analytical the forms, I was struck by the emotion conveyed by particular pieces. Some photos, such as the stem and leaf of Eryngium bourgatii stare us impassively in the face. Others, such as the bud of an elderblossom, with leaves stretching upwards to cover the bud, look almost shy. Am I imposing my own viewpoint on Blossfeldt’s? Is this what he saw? Whether on the micro-, macro- or molecular levels, we cannot separate the observer and the observed. Bringing to our attention the art that is already present in nature—or, taken a different way, the ways in which art happens to naturally form in nature—Blossfeldt provides us with new eyes through which to see the world.

Karl Blossfeldt is on display at The Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 14 June 2013. Admission is free.

All artworks in this post are silver gelatin prints and long-term loans from Berlin University of the Arts – Karl Blossfeldt Collection at Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne 

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Landmark: Photography and our changing environment

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Can photography impact the way that we view our environment? Part art and part document, does this medium have the capacity to really change our minds? This question, which has a semi-permanent place in the back of my mind, rose to the surface most recently at Landmark: the Fields of Photography, an exhibition that brings together a diverse range of photographers to show the brazen, and sometimes beautiful, reality of our impact on the environment.

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service

To some, landscape photography is encapsulated by the work of American photographer Ansel Adams who introduced the world to the dramatic landscapes of the American West. A passionate conservationist, Adams sought to inspire the preservation of the landscapes he captured on film. Significantly, these are photographs that sought to emphasise the value of a protected, pristine space at a time when many still seemed to think that the land was limitless.


But just as the landscapes Adams photographed have become ever more endangered, landscape photography too has changed. Contemporary landscape photographers, such as Edward Burtysnsky and David Maisel, are much more likely to explore the scars inflicted by human activities than pristine wilderness. There is, it seems, no longer any virgin forest or unpolluted water to be found. But as prodigiously talented photographers interested in both the documentary and the aesthetic aspects of photography, these two are nonetheless able to capture something beautiful in the most ruined of landscapes.


Edward Burtynsky. Nickel Tailings no.34 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Flowers London

Edward Burtynsky. Nickel Tailings no.34 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Flowers London, Image Courtesy Somerset House


What is particularly interesting to me, however, is that while Burtynsky’s image of a river stained a lurid crimson by nickel mining in Sudbury would in most photographers’ hands become a direct call to environmental action, in his hands the call does not come from him but calls it forth – viscerally – from us. We respond differently to the formal qualities of these works than we do to photographs that are more readily classifiable as ‘activist’.  In other words, the coolly formal beauty of the composition and exposure allows something to slide past our jaded sensibility.


David Maisel. Terminal Mirage 18 © David Maisel Image Courtesy of Somerset House

David Maisel. Terminal Mirage 18 © David Maisel
Image Courtesy of Somerset House

In climate change circles, it is now reasonably well accepted that photographs of polar bears on icebergs are not particularly effective as mechanisms for changing consumer behaviour in meaningful ways. O’Neil and Nicholson suggest that this type of dramatic representation of climate change is not enough and can actually be disempowering and alienating. More affective (and effective) are images that allow us to establish a more personal connection with the consequences of climate change. For effective climate change communication, Kate Manzo argues, visuals should positively engage the viewer without resigning them to fatalism and disengagement.


So do the photographs of Burtynski and Maisel allow us to connect the causes and consequences of human abuse and misuse of our planet? Reading the captions enlightens you as to the sources of these beautiful images and will likely leave you both mesmerised and sickened. The contradictions embedded in the origins of the photograph reflect the contradictions embedded in modern existence. So whilst the images bring us to a deeper understanding of particular issues and might compel more thoughtful individuals to action, I don’t know whether this is universally the case. Looking at Burtynski’s both grand and horrible images, some might also feel more helpless than ever.


Daniel Beltra. Oil Spill, 2010 © Daniel Beltra Image Courtesy of Somerset House

Daniel Beltra. Oil Spill, 2010 © Daniel Beltra Image Courtesy of Somerset House

As a contrast, the image of oiled-covered pelicans by Daniel Beltrá, winner of the 2011 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award, is far more affecting. Paired with the above image of an oil spill, it packs a powerful punch, creating a far more direct link between the oil spill and its consequences for wildlife. Beltrá’s photography, while maintaining a strong aesthetic sensibility, also makes that critical link between ou actions and their consequences upon the environment.


Landmark does not pretend to be making a statement about the environment. Nor should it. Rather, it is a wonderful and broad-ranging exhibition providing an overview of the wide variety of the ways in which photographers are engaging with our changing environment. Some photographers, such as Maisel and Burtynsky, are careful not to make overt statements with their art, but rather seek to prompt the viewer to think deeply about these complex issues. Others, such as Beltrá, seem comfortable being a bit more direct. It strikes me that both approaches are important; there is no right or wrong way for photographers to engage with the environment. However, if we are relying on an image to communicate something very specific or call people to action, things become very complicated indeed.


The engagement of photographers and other artists with environmental issues is clearly an area for further exploration. I’d be curious to know what you think.

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Body of Art

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The understanding of the human body is an area where art and science have a long history of collaboration and cross-fertilisation. Since the Renaissance with polymaths, such as Leonardo DaVinci and Andreas Vesalius, art has enhanced our understanding of the human body in both the literal and metaphorical senses. A new exhibition, Me, You, or the Other Person, at GV Art highlights three female artists who explore the human body in very different ways.


Pascale Pollier – The body physical

Pascale Pollier, Female Écorché, 2009, mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

Pascale Pollier, Female Écorché, 2009, mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

The physical aspects of the body are, indeed, the most obvious and most immediately conducive to sculpture and portraiture—but it is a rare artist who can make us feel them. It’s not just about skill in re-representing what we see in the mirror, it’s about what’s beneath the surface of the skin.  Female Ecorche by Pascale Pollier is an unusual self-portrait, one that – literally – penetrates beneath the skin, with the muscles of the body exposed in exquisite detail. In the sculpture, headphones are set on the ears but the wire is connected to the heart; it seems to inhabit that inner world we experience when in contemplation, or just trying to block out the external world on the Tube. Pollier’s Day of the Lipids was moving in an entirely different way: dealing with plastic surgery in Western culture, liposuction needles are connected to a network of tubes pumping something resembling blood. It is a visceral installation that makes us feel the body through seeing it. The experience isn’t entirely pleasant, but then neither are our bodies, necessarily, when it comes down to it.


Eleanor Crook – Our Psyche

Eleanor Crook, How I Wrote Certain of Your Books, 2013, mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London.

Eleanor Crook, How I Wrote Certain of Your Books, 2013, mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London.

Of course, human complexity does not just reside in the body, it also lies in our stories, our histories, and how they are embodied in us. Eleanor Crook has a knack for picking obscure but fascinating subjects whose stories are integrated with representations of their physical bodies in creative and intriguing artworks. The waxwork How I Wrote Certain of your Books explores the process of creativity through a figure of surrealist writer Raymond Roussel, who invented methods of generating vast volumes of potential literature. Nietzche-Hirsch is a wooden bust of Nietzche brimming with references to both his philosophy and eventual decline into madness as

Eleanor Crook, Nietzsche-Hirsch, 2013, mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

Eleanor Crook, Nietzsche-Hirsch, 2013, mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

a result of syphilis. Dyonisian goat eyes stare at you with a piercing gaze and a deer jaw, elm burr and religious medallion adorn the sculpture. Her final piece, a delicate waxwork bust of an unnamed figure, is inspired by the mummies of the Palermo catacombs. With small shells embedded in his skull, a tuft of hair, and pearly teeth still in place, you can’t help but wonder who he might have been. Crook’s sculptures bring together masterful craft with a depth that I find unusual in figurative (and particularly anatomical) sculpture. The curiosities and peculiarities of these individuals rise to the surface, along with the weaknesses of the human body and flesh. 


Katharine Dowson – Silent Stories

Katharine Dowson, Silent Stories II (detail), 2013, glass. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

Katharine Dowson, Silent Stories II (detail), 2013, glass. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

What do we do when confronted by serious illness? How do we cope not just with an assault on our bodies, but also on our sense of self? Katharine Dowson delicately explores these inner depths in Silent Stories 2, where a series of glass busts created from casts of individuals who underwent, and survived, radiotherapy for cancers of the neck and head. The busts – created from plaster casts used to make the masks that patients wear during radiotherapy – confront the visitor as they enter the gallery. There is depth and texture to the glass since it embodies both the beauty and imperfections of the patients themselves. In this work, Dowson tells us the ‘silent stories’ of these people and brings us face-to-face with their inner strength.


In medicine, you can’t afford to get away with sloppy practice—and so it is with medical art. In spite of Lucian Freud’s best efforts, the desire to idealise the human body remains strong in contemporary art. That is, of course, the artistic prerogative. And in spite of some of plastic surgery’s best efforts, medicine remains much more about the imperfections and frailty of real bodies. Both Pollier and Crook have extensive links with the medical community and this is evident in their attention to detail; however, a perfectly executed anatomical replica does not make interesting art (in my opinion). All of the artists in this exhibition aptly demonstrate that we are much more than the sum of our parts.

Me, You, or the Other Person is on exhibition at GV Art, London, until 18 May 2013

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Beauty and the Brain

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Can there possibly be a universal standard for what constitutes ‘the beautiful’ in art? The Ice Age Art exhibition, currently on at The British Museum, confronts us with this question by rooting the creation and appreciation of art in the emergence of a ‘modern mind’. The oldest piece in the exhibition—a small sculpture that is half man and half lion—is roughly 40,000 years old, but it is clearly already coming from a tradition of art-making. Curator Jill Cooke sees no practical explanation for the emergence of carving, engraving, and painting some time around 80,000 years ago; instead, she suggests that it is possible that the emergence of art stems from the development of the modern brain.

Lion Man Sculpture, Photo by Karl-Heinz Augustin, © Ulmer Museum

Lion Man Sculpture, Photo by Karl-Heinz Augustin, © Ulmer Museum

The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that beauty is not a property of an artwork, or of the natural world, but is a feeling of pleasure that comes from within us. Yet in spite of its subjective origins, he also held that judgements of beauty were universally valid. And while the enormous variety of artistic styles available today would seem to call into question the idea of a universal beauty—to say nothing of the ongoing lack of consensus around how we might even begin to define beauty—the underlying commonality of how we experience beauty, whatever its form, has led some to suspect that aesthetic judgements have a neural basis.

Neuroscientists have begun asking what cognitive science might contribute to our understanding of how we appreciate art, and to ask why certain pieces of art or music seem to have a particular hold over us. In short, neuroscientists are now tackling aesthetics, and this includes the problem of artistic beauty: is there a universal explanation for why we find some things beautiful? And by examining the responses of our brains to beautiful artworks, can we better understand beauty?

In a recent PLOS Biology essay, Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty, Bevil Conway and Alexander Rehding argue that the short answer is a conditional no. Although there is great potential for neuroscience to increase our understanding of perception, reward, memory, emotion, and decision-making, the authors suggest that there are limits to neuroaesthetics, and that the application of the tools of neuroscience to the study of artistic beauty might prove to be a dangerously difficult proposition.


What is beautiful anyways?

Claude Monet (1840-1926) Blue Water Lilies Between 1916 and 1919 Oil on canvas H. 200; W. 200 cm Paris, Musée d'Orsay © RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Blue Water Lilies
Between 1916 and 1919, Oil on canvas
H. 200; W. 200 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
© RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Conway and Rehding point out that the notion that art = beauty is a shaky one, and that much of modern and contemporary art has sought to reject the notion of beauty entirely. Some of the artists that we widely consider to be the greatest of the 20th century—Marcel Duchamp, Willem de Kooning, Joseph Bueys and Andy Warhol, to name a few—have all made art that is famously ‘ugly.’ Indeed, some of it may even turn your stomach and while that’s a strong aesthetic reaction, it certainly isn’t the same as the one you get when looking at a painting by Claude Monet or a sculpture by Alexander Calder.

A second problem concerns the aesthetic preferences expressed across cultures (e.g. what constitutes a desirable body shape) and the fact that our own preferences seem to shift over time. Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh did not see artistic success in their lifetimes, and the audience rioted at the opening of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Conway and Rehding quite aptly point out that “the only universal feature of beauty besides our capacity to experience it appears to be its mutability.”


How can we measure beauty?

If aesthetic judgements are, as Kant suggested, created by our brains, can we determine what parts of our brains are responsible for judgements of beauty? Although the fMRI scan is the traditional tool of those studying neuroaesthetics, Conway and Rehding have concerns about the experiments as they are currently conducted. What are we measuring? Might it be some complex mixture of perception, reward, decision-making and emotion? They also note the low spatial and temporal resolution of fMRI scans, suggesting that “brain imaging provides a blurry, although seductively glossy view of brain function.”

When we look at a brain scan, are we in effect getting an impressionist look at our response to beauty? Some studies have named the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC) as the “beauty centre” of the brain; however, Conway and Rehding suggest that the mOFC is just one of a number of brain regions responsible for value judgements, and it also seems to be responsible for making decisions that have nothing to do with beauty.


Should we bother?

Venus de Lespugue. Collection d'anthropologie du Museum national d'Histoire naturelle / Musee de l'Homme. Copyright of MNHN - MH / Daniel Ponsard

Venus de Lespugue. Collection d’anthropologie du Museum national d’Histoire naturelle / Musee de l’Homme. Copyright of MNHN – MH / Daniel Ponsard

So, if at the moment, the tools are rather blunt, and we don’t even know if it is possible to eliminate subjectivity from the study of beauty, is there any point? Although their essay is in many ways critical of the field of neuroaesthetics, Conway and Rehding are far from being sceptics. Rather, they advocate a neuroaesthetics that focuses on the neural mechanisms involved with decision-making and reward and the basis for our subjective preferences. Perhaps once these areas are better understood, we might better be able to begin the search for a beauty ‘instinct’.

This brings me back to the British Museum. It strikes me that, by understanding the faculties in our brains that compel us to make and experience art, we can better understand what it means to be human. When we work in our studios or discover art in a gallery or out in the natural world, what kinds of judgements and decisions are we making and how are we making them? I disavow the notion that an understanding why and how we appreciate art will make it less meaningful to us, thereby spoiling the mystery. I suspect that this knowledge might actually deepen our appreciation, and it might even help us to nurture that aesthetic capacity in ourselves and in our children more effectively. Might we eventually be able to bring this same approach to bear on a more subtle question still: what are the origins of the creative impulse itself? Should we?

Ice Age Art is on at the British Museum (London) until 28 May 2013, and is highly recommended. 

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Method and madness in science and art

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A strange thing has happened to scientists: increasingly, articles assure us, we are ‘cool’. Perhaps it is the rise of Silicon Valley and of a generation of telegenic science presenters that is making the scientist and researcher start to seem like a bit of a rock star or even (dare I say it) a famous artist? But while we are dispelling the myth that scientists are rather dull types, perhaps we could also dispel the myth that science itself is a rather dull, predictable process? From Newton and the apple, to the discovery of penicillin in Alexander Fleming’s untidy lab, science is full of major advances flowing from unexpected, messy moments of inspiration.

At the recent Ideas in the Bath event at the British Library, eminent climatologist Chris Rapley suggested that, in fact, science is profoundly dependent on these ‘little’ zigs and zags. Rapley himself linked his career change from X-Ray astronomy to Earth observation – and its world changing results – to a chance discussion with a colleague in the office. And, more recently, it has been suggested that in the case of data-driven science, inductive approaches to the data may reveal far more than an approach designed to test a single specific hypothesis. There are a multitude of ways in which science happens—some incredibly methodical, others rather less so.

With that myth out of the way, let’s turn to another: that the making of art is a chaotic, unstructured, and entirely un-methodical process. Are all artists scatter-brained, ‘troubled’, and incapable of putting an intelligible sentence together? Au contraire! Good research underpins and provides a foundation for most good art that’s out there. Artistic research, like scientific research, takes a many forms: for instance, it might be systematic experimentation with materials and techniques, or it might be background research and reading to help formulate ideas that are tested in miniature before making it anywhere near a canvas. Artistic decisions are not arbitrary, and where randomness appears in art, its presence as randomness is rarely actually random.

Scabiosa Cretica, photograph by Rob Kesseler

A fascinating exhibition at Central Saint Martins, Making Knowledge, takes a detailed look at the research process in art and design. Laying bare the practices of nine artists and designers from the College, it illuminates the hidden research that underpins their final works. For example, the delicately coloured botanical electron microscope images of Rob Kesseler are the result of a lengthy research process: he starts his work very much as a naturalist, collecting, identifying and drawing natural specimens. This process, which might seem unnecessary when it comes to the final images he produces, is actually essential research inasmuch as he is becoming acquainted with his subjects. It is only after this background research that he creates the images that go into his final work. The images that he ultimately produces – enormously magnified botanical subjects – do not exist in nature, but are composites of electron microscope images, carefully pieced together and coloured in a particular way in order to become art. Each step in the process is planned. In art, like science, there tends to be a method to the madness.

What are the implications here for art and science collaborations? Despite popular perception, there are many similarities in the ways that artists and scientists approach their work. Ultimately, the methods and the products may be different, but I do think that if there is a mutual interest in, and respect for, the ‘other’ side’s research practices, then these sorts of collaborations are more likely to succeed. Through this kind of exchange, artists and scientists can learn from one another. In the case of Rob Kesseler’s work, the artistic process makes visible features of plants that would be otherwise invisible. And is that not… a kind of science?

What do you think?

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Reflecting on Encounters between Art and Science

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What happens when art and science encounter one another in the British Library? Something interesting is – I hope – the answer since for the past year or so I’ve been working on the “Encounters between Art and Science” exhibition. Launching this week, Encounters is a month-long exhibition of artworks inspired by the Library, and by our science collections in particular, made by artists on the Central Saint Martins Art and Science MA Programme. So although this post begins with the caveat that it is not an unbiased review, I hope that you’ll find some reflections on the project to be both interesting and rewarding.

How it all got started

A couple of years ago, over a cup of tea, my former art school tutor Eleanor Crook mentioned to me that she was involved in setting up an MA Programme in Art and Science at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Spearheaded by Course Director, Nathan Cohen, this innovative course aims to explore the interface between art and science and the kinds of constructive, creative relationships that can be forged there.

Central Saint Martins students examining collection items at the British Library

As the course moved from idea to a reality, I was invited to give a lecture in which I reflected on my past life as a geoscientist and in which I provided the students with an introduction to the Library. In November 2011, I introduced the students and instructors to the curators and they took a look at items ‘of a scientific nature’ from the Library’s collections, including modern manuscripts, the India Office Records and Maps. We were keen to highlight the wealth of scientific information embedded in the British Library’s collections—science and scientific inspiration does not simply reside in journal articles and monographs; in fact, it’s all around us.

Making it happen

Following up on that initial Encounter, Nathan approached me with the bold idea of a collaborative project of sorts. Might it be possible to do something inspired by the Library and our collections… and might it be possible to see them installed as ‘interventions’ in the Library space? I thought this was a great idea, but suspected that it might never fly. Yet when I mentioned it to colleagues they loved the idea: we have so much public space, why not do something interesting with it? And what better way to show how collections can inspire a wide range of audiences? It was hard work, but with buy-in from key staff in the organisation, we were suddenly in a position to see if we could make this idea a reality!

Information or Inspiration?

The artists were given a succinct brief: propose a project that is inspired by the Library, and by our science collections in particular. The projects that came back were fascinating in their scope and variety: some were inspired by the Library as a place in which knowledge is absorbed, recreated, and absorbed again; others directly referenced scientific content in our manuscripts, philatelic, Endangered Archives Programme, and oral history collections. Other artists used the Library’s science collections to inform work inspired by subjects as disparate as geology, astrophysics, and Martian terraforming. We then evaluated the content of the proposals and their feasibility, feeding this back to the artists as part of what I hope was a constructive engagement process between art and… the science team…. and exhibitions team… and marketing team… to name but a few. Ultimately, it was a collaborative process, requiring good will from all sides. I can’t claim we all agreed all of the time—but because there was a consensus of the value of the project, there was a starting point from which to build agreement. The artists were aware they were working with a national institution in which things were done in a certain way; likewise, we recognised we couldn’t be prescriptive in terms of the artwork produced through the project, and did our best to accommodate sometimes intriguing exhibition requirements.


The final push…

Image of sculpture by Encounters artist Mona Choo used in exhibition publicity

The past few months have been intense and exciting—working with the course and the Library’s exhibitions team on everything from the exhibition guide to the captions and the text for the exhibition website. And in the meantime the artists have been doing the real work of making this happen—they’ve been making art! Communication has been essential over the past few months. We all had our deadlines, and we did our best to meet them. We understood what was needed of each other and when—and when that wasn’t understood, it became clear soon enough and was rapidly corrected. Again, the success lay in all parties truly believing in this project and committing to make it happen.

The body of work produced for Encounters between Art and Science is unique, and, as it happens, the name of the show really is rather appropriate. Art and Science encounter one another in many different ways in this show: sometimes it’s a sideways glance or a passing in the street; other times, they collide with one another, combining in various unexpected shapes and forms. However, for us, a crucial factor – one that Kat Austen notes in her review – is that the artworks do not illustrate science, but have science embedded in them as inspiration, content, or methodology. This may be a hard sell for audiences who expect ‘science-inspired’ works to have direct ties to specific subject areas, but in terms of producing a body of work that has a holistic view of science—whether it’s a quilt that of aphorisms from Library visitors that tries to capture the ‘fundamental accuracy of statement’, a work exploring the interconnectedness of all knowledge, or a mural inspired by the Library’s Medieval Bestiaries—the science is in the art, and I find that incredibly exciting.

Encounters between Art and Science is on display at The British Library from 25 February – 24 March 2013. Artworks are spread across the Library’s public space. An exhibition guide is available from the information desk.

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