Art Shedding Light on Vision

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The place where art meets the science of perception is a fertile one for collaborations between artists and scientists. And Light Show at the London Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery captures this in a brilliant exhibition that makes your eyes hurt and leaves the outside world looking ever-so-slightly dull. It is not that the exhibition is scientific per se, but that the art in this dazzling show (ok I’ll stop with the puns now) uses light in extraordinarily creative ways to affect the way that we perceive our world. Time and again, works in this exhibition tricked my brain, and even when I managed to figure out the illusion, I had only to blink to find myself once again under its spell.

Since they are innately interested in the way that we see the world, artists have long been fascinated by the science of light. Through an exploration of the myriad ways that light can be reinterpreted and represented to us, Light Show presents a perfect stepping stone for a discussion of some of the science that inspires and underpins art in unexpected ways.

 

What colour is that ACTUALLY?!?!!

Carlos Cruz-Diez
Chromosaturation (1965-2013)
©the artist/DACS
Cruz-Diez Foundation
Photo: Linda Nylind

The Chromosaturation installation by Carlos Cruz-Deiz draws on the notion of Wolfgang von Goethe that colour is not just an objective phenomenon, but also a subjective perception. The installation consists of three rooms, each, of which is illuminated by strong green, red or blue fluorescent light; and because our retina is used to taking in a wide range of colours simultaneously, it is profoundly disorienting to be immersed in a monochromatic environment.

What colour are the walls actually? I asked myself upon entering the first room. No matter how close I got to the wall, I couldn’t quite figure it out since the shade of the primary colour seemed to be constantly shifting. It is only after a few minutes in the room that you begin to realise that the walls are white, and you only realise this because your vision has been so saturated by a single colour that your perception begins to filter it out. Move into the next chamber and the process begins again. In all, Cruz-Diez’s challenge to our understanding of vision and colour is a boggling and beautiful experience.

Seeing ourselves sensing

My personal art hero, James Turrell, is amongst the best out there when it comes to producing environments that tweak our perception of reality. He has a fascination with our perception of light and colour and so was a natural choice for this exhibition. With a background in perceptual psychology, Turrell creates environments that draw our attention to the nature of light and space.

Light Show presents one of Turrell’s famous Wedgeworks, in which a room is divided in a way that seems tangible using nothing more than soft beams of light. The ability to create what feel like physical spaces with light is underpinned by a deep understanding of the behaviour of light, geometry, and the way that our brains process this information. When viewing Wedgework V, I marvelled at the plane of red light that seemed to bisect, like a curtain, what I knew was a rectangular room. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but knew I’d touch nothing but a bare, right-angled wall.

 

Recreating natural processes

Photorealist painters attempt to paint pictures that are so close to reality that it takes a very close examination to tell the difference. Now imagine doing that…. but with moonlight. Not painting moonlight, but creating a light that is indistinguishable from moonlight. This is the task taken up by Katie Paterson in her poetic piece, Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight.

 Spectral memberships were taken under a full moon in order to match the moon’s light in its intensity, colour and temperature. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a little like the moon hanging in the sky, bathes the viewer in a cool, slightly blue-ish light. While we stood looking at Paterson’s work, a young child bolted away from his parent, directly towards the light bulb. Everybody gasped, but it seems that the child was only trying to touch the moonlight.

 

 Out of Plato’s cave

 

Conrad Shawcross
Slow Arc inside a Cube IV (2009)
©the artist
Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Photo: Linda Nylind

Conrad Shawcross presents yet another take on light with his piece Slow Arc Inside a Cube, which features a small halogen lamp at the end of a robotic arm that moves in a narrow ellipse around the inside of a mesh cube. Befuddled? This is perhaps the only piece in the show directly inspired by science—when Dorothy Hodgkin pioneered techniques in X-Ray crystallography to determine the structure of the complex protein chain of pig insulin, she compared it to deciphering the structure of a tree based only on its shadow.

Of course, understanding the world through the long shadows that it casts also points towards a long and distinguished philosophical tradition: the allegory of Plato’s Cave suggests that what we see as reality is actually only the shadow of a perfect truth. In Shawcross’ work, as the robotic arm prowls inside its cage, we are unmoored.

One of the things that I loved about Light Show was how the artworks play with our perception of reality, but in intelligent and not unnecessarily flashy ways.  Be it through the subtle shadows or an impossible pane of red light, the artworks fool us; but unlike the dislocation we feel in a funhouse, here we know that the works are toying with us and they are entirely open and visible about the ways in which they are doing so. Time and time again, I told my brain that what I thought I was seeing wasn’t so, and yet I was nonetheless completely spellbound. In this way, artists, such as James Turrell, are making real contributions to our understanding of perception through their art, and thereby making our lives all the richer.

Light Show is at the London Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery until 28 April 2013. Advance booking of tickets is strongly recommended.

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Seeing Stardust

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What happens when data from an astronomical observatory is mixed with eastern mythology by the hand of an artist known for dressing up as an alien creature? Some might say ‘an almighty mess’, and I probably would have been inclined to agree until I went to see the sparkling (literally) new show by Japanese artist Mariko Mori.

Rebirth, at the Royal Academy in London, elegantly demonstrates the subtle power that scientific data can have in the hands of an outstanding artist. I find it difficult to articulate exactly what this exhibition made me feel, but it felt like a glimpse of a dispassionate universe that doesn’t really need us humans. In Mori’s work, tides go up and down, planets move around the sun, and radiation created by supernovae gradually dissipates, whether or not we are there to observe them. Mori wants us to see the unseeable and to reconnect us with nature—whether it’s neutrinos, gravitation, or energy. Although often using scientific data as her medium she is not its slave, acknowledging the importance of cultural and spiritual practices — alongside the scientific — in making sense of the world.

Let me attempt to explain.

Mariko Mori, ‘Tom Na H-Iu II’, 2006.
Glass, stainless steel, LED, real time control system, 450 x 156.3 x 74.23 cm. Courtesy of Mariko Mori Studio Inc. © Mariko Mori. Photo: Richard Learoyd.

Rebirth opens with Tom Na H-iu II, a tall LED monolith, reminiscent of a standing stone, constructed of glass and stainless steel and installed in a dark room. A collaboration with the Institute of Cosmic Ray Research at the University of Tokyo, the monolith lights up and fades as neutrinos, resulting from radioactive decay of unstable isotopes created in supernovae, are detected by the Super Kamiokande detector. It’s an incredibly subtle piece, and one that bears up to close scrutiny. I sat in the room for something like 10 minutes, barely noticing as people wandered in and out, and entranced by the monolith’s softly glowing patterns. I was reminded of that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the black monolith is discovered on the moon and, in a similar fashion (albeit minus a shrieking soundtrack) this piece draws the viewer steadily in. There was no discernable pattern to the lights—and I think that’s what I really loved about the piece—since it was the raw data that we were watching; it is neither more nor less than stardust hitting an atmospheric neutrino detector on the other side of the planet.

In Rebirth, Mori continues to touch on the theme of a culture deeply rooted in nature, particularly through rhythmic processes, such as the movements of the planets, tides, and the rotation of the Earth with what must be the world’s prettiest pendulum. The artist’s work also borrows from Celtic traditions, using astronomical alignments and, of course, forms reminiscent of standing stones.  There is a strong aesthetic component to her work, and a deep desire to reconcile natural processes with her Buddhist beliefs in cycles of death and rebirth; these are explored through her use of the mandala, a patterned circular form that is a kind of microcosm of the universe as seen from the human perspective. We don’t quite know what Mori’s mandalas are—they might be things seen under a microscope, or they might be completely imaginary.  However, like traditional mandalas that represent both the tangible and intangible aspects of our world,  these images too play with worlds both observable and imperceptable.

Mariko Mori, ‘White Hole’, 2008-10.
Acrylic, LED lights, 345.7 x 262.6 cm. Courtesy of Mariko Mori Studio Inc. © Mariko Mori, Photo: Geraint Lewis

Some might take issue with this mixing of science and spirituality. Indeed, some critics have lambasted the exhibition as ‘new age’, but I think that this is a superficial reading of much of her work. That said, although I conceptually ‘got’ her Transcircle 1.1 piece, it pushed a few too many “aaah, new age, must flee!” buttons for me to take it as seriously as I think it might have deserved. Without wanting to get into a debate about science and religion, I think that Einstein’s suggestion that “…all religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree” is rather apt in this case. These branches encompass the many ways that humans try to make sense of the world, and for all that science helps us to understand its mechanics, it does not do a particularly good job of helping us to be reconciled to our place in a forever-expanding universe.

These ‘meaning’ questions are not something that scientific data can tackle directly; however, in Mori’s pieces Tom Na H-iu II and White Hole—hypothesising the birth of a star—I would suggest that art can succeed where mere data cannot. In my post, Data as Culture, I started to examine the possibilities made possible by data-driven art and I stand by my premise that merely visualising data isn’t sufficient to create affective art. But in this exhibition, Mariko Mori transforms data into something ethereal and magical, connecting us with the beauty and majesty of the universe.

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Science IS Culture (by way of Death: A Self Portrait)

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This week I beat the January blues by spending my lunch break at an exhibition about death. It might sound like a strange way to convince myself that being back to my ordinary life isn’t really so rough, but “Death: A Self Portrait” at the Wellcome Collection turned out to be a strangely uplifting experience.

The Wellcome Trust, which hosted this exhibition, is one of the UK’s largest funders of biomedical research. Intriguingly, alongside their core work of supporting scientific research in areas ranging from genetics to neuroscience and global health, the Trust also maintains a substantial outreach programme. This entails not only the fostering of dialogue between medicine and art (see the art and neuroscience series with the Barbican, for instance), but also the management of the Wellcome Collection, which features consistently excellent exhibitions for the ‘inexorably curious’.

The Collection’s exhibitions usually try to place cutting edge science in a historical and cultural context and the current installation is no exception. Death: A Self Portrait displays the collection of Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, who amassed an astonishing collection of objects, prints and photographs relating to death. The exhibition starts with the ‘to-be-expected’ contemplations of death through momento mori and vanitas, but it extends to more recent works, including a bronze skull by Kiki Smith cast from her own head and a photograph of Robert Mappelthorpe’s skull-handled walking stick.

Dance of Death, Walter Sauer (Wellcome Images/The Richard Harris Collection)

Yet the exhibition avoids focussing solely on the morbid, and more playful elements abound: you look upwards in one bit of the gallery to find a grim reaper above your head. I particularly enjoyed the pieces that anthropomorphised death, such as dancing skeletons, a grim reaper picking his victim at random, and a Hogarth print of a wrestler fighting death.

On a far more serious note (but one which did not come across as oppressive) the exhibition also tackles the ways in which artists have attempted to reconcile themselves with violent death through prints by Goya and German expressionist painter Otto Dix. The huge collection of prints by Dix represents his personal reckoning with the horrors of WWI trench warfare. Although some were hard to look at, and others were rather eerie, I was grateful that this ‘self portrait’ of death was an honest one and didn’t simply consider death as a natural process.

Otto Dix, Shock Troops Advance Under Gas, 1924, Etching and Aquatint from the Series Der Krieg (Wellcome Images/Richard Harris Collection)

The exhibition finishes with some lovely examples of the ways that we commemorate those whom we’ve lost (touching particularly on Tibetan and Latin American practices). Death: A Self Portrait provides the viewer with a fascinating array of material that touches on all dimensions of death, reminding us that, try as we might, we cannot escape it—the grim reaper comes for us all whether in circumstances peaceful, unjust, or extreme. Taken as a whole, I was particularly struck by the way that the exhibit highlights that, although death is a universal biological fact, distinct human cultures have chosen to respond to it in uniquely creative ways, both very public and very private (see the ‘Stories from the Hospice’ section of their exhibition blog).

The outstanding content of the exhibition aside, I was left thinking about the formal relationship between art and science within cultural institutions. Death: A Self Portrait is very clearly an art exhibition, but it is displayed in the gallery of a funder of biomedical research and I think that I can reasonably suggest that none of the artists (aside perhaps from the contemporary ones) had the slightest inkling that they were making art about a scientific subject matter. These artists were making art in response to human experiences, and while the death does have a scientific explanation, it is also has enormous cultural resonance. I have to confess (and most press reviewers seem to agree)—this show was profoundly affecting—simultaneously haunting and joyous.

It strikes me that art should have a home in scientific institutions and that definitions such as “art inspired by science” or “sciart” shouldn’t really exist (are they more public engagement monickers?). It’s all art—whether in the form of a cultural artefact inspired by a culture in a lab, or in the form of a landscape painting inspired by the degradation of an environment. Inasmuch as science is something (generally) carried out by humans and for human benefit, there is an inherently personal relationship to it. An exhibition of art related to climate change should not be didactic, rather it seek to capture the myriad ways that we respond to this scientific and cultural phenomenon. The same is true for energy. And for particle physics.

Science is part of our culture and, in fact, it’s an integral part of our culture. Artists should feel to respond and in unlikely and imaginative ways, and our scientific establishments should support them in their endeavours.

 

Death: A Self Portrait is on display at the Wellcome Collection, London, until 24 February 2013. Admission is free.

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Data as Culture

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A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to take a look at the ‘Data as Culture’ art commission coordinated by MzTEK, which supports the engagement of women with technology/new media/computer arts. The aim of the commission was to highlight the use of data in an artistic context and to challenge our perceptions of what data can be. Unofficially, it also provided some office decoration for the newly-formed Open Data Institute. It was an interesting collection of work — some of which were decidedly better than others — most of which used publicly available “open” data at their core.

 

20 Hz by Semiconductor, part of the Data as Culture commission

 

The idea that data might play a role in art was the spark that opened my eyes to the possibilities of intersections between science and art. At the time, I was teaching geology at a liberal arts college in the US and spending most of my free time painting. I started to look at the remote sensing images that I was giving to my students as data, but began wondering what could be done with them in my own art. Ever since then, I’ve been asking myself questions such as: How can one transform data into art? What separates a good data visualisation from a piece of art?  Or can data itself be art?

To provide some perspective on where I’m coming from with this, I first need to make a confession: although I am now curating an exhibition on scientific data visualisation and am obsessed with beautiful diagrammes, I find it rare to see a data visualisation that crosses into the realm of art. In the same way that scientific images in themselves are not art, neither are good data visualisations. My thinking on this issue is informed by the way that disciplines such as photography or sound recordings are treated in relation to art.

Breathtaking photographs are not automatically ‘art’: photojournalism certainly isn’t, nor is nature photography  (much as I love you Wildlife Photographer of the Year), and definitely not my carefully framed snapshots. Indeed, there has been an argument raging over the past century as to whether any photography is ever art (rather than ‘just’ craft or science). The answer is almost certainly yes (particularly as evidenced by a new show at the National Gallery), and the same is true of sound: not every sound recording is art, but ‘sound art’ certainly does exist.

It is, I would like to suggest, the same with data—it can inspire art, be subverted by art, and change how we think of ourselves in relationship to the world. In short, it’s part of our culture, but the fact that it’s in a gallery does not automatically make it art. I felt that the most successful (as art) pieces in the Data as Culture collection were the ones that were not straightforward visualisations of data, they were ones in which the data became something ‘other’. In the spectacular video piece 20 Hz by Semiconductor (above), data from a geo-magnetic storm is interpreted as audio and patterns that are reminiscent of scientific visualisations — but which most definitely are not charts, maps, or figures — oscillate before your eyes.

 

Phil Archer, Three flames ate the sun and big stars were seen, 2012, laser on photochromatic pigment. Image courtesy of MzTEK and ODI

And Phil Archer’s piece, ‘Three flames ate the sun, and big stars were seen’ uses NASA solar eclipse date to calculate solar eclipses through history and then uses a laser to ‘paint’ a re-representation of the eclipse on to a canvas covered in photochromic pigment. It’s an incredibly simple work (the photo really doesn’t do it justice) where an arc is ‘painted’ by the laser, fades, and is replaced by a new arc, but it’s also incredibly beautiful and oddly mysterious. So although both pieces are underpinned by scientific data, you experience the data in a way that is fundamentally different from the way that you would ‘experience’ (or, more accurately, read) a chart of solar eclipses throughout history or a direct representation of the interaction of a solar storm with the Earth’s magnetic field.

Whether coming from environmental observations or medical experiments, data is necessarily an abstraction of the real world, but I wonder if it can only really become art when it becomes in some sense reflexive. In becoming analogue, becoming a physical object, or becoming a representation of the process of representation itself, ‘data art’ gains a perspective from which to observe and comment on the links between the real world and its abstraction as data. Short of that what we have is, in essence, a very pretty picture.

In a recent conversation with the students on the RCA Information Experience Design MA programme, I observed how many of them were turning their attention to the new ways that information might be expressed through sound or physical objects. I was shown a delightful device through which you could swipe your credit card and hear a tune — based on your number — played on chimes). At first glance, this may seem trivial, but it is doing something profoundly different from traditional data visualisations: those are designed to communicate information (well, the good ones anyways), but art should make you feel and this is what this tiny card reader accomplishes. In order to provide that transformative experience, some translation of the data is nearly always necessary.

At the moment it is an incredibly exciting time to be a data artist. The field is wide open and it seems that there is real potential for some fantastic new projects (some even from people who haven’t previously regarded themselves as artists). The open data movement does not just benefit scientists and innovators– but also artists, who can use this data to comment on our changing environment, economy, etc. So, what should we look for in good data art? Something that transforms how we think about our world. Something that is emotionally moving. Something that actively dazzles or dulls our senses, but which does so with intent.

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The HOW of Science and Art

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Following on from my last post on the ‘why’ of collaborations between artists and scientists, here I’d like to look at the ‘how’. When scientists and artists don’t typically have professional reasons for mixing, what are the mechanisms that enable collaboration? Is it the sort of thing that happens at a dinner party, where a painter and a biologist unwittingly decide that a collaborative project would be a good idea? That certainly could be the case, but there are other ways in which these things happen.

What I describe below is by no means an exhaustive list, but is an indication of the ways in which collaborations between the two cultures can be born.

 

Artist in Residency Schemes

Some of the more outward-looking scientific research organisations realise that there is something to be gained from a scheme that brings artists through their doors. It could be couched as a box-ticking ‘outreach’ exercise, but it is also an opportunity to bring the science happening behind their doors alive to the wider public. This approach has been particularly embraced by the physics community, where studies of the interactions between subatomic particles — which have serious implications for science and cost a great deal of taxpayer money — nonetheless seem of little relevance to the man on the street. As physicist David Weinberg notes based on his collaboration with Josiah McElheny (below), “far more people saw [our collaboration] in one day in Madrid than have ever read my Astrophysical Journal articles.”

 

Scientific laboratory or artists studio? The Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed, CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider and the discovery of the Higgs Boson Particle, has a Cultural Policy stating that in addition to inspiring great science, they also hope to inspire great art. Although cash-strapped, the Collide@CERN programme has formed partnerships with organisations, such as Ars Electronica and IRCAM, that have brought in well-regarded artists, such as sculptor Antony Gormley, photographer Andreas Gursky, and current artist-in-residence Julius von Bismarck, and they will soon be home to sound artist (and a personal favourite of yours truly) Bill Fontana.

Other organisations have taken up this idea, ranging from large national research institutes to individual university departments– including the SETI InstituteMIT, Kew Gardens, the Imperial College London Department of Mathematics, the University of Southampton Dept of Medicine and the UCL Environment Institute (to name but a few).

 

Artist/Scientist Pairing Schemes

I think of artist/scientist pairing schemes as something of a matchmaking exercise, in which a number of artists are invited into a research institute and paired with interested and willing scientists. Like any matchmaking process, it seems to me that this is something that can go either way: sometimes it will work out, but other times it may not.

An interesting example of an artist/scientist pairing scheme is the Earth*Science*Art project, in which 16 artists were paired with USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Centre scientists with interests spanning migratory bird patterns, the mapping of climate change impacts and natural hazards. In this case, the artists spent five months working with scientists. The degree of interaction was determined on a case-by-case basis by the pair involved. In situations such as these, undoubtedly some projects were more collaborative and others more ‘inspirational’, but an impressive and beautiful body of work was produced. And although it seems that this project was a one-off collaboration with a gallery that happens to share a building with the USGS, I would like to hope this might serve as evidence to support a repeat effort, or as inspiration for a neighbouring institution such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium perhaps?

 

Individual collaborations between artists and scientists

Unsurprisingly, collaboration between an individual artist and scientist generally starts with an introduction, a conversation, and an interest/openness from both parties to trying something a little different. Collaboration in these circumstances is often initiated by the artist who may have an idea and an interest, but who recognises that they would benefit from the help of a scientist in order to fully realise their vision.

Josiah McElheny, Island Universe (Small Scale Violence), 2008, Heights from floor highly specific, overall dimensions variable
Chrome plated aluminium, hand-blown and molded glass, electric lighting and rigging, Image: White Cube Gallery, London

A particularly interesting example of this type of collaboration is the Island Universe project by Josiah McElheny, which came from working with Ohio State University astrophysicist David Weinberg. Having been struck by the fact that the galactic Lobmeyr chandeliers in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House were designed in the same year the cosmic background radiation providing evidence for the Big Bang was discovered, McElheny saw the beginnings of a project but needed help getting started. He was introduced to the physicist Weinberg by the Director of the Wexner Center for the Arts at OSU. A short conversation turned into a long lunch, and a project was born that became an enduring collaborative relationship.

The large, abstract sculptures that comprise the Island Universe project are scientifically accurate models of the Big Bang. As McElheny read articles on astrophysics, Weinberg wrote computer models that provided estimates of the positioning of lights representing galactic clusters, super-clusters and quasars in the sculptures. What resulted were stunning modernist, illuminated sculptures that accurately reflect different possibilities on the origin of the universe, depending on the amount of energy or matter present at the beginning of time.

 

Recipe for Success?

In a detailed account of the collaboration with McElheny, Weinberg writes that — based on his experience, at least — this type of art/science collaboration is improved if each party has sympathy for how the other works and if the two have aesthetic ideas that reinforce each other, rather than pull in opposite directions. Their result is project that elegantly interweaves the details of cosmology with ideas around modernism and design—and many public conversations, which have brought diverse audiences together to discuss the interplay between science and art (indeed it was attending an event with Weinberg and McElheny in 2008 that opened my eyes to the possibilities).

The appropriate foundation for an art/science collaboration seems to depend very much on the individual context: sometimes the scientists will need to be ‘encouraged’ to engage in this kind of outreach by a supportive organisation, and sometimes the artist’s or scientist’s passion for science communication (or expression) will drive forward a partnership. What is particularly promising for such projects is that we are in an era when science needs, more than ever, to communicate its findings in ways that reach across traditional disciplinary boundaries and artists are particularly receptive to the challenges of understanding and interpreting the insights that contemporary science is able to offer into our complex universe.

 

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Are you an artist worked with a scientist? Or a scientist who has collaborated with artists? How did your collaboration get started? Do feed back in the comments section!

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Why scientists should care about art

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Last week, I attended an environmental science conference with an evening reception that featured a short talk on art/science collaborations in the context of environmental science. The talk was followed by a musical performance – inspired by the fragility of peatbog environments – after which I overheard a scientist mutter “What was that? That better not have had research council funding.” He was not the only one; I heard similar sentiments expressed by several others as I walked to dinner.

On some level, I was disappointed by this response, but I wasn’t really surprised. Despite great progress amongst those who are ensconced in the world of science communication to the idea of collaborations between scientists and artists, this is something that many scientists still don’t “get”. Other researchers are openly hostile, and certainly think that scientific research organisations have no business funding this type of work.

To be fair, these are not necessarily the attitudes of people who are disinterested in art — I’d be willing to bet that a fair few of those who walked away from the performance muttering about scientific research council funding being wasted on the arts also have memberships at cultural institutions. That said, whilst being consumers of culture, few scientists really see themselves as having much of a role in its creation. In an increasingly competitive funding landscape, does it really make sense to spend research money on an art project? Does engaging with the arts mean that they are less serious as scientists?

Here, I’d like to make an argument that art is good for scientists, and that there are many reasons they shouldn’t be quite so afraid of letting artists loose in their laboratories.

Data monologue or dialogue? Data Soliloquies is an interesting book, produced by a former artist in residence at UCL, looking at environmental data in a cultural context.

Understanding the Cultural Context of your Research

Hot issues, such as climate change may not be subjects of contention within the scientific community, but it seems clear that the science is not being communicated in a way that has the necessary impact. Although art cannot directly communicate science or change minds, it can create a space for dialogue around difficult issues. Few scientists are likely to deeply consider the role of narrative in their work or the visual impact of their images, but for reaching society as a whole these are vitally important.

Artists are also likely to ask questions that scientists might never think to ask (because they are, well, thinking like scientists). A recent AHRC funding call (see, scientists there is some money in this!) posits that a sophisticated understanding of cultural values, rights, religions, and systems of belief is essential for understanding some of the complex legal, ethical and regulatory policy issues raised in several emerging areas of science and technology. Scientists aren’t trained in this (and that’s ok) — but it is important to engage with people who think about these issues in a different way.

Becoming a better communicator

In my view, art inspired by science isn’t necessarily about the communication of science—it is a response to science. In leaving the scientific arena where it is all to easy to use technical jargon, working with artists can make you rethink the way that you communicate your research. How can you convey the complexity of the problem, while also making it accessible?

A scientist who participated in the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart programme, was reflected on their experience in the report on that programme, saying “Through my PhD I learned to talk in a particular way, write in a particular way. Because of that I lost a piece of myself. Through working with [X] I found the way to become the real me, rather than this slightly objective scientist that I had become. I found my voice, which I had lost because of the scientific process.” 

Becoming a better researcher

Artists examine problems from different angles and engage with information in a different way from scientists.  Some might see this as a deficiency, and to be fair, you wouldn’t want to conduct science in an un-scientific way. However, I would argue that particularly in the area of scientific visualisation, there is a great deal to be gained for scientists who engage with artists.

Chiara Ambrosio, Lecturer in the History of Science at UCL, argues that art offers an opportunity for dialogue and a critique of science. When scientific data sometimes seems like a monologue, art can produce a dialogue. Artists may not – indeed, probably should not – directly challenge the way that science happens or is conducted, but they can raise questions about the purpose of the science and present different ways of looking at research outcomes. 

It’s fun

Clearly, engaging with artists is not something to be done if you don’t also think that it would be fun. Artists aren’t particularly interested being a part of a scientist’s ‘outreach’ box-ticking exercise, or in being relegated to a dusty corner of the lab from which to quietly observe the scientists going about their business. 

I am not so naïve that I believe that having an artist in the lab is something that all scientists should do, or even most. But I do think that more scientists should have an open mind to this approach, and be encouraged to engage with them in the right context. Far from being an impediment to scientific progress, it can be a way of making your science more relevant, more impactful, and hopefully a bit more fun. In my next post, I hope to highlight a few examples of how it happens in practice when artists actively work in labs alongside scientists.

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WeatherDataMusicSculpture

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Foremost in the minds of many of us this past week has been Hurricane Sandy, which has been battering the eastern coast of the United States and which, as I write this, is now on its way up through Canada. The power of storms has been a source (or should I say force?) of inspiration for artists, such as Turner (Morning after the Deluge) and John Martin, who saw it as an opportunity to explore the sublime. But moving beyond the epic, and ongoing, battle between man and nature, has the science of storms ever served as an artistic inspiration?

 

Hurricane Noel
Reed, wood, plastic, data
32”x32”x36”, 2010
3D Musical Score of the passing of Hurricane Noel through the Gulf of Maine, Nov 6-8, 2007 nathaliemiebach.com

Boston-based artist Nathalie Miebach creates intricate and beautiful sculptures based on weather data which, in her hands, become elaborately decorated baskets swirling out of themselves, punctuated by bobbles, beads and bling. Surprisingly, these structures are actually 3D visualisations of weather data, with the axes of the sculpture representing different meteorological elements, such as air pressure or temperature. So weather data controls the form that the baskets take, and what might appear at first to be decorations or adornments are actually additional types of data, gathered either by Miebach herself with her home-made collection devices or from publicly available data sources such as NOAA.

 

In addition to the physical forms of the baskets, Miebach also translates the weather data into music (often this music is an intermediate process in achieving the final sculpture). In other words, she first translates the scientific data into music, and then translates the score into sculpture. Moreover, Miebach notes that our ears are more attuned to nuances in what we hear than our eyes are to nuances in what we see. What can we learn by listening to a storm? Miebach’s music is both stark and beautiful (ex- listen here to Hurricane Noel, played by the Axis Ensemble), and while I can’t interpret it in the same way as I can a scientific diagram, does that really matter? In fact, you could easily argue that it’s just that my ears aren’t (yet) as attuned to the data as my eyes (but for someone who’s blind, surely listening to data would make some sense?).

 

Nathalie Miebach, 2010, 3D Musical Score of the passing of Hurricane Noel through the Gulf of Maine, Nov 6-8, 2007
Image from the artist’s website

Part of what I love about Miebach’s work is that she approaches science in a very different way from those of us who are traditionally trained in these fields. Scientific data can be quite abstract, but for those who aren’t so good at abstract thinking and who learn by doing or touching, sculpture offers a way to make weather data tactile. For kinesthetic or ‘haptic learners’ this type of work offers an opportunity to make sense of data in a way that’s a bit more tangible—Miebach points out that we lose a sense of spatial sensibility when dealing with data on the flat plane of the computer screen—and her sculpture offers a counterpoint to that.

 

As Miebach puts it, she is working to challenge the ‘vocabularies’ that are used in art and science. In some ways this isn’t such a new idea—the Aristotelian notion of the Music of the Spheres assigns ratios to the movements of the planets in the same way that there are proportional relationships between pleasing musical notes. The idea was that closer, ‘slow moving’ spheres produced lower tones, while those further away moved faster and produced higher ones. The result of this celestial motion would be beautiful harmony. In a similar way, Miebach proposes, there is a way of listening to data, or touching it, that isn’t actually any stranger than looking at it on a page or computer monitor.

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Fantastic voyage: The strange journey of a graphite pencil

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I have a fond memory of my mineralogy class in university: it was a lab session in which we were studying metamorphic minerals and were presented with boxes of samples to identify. My eyes gravitated towards a darkish silvery lump that was so soft its residue rubbed off on your fingers. Taking the specimen, I started sketching with it in the margins of my notebook since I didn’t need to look up the characteristics of this particular mineral in order to identify it—I knew it was graphite.

 

Graphite sample (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and USGS)

Graphite is the topic of a new exhibition at GV Art, a London art gallery that specialisesin work sitting at the art/science interface. The Graphite proposition is a powerful one since the graphite is an indispensable tool for almost any working artist, and is also an incredibly interesting material in its own right. Made entirely of sheets of hexagonally arranged carbon atoms, the weak bonds between the sheets allow the layers of carbon to slip by each other when you press a pencil to paper, leaving a mark. It is also this property that makes graphite an incredibly good industrial lubricant and electrical conductor.

 

The exhibition explores the visual aspects of graphite—scientific, artistic, and those falling somewhere in between—and there are a range of interesting works in the exhibition, from thin sections under a microscope to a fun interactive pencil sculpture and some delicately executed drawings. However, I would like to focus on the work by Anais Tondeur, which I found particularly interesting and moving, as it engaged with graphite poetically and intelligently as an artistic medium, while also actively exploring its nature as a geologic material.

 

Through an installation of drawings, maps, and a real quasi-anatomical-geological specimen, Tondeur tells an interesting story: early last century, a young French girl swallowed a pencil and survived to tell the tale. Ultimately, she—and the pencil—travelled to London, where doctors removed the writing implement in 1914. Tondeur simultaneously imagines, unravels, and explores the story of how the girl first came upon the pencil and the strange journey that they undertook together.

 

Anaïs Tondeur, I.55 from the series: Graphite Geologic Veins, graphite on arches paper, 6 x 16 cm, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist & GV Art, London.

Working with geoscientists, Tondeur takes this story as a launch point for exploring the nature of graphite, tracing Carboniferous coal-bearing seams to an area of contact metamorphism at the entrance of a mine containing graphite (graphite is often formed by contact of coal seems with hot fluids or magma). Part historical research, part geologic exploration, and all tied together by an imaginary (but not entirely imaginary) narrative, the artist presents this story with some delicate graphite drawings, a map of the girl’s and the pencil’s journeys, and the pencil itself, which is on loan from St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

 

I find this piece of work deeply appealing, as it elegantly connects the geologic history of southern France to an unlikely human narrative. While I may be seeing what I want to see in this work, I feel that there are echoes of the great land artists Richard Long and Robert Smithson. Working both in the landscape, as well as the studio, Long and Smithson imbue a certain narrative on the land through their conceptual studio-based works; and so too it is with this work by Anais Tondeur.

 

Despite my interest in art that engages with science, I find that sci-art can often be mediocre, didactic, too… concrete… and not always terribly sophisticated. I was therefore happy to find that this work in Graphite really touched me: Tondeur explores graphite from an unexpected angle, imbuing an unsuspecting scientific specimen with a narrative all its own. Here we can see the real beauty of what art can contribute to science; in coming at science from a tangent, she makes us think a bit differently about the world around us.

Graphite is on view at GV Art 5 October – 8 December 2012. The full story of this fantastical graphite pencil can be found in the Graphite exhibition catalogue.

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Planetary Artistry

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Water-lain sediments– slightly rounded clasts within a sandy matrix
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

For me, the highlight of this past week’s science news was the images beamed back from the Curiosity rover, providing conclusive geologic evidence that water flowed on Mars. Of course, this wasn’t exactly a surprise; for decades, planetary scientists have suggested the dendritic channel networks visible in spacecraft imagery couldn’t have been made by anything else. The evidence has been mounting as well, as various clay minerals and iron oxides have been identified through hyperspectral imagery. Nonetheless, I suspect that the image of definitely water-lain sediments made the heart of more than one geologist skip a beat. Ground truth.

 

You could argue that the scientific exploration of the extra-terrestrial is, at least in a part, a search for meaning: to position us within a larger cosmology. But our fascination with, and connection to, what we see in the night sky comes not just through science, but also through art. So it should come as no surprise that scientific images of planetary surfaces have provided inspiration to a range of artists from Galileo – whose first sketches of the moon through a telescope are truly beautiful – to Barbara Hepworth – whose interpretations of the lunar surface are far less literal.

 

Here are a few artists who have touched on them in their practices for various different ways….

 

Kiki Smith, Tidal 1998 Photogravure, page: 9 11/16 x 9 11/16″ (24.6 cm); unfolded: 19 1/4 x 126 1/4″ (48.9 x 320.7 cm). Publisher and printer: LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, Columbia University, New York. Edition: 39. Mary Ellen Meehan Fund. © 2012 Kiki Smith, DIGITAL IMAGE © 2012 The Museum of Modern Art/Scala, Florence

Kiki Smith explores the physical relationship between humans and the moon in a beautiful fold-out series of prints, of the lunar surface.  With 13 prints of the moon, taken through the Columbia University telescope by the artist, “Tidal” (1998) reflects on effect of the moon’s tides on the female body as well as the surface of the earth.

 

Moon Surface (Surveyor 1), Vija Celmins, Graphite on acrylic ground on paper, 14 x 18 1/2″ (35.6 x 47 cm). Gift of Edward R. Broida. © 2012 Vija Celmins
DIGITAL IMAGE © 2012, The Museum of Modern Art/Scala, Florence

A far more remote vision of the Moon is presented by Vija Celmins, who beautifully captures the mystery of the lunar surface in her graphite works on paper. Working from photographs, often cut from magazines, Celmins blurs the line between photography and drawing by creating beautifully layered and assembled images. A less innovative artist might feel sheepish working from photographs, but Celmins does not shy away from her source material. By openly acknowledging that her near-photorealistic work could only be based upon remotely-taken photos of the moon, she actually distances us from the source material – only a select few of us will ever directly experience another world in this way. In this image from the MOMA collection, we seem to hover above the surface of the moon at a slightly oblique angle, snapping photos in order to piece together a very foreign place in our minds.

 

Nancy Graves I. Part of Sabine D Region, Southwest Mare
Tranquilitatis, 1972, Lithograph on Arches Cover white paper
(c) Carl Solway Gallery

Removing us even further from reality is Nancy Graves, who tackled notions of mapmaking and abstraction in a series of lithographs based upon geologic maps of the moon. Containing none of the features that we expect of maps (i.e. a legend for one!), these images comprise amorphous regions of brightly coloured specks. Without prior knowledge of their content, they are abstract. Trained as a geologist myself (and one who has indeed spent time fascinated by maps of lunar geology), my mind instantly interprets the visual cues, identifying craters and fault lines. However, without that context, what remains? Geologic maps made from space have a weirdly abstract quality—they are our best guess at the rock units at the surface, based on features visible in spacecraft imagery. Very reasonable guesses, but lacking the ground truth of astronauts or rovers, such as Curiosity, that can say ‘these are water-lain sediments.’

 

Martian Canals as depicted by Percival Lowell (1914)

Returning to Mars, I thought that no post on planetary artistry could be complete without a nod to Percival Lowell, who was not an artist (technically speaking), but a scientist with a very vivid imagination. Looking through an early Twentieth Century telescope at the (now named) Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, he drew what he thought he saw. To him, these were scientific observations. However, his hypothesis that the dark lines he saw across the surface of Mars were canals representing the desperate efforts of an advanced (and thirsty) civilisation to tap the polar ice caps ultimately proved a greater contribution to science fiction writers than to science. Nonetheless, today Lowell’s work has a cultural resonance that is hard to ignore, particularly as we are grappling with the implications of climate change for our own world… In moving between science and art, Lowell’s drawings highlight the ways in which both our art and our science are reflections of ourselves more than anything else.

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On Scientific Imagery, Art, and Science

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Welcome to At the Interface. Here, we will explore the exciting edge between Art and Science—examining the space where science and visual culture meet and establishing how, and on what terms, these seemingly disparate fields can mix and interact through the collaborations of those working at the interface.

I would like to start on what some might consider a provocative note: scientific imagery in itself is not art. This might seem a surprising statement from somebody writing an art and science blog, but I say this as a means of introducing you to the world of art inspired by science. Or as some would call it, Sci-Art. I believe that science is beautiful (even when it may not be aesthetically pleasing), and that it has the capacity to produce stunning imagery that can hold its own in own in any gallery. But is this art?

Colour micrograph of Bacillus subtilis, Wellcome Image Awards finalist 2012, © Wellcome Images

This photomicrograph of Bacillus subtillus, a bacterium found in soil, has vivid, rich colours, and swirling abstract patterns that bring to mind painterly abstraction. However, it is a research image of a scientific subject matter, captured by a scientist through the practice of science. It is, in other words, an image with a scientific purpose. So I find it strange to see a gallery of stunning research images titled the ‘Art of Science’, as if it were a surprise that science could generate beautiful imagery. Science should not be afraid to be beautiful, and it should unapologetically claim as its own aesthetically pleasing images generated through the practice of science.

So, without tackling the age-old question of what is art?, how might we define an art of science that is not ‘merely’ one of beautiful illustrations? I would argue that while art may use the methods of science, use science as an initial starting point or inspiration, or comment on science itself, the intention and result of ‘scientifically-inspired art’ (let’s just stick to Sci-Art from now on) is something different.

The difference is not necessarily in the subject matter or the conception. Science is a part of our culture every bit as much as politics, nature, and all the other things on which artists comment, and so it too can serve as a source of material inspiration. In recent years, this Sci-Art movement has gained momentum as artists and scientists start to see the benefits of working collaboratively.

At first overlooked by the art world (and still very much a subculture within the field of art), scientific themes are beginning to be embraced by a range of high profile artists, such as Olafur Eliasson, Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn, amongst others. Another cadre of artists actually work side-by-side with scientists in laboratories, making everything from art out of biofilms to etchings out of their own brainscans.

Birth of a Thought (Etching), 2007 © Susan Aldworth

Artists working in the field of science have a freedom to play, to subvert science and interrogate it in ways that practicing scientists cannot without questions being raised about their integrity or, indeed, their capacity as scientists. Unlike science, art is not about proving or disproving the hypothesis. This is not to say that scientists cannot do art in parallel with science, but I would emphasise that when scientists make art (whether in a professional sense or just-for-fun) the intention is different: it’s to make a piece of art.

Science and art both have an intentionality in how they are conceived and carried out. At its best, science produces objective documents about the world, whereas art—again, at its best— expresses/alters our subjective experience of the world. These boundaries establish the domains of science and art with respect to one another; however, it’s not all black and white because there remains a point—or, if you prefer, an interface—where these two domains meet and where some particularly powerful works are able to cross from one domain to other.

The Blue Marble, 1972 © NASA

And one example especially comes to mind (though undoubtedly there are many more): the iconic shot of the Earth from space taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts. This image—part document and part research image—did something that most artworks can’t even claim to do: it fundamentally changed the way that humanity saw itself.

And in the opposite direction, art has discovered things that science only now starting to explain (see examples in Proust was a Neuroscientist). But that’s for another day.

On the topic of whether scientific imagery can be art, these are just my own thoughts, but I’d be interested in hearing what you think!

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