Beauty and the Brain

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

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

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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Art Shedding Light on Vision

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

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)

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

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

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.



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

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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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

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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