Lost in Fathoms: Art, Science and the Anthropocene

Once upon a time, artist Anais Tondeur, in collaboration with Professor Jean-Marc Chomaz embarked on a research project to explore the fate of an island called Nuuk. Its disappearance beneath the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean in 2012 interestingly coincided with the meeting of the 34th Geological Congress to debate the use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ to describe the current era of unprecedented human modification of the Earth’s geology, biosphere and atmosphere. Together, they explored the fate of the island through observations and experimentation. The results were inconclusive as to whether Nuuk’s disappearance could be linked to human activities.

…But I hasten to add one important fact from the artist and scientist collaborators. “Nuuk Island occupied a fictional territory. It had been found by chance, in a reflection, in the middle of time.”

Anaïs Tondeur, Depth Sounders, 2014, mixed rayogram techniques, C-Print, 24 x 11 cm, Image Courtesy of GV Art

Anaïs Tondeur, Depth Sounders, 2014, mixed rayogram techniques, C-Print, 24 x 11 cm, Image Courtesy of GV Art

Lost in Fathoms, an exhibition at GV Art in London, presenting the work of Anais Tondeur in collaboration with physicist Jean-Marc Chomaz, investigates fall of the island of Nuuk. The exhibition comprises a series of Shadowgram images and installations. For over a year, the collaborators worked with historians and philosophers, the international community of oceanographers, geologists from the École Normal Superiéure  (ENS) and physicists from the laboratories of the Ecole Polytechnique and Cambridge University.

Geological investigations explored the idea of whether tectonic forces may have resulted in the demise of the island, which lay at the boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates. Tondeur explored landscapes with similar characteristics of Nuuk. Bringing a sample of basalt back to back to the Geology Laboratory at the ENS in Paris, the rock was placed under pressure equivalent to that which would occur at a mid-ocean ridge several kilometres down. The sound of the rock fracturing was recorded. Other investigations included the effects of earthquakes upon the island. Working with geophysics and fluid dynamics PhD in students at the DAMTP Laboratory in Cambridge, they performed experiments to help recover the chain of geologic events that might have led to the island’s demise.

Anaïs Tondeur, Nuuk Island’s geology, 2014, mixed rayogram techniques, C-Print, 24 x 11 cm, Image Courtesy GV Art

Anaïs Tondeur, Nuuk Island’s geology, 2014, mixed rayogram techniques, C-Print, 24 x 11 cm, Image Courtesy GV Art

Oceanographic investigations explored whether Nuuk’s disappearance might have been tied to human activities, and whether its disappearance beneath the surface of the ocean might have disrupted ocean currents. Contributions of water from 21 oceanographers from Southampton, LOCEAN, the Alfred Wegner Institute and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute represented different locations and depths along the projected route of the wave, which might have inundated Nuuk.  Representing the ‘memory of the ocean’, these samples elegantly displayed in the gallery all have different salinity characteristics. A fascinating projection of a gravity wave generated at the interface of a stratified fluid presented in a transparent tank, rendered visible through the shadowgraph technique.


MOC Waterdive_LOST IN FATHOMS, View of the Installation 2, Image Courtesy GV Art

MOC Waterdive Lost in Fathoms, View of the Installation 2, Image Courtesy GV Art

Science has traditionally had an uneasy relationship with narrative, fiction, and semi-truth.  The safest and most common vehicle linking science and narrative is science fiction to usually (though not exclusively) explore the societal ramifications of technology. Science and technology start as the premise from which the story evolves with character and narrative. Tondeur and Chomaz turn this premise on its head, starting with a narrative that they explore through science, using their scientific investigation of this fictional space as a mirror to reflect back on reality. Nuuk isn’t real, but it might as well be. The conclusions they reach are much like those of actual science—a bit inconclusive.

Memory of the ocean_LOST IN FATHOMS, View of the Installation, Image Courtesy GV Art

Memory of the ocean Lost in Fathoms, View of the Installation, Image Courtesy GV Art

The concept of the Anthropocene is a frightening one, and an idea currently very much in the cultural zeitgeist. Although still an informal term (rather than an official international geologic designation), it acknowledges that humans have become a major force that are shaping the surface of the Earth to the extent that our activities might result in a recognisable stratum in the geologic record. However, unlike other geologic forces, such as wind or water, we have a choice as to what our permanent record might look like. There is an opportunity for critical engagement with the idea of a new anthropogenic geologic epoch—the way we respond to this idea may well prove more important than if it becomes official terminology.

Lost in Fathoms provides us with a vantage point from which to reflect on the Anthropocene. Tondeur and Chomaz present us with many reasons to think that Nuuk’s disappearance might be a physical manifestation of our changing planet. But the data need further analysis; correlation does not necessitate causation.

Lost in Fathoms is on display at GV Art, London until 29 November, 2014


Category: Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Lost in Fathoms: Art, Science and the Anthropocene

Water, Words and Weather Reports

“Big enough to get lost on. Small enough to find myself. That’s how to use this island. I come here to place myself in the world. Iceland is a verb and its action is to center.”

American artist Roni Horn, who works extensively in Iceland, uses these words to describe the island and its influence in her art practice.

As a geologist, Iceland had been near the top of my places to visit for a very long time. And as someone with artistic inclinations drawn to the stark and dramatic places of the world, Horn’s words echoed in my mind as I stood atop Eyjafjallajökull (still warm enough to melt the chocolate in my pack), trekked across glaciers, and explored the remotest parts of the island this summer. Ever-present on Iceland, whether falling from the sky, as rushing streams, tied up as ice in glaciers, or looming as a presence in the mind as clouds illuminated by low angle high altitude sunlight rush across the sky, is water.

The Library of Water, Stykkishólmur, Iceland Photo: Johanna Kieneiwicz

The Library of Water, Stykkishólmur, Iceland Photo: Johanna Kieneiwicz

Perched atop a cliff in the charming town of Stykkishólmur, is the Library of Water. Located in the town’s old Library building, this art installation by Roni Horn brings together water, words, and weather reports.  A veritable constellation of 24 glass columns confronts us, each of which contains water from a different glacier in Iceland. Reflecting and refracting the light entering the building through the panoramic windows, we perceive the columns to be illuminated by different colours of light at their base. Kneeling down, we realise that we are simply looking at the sediment that has gradually settled from the water. On the floor of the installation are English and Icelandic words pertaining to the weather. Bright. Dull. Crisp. Suddalegt (disagreeably damp, soggy, muddy). Hamslaust (untamable, wild).

View of columns of glacial water, The Library of Water by Roni Horn, Stykkishólmur Iceland. Photo: Johanna Kieniewicz

View of columns of glacial water, The Library of Water by Roni Horn, Stykkishólmur Iceland. Photo: Johanna Kieniewicz


Linked to Horn’s interest in water, is the weather, and the ways in which we experience it. Ever changing, its mutability is visible on our faces and the ways in which we perceive it. Horn says that ‘weather is a metaphor for the atmosphere of the world, for the atmosphere of one’s life; weather is a metaphor for the physical, metaphysical, political, social and moral energy of a person and a place.’ To this end, she has started an oral history project, collecting Icelanders’ stories about the weather. What are their memories? How does it affect their lives? In the UK, we are notorious for our commentary on the weather, whether winging as the temperatures drop or disrobing at the first glimpse of summer. In Iceland, I learned that the only thing constant about the weather there is its utter changeability.

Weather conditions: Bright, Library of Water by Roni Horn, Stykkishólmur Iceland. Photo: Johanna Kieniewicz

Weather conditions: Bright, Library of Water by Roni Horn, Stykkishólmur Iceland. Photo: Johanna Kieniewicz

As I padded around The Library of Water in slippers issued at the door, I peered through the columns of water, contemplated the words on the floor and reflected on what I had seen of Iceland thus far. In Iceland, geological processes are in one’s face like nowhere else on Earth. From the parting of the North American and European plates and Bárðarbunga’s ongoing eruption, to the convergence of Arctic and Atlantic air masses, to the advance (and now) retreat of glaciers, they are inescapable. As someone with an eye for the interaction between science and culture in the broadest sense, Horn’s use of the word Iceland as a verb makes sense to me.  The island’s geology infiltrates everything from the way that hot water is delivered to homes and businesses, to Björk’s music. In capturing water from glaciers across Iceland, Horn has, in a sense, bottled the forces of nature. With news from the British Geological Survey that Iceland’s glaciers are retreating rapidly, Horn’s Library of Water becomes a poignant archive.


Category: Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Water, Words and Weather Reports

Following the Water: Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark

Water is the stuff of life on Earth. And perhaps beyond—when venturing to search for life beyond our planet, NASA has sought to ‘follow the water’. Indeed, researchers recently discovered the presence of bacteria in a lake sealed hundreds of meters below the Antarctic ice. It is also one of our most precious resources—and one which, given its importance, is arguably something we aren’t too good at taking care of.

With filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier, landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky has taken to the subject in a new film. Watermark highlights water in all its phases—gaseous, liquid, solid, and in under as many conditions as one can imagine—pristine, polluted, funnelled through dams, extracted as frozen ice cores for scientific study, and the places where it should be but isn’t anymore.

The imagery presented in Watermark is striking, as are the stories behind it. Dramatic large format photos are brought to life with video footage. Narratives are drawn out, which contextualise and humanise what might be otherwise be (merely) beautiful, austere and dramatic imagery. A Mexican woman stands in what used to be the Colorado River delta, recalling when the river reached the sea. A young ‘water guardian’ in Chinese rice paddies keeps a key eye on his family’s plot to ensure their water is not stolen. An old woman speaks of William Mulholland’s diversion of the Owens River when she was a child to bring water to Los Angeles. Climate scientists extracting an ice core in Greenland seek a record of the Eemian interglacial period, when temperatures are thought to be as high (if not higher) than today. That water is precious is a resounding message throughout the film. But despite ample opportunity to preach, Burtynsky allows the viewer to reach his or her own conclusion.

I have previously contemplated, with reference to Burtynsky’s work, whether environmental photography is, alone, capable of motivating us to change the way we view our environment. Are we simply drawn in unquestioningly to the sublime, gawking in equal measure at the beauty and horror before our eyes? Or can it actually motivate us to action? I still sit on the fence with regard to this. However, Watermark gives us some ‘characters’ in the film with whom to empathise; it also gives us science, adding depth an meaning behind the imagery.

Watermark is first and foremost a piece of art. The still photographs and the aesthetic qualities of the film are tremendous (admittedly I say this as quite a fan of Burtynsky’s work and cursing the fact that my husband turned down an opportunity to buy one of his photographs before he became a global name). However, the film could also be viewed as a piece of science communication, introducing audiences to water cycles, glacial/interglacial cycles, and the Chinese dam construction industry. Thirdly, it explores water from the perspective of human geography. The stories of the Colorado River and Owens River are not simply tales of dust bowls, water balance, and evaporite minerals. Rather, there are human stories, human consequences therein.

In the UK, we are slowly making steps—perhaps only baby steps—towards promoting interdisciplinary research. Funders see the value; the public finds it interesting. But there is substantial evidence to suggest that our education system and institutional frameworks aren’t quite yet there. Although not an academic output, it strikes me that Watermark could provide an example for researchers of the future who are contemplating why, as human geographers, they must take physical geography courses. With unparalleled imagery, Burtynsky draws important connections that make us think about water in a different way.

Watermark was recently screened at the Institute for Contemporary Art, London. It can now be downloaded from iTunes. Water is also the subject of an outstanding photography book by Edward Burtynsky.

Category: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Following the Water: Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark

Summer Highlights

For folk who are interested in the ways that art and science relate to one another, this has been a wonderful summer to live in or pass through London. So without further ado, here are some of the highlights, all of which you can still catch if you’re quick!


Automatic Art

A thoughtful, critical look at the ways in which artists have used computers and other logical systems to make art, Automatic Art explores the ways in which artists work with algorithms – from the simple to the incredibly complex. Under the broad tag of ‘systems art’, the artists exhibited here, much like scientists, define a set of initial conditions for their art. A palette of colours, rules that dictate how they or a computer apply them, and actions that are taken in response to the mid-stage outputs dictate what will emerge. One might think that the results of such procedural art-making might end up rather dull, repetitive or perhaps looking like an iTunes music visualisation.  But despite the prescribed origins of the work displayed in Automatic Art, the work is energetic, vibrant and engaging.

Some highlights:

Harold Cohen, Coming Home #2, 2007, permanent pigment ink on panel, 57 x 169 cm

Harold Cohen, Coming Home #2, 2007, permanent pigment ink on panel, 57 x 169 cm

Harold Cohen devised the computer programme AARON, a world class colourist which for the past 45 years, has been creating art.  One of the few artists to become deeply involved in artificial intelligence, Cohen is regarded as a pioneer in computing and the arts. More recently, Cohen has been collaborating with AARON; the computer programme generates underpaintings, which Cohen then develops by hand. The result, as displayed in Coming Home #2, is phenomenal.

Kenneth Martin, Chance, Order, Change Drawing KMA 21, 1981, ink, pencil and gouache on orange graph paper, 30 x 42 in cm

Kenneth Martin, Chance, Order, Change Drawing KMA 21, 1981, ink, pencil and gouache on orange graph paper, 30 x 42 in cm

One of the founders of British Constructivist Art, Kenneth Martin’s Chance, Order, Change Drawing 1 reveals the means behind its making. Presented on a grid, points of intersection are numbered, with corresponding numbers drawn randomly out of a hat and coloured. Through this process—a combination of randomness and definite rules, the work gradually evolved. A striking work in its own right, it also brings us to face-to-face with the algorithm-driven process that made it.

 William Latham, Human Mutator2 Reflector image in time, 2014, multimedia, 60 x 100 in cm

William Latham, Human Mutator2 Reflector image in time, 2014, multimedia, 60 x 100 in cm

Goldsmiths University Professor of Computing William Latham presents Human Mutator2 Reflector, a drawing system that utilises a language based on twisting and bending. Latham starts with initial sets of parameters and variations, which are then bred, and combined to get aesthetically engaging results. Presented on a wall and utilising a Kinect motion sensor, visitors interact with the image that evolves in response to their actions. But not quite how we think it will. Swipe left, and the image will rotate left, right? Not so simple—it springs dynamically, kinetically into something far more interesting!

Automatic Art is at GV Art, London, until 10 September 2014



Digital Revolution

A bit of a circus, but also a lot of fun, Digital Revolution at the Barbican Centre is a trip down memory lane for anyone who is interested in the ways that computer art has evolved over the past thirty years. From the version of Super Mario that I played as a kid (and still pretty much the only game I can play with any reasonable level of skill) to the kind of wizardry is capable of (nearly) convincing us that a film like Gravity really was filmed in space, Digital Revolution looks at the ways that computers have influenced and are driving forward the arts.

Lo! I've become a bird! Chris Milk's The Treachery of Sanctuary (2012); Photo: Nan Craig

Lo! I’ve become a bird! Chris Milk’s The Treachery of Sanctuary (2012) uses interactive shadowplay to give me wings; Photo: Nan Craig

In some ways, Digital Revolution covers similar territory to Automatic Art in terms of exploring the human/computer interaction. However, it takes a completely different approach—one which is in some ways broader, a bit less sophisticated, but perhaps also more accessible in some ways. There are loads of videos to watch, games to play, buttons to push.  I came with a friend after work, and we had a grand time. But doesn’t make you think to quite the same degree, and I am convinced that the future of computers in art is going to be far more interesting than anything Google could come up with.

Digital Revolution is at the Barbican Centre, London, until 14 September. Standard tickets are £12.50



Making Colour

Making Colour at The National Gallery is a fascinating exploration of the interface between art and science as seen through the eyes of conservation scientists. This memorable exhibition looks at the colours that artists have used over the centuries, asking the questions of how the pigments were made and sourced, how they interact with light—and with time, and the techniques that conservation scientists use to analyse the pigments in paintings.


Edgar Degas, Combing the Hair ('La Coiffure'), about 1896, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 146.7 cm, Photo: The National Gallery, London

Many shades of Red. Edgar Degas, Combing the Hair (‘La Coiffure’), about 1896, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 146.7 cm, Photo: The National Gallery, London

I was particularly seduced by the Blue room, which told the story of the prized ultramarine pigment, and featured everything from a painting of David Contemplating the Head of Goliath (Orazio Gentileschi, 1613) on a piece of lapis lazuli to a fragment of the epic ‘Seizure’ by Roger Hiorns. I was also highly amused to learn that Rennaisance artists used a green underpainting on flesh tones to give egg tempera flesh tones some more character. Unfortunately the overpaints haven’t aged so well…. with the result that if you look at quite a few paintings in the National Gallery, you will see ghoulish faces staring back at you!

Moses Harris The Natural System of Colours...1769/1776 Book, Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London

Moses Harris
The Natural System of Colours…1769/1776
Book, Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London

The exhibition also explores the ways in which different colours combine, and the ways in which we perceive colour. The exhibition concludes with an intriguing experiment in which we are shown an image of a castle and then invited to stare, and stare and stare at a dot. Upon being shown the image of the castle as second time, it reappears with totally different colours. I look away for a split-second, and the colours have returned to normal. Is it all in our minds?

Making Colour is at The National Gallery, London, until 7 September 2014 Adult admission is £12.


Category: Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Summer Highlights

A most un-Common Room

According to Wikipedia, the great encyclopaedia of our time, “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a fictional or hypothetical encyclopaedia of a galaxy spanning civilization, containing all the knowledge accumulated by a society with quadrillions of people and thousands of years of history.” The concept originated with Isaac Asimov in his Foundation series as a compendium of all knowledge within the galactic empire, but was later co-opted by later writers including Arthur C. Clarke and (more famously) Douglas Adams.  Of course it is a slightly ridiculous idea; despite mass digitisation projects and unprecedented access to information via the internet, the idea of encapsulating all human knowledge anywhere seems beyond the reach of even the mighty Google. And, indeed, we have moved well beyond the time in which one could be expected to have a reasonable level of expertise in a number of subject areas. But despite what could be considered a death knell for the ‘Renaissance Man,’ interdisciplinary collaborations are flourishing.


Encyclopedia Galactica is also an exhibition at GV Art in London, celebrating the gallery’s past five years exploring connections, collaborations and cross-fertilisations between art and science. Hand in hand with the ground-breaking work at the Wellcome Trust  and The Arts Catalyst, GV Art has been instrumental in supporting UK artists engaging with science and serving as a space for interdisciplinary conversation. Indeed, it may seem from the recent explosion of art/science engagement initiatives that this is all something very new. But as Encyclopedia Galactica shows, in its recreation of the Gaberbocchus Common Room, the origins of the current movement actually go back as far as the 1950s.


GV Art, Encyclopedia Galactica, installation image, Image Courtesy of GV Art

GV Art, Encyclopedia Galactica, installation image, Image Courtesy of GV Art

The Gaberbocchus Common Room was a space, founded by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, that served as a mixing space for artists and scientists.  In some ways, it was an extension of their activities with the Gaberbocchus Press, through which they published beautifully designed books by the European avant garde. The Common Room, which operated between 1957 and 1959, was a space for weekly discussions on art, science, film, poetry, philosophy and links between art and science. In the manifesto for the Common Room, they declare it a “space providing scientists and people interested in philosophy and science and art a place where they can meet and exchange thoughts.” They didn’t “identify science with gadgetry, nor art with a kind of romantic irresponsibility.” Rather, they saw “both sides as investigators and explorers of the universe.”


The Common Room Manifesto, Image Courtesy GV Art

The Common Room Manifesto, Image Courtesy GV Art


Jasia Reichardt, former director of the Whitechapel Gallery and former Common Room member, recently spoke at Central Saint Martins about the efforts of the Themersons. She noted that their attitudes were ground-breaking for their time and flew directly in the face of C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ argument about the increasing separation between arts and sciences. Although Snow published in an  essay in the New Statesman in 1956 stating his basic premise, the founding of the Common Room preceded his famous 1959 Rede Lecture (apparently Snow was invited to the Common Room, but never attended). According to Reichardt, Stefan Themerson disliked the ‘categorisation’ of people—he himself was a writer, poet, publisher and film maker—and was far more interested in what people were interested in than what they happened to do for a living.

Stefan Themerson, photogram, 1929/30, Image Courtesy GV Art

Stefan Themerson, photogram, 1929/30, Image Courtesy GV Art

Simultaneously exhibit and reading room, the Gaberbocchus Common Room, as recreated at GV Art, contains ephemera from the original space. This includes excerpts from meeting minutes, photographs of its members, copies of Gaberbochus Press books, as well as the sorts of things that one was likely to have found within the space such as a chess board, and books and magazines pertaining to art and science.  Sitting in this space, I was struck by something that Jasia Reichardt said about Stefan Themerson—he believed that a human is made of three layers: behaviour, instinct, and what we are (a layer often squashed by the middle two containing our passions, curiosity and interests). The Common Room existed for the protection of this middle layer—the place where our greatest curiosities and passions lie. Training as a scientist does not prevent one from picking up a paintbrush, musical instrument, or book on philosophy.


GV Art, Encyclopedia Galactica, installation image, Image Courtesy of GV Art

GV Art, Encyclopedia Galactica, installation image, Image Courtesy of GV Art

Although the Common Room existed for only two years, it may have provided the initial ripple that later became a wave. Jasia Reichardt went on to curate the seminal Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which displayed the first computer-generated art. And here we are now, where residencies for artists at scientific institutions are starting to proliferate and even flourish, and funding bodies for both the arts and sciences are starting to recognise the value of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Scientific institutions such as CERN champion the engagement of artists with their research, and it is even possible to get an MA in Art and Science.


It would be interesting to know what the Themersons would make of today’s world of art and science. In an article about the Common Room exhibited in Encyclopedia Galactica, the author Oswell Blakestone notes “in the past, artists had a monopoly of imagination, and scientists ‘observed’ and were not concerned with (say) problems of particles that were only presumed to exist.” Blakestone notes that Stefan Themerson believed that “science is now doing art work insofar as science is no longer powerless in an instance when experiments cannot be made.” Indeed this statement takes on a greater meaning in light of the stunning revelations of physics in the past year: evidence for the Higgs Boson and rapid cosmic inflation. Where would we be with these discoveries if not for the imagination?

Category: Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on A most un-Common Room

The Case for Beautiful Science


When it comes to the visual representation of scientific information, in a scientific context, does aesthetic matter? In my day job at the British Library, I’ve spent the past year curating the upcoming Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Ideas exhibition. This experience has given me a phenomenal opportunity to think about the way we communicate and discover things in science. And, I think there’s a strong case to be made for beautiful science.

The visual representation of data is a fundamental part of what it means to be a scientist today. Whether a single data point plotted on a graph or a whole genome sequence, data visualisation helps us to examine, interpret, and contextualise information in a way that numbers and statistics often do not. Moreover, at a time when we are expected to process ever-increasing volumes of information, visualisations are often more readily digestible than some of the more ‘traditional’ alternatives; as the increased prominence of colourful ‘data viz’ work in the pages of our newspapers, websites, and in-flight magazines would attest.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that data visualisation is a new fad that has emerged, hand-in-hand, with the current era of ‘Big Data’ and ‘Open Data’. However in Beautiful Science, we explore the rich historical legacy that has inspired and enabled the work of scientists today. The exhibition shows how scientific discovery has advanced alongside advances in technology for capturing and representing data, and how the ways in which we think about information in the fields of public health, meteorology and evolutionary biology are changing as a result.

Florence Nightingale, Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, 1858

Florence Nightingale, Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, 1858

Like today, the Victorian era witnessed a great proliferation in the number and variety of data graphics and visualisations. In part, this was spurred by a new availability of statistical information and widespread collection of data on everything from vital statistics to the weather. Psychologist Michael Friendly argues that advances in statistics, the availability of data, and new technology created an environment in which information graphics could flourish.

Florence Nightingale was one person to take advantage of this ‘perfect storm’, producing her famous  ‘rose’Diagram of Mortality of the Army in the East – in which she masterfully demonstrates that in the Crimean War, vastly more soldiers were perishing from poor hospital conditions than from wounds inflicted on the battlefield. In an effort to push the government to implement vital reforms, her simple, clear diagram persuasively communicated her point and helped develop support for the Red Cross.

Other notable figures from this period who used data graphics to tremendous effect include the epidemiologists William Farr and John Snow – creator of the cholera ‘ghost map’ – and the amateur meteorologist Luke Howard and French engineer Charles Joseph Minard. Many of the techniques that they invented are still in use today; their graphics have a strikingly modern sensibility and they easily stand head-to-head with some of the best graphic design work being done today.

William Farr, Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England 1848-49, 1852

William Farr, Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England 1848-49, 1852

Our brave new world of online communication offers enormous opportunities to scientists interested in increasing the impact of their research. These days you can tweet, blog, and even dance your PhD! But I’m going to suggest something a little provocative: why not also invest some time in your figures? In curating Beautiful Science, I was surprised – and also dismayed – to discover that much of the really good data visualisation work was being done by designers, for lay communications. There were certainly exceptions—scientists are absolutely capable of producing exceptionally engaging figures as our exhibition attests– but many figures that I encountered in research publications were, if not downright ugly and difficult to read, simply rather tedious.

Why is this? Is it a lack of training in the visual arts? Or a focus on function over form in peer review? Or perhaps researchers are just not that bothered, so long as the message gets across to the specialists in their field? Many of us were, at some point, introduced to Microsoft Excel – or MATLAB, or R, or SPSS – and we seem to have assumed that because we have learned how to use these tools, we are competent enough to make figures for publication. And yet, in spite of the power of these tools, it seemingly remains very easy to create uninspiring graphics. It need not be so.

Circles of Life, Martin Krzywinski, 2013

Circles of Life, Martin Krzywinski, 2013

Good figures take time, and they require choices to be made regarding the format of the data, the symbology, the layout of the figure… not to mention colours, fonts and even word- and letter-spacing. Both form and function are possible in the presentation of scientific data, and this need not take away from the integrity of the information presented. Rather, by increasing the visual impact of their data, researchers may also improve the communication of their research and results—and dare I say it, raise the impact of their own research. A figure that is both easy to read, as well as eye-catching will have greater reach, not just within the scientific community, but also beyond it.

Beautiful Science demonstrates how the visual display of scientific data is integral to the process of scientific discovery and communication. It is through this lens that researchers can tease out and identify trends, patterns and associations to draw conclusions and communicate the meaning of their data and findings. Without attempting to impose a singular aesthetic upon the visualisation of scientific data, it is nonetheless clear that the careful, considered, and beautiful presentation of data can – as was shown by Florence Nightingale – change the world.

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight opens at the British Library, London on February 20th and runs through 26 May 2014 and is sponsored by Winton Capital Management. Elements of this blog post were published previously in Research Fortnight.

Category: Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Of moon-memes and moon-dreams

The moon is a place both for science and the imagination. While the American moon landings of the 20th century were, arguably, feats primarily of science, technology and politics, they also required a good bit of imagination and were the manifestation of our collective fascination with that silvery orb. And even if, today, the moon seems to principally be the realm of scientists and of global power games, the first people there were undoubtedly artists, writers and dreamers. In a fascinating new exhibition curated by art/science provocateurs The Arts Catalyst, a group of artists declare a Republic of the Moon.


I see the moon, the moon sees me….

Private Moon, Leonid Tishkov, Presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon

Private Moon, Leonid Tishkov, Presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon

Despite being available to all humanity to see, the moon is also oddly individual. Coming home from a long day, I am often stopped in my tracks by a large golden moon low on the horizon. This experience is intensely personal, difficult to share even when with our closest friends (even when a shared experience). Russian artist Leonid Tishkov has created a Private Moon that he has taken around the world to a variety of settings and documented with photographs. Playing on our sense of personal communion, he tells the story of a man who fell in love with the moon and decided to stay with her forever. Travelling the world  — from Taiwan to an aquarium in Maryland to the Oxo Tower in London for this exhibition — with his moon,Tishkov brings us along for the ride, creating a personal utopia, bathed in moonlight.


Lunar rhythms

Moonmeme, Liliane Lijn, Presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon

Moonmeme, Liliane Lijn, Presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon

Liliane Lijn’s piece, Moonmeme, pays homage to the influence of the moon upon natural rhythms and the feminine principle of transformation and renewal. Lijn, who is no stranger to collaborations with astronomers and physicists, initially hoped to project the word “She” onto the real moon with lasers from Earth. However, realising that she was starting to stray into ‘Star Wars’ territory, Lijn decided to develop a real-time animation that evolves in real time with the phases of the moon. As the moon waxes and wanes, ‘SHE’ emerges from the darkened lunar suurface and disappears again. Viewable online, her animation tells me at the time of writing, the moon is but a crescent. It is interesting to think what would be possible if we were actually able to project images on to the lunar surface, though the inevitable commercial outcome of such a technology is just as frightening to envision.


Lunar Orbits

Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata echoes out of a small, otherwise empty room containing a self-playing grand piano… and then it starts… and stops… and starts again, with a few glitches here and there. For Earth-Moon-Earth, artist Katie Paterson used a form of radio transmission to send The Moonlight Sonata (in Morse code) to the moon and back again. Bouncing off the rough surface of the moon, the radio waves scattered, creating the intermittent glitches in the music. Quite aside from Beethoven’s virtuosity, it is lovely to ‘hear’ the moon: a score on the wall illustrates the moments of interference created by the deflections and loss of the initial signal.

Katie Paterson, Earth Moon Earth, Presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon

Katie Paterson, Earth Moon Earth, Presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon

In Second Moon, Paterson creates a new moon (of sorts) from a very, very small fragment of the real one. She has sent a small lunar sample on a journey around the world, travelling by air-freight around the Earth anticlockwise, at roughly twice the speed of the real moon (meaning over the year it is in orbit, it should go around about 30 times). While I admire Paterson tremendously as an artist (her necklace in the Wellcome Collection exhibition Foreign Bodies, Common Ground is fantastic) and I stood transfixed by Earth-Moon-Earth, Second Moon fell a bit flat for me. Whilst the former piece takes the very best of us to the stars and back again, Second Moon seems like a very human attempt (couriers) to take the moon into a new orbit (err, sort of). Maybe that’s part of the point; we are very small and these grand gestures befitting of the moon are actually beyond our capabilities.


Moon stories and moon geese

One of the earliest science fiction stories, The Man in the Moone by Bishop Francis Godwin (1638) tells the story of a man who flies to the moon in a chariot powered by geese. Inspired by this story and the ways in which the moon has inspired terrestrial imaginations, Agnes Meyer Brandis set to create Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility, a remarkable piece in which she attempts to recreate the setting for the story.

Agnes Meyer Brandis, Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility, Presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon

Agnes Meyer Brandis, Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility, Presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon

Raising 12 ‘moon geese’ from birth, and giving them the names of astronauts (Neil, Svetlana, Gonzales, Valentina, Friede, Juri, Buzz, Kaguya-Anousheh, Irena, Rakesh, Konstantin-Hermann), Meyer Brandis has trained the geese to fly on expeditions and created a ‘lunar habitat’ for them. It is brilliantly bizarre, and we – as observers — monitor them from a control room set up in the exhibition space. Vital signs and location on the lunar landscape; all is being monitored as at the geese search the lunar habitat for food. This video gives a good impression of the set-up and helpfully notes that ‘dandelion is the geese’s favourite food, making their growth on the moon a necessity.’ Meyer Brandis shows, with a great sense of humour, that in spite of our technological advances, we are every bit as out of place on the moon as geese. In our conquest of space, animals have suffered some unfortunate ends; in this experiment, she gives them a more hopeful future.


…. A Quarry, or a Theme Park?

What is the future of the moon? Justifications for future manned exploration of the moon include mining (though we don’t really know if there are the right sorts of minerals), using the moon as a base for Mars exploration, and tourism. The recent wake-up of the Rosetta spacecraft spawned numerous articles about the possibility of mining asteroids, which in turn has prompted further discussion around the rights and ownership of outer space. In many eyes, this also applies to the Chinese interests in the moon. An Outer Space Treaty was ratified internationally in 1967, but it hardly seems fit for purpose in the 21st century. So where to now?

Republic of the Moon shows us that the science and politics of outer space will need the artists – to keep us mindfully grounded, whether on Earth or the Moon. At the Kosmica evening, my writer companion and I mused that any permanent-ish base on the moon should have an artist in residence. An Arthur C. Clarke ‘Writer in Residence’ on Tranquility Base would be appropriate, surely?

Republic of the Moon is presented by The Arts Catalyst, and is on display at the Bargehouse at the Oxo Tower, London. The exhibition ends on February 2nd (hurry!)

Category: Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Of moon-memes and moon-dreams

Art and Science for a Better World

The interaction of artists with scientists isn’t just about the generation of wonderful creative ideas and outputs, but is actually something that can make our world a better place. This is the statement made by of a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London: Foreign Bodies, Common Ground. Looking at the work of six artists-in-residence with Art in Global Health Programme, this exhibition demonstrates some of the tangible societal benefits that can come when scientists open their doors to artists.

The exhibition places a particular emphasis on the role that artists can play in building bridges between scientists in laboratories and the communities that they serve, and covers the work of the following artists:


Elson Kambalu

Kambalu invited local women to depict personal stories related to health through traditional earth paintings. Image Courtesy of  the Wellcome Collection.

Kambalu invited local women to depict personal stories related to health through traditional earth paintings. Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Participatory artist Elson Kambalu was paired with the Malawi-Liverpool Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme at the University of Malawi College of medicine. Whilst in residence, he explored both traditional and contemporary approaches to medical research. A complex landscape emerged between the researchers at the university and the communities they served. Most people in rural villages have very little conception of what research (‘Kakakufu’) is – and  in an area where witchcraft beliefs dominate, many consider doctors as ‘bloodsuckers’. Kambalu observed that, “many medical words are almost untranslatable. How does one express ‘DNA’ or ‘genomics’ in Chichewa dialect to an illiterate woman?”

Working with women and children, he invited them to create artwork in response to their experience and understanding of health studies. Making traditional soil based paintings, we see images of families, doctors, communities. Overall, although the language of medicine was a foreign one, the communities recognised that they and the doctors wanted the same thing: healthy communities.


Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki

Pata Picha Studio Photograph, 2012. One of a series of portraits taken in Kilifi, Kenya. By Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Pata Picha Studio Photograph, 2012. One of a series of portraits taken in Kilifi, Kenya. By Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Working with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki tackle the challenge of trust between local communities and public health research. What happens when different ideas, belief systems, ways of operating in the world come into contact? Muriuki observes, “If I’m living in Kilifi and my life has been spent there… then all of a sudden these people come asking for things that perhaps for my community are deemed to be very deeply human… like blood or spittle, urin samples or breast milk, then it’s very, very unusual, and I’d be highly suspicious.”

The response of Kyambi and Muriuki to this challenge is a pop-up photography studio, where people from the local town of Kilifi were invited to the ‘Pata Picha’ (get a picture) to be photographed alongside various props associated with scientific settings. Keen to see what the project was about, locals came to have their photo taken—for which they donned a lab coat or peered through a microscope. Stepping into another’s shoes is a powerful thing, and can provide grounds for negotiation of our differences.


Lena Bui

Where birds dance their last (still), 2012. By Lêna Bùi, Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Where birds dance their last (still), 2012. By Lêna Bùi, Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Lena Bui is a Vietnamese multi-media artist who worked with zoonotic diseases whilst in residence with the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit. Her work engaged directly with human/animal interactions, considering the blurred line that develops in high-risk cohorts who work closely with animals on a daily basis. She explores these themes through time spent in a Vietnamese abattoir and the feather village of Trieu Khuk, which produces feathers for everything from dusters to pillows.

Faith and intimacy play an interesting role in Bui’s work. Presenting a series of photographs from abattoirs, she brings us to address the leap of faith we take when choosing to consume animals: that the meat is safe to eat. People who work with animals closely also trust that they will remain safe, and experience a particular intimacy with the animals (dead or alive) that most of us cannot fathom.


Zwelethu Mthethwa and the Mtubatuba Workshop

Vinyasa Flow 2, 2012. By Nothando Sabela, a participant of the Mtubatuba Workshop, Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Vinyasa Flow 2, 2012. By Nothando Sabela, a participant of the Mtubatuba Workshop, Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Data collection is an essential component of public health research, and the open sharing of this data is enabling better, faster research to happen. South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa puts a human face to data collection, by giving people the opportunity to collect their own data. Giving basic lessons in photography to students of the Mtubatuba workshop, Mthethwa asked them to document their own perceptions of good health.

A lovely diversity of photos emerged, providing a human face to the data being collected by the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, where Mthethwa was in residence. Humour, as well as local struggles are apparent in these photographs. A young boy sits, grinning, in a bucket of water (one of the areas greatest health challenges). A young woman declares with a sign, “I practice yoga.” In public health data, each data point corresponds to an individual person; in looking at the mass data, it can be easy to forget the very real people with their own stories and struggles to whom those dots on a graph correspond.


Foreign Bodies, Common Ground

Artists in the laboratory might be considered foreign bodies that might either be accepted or rejected by the host. Whilst employing different methods and viewpoints, both artists and scientists share a profound interest in understanding ourselves and the world we inhabit. Likewise, public health professionals may seem like foreign bodies in certain places and situations, but share with the people they serve the desire for a healthy society. Again, the methods are different.

So whilst scientists may seem like an oddity in tribal African villages, with their own rituals and procedures, artists who are concerned with interpretation and meaning can perform an important role in bridging the gaps in our humanity. In general, I am wary of art/science collaborations, where the artist’s role is to merely communicate the science. I am also well aware of the sensitivity of the situations in which these scientists work, and the magnitude of the challenges they (and the people the work with) face. But I suspect that artists, as great interpreters of our world, can sometimes bridge some of the gaps between science and society to change lives for the better.

Foreign Bodies, Common Ground is on Display at the Wellcome Collection until 9 February 2014. It also features the excellent work of Katie Paterson and B-Floor Theatre.

Category: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An A to Z of Art and Science

I am occasionally asked by both scientists and artists where one should go for information about the exciting things happening in the world of art and science. I also realised that in the midst of big life events, I allowed my Blog-iversary to pass unnoticed. So, without further ado and with the caveat that this is a bit UK-centric, I present to you an A to Z of Art and Science.


ArtsCatalyst and Ars Electronica: Two fine organisations and I couldn’t decide which to start out our alphabet. The Arts Catalyst commissions art that engages with science—critically, experimentally, and sometimes playfully. One of my favourite Arts Catalyst commissions was the Primate Cinema project by Rachael Mayeri. Currently on display in Manchester is IceLab, an exhibition about architecture and science in Antarctica. Ars Electonica is an Austrian digital arts centre, festival and prize all wrapped into one. They funded Pixar back in 1987, Wikipedia in 2004, so it’s fair to say they are forward-thinking. Every year, the festival has a different theme—the September 2013 theme was Total Recall: The Evolution of Memory. The 2014 festival is soon to be announced.  See you there?

Bio Art: A brave new world, where artists are working with biological materials (be it DNA, living tissue, cultures) as the media for their practice. The SymbioticA lab in Australia is a pioneer in this area; Pig Wings by Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary is a piece of particular note. I also think highly of the work of Anna Dumitriu. Ethical issues abound, but that is generally an area of particular interest for the artists engaged with bio-art. Can we use art to address the ethical issues that we are faced with in biomedical science? The book, Signs of Life: BioArt and Beyond is a great primer for this area.

Climate Change: This is one of the greatest challenges facing science and our society today. Antony Gormley and others have written optimistically about the contributions that artists might make towards addressing climate change. Cape Farewell is the forefront of this effort, bringing together artists and scientists on trips to some of the most at-risk regions of our planet for exchange and inspiration. Also, note Invisible Dust, which engages both artists and scientists in producing meaningful responses to climate change through art.

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

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

Data: We are swimming in it, and while developers and designers are thinking about data visualisations, artists are thinking about it as a new medium. These aren’t literal representations of data, but truly creative uses of data, often in three dimensions. The Royal College of Art’s Information Experience Design MA is doing great work in this area. I wrote about the UK Open Data Institute’s Data as Culture programme—and more things look to be up on the horizon!

Environmental art: The science/art purists might not put it in here, but I’m going to let it in because land art is probably the area of which I am personally most fond, as a geologist. Environmental art is a tricky area, because it has a tendency to be didactic, but at its best can be incredibly provocative, bringing us to re-examine our relationship with the world beneath our feet. There is an incredible diversity in this area– Tania Kovats, Chris Drury and Marielle Neudecker are just a few personal favourites. Also worth mentioning is the Center for Land Use Interpretation in the US, which hosts artist residencies.

Flowers – I don’t mean bad vaguely impressionist painting. There is some incredible art engaging with botany. George Gessert is well known for his breeding and hybridization of irises-as art. Rob Kessler has worked extensively at the Kew Botanical Gardens, turning their scanning electron microscope to pollen grains, capturing images that are integral to his art. I have also wrote about the wonderful botanical photography of Karl Blossfeldt and his masterpiece, Artforms in Nature.

GV Art Gallery – A gallery in London, run by Robert Devicic, that focuses on artists who engage with science. It’s also a great gathering space for discussions about science and art. On my blog, I have covered GV Art exhibitions on taxonomy, neuroscience, and graphite. Their current exhibition is NOISE and whispers , featuring sound art. Watch this space.

Hacking– This is what art engaging with science is all about on some level. I don’t mean getting into your email, but I do mean interrogating, questioning, and repurposing science and scientific information. The biohacking movement is doing some marvellously interesting things, and the Met Office recently joined up with the V&A for a fashion hack using Met Office data. Yes, really.

Interdisciplinarity Yes, Yes, and Yes. Aeon Magazine recently published this great piece about why it matters and we shouldn’t focus ourselves too narrowly.

Joy—Let’s face it, this isn’t something you should go into for the money, but rather you are a scientist who is fascinated by art, or an artist who loves science.

Wasily Kandinsky, Composition VI (1913), oil on canvas, 195 x 300 cm, State Hermitage Museum, Russia

Wasily Kandinsky, Composition VI (1913), oil on canvas, 195 x 300 cm, State Hermitage Museum, Russia

KandinskyWassily Kandinsky is not an artist typically associated with science, but in some ways I think was one of the best at merging scientific ideas with his art. A synaesthete, he was fascinated with the interface of our minds and consciousness with art and claimed to be able to hear his paintings. UCL scientists have since confirmed that he was right—hearing and vision are inextricably linked—so it is likely the ‘pure tones’ that Kandinsky painted were real.

Leonardo (Da Vinci)—Perhaps the greatest artist/scientist of all time and a touchstone for those of us with feet in both worlds. The exhibition of his anatomical drawings at Buckingham Palace’s Queen’s Gallery last year was spectacular. Leonardo is also the name of an Art and Science journal, published by MIT Press.

Methods are integral to the work of artists and scientists. Both form hypotheses, perform experiments and produce results. What each of these stages might look like, respectively, is generally vastly different. But the research process is essential to artists who are engaging with science; their supposed genius is 99% perspiration – very much like scientists.

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

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

Neuroscience is perhaps one of the richest areas for collaborations between artists and scientists. After all, the brain is the source of our consciousness, perceptions, inspiration and madness. A couple of years ago, the Welcome Collection had an incredible exhibition, Brains: Mind as Matter, which included real brains, manuscripts, artworks, videos and photography. In terms of artists, Susan Aldworth is at the forefront of engaging with neuroscience, producing wonderful prints based on brain scans and making prints using slices of real brain. Neuroaesthetics is also an interesting, but extremely contentious field.

Open minds Goes without saying, I think!

Physics Another rich area of science that artists are starting to tap into. CERN has an incredible artist in residence programme, Collide@CERN, which I wrote about in my most recent post. Also of note, the Institute of Physics Artist in Residence programme. One of my favourite artist doing amazing things with physics is Mariko Mori, who has done incredible things with data from cosmic ray detectors.

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.

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.

eQuality – Putting artists and scientists on equal footing is a central tenet of the Collide@CERN programme. Ariane Koek, founder and director of the programme, argues that this is essential to creating an environment where artists can truly creatively engage with science. I can’t help but think this rings true, and while the realities of funding regimes that allow artists to engage with science may present challenges in this regard, it is something to be aspired to.

Roger Malina—Doing great things for art and science, stateside. Astronomer and editor of the Leonardo journal and Distinguished Professor of Art and Technology at the University of Texas, Malina is a great advocate for linkages between art and science and provides insightful and critical analysis of the art/science interface.

Science Gallery The Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin is not your typical science museum, presenting fun and funky exhibitions featuring art, science and everything in between. Their current exhibition is Grow Your Own: Life After Nature. I’m incredibly delighted that a sister Science Gallery London, associated with Kings College London has secured funding and will be opening in 2015.

Two Cultures– In 1959, Cambridge chemistry professor and fiction writer CP Snow argued in his Rede Lecture that the whole of western civilisation was split into the humanities and the sciences, and that this hindered us from solving some of the world’s greatest problems. There is some disagreement as to whether how much progress we’ve made since then or become even more specialised, but suffice it to say there is an ever-growing contingent of people determined to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration. The UK Arts and Humanities Research Council has a Science in Culture programme, which is doing great things to foster arts and humanities approaches to science.

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

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

Universities– In the UK, it would seem that universities are starting to see the ‘light’ when it comes to interdisciplinarity. University College London and Kings College London have both started liberal arts programmes (this is nothing new in the US). The Broad Vision programme at the University of Westminster brings together undergraduates from the arts and sciences, exposes them to the others’ field, and they collaborate on projects. In the world of art schools, Central St Martins is pioneering with an Art and Science MA programme. I was really pleased to work with this group on the Encounters between Art and Science exhibition at the British Library.

Visualisation– I like to get on my high horse occasionally and argue that data visualisation and photographs of science are not in themselves, art. But I do believe they have their place as essential tools of science, science communication and public engagement. And speaking more broadly, visualisation is something at which artists excel; it is also something upon which science depends. So, it would seem therein lies ample ground for cross-fertilisation of ideas and methods.

Wellcome Trust This influential UK biomedical charity doesn’t just fund groundbreaking scientific research; it also funds arts and humanities approaches to the sciences, and is an important source of funding for arts projects engaging with the biomedical sciences. The Wellcome Collection‘s exhibitions are consistently excellent. It is hard to pick favourites, but Atoms to Patterns, Brains: Mind as Matter, and Dirt particularly stand out in my mind. Also, hats off to the Wellcome Trust for their open access policy work!

Anaïs Tondeur - Mutation of the Visible (After a pariedolia), 2013 - Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

Anaïs Tondeur – Mutation of the Visible (After a pariedolia), 2013 – Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

eXtra-terrestrial Why should artists limit themselves to just our own planet? Space offers a multitude of places where art/science flights of fancy can take place. Galileo’s drawings of the moon through a telescope might be considered the first space-art. Today, Anais Tondeur, has taken where Galileo started and produced a series of drawings of the moon, as observed at different times in history. The Arts Catalyst has done some great spacey work—in 2014, they will be revisiting their   Republic of the Moon exhibition to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Young people (by which I mean education) – In the United States, the STEM to STEAM movement is, er… gathering steam. The general idea behind STEAM is that innovation isn’t enabled by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics alone. Rather, art and design have an important role to play too. I wish it well, and would like to see something similar integrated here in the UK.

Zooming ahead… I’ll go ahead and admit I couldn’t think of anything decent for Z and leave this list with the general comment that it should be apparent that this is a space where a lot is happening, and which I hope has a bright, bright future. Stay tuned…

As mentioned, this is a bit UK-centric, making it more of an A to Zed than an A to Zee – so I would love to have some comments on what I’ve missed out or you think should be in there!

Category: Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Art and Science in Creative Collision


It goes without saying that CERN is a place where exciting things happen. From the detection of the Higgs Boson to the creation of the World Wide Web, it is a gathering place for some of the world’s best scientific minds who are asking some of the most fundamental questions about the universe. It is also a place that has been on my radar for a little while now for their innovative Collide@CERN arts programme. Upon the recent Nobel Prize in Physics to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for the prediction of the Higgs Boson (which CERN then detected), I rang up Ariane Koek, Director of Collide@CERN, to learn more about the philosophy behind the art programme that she founded to engage with the science and the scientists of this remarkable institution.


Art and Science on Equal Footing

The space of collaborations between artists and scientists is a ‘troubled’ area, says Koek, where artists and scientists rarely stand on equal footing as professionals. In an art/science collaboration, what is the role of the artist in relationship to the scientist? Are they there to communicate the work of the scientist, or are they there as an independent entity, for whom it doesn’t matter particularly what they produce in relation to the science?  It’s a tricky question without easy resolution, particularly as pertains to the artist’s funding.

If the residency of the artist is funded by the scientist, then are they not under some obligation to the scientist to do something ‘useful’? Utility may not always be a problem per se, but does it make good art? And, I am highly sceptical as to whether genuine creativity can be let loose by funding applications to even the most open minded of science organisations. Is it perhaps possible that even this implicit expectation impedes creativity? So, how can an environment be created in which the interactions between artists and scientists are nurtured and grown?

Performance of Quantum in CMS hall at CERN (Julian Calo)

Performance of Quantum in CMS hall at CERN (image: Julian Calo)

A basic premise of the Collide@CERN programmme is to place artists and scientists on the same level. While scientists at CERN are selected for their excellence, artists who are accepted into their prestigious residency programme are also expected to be of an exceptional calibre. Unlike other residencies where the funding is tied to the institution or individual scientists, here the funding for the artists comes from external bodies, such as Ars Electronica and the Canton of Geneva, amongst others. CERN is committed to the engagement of artists with their science, but is also gutsy enough to relinquish control of what they do whilst at CERN and to have only an expectation that the artist keeps a blog. No creative output is mandated; rather, there is a trust that if artists spend time there, they will be inspired by the rich environment of ideas and create something remarkable.


Creative Collisions

CERN has always had an open door to artists and has recognised the remarkable pallete of ideas that may act as springboards for creative inspiration. Antony Gormley, Mariko Mori and Chris Drury are amongst the artists who have passed through the doors of CERN of their own volition. However, it is the Collide@CERN programme that has enabled the prolonged residency of artists and facilitated their interaction with scientists. Two annual prizes are awarded: the Collide@CERN Prix Ars Electronica residency is the result of an international competition, whereas the Collide@CERN Geneva is awarded to local talent.

Subodh Patil (Bill Fontana's inspiration partner) listening to his sounds (Collide@CERN)

Subodh Patil (Bill Fontana’s inspiration partner) listening to his sounds (image: Collide@CERN)

But, according to Koek, it is not enough to simply put an artist in the lab with a physicist and expect them to figure out how to play nicely. Rather, she works as a kind of producer-in-residence, working with the artist-in-residence and CERN’s scientific community to facilitate ‘creative collisions.’ After being accepted to the residency programme, the awarded artists first participate in an in-depth induction visit three months before their residency begins. It is during this period that they are matched with their ‘inspiration partner’, a CERN scientist who will be something of a scientific touchstone for them (but by no means the only scientist with whom they will work or interact). It’s a bit of a matchmaking process—rather than looking for the scientists with whom the artist simply gets along, Koek looks for chemistry—she looks for a spark that might act as catalyst for creative inspiration.

Whilst at CERN, the winning artists are not stuck in a dusty corner of a lab—rather, they are busy testing, playing, experimenting, and – importantly – interacting with the CERN community. Much of this work is facilitated by Koek in her capacity as the ‘producer’ (this is also her background: previously for the BBC). These creative interventions (some of which the general public may never see) are an important part of the residency, giving CERN scientists new ways of looking. Artist Julius von Bismarck discovered a variety of underground passages on the CERN campus that few were aware of; he took a group of scientists into these secret spaces, engaging them in some experiments to alter their perception of space. Recalling Plato’s Cave, what did they see in their mind’s eye whilst in the depths? In another, more playful intervention, Gilles Jobin brought a dance troupe into the CERN library.

Strangels performing in the CERN library (Gregory Batardon)

Strangels performing in the CERN library (image: Gregory Batardon)

A key component of the Collide@CERN programme is the lack of rigid expectations upon the artist. No output is mandated, but it seems to happen. 2011 winners Julius von Bismarck and Gilles Jobin recently collaborated on a new dance performance, ‘Quantum’, which brought together CERN data transcoded into music, with a lighting installation designed by von Bismarck. The performance premiered in the CMS detector hall at CERN this past September and is now set to tour internationally. Sound artist, Bill Fontana (one of my personal art heroes), is the current 2012-2013 Prix Ars Electronica winner—with poetic brilliance has plans to turn the Large Hadron Collider into an enormous musical instrument, playing the recordings he made back in February of it operating (shortly before its two-year shutdown commenced) back to itself.


A model for art and science collaborations?

Science and art are both ‘tools’ with which to explore our world, and understand what it means to be human. In spite of their contemporary differences, there has historically been a greater level of interaction, and an individual might be both artist and scientist. Leonardo Da Vinci is the most famous of these—but there were many others—and there is no reason to believe there will not be many more to come (composer/chemist Alexander Borodin comes to mind). But for the most part, science (especially that practiced at places like CERN) has become incredibly specialised, and a student must devote such an enormous part of themselves to science (the same may be indeed be said for art) that a high-flying career in both science and arts is incredibly unlikely. And, while scientists and science organisations are becoming more open-minded about collaborations with artists, this is not necessarily easy for either the scientist or the artist. So how then, can healthy interaction and cross-pollination of ideas occur?

Versuch unter Kreisen, an installation by Julius von Bismarck (image: Collide@CERN)

Versuch unter Kreisen, an installation by Julius von Bismarck (image: Collide@CERN)

I suspect that Ariane Koek has it right, or at least has found one model for facilitating interactions between the artists and scientists: she allows each to be unabashedly themselves, but looks for the bright sparks between the constituent elements and works to create the conditions for ‘creative collisions’ between the two. While there are many reasons it is a model that is unique to CERN and shouldn’t be mindlessly duplicated across the board of scientific organisations offering art/science residencies, I would urge those involved in this space to look at what CERN is doing. It’s brave, it’s exciting and it’s resulting in great art (and science too).

All images provided by Collide@CERN. 

CERN just announced a ‘sister’ to the Collide@CERN, Accellerate@CERN, a one month research visit for artists who have never worked longer in a scientific laboratory before.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Category: Uncategorized | 1 Comment