A most un-Common Room

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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?

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The Case for Beautiful Science

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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.

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Of moon-memes and moon-dreams

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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!)

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Art and Science for a Better World

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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.

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An A to Z of Art and Science

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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!

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Art and Science in Creative Collision

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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.

 

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Dorothea Rockburne: Adventures in Lineland

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In some ways, topology—the study of shapes and spaces—is ideal territory for artists. Topology is the study of mathematical functions such as translation and reflection, and it examines the way that spaces align, intersect or separate from one another. Not only are these properties of art itself, these are all concepts with which artists can engage literally, metaphorically, and philosophically as well.

Canadian-born painter Dorothea Rockburne is remarkable for her interest in topology as a set of mathematical concepts, and this has been filtering into her artwork since the 1950s. Introduced to the topic by her math teacher Max Dehn at the legendary Black Mountain College, she was inspired by the idea that ‘nature is written in numbers.’ Since then, Rockburne has engaged with mathematics in a deep way, exploring its consequences in her art, but without any predetermined notion of the ways in which it might unravel.

Indication ofInstallation,Nesting,1973 40”x 52”	(Framed) Carbon	paper	and	carbon lines	on	 paper, Image: Jill Newhouse Gallery

Indication of Installation, Nesting, 1973 40”x 52” (Framed) Carbon paper and carbon lines on
paper, Image: Jill Newhouse Gallery

With an artist’s eye, but a mathematician’s palette of shapes, lines and spaces, Rockburne brings the elements of her work together in complex combinations of parts and units. In a 1972 Artforum interview, she said, “I try not to make useless combinations. After arriving at certain combinations, that will not make themselves into one unit, I join units so that a work is a combination of many parts, units and then larger units. This of course comes from math, which deals with combinations of parts and units.”

These ideas are set out particularly well in the Indication Drawings made for an exhibition of her work at the Bykert Gallery in 1973. According to Rockburne, these drawings “were made during and after the installations so as to retain a memory of the concepts and a way to make actual drawings containing all the principles involved.” However, in this case it was not just the content of the work that followed the ‘rules’ of topology, the literal frame of the drawings explored the concept as well: scaling up and down between entire walls and ‘mere’ 40’’ x 52’’ pieces of paper.

Dorothea Rockburne, Indication ofInstallation,Neighborhoods,1973 40”	x 52”	(Framed) Reversed version of	installation: Transparent	vellum paper, colored pencil and black ink on American etching paper

Dorothea Rockburne, Indication of Installation, Neighborhoods, 1973 40” x 52” (Framed) Reversed version of installation: Transparent vellum paper, colored pencil and black ink on American etching paper, Image: Jill Newhouse Gallery

In a similar way, the drawings documenting Rockburne’s Neighborhood installation refer to the topological concepts of neighborhoods, borders and parameters. But for Rockburne these concepts are not static, but animated by a complex set of ideas, or even inner lives. In her diary entry from 18 April 1973, Rockburne explains it like this:

 

This subject—of whom the small lines were men and the points women – were alike confined in motion and eye-sight to that single straight line, which was their world. It need scarcely be added that the whole of their horizon was limited to a point; nor
could anyone ever see anything but a point. Man, women, child, thing—each was a point to the eye of a Linelander. Only by the sound of the voice could sex or age be distinguished. Moreover, as each individual occupied the whole of the narrow path, so to speak, which constituted his commerce, and no one could move to the right or left to make way for passers by it followed that no Linelander could ever pass another. Once neighbours, always neighbours. Neighbourhoods with them was like marriage with us. Neighbours remained.

 

I should note again that Rockburne is not a mathematician: she does not set out to illustrate topology, or to communicate its principles to the naïve viewer. Rather, she uses it as a basis for her own exploration of space and as a set of tools or concepts from which her own art can emerge. This approach can be quite abstract: in Nesting, Rockburne explores the concept of nested functions – in which the scope of one function, concept, or object is constrained by the scope of its containing function, concept, or object – through a dark rectangle rotated within a space of angular lines. In other work, Rockburne explores both well-known mathematical principles, such as the golden ratio beloved of ancient architects, and cutting-edge concepts, such as folding, which helps scientists to understand the origins of some degenerative diseases and which still requires whole rooms full of computers to predict at the molecular level.

More recently, Rockburne has turned to physics and astronomy, but she remains decidedly un-literal in her interpretations of these disciplines. Again, she does not seek to provide a lecture in the natural sciences, but to use it as a foundation in her art. So in much the same way as mathematics underpins the way that nature unfolds around us in everything from Fibonacci-sequence ammonite shells or fractal Romanesque broccoli, from relatively simple origins Rockburne’s work has unfolded into something uniquely elegant and deeply engaging.

 

Rockburne’s work is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from September 20 2013 – 20 January 2014 in Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing that Makes Itself. An accompanying exhibition, Dorothea Rockburne: Indications of Installation will be on display at the Jill Newhouse Gallery from 1 October – 16 November 2014.

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A natural arkive

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The impulse to collect, categorise and organise our natural world speaks to a general human desire to better understand ourselves and our place in the universe. The history of what we currently think of as earth and environmental sciences is filled with inquiring minds – be they monks, gentleman scientists or explorers – who had a deep desire to understand the natural world. While the typical natural history collection may seem far removed from modern science in an era of cybertaxonomy and gene sequencing, it is something with which many scientists still engage. Any geologist or botanist will have a specimen cabinet in their office containing carefully labelled samples for future reference and use.

Nature Reserves, an exhibition at GV Art curated by Tom Jeffreys of Wild Culture, is a beautiful and elegant show that looks at our impulse to collect the natural world, but also reflects on this impulse in an era when we are, generically, more disconnected from nature than ever before. Taking a look at this display of work, I am reminded of the Classical idea of the Great Chain of Being, a hierarchical classification of the universe, with God and the Angels at the top, progressing down to Man, other bits of life on earth and, ultimately, the stones beneath our feet. This need to put everything in its place is something that has been with us for a very long time.

Great Chain of Being from Retorica Christiana, written by Didacus Valdes in 1579

Great Chain of Being from Retorica Christiana, written by Didacus Valdes in 1579

The presence of humanity in Nature Reserves is pervasive. After all, we are looking at nature through human eyes, and the desire to quantify and classify the world in the way that we do is a distinctly human preoccupation. This is particularly well-captured by drawers containing hundreds of labels from the Grant Museum that have become detached from their original specimens. Displayed in this way, they are amazingly diverse, personal and poignant. There are many different papers and types of writing, each one embodies a history: a collector, the collection of a specimen, when it happened, what happened.

Liz Orton, Splitters and Lumpers 5, 2012 - Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

Liz Orton, Splitters and Lumpers 2, 2012 – Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

And, what of this impulse of ours to taxonomise the living world? Splitters and Lumpers by Liz Orton most directly addresses the natural history collection, with photographs of uncatalogued botanical samples from Kew. The specimens have a beautiful stratigraphy, and brings our attention to the ways in which we classify things—are you a splitter or a lumper? Meanwhile, The Life Raft photos by Helen Pynor engage with the materiality of specimens: they are fragile things, subject to decay, and now adrift in their specimen drawers.

Helen Pynor, The Life Raft 16, 2012 - Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

Helen Pynor, The Life Raft 16, 2012 – Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

But the practice of collecting specimens is not without its cost, and at its worst it implies an enormous arrogance on the part of man. In Huia Transcriptions by Sally Ann McIntyre, we listen to the faint tinkle of a music box in a forest playing the calls of the Huia, as recorded by a Mr. Ht. Caver in the late 1800’s. In Collected Silences for Lord Rothschild we are told that we will be presented with recordings of the now extinct Laughing Owl (or Whekau). You sit there for ages waiting to hear something other than the gentle sound of a camera, but nothing comes. This poignant work of McIntyre highlights the dark side of natural history: that the act of collecting of Huia and Whekau specimens was instrumental in their extinction. These are silences that cannot ever be filled.

Charlie Franklin, Relic, 2013, Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

Charlie Franklin, Relic, 2013, Image courtesy of the Artist and GV Art gallery, London

There are also the bits of nature that are overlooked at their best, and battled with at their worst. Weeds, 111 by Laura Culham, presents a series of exquisitely constructed paper weeds: at a 1:1 scale, these small sculptures—complete with root structures—remind us of the bits of the natural world that we ignore, or even do battle with. Charlie Franklin’s Relic reminds us of the ground beneath our feet: fragile and crumbling. Franklin has unsuccessfully attempted to preserve peat. Half-embedded in empasto, this piece seems half-nature and half-art, with nature battling against Franklin’s intentions of it becoming the latter.

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

Despite this quest for dominion, there are works that remind us that we are reminded that we are still rather small. Mutation of the Visible is a beautiful series of drawings of the moon—as captured by artists and scientists at various periods over human history—by Anaïs Tondeur. The drawings reflect our endless fascination with the night sky, and how our perspectives on it have changed over the centuries. The first drawing in the series, After a pareidolia: the man in the moon gives a nod to our romantic tendency to anthropomorphise nature and provides a stark contrast to After Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (21st century).

The great strength of Nature Reserves is that it represents an exploration and a questioning: it is neither a celebration, nor a condemnation of natural history as a discipline. Rather, it delves into the need within us to give things names, to understand how they are related to one another and, of course, to place ourselves in the context of all of this. From a scientific perspective, we moved away from the Great Chain of Being a long time ago, as we have also moved from taxonomies to phylogenetics and metagenomics. However, given the current biodiversity crisis, there is a need for art that meaningfully engages with and interrogates our relationship with the natural world. Both hearts and minds must be won in order to tackle the crisis facing our planet.

 

Nature Reserves is on display at GV Art, London until 13 September 2013. There is also a programme of events associated with the exhibition.

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Rare today, gone tomorrow?

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The ecological impacts of climate change are likely to be varied and widespread, and a PLOS collection of papers on this topic, published this week, examines the dynamics and magnitude of these changes, together with the impact on individual species and entire ecosystems. Special attention has been given to understanding the vulnerability of particular species and functions within ecosystems.

But how exactly does one go about identifying which species are vulnerable to climate change, and how is that vulnerability defined? Sensitivity? Exposure? Adaptive capacity? And should we lose one of those vulnerable species, what is the effect on the rest of the ecosystem?

While the importance of species diversity on ecosystems has been relatively well studied, the roles that individual, rare species play are less certain. Mouillot et al., present a stark finding: many critical ecosystem functions are supported by relatively rare species. Rather than the quantity of biodiversity, it is the quality of that biodiversity that matters in maintaining an ecosystem, and many of the key species have highly specialised roles with little redundancy.

The Moray eel (Gymnothorax javanicus) is a large sedentary predator on coral reefs with few challengers to this role and has the fifth highest functional vulnerability to its role. Photo: Nick Hobgood, Wikimedia Commons

The Moray eel (Gymnothorax javanicus) is a large sedentary predator on coral reefs with few challengers to this role and has the fifth highest functional vulnerability to its role. Photo: Nick Hobgood, Wikimedia Commons

So, if a keystone species is lost, then there is no other species within the ecosystem that can take its place.  Consequently, Mouillot and colleagues argue, rare species don’t just offer aesthetic, cultural, and taxonomic diversity; rather, many are vital to the functioning of ecosystems. As such, they suggest that conservation should move away from charismatic species to focus on those that have irreplaceable roles in the ecosystem. These findings have far reaching scientific consequences, and what we need to communicate this are artists whose practice engages in a subtle, yet powerful way.

A few months back, I was privileged to see American architect-cum-memorial maker-cum artist, Maya Lin, speak at the Tate Modern. Best known for her elegant and powerful Vietnam War Memorial, she spoke most passionately about what she calls her ‘last memorial,’ an online project called What is Missing? This project—actually a website since Lin does not think that a memorial must be static but can exist in multiple forms simultaneously and evolving—engages with the ‘sixth mass extinction’. Through both an online presence in the form of a beautiful website, and through site-specific science-based artworks, Lin aims to highlight disappearing biomes around the world.

Screenshot of What is Missing Website, Maya Lin and Bloomberg

Screenshot of What is Missing Website, Maya Lin and Bloomberg

The website presents the past in the form of videos, historical accounts and memories from contributors of species that have diminished, or disappeared from the natural world. Clicking on a dot in the mid-Atlantic, I arrive at a video about the great Bermudan humpback whale singers of the 1960’s. Apparently, they were quite something, but we’ll never get to hear them ‘live’ now.

Clicking on London, my eyes are attracted to a number of anecdotes about oysters. Yes, it turns out oysters abounded in the Thames: according to Henry Mayhew in 1851, it was estimated that 500 million oysters were sold in Billingsgate Market that year alone. Needless to say, the main oysters associated with London today are the Oyster Cards we use on the public transport system.

What is Missing? is both memorial and ‘momento mori’ for the natural world. The piece quietly acknowledges what we have lost and reminds us that we need to look after biodiversity on our planet in all its forms. The finding that some of the rarest species have critical ecosystem functions makes this message all the more poignant.

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Art of Uncertainty

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Art of Uncertainty

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

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

 

The joy of uncertainty

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

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

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

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

 

Showing, not telling

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Whence Now?

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

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