Reflecting on Encounters between Art and Science

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

How it all got started

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

Central Saint Martins students examining collection items at the British Library

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

Making it happen

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

Information or Inspiration?

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


The final push…

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

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

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

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

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