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Cooking up interdisciplinarity (with added artist)


Participants at NAKFI 2015 take part in movement experiment. Photo: Keck Futures

Participants at NAKFI 2015 take part in movement experiment. Photo: Keck Futures

Discussions about the future of science and technology have increasingly considered how interdisciplinary working might contribute to science’s discoveries and technology’s innovations. The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) was launched in the US in 2003, a program designed to “stimulate new modes of inquiry and break down conceptual and institutional barriers to interdisciplinary research”.

The central tool of NAKFI is an annual themed “think-tank” style conference, attended by 150 participants selected from an international open call. Participants work in interdisciplinary groups to try to address urgent scientific or societal challenges. Afterwards, they can apply for seed grants to enable further pursuit of their ideas.

Previous NAKFI conferences have brought people together from science, engineering and medicine. For the first time in the 2015 conference, the academies decided to include artists and designers. The intention was explore how bringing together arts, design, sciences, engineering and medicine can help to stimulate innovation, as well as how such collaborations might encourage public and academic discourse around critical societal, scientific and environmental issues.

Silhouette of man in front of installation

Ruth West et al., Atlas in Silico, installed at NAKFI 2015. An interactive art installation featuring the entire first release of 17.4 million metagenomics sequences from the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition.

David Edwards, a biomedical engineer and founder-director of Le Laboratoire, an art/science innovation space in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was asked to chair the 2015 NAKFI steering committee and invited me to be a member. This role involved helping to select participants from the open call, generating ‘seed ideas’, and mentoring some of the groups during the conference. I was impressed by the openness of the committee to the possible forms and impact that projects resulting from the conference might take. Most members were scientists or technologists, but had appreciation of the arts from different perspectives.

So does NAKFI work, as an initiator for innovative projects, and as a contribution to breaking down institutional and systemic barriers to interdisciplinary research? NAKFI has funded many interesting looking projects through the process in the past, so perhaps that ticks the first part of the question. Whether it has had a long-term impact on interdisciplinary research in the US can probably only be answered by a longitudinal and attitudinal study of participants and their institutions.

It’s difficult to draw any conclusions as yet from the 2015 conference, including the effectiveness of adding artists into the mix, partly because it’s early days in the development of the proposed projects. The ideas and the content of the discussions are embargoed until Spring 2016, however I think I’m allowed to make some general observations.

As with earlier conferences, the goal was to come up with concrete project proposals. However, the type of impact of the project could be cultural/artistic, as well as educational, social or scientific. Participants were allocated to ‘seed idea’ groups, whose composition was largely led by participant preference, which – whilst apparently a good idea – meant that one group I was mentoring contained no artists, while a second held no scientists. This was a bit of a lost opportunity, as I felt both groups would have benefited from the absent expertise and perspective, although they came up with strong outline proposals.

One realisation I had, observing the conference unfold and speaking with people who had attended previous conferences, was that the group dynamics this year were far more animated than in previous years. One person remarked that back in 2004 there had “nearly been a stand-up fight” between two group participants, but that was a far cry from the impassioned debates, emotional arguments, group upheavals and reformations that characterised 2015’s conference. One organiser suggested it was because the artists were more “desperate” for funding, but I wonder if it isn’t more to do with the tendency (even tradition) for artists to offer the dissident voice, to question consensus and to seek alternative ways of doing things. It’s important too to emphasise that it was not only artists reassigning themselves to other groups, and that some artists stayed in groups where they were uncomfortable, but I like to think that these tendencies of artists I mention can actually benefit such an experimental process.

NAKFI seed group developing idea. Photo: Paul R Kennedy

NAKFI seed group developing idea. Photo: Paul R Kennedy

In accepting the committee position, I was driven by my interest in exploring the role of contemporary art in society, and particularly its potential inter-relationships with science. While interdisciplinary research and education have been enduring interests for me, I’ve been less involved with the innovation agenda, but it seems to me that engaging the interest of policymakers and those in industry can help to strengthen interdisciplinary research involving artists. In the USA, the agenda of ‘STEM to STEAM’ (transforming research, innovation and education policy by placing art and design at the centre of science, technology, engineering and medicine) is being discussed in the National Academies of Science, major universities, and even the US House of Representatives. So I was interested in the NAKFI conference as a testing ground to explore the potential role/s for art within innovation.

And then too I have an underlying urge, which I know I share with many artists, to initiate projects that may have clear practical benefits for people. This tendency in art is something that, in an art historical context, the Arts Catalyst will be exploring at our new centre in London in its opening exhibition: ‘Notes from the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science’. Perhaps the role of art is to experience and understand the problem, rather than to seek a solution. But this act of problematising can itself inflame a desire to transform those situations.

Huntingdon Beach, where we stayed for NAKFI 2015. Photo: Alana Quinn

Blue skies at Huntingdon Beach, where we stayed for NAKFI 2015. Photo: Alana Quinn


Aerocene – flight without borders

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Rubin Center for the Visual Arts


In the dunes of White Sands desert, on Sunday 8th November 2015, for the first time in the world, a registered solar heat powered balloon carrying a human person floated for more than 2 hours without touching ground and without burning any gas.

Tomás Saraceno’s work is as conceptually rich as it is aesthetically captivating. His pursuit of a borderless existence in the sky unfolds in a bewitching succession of floating structures, transparent aerial habitations, and human-scale suspended webs. Saraceno’s artistic visions seek to defy the constraints – social, technological, political and cultural – that bind us to a ground-based, bordered, fossil-fuelled, restricted existence. And he underpins these visions with relentless research, technical experimentation and scientific collaborations.

Saraceno’s sculpture Aerocene last week had its pilot flight in the dramatic landscape White Sands desert, New Mexico, in an event organised by the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais with Tomas Saraceno Studio. This extraordinary flight marked the first milestone in a Saraceno’s new project the Aerocene, which takes forward his vision in the flights of aerosolar sculptures that are inflated by air, lifted by the heat of the sun alone, and transported by the wind.

Black balloon lying in desert

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, air heating as the sun rises, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

The artist has been experimenting with solar balloons for some years, driven by his dream of habitations in space without polluting the atmosphere with black carbon. Black carbon particles (soot) are emitted by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets and a recent scientific study has indicated that, if the space transport industry grows significantly in coming years, this black carbon could contribute to global climate change. Emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially greatly altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone and contributing to polar temperature rises and sea ice melt.

Saraceno’s siting his new launch in the New Mexico White Sands desert area – where the first rocket launches in the United States were made and where the first tourist spaceport in the world is located – is therefore particularly significant.

Black balloon, white desert, blue sky, person suspended

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

Prior to the launch, Saraceno put out a call for people to be part of a collaborative action to help the launch of his new solar balloon. The experimental flight was preceded by a conference ‘Space Without Rockets’ at the Rubin Center, organized to explore the vision, potential and contexts for the project.

On the morning of Sunday 8 November, around 25 people, including Saraceno’s team of engineers and balloonists, arrived well before dawn at the White Sands Missile Range entry point for security clearance by the US Army (having previously submitted our passport information), which controls a large part of the White Sands area.

We drove out in a convoy of cars across the desert, as twilight spread across the flat landscape. After an hour’s driving, with the sun coming up over the distant mountains, we arrived in the launch site in the heart of the white sand dunes.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Saraceno’s black solar balloon was stretched out across the white sand, partially inflated with air. It lay rather limply and lop-sided in the cool dawn air, awaiting the full power of the sun’s heat to emerge. Miraculously, despite an ominous weather forecast that had made some of us a little reluctant to get out of our warm El Paso hotel beds at 3am in the morning, the sky was clear and nor was there a breath of wind.

The Aerocene sculpture materializes more than ten years of research by Saraceno and his team on material properties, thermodynamics and atmospheric science. In principle, as the sun warms the air within the balloon, the air molecules becomes less dense than the outside air, causing the balloon to rise without the burning of propane or the use of lighter-than-air gases (helium or hydrogen).

The flight of this prototype balloon was planned as a tethered flight, always connected to the ground by ropes, as its venting and control had not been tested. The radical action was to lift a person off the ground by the power of the sun itself. In the early morning, the balloon looked as though it could barely lift itself, let alone a person. But, as the desert heat gathered force and the sun’s energy bounced back off the dazzling white sand into the balloon, adding to the heating effect, the balloon gathered strength. With Marija, an experienced balloonist from Croatia, suspended by a skydiver harness below the balloon, it lifted off the ground, controlled by the volunteers holding its ropes. A gentle breeze moved the balloon along the dunes and between them.

As the sun rose further, the balloon’s strength increased, lifting Marija higher. Danja from the Studio took Marija’s place and was allowed to rise to a height of perhaps 100 feet. The balloon strained against its tethers. Six people hung onto each rope to prevent the balloon taking off. Tomas was finally persuaded to take his place below the balloon, and a few others followed him, careful checks on the harness and attachments taking places each time. The balloon became a formidable beast striving to rush upwards to its home in the blue sky. More people joined the ropes to control it. After a few hours, the expert balloonists decided it had become too powerful to control and, after some less than successful testing of the venting, the balloon was gradually brought to the ground and emptied of its blisteringly hot air.

black balloon, person suspended, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno flies his Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015.

Saraceno’s fascination for structures in the sky stems from his family’s exile from Argentina (when the artist was a baby) because of the Perón dictatorship. When he returned there ten years later, he felt it was no longer his home, a place where he didn’t belong. Since then, he has travelled a lot and has become interested in challenging how the nations, divisions and borders we inhabit are created on Planet Earth.

His conceptual challenge of the territorialisation of the earth by a move into the sky seems particularly relevant at this time, Europe’s new border crisis, and appropriate for exploration in El Paso, situated on the tense border between Mexico and the USA. Saraceno’s is a utopian project, both in terms of finding a new way of existing borderless, and of reaching the skies and space without polluting them.

But another factor seems apparent in the Aerocene’s connection to a more elemental and human-centered mode of existence. Our severe control over our environment and the elements (as I realised shivering in the glacial air conditioned terminal of Houston airport looking out over a shimmering landscape on my connection to El Paso) has physical and environmental impacts, as detrimental to us, I suggest, as they are beneficial.

Suspended above the desert under a vast black solar balloon, I could feel the sun burning my face, the slight breeze moving me gently, the force of the balloon tugging upwards. I looked out over a white desert dazzling under a violently blue sky, and at the scraps of vegetation struggling in this landscape, and felt the immediacy of the possibility of flying up and off in whatever direction – and across whatever border – the elements might choose, should my colleagues on the ground let go of those two slight ropes. It was an intensely sensorial experience that left me feeling profoundly alive.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Nicola Triscott flies Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Exploring the border of art and space: the “territory of the imagination”

A projection in a cave

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso (installation – cave)

I have spent the last few days with a very special group of people in El Paso, Texas, on the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and in White Sands, New Mexico, a region where the space program had its beginnings and that is now home to a high number of emerging commercial space programs.

The occasion was the opening of Territory of the Imagination: At the Border of Art and Space’ at the Rubin Center of the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso, curated by Kerry Doyle, a program of exhibitions, workshops and events highlighting the work of artists engaged in disruptive, alternative, and collective interactions with space and space technology, particularly artists from Latin America and the US-Mexico border region.

The program has been such a rich and thought-provoking experience that I want to blog about it in two parts, the first addressing the exhibition and the issues raised in it, the second focusing on Tomas Saraceno’s project Aerocene and the ‘Space Without Rockets’ conference, programmed by Rob La Frenais.

The four elements of the exhibition are the Astrovandalistas’ Imaginario Inverso, Matters of Gravity, Arte en Orbita and Tomas Saraceno’s Aerosolar.

Astrovandalistas is an artist collective interested in the effects of the industrialisation of our social imaginary in contexts where corporate and government interests supersede the individual and collective concerns of citizens. For Territory of the Imagination, they are running a series of workshops with communities in El Paso and Juarez and preparing a laser communication system to enable the creation of futuristic narratives about the border region. They are using lasers, in a reinterpretation of NASA’s laser communication technology for terrestrial purposes, both to transmit and engrave these narratives into stones. At the opening event, their preliminary research could be viewed both in the gallery and in a cave on the hillside.

Man shows device in cave

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso, laser device in cave installation

Engraved rocks in front of projected film with mountain

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso (installation)

Matters of Gravity (La Gravedad de los Asuntos) presents the artistic outputs of a two-year programme of research (advised by The Arts Catalyst) by a group of Mexican artists, organised by Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente, into the nature of gravity and zero gravity, including a zero gravity flight at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia.

Woman flies an ancient contraption in a zero gravity flight

Tania Candiani, Machine for flying, Besnier 1673, Matters of Gravity

Picture of a giant hourglass with sand floating inside

Ale de la Puente, An Infinity Without Destiny, Matters of Gravity

Arte En Orbita was a selection of films from an Ecuadorian exhibition of the same name, curated by Pedro Soler and Fabiane Borges, featuring a number of contemporary postcolonial space agencies – from Latin America, Africa and Palestine – that have appropriated technologies and imaginaries of space for their own use.

Person in crude silver spacesuit

Kongo Astronauts, Arte En Orbita

Tomas Saraceno’s Aerocene (which will be the subject of a separate blog post) shows his work developing an alternative system for transport in the sky and potentially in space through solar balloons. The exhibition of photographs and videos ‘Becoming Aerosolar’ sets the context for furthering his research and discourse in the conference ‘Space Without Rockets’, curated by Rob La Frenais, and the attempted launch of his prototype solar balloon Aerocene in the White Sands desert (see my next blog post!).

A giant balloon made of old carrier bags floats in the air

Tomas Saraceno, Museo Aero Solar, 2009

The projects in Territory of the Imagination connect the sociopolitics of space technology with issues of the territorialisation of space. Whilst the drive to explore space and visit other celestial bodies is visionary and open-minded, the space industry tends to replicate and propagate existing habits of thinking and ideologies from earth, such as American concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘frontier’, transferred from American historical narratives into the discourse of the space industry.

Since the 1960s, social imaginaries of space became largely synonymous with the national and international projects of Apollo, the ISS, space probes, Mars landers and Hubble. With the emergence of commercial space programmes – and New Mexico is where much of this is taking place – this imaginary is changing. A new ideological framework for space endeavours is emerging in which private enterprise is seen as the determining factor: space has become a place to be exploited for commercial ends. Is this the outer space of our own imaginings, those of us affected by space activities and, argues the United Nations’ space treaties, collective custodians of space as a ‘global commons’ but uninvolved in its industries?

It seems important that we question the ideologies shaping the new space age. Developing alternative social imaginaries of space is a critical part of this questioning. The space programme was historically shaped by the visions of artists and writers, and the same process could apply today. Artists, such as those in Territory of the Imagination, who engage in tactical, interrogatory or playful interactions with space themes, or who appropriate the images and technologies of space in ways that connect people to new bodies of knowledge, are developing alternative poetic and progressive imaginaries of space, and contributing to a vital societal and cultural dialogue, in which people from many cultures and across disciplines can take part.

A personal update – seeking the view from Stateside

Neal White with Tina O'Connell, 1x1, Transformer, Washington DC, 2012

Neal White and Tina O’Connell, 1×1, Transformer, Washington DC, 2012. Photo: Tear – Tidal Basin (c) the artists *

I’m excited to let you know that, for the next 12 months, I’ll be based in Washington D.C., from where I’ll be exploring opportunities for the Arts Catalyst in the US, as well as – after 21 years leading the organisation – taking a semi-sabbatical to extend my own research and writing.

One exciting initiative that I’m involved in is as a member of the Steering Committee for the US National Academies’ Keck Futures Initiative ‘Art and Science, Engineering and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation & Realization’. The conference at the heart of this initiative takes place next week in Irvine, California, and brings together a diverse group of participants (selected from an open international call) to explore how arts, design, sciences, engineering and medicine can stimulate a renaissance of innovation to solve real-world problems, and create concrete projects that can lead to educational, cultural, social and scientific impacts. As a steering committee member, I’ll be mentoring a couple of the ‘seed idea’ groups that I’ve been involved in putting together: Developing Programs to Engage and Empower Communities to Address Threats to Ecosystems, and Creating Open Data Culture.

Another couple of conferences I’ll be participating in during the year are Aerosolar: Space Without Rockets at the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, Texas, this week, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais, where I’ll be talking about the peaceful uses of outer space and attending an experimental balloon launch by artist Tomas Saraceno at White Sands, and the Association of American Geographers (AAG)’s annual meeting in San Francisco, on a panel about Geographies of Outer Space, convened by Julie Klinger and Dan Bednar of Western University in Canada, in March 2016. Also on the space-related side of my work, I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of a book to which I’ve contributed a chapter, The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space, a vital collection of texts from a broad range of disciplines that examine outer space as a dynamic and contested field, edited by Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod. Whilst on the pricey side for most of us, I’m sure many institutions will order a copy for their libraries and I’ll ensure that the Arts Catalyst has a copy in its reference library. We’re also thinking about holding a seminar or event in London next year to explore and open up some of the book’s key themes and ideas.

During the coming year, I’ll continue to oversee the Arts Catalyst’s artistic programme whilst handing over most executive leadership to an interim Managing Director. I’m therefore delighted to announce that we’ve appointed Gary Sangster as Arts Catalyst’s Interim Managing Director. Gary has an exceptional international track record as a museum director, curator, educator and writer, and brings his vast wealth of knowledge and experience to the company. This all comes at a very exciting time for Arts Catalyst. Following our highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the Arts Catalyst’s new Centre for Art, Science and Technology opens in Cromer Street, King’s Cross in January 2016 (I’ll be back in the UK for the opening). Our opening project at the centre will be ‘Notes From the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science’ – details upcoming.

You can follow my work both in the USA and the UK (and anywhere else I get invited to!) via this blog and my twitter.

* Image: Neal White and Tina O’Connell’s 1×1, as part of 5×5, comprised 1,000 small vials of “tears” – water collected in Japan after the earthquake and Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant disaster (my small role in this project was in facilitating the collection of the water from Japan). Visitors were encouraged to pour the water on a cherry tree bringing about a symbolic rebirth, drawing on the specific historical connection to the gift of the Cherry Trees to Washington DC one hundred years ago. 1×1 reflected upon the range of experience and responses to the Tsunami and Fukushima Diaichi catastrophe in Japan a year before the project.

The performance (and performativity) of science

B&W photo. Man dressed as giant butterfly

Jan Fabre, A Consilience, 2000. With Professor Dick Vane-Wright, Keeper of Entomology, Natural History Museum

The text of short talk that I gave at DASER in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago, as part of a themed event on science and performance (you can also watch it here – and see the other speakers’ talks):

Whilst the Arts Catalyst’s work is primarily situated in the visual arts, we see our work – the artistic outputs of our work – as ‘experiences’, in which the medium itself is not the main criteria. I would like to look at three projects that the Arts Catalyst has commissioned, which centre on or incorporate performance as an artform or tactic, and to discuss them through the lens of ‘performativity’, a term which has increasingly entered the social sciences and humanities over the past two decades.

Previously used primarily within theatre and the performing arts, the term ‘performance’ – or the notion of ‘performativity’ is now often employed as a principle to understand human behaviour. The notion that we ‘perform’ our role in society has roots in the 1940s and 50s in the writings of scholars such as Erving Goffman, who in his highly influential book, ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959), emphasized the link between social life and performance. In the 1990s, Judith Butler famously theorized gender, along with sex and sexuality, as performative. Scholars interested in the notion of performativity stress the active, social construction of reality, as well as the way that individual behaviour is determined by the context in which it occurs.

The concept of performativity in the social sciences sprang from its use by the language philosopher J L Austin, who argued against the predominant view in philosophy at the time (1970s): that the chief business of sentences was to state facts. In particular, he described a type of sentence, ‘performative utterances’, which perform a certain kind of action (such as ‘I name this ship …’). This concept of ‘performativity’ has been picked up, developed and extended by theorists across many disciplines. It has broadly come to be used to describe theories, models or activities that affect and are affected by their actions, rather than being objective observations or truths.

In the study of science, until recently, experiment – science’s interaction with the world – was viewed as something secondary to theory and technology was barely theorised at all. But a new generation of historians and philosophers have pointed out that science doesn’t just think about the world, it makes the world and then remakes it. In the 1990s, Andrew Pickering argued that studies of science should go beyond science-as-knowledge to include the material, social and temporal dimensions of science [1]. Rather than seeing scientists as ‘disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations’, he suggests that we should start from the idea that the world is filled not, in the first instance, with facts and observations, but with agency.

Two artists, one dressed as a beetle the other as a fly, converse

Jan Fabre & Ilya Kabakov, Eeen Ontmoeting/A Meeting

From the earliest days of the Arts Catalyst, I have been interested in commissioning art, in any medium, that reflects this ‘performative turn’, exploring how scientists shape society, culture and the world and are also shaped by them, rather than art that simply represents scientific discoveries or technologies.

The first project I want to speak about, Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, we were inspired to commission when my colleague at the time Rob La Frenais interviewed the Belgian artist Jan Fabre and returned to the UK to show me a film that Fabre had made with the famous Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, in which Fabre represents the world of the beetle, and Kabakov the realm of the fly.

We invited Fabre to undertake a residency at the Natural History Museum in London, a working scientific research institution as well as, of course, a world-famous public museum. He proposed to interview senior entomologists, each to be costumed in the guise of the insect of the scientist’s focus of study. Fabre himself was an amateur entomologist. To our surprise, the scientists not only agreed to participate, but there was such enthusiasm that we practically had to hold casting sessions.

In the end, five scientists, including the Keeper of Entomology Professor Dick Vane-Wright and the Deputy Keeper Dr Rory Post, took part in a series of conversations held in the museum’s extraordinary backstage collections. As well as discussing their scientific interest in the subject, each was happy to ‘perform’ a number of physical actions of the insects of their field of study. Through this, the film – shown in the museum as a two-screen installation – played on the notion of how the insects and their behaviours act on the humans who study them, as much as being purely the objects of scientific curiosity.

Extracts from Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, 2000, featuring Professor Dick Vane-Wright

In my second example, we brokered and facilitated a collaboration between the French dancer and choreographer Kitsou Dubois and the multidisciplinary scientific Biodynamics Group at Imperial College London. They worked together from 2000 and 2005, studying control and movement of the body in weightlessness, including a number of zero gravity flights with the European Space Agency and the Russian Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, that we organised.

This work led to installations, performances, films and scientific papers, as well as a published scientific paper and a whole new area of scientific research for the Biodynamics Group.

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (video extract), 2000

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (performance), 2003

In the spirit Pickering’s introduction of a ‘performative image of science, which aimed to rebalance our understanding of science away from an obsession with pure knowledge and towards recognising science’s material powers, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar – in their book Laboratory Life – suggest that the aim of science is not to provide facts or representation about nature but rather to ‘perform’ it [2]. Among their cast of actors are the new products of science, such as genetically modified organisms.

In the US group Critical Art Ensemble’s participatory performance GenTerra (2002), performed as part of Arts Catalyst’s CleanRooms exhibition, audience members could grow and own a sample of transgenic bacteria and, after an intensive learning experience, make their own decision on the ‘release’ of transgenic organisms into the environment.

Since the 1970s, spectacularly rapid developments in the biological sciences have become a source of concern as well as excitement. Many scientists warn of the dangers of commercial pressures to push forward with biotechnology, a technique that contains many unknowns and many defects, leading to real and possible dangers to our health and to the ecosystem.

Man in white coat shows petri dishes of bacteria on release device to young boy

Critical Art Ensemble, GenTerra, 2003

Critical Art Ensemble’s work from 1993 to around 2006 sought to expose misinformation about biotechnology that came from such sources as market directives and science fiction. As few people have direct experience of working with biotechnology, the subject can seem abstract and too difficult for a non-specialist to understand. A key Critical Art Ensemble tactic therefore was to bring this science out of the lab and stage it in the public domain – giving people direct experience of common scientific processes and reliable information on a one to one basis.

The artists’ projects described above give present a few brief examples of how tactics of ‘performing science’ can focus attention on science’s ‘performativity’: on science as a series of actions that affect the world.

(This talk drew on an essay I wrote about Critical Art Ensemble’s work for the book: ‘Performative Science: The case of Critical Art Ensemble’ in Interfaces of Performance, ed. Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Janis Jefferies and Rachel Zerihan, Published by Ashgate, 2009)

[1] Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (University of Chicago Press, 1995)

[2] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life (Princeton University Press, 1986).

High Energy Interactions: how to be an artist at CERN

Ale de la Puente, The Universe and the Kitchen, performance at Kosmica Mexico 2013

Ale de la Puente, The Universe and the Kitchen, performance at Kosmica Mexico 2013

“How can an artist make relevant art if he doesn’t know anything about relevant science?” – Julius von Bismarck, artist

I have been too busy to blog for a few months, but I must flag up the EXTENDED DEADLINE DATE for the latest Collide@CERN Artist Residency Award open call for digital artists, now open to 5 July. Collide@CERN is the flagship programme of the progressive Arts@CERN initiative initiated by the dynamic Ariane Koek at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider.

I’m sad that I couldn’t make the dates of the selection committee – thanks for the invite, Mónica Bello (new Arts@CERN curator), and sorry to any artists who might have hoped I’d big up their application ;) – but I’m confident the selection committee will choose boldly, based on their track record. Previous winners of the Collide@CERN digital arts residency, a partnership between CERN and Ars Electronica, have been Julius von Bismarck (2012), Bill Fontana (2013) and Ryoji Ikeda (2014). There have also been a number of other artist residencies of shorter duration, including the wonderful Mexican artist Ale de la Puente.

The Collide@CERN programme expects “at least work in progress as plans/drawings and/or models by the end of their residency”, but emphasise a “free exchange of ideas” between artist and their partner science, in my opinion an absolutely critical element for an artist residency programme if we are to continue to develop and demonstrate the contribution that art makes to contemporary society, which lies not just in the output but in the process and performance of art and the generation of new ideas. In this way, the CERN residencies perhaps echo the spirit of the Artist Placement Group, who negotiated placements for artists between 1966 and the early 1980s in private and public sector organisations, with the aim of fostering a two-way communication between artists and industrialists or politicians, in order to benefit both the host organisations and the artists in the long-term.

Physicist James Wells with Julius von Bismarck, the first Collide@Cern Artist in Residence

Physicist James Wells with Julius von Bismarck, the first Collide@Cern Artist in Residence

Many people ask me what scientists “get” from work with artists. I feel James Wells, the theoretical physicist who was the ‘inspirational partner’ for Collide@CERN’s first artist in residence Julius von Bismarck expressed it so beautifully when he talked about valuing having someone around who saw the world in a different way, whose influence, he felt, could shake up accepted mindsets. In a talk, Wells notes that the the process of becoming a scientist can “snuff out the daring impulse” in young scientists and that it is the “tremendous daring and openness of ideas” of artists that might really benefit the scientific community. “The first thought of an artist is not can we do this, but ‘this is what I want to do’” he remarked.

Another aspect of such fascinating and important art-science exchange was explored by artist Ale de la Puente in her short CERN residency, during which she organised workshops with scientists to investigate and discover the creation of metaphors devoted to time, scale and space in both art and science,

Julius von Bismarck, Versuch unter Kreisen, 2013

Julius von Bismarck, Versuch unter Kreisen, 2013

It’s worth featuring some the resulting artworks from the Collide@CERN artist residencies, particularly for me that of the first resident artist, Julius von Bismarck, who worked with James Wells. His first resulting work ‘Versuch unter Kreisen’ is an installation of 4 revolving industrial hanging lights, each attached to a motor which rotate them in a circular motion. Each light has a slightly different frequency which means that every 75 circles they all have the same phase, the rest is chaos, which Bismarck compared to life: that we spend so much time to find a moment of clarity, of coherence, and lose it again. Although I was also intrigued by his mention of other potential works (or perhaps thought works): to make a slight dent in a lake, building a 4-dimensional cube in three dimensions. He spoke of CERN as both creating reality and changing how we see reality, and his desire to add art to the world that could change it slightly afterwards.

Ryoji Ikeda, Supersymmetry, 2015

Ryoji Ikeda, Supersymmetry, 2015

In Ryoji Ikeda’s resulting work ‘Supersymmetry’, shown recently at the Vinyl Factory in London, the visual reference to particle physics and CERN is more immediate. The first hall contained three large floor-set cubes, with top screens lit from below showing clouds of tiny black circles engaged in an incessant dance, forming and un-forming fleeting structures. The second hall housed four rows of screens, two on either side of a central pathway. Images fly over the panels, the two walls projecting similar but not identical imagery, dynamic images of figures, numbers, words and diagrams zip along the rows of screens, followed by sudden plunges into darkness, underscored by a compelling beeping and clicking electronic soundtrack, conveying an exhilarating sense of overwhelming streams of data generated from multitudes of collisions and the struggle to make sense from such a complex mass of information.

Words and Money: discussions on art, ethics & value

Ackroyd & Harvey, Living Skin, 1992/2014. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Photo: Anne Purkiss. The work was shown in an exhibition from which Ackroyd & Harvey have now withdrawn it, due to their ethical concerns around sponsorship.

Ackroyd & Harvey, Living Skin, 1992/2014. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Photo: Anne Purkiss. The work was shown in an exhibition from which Ackroyd & Harvey have now withdrawn it, due to their ethical concerns around the exhibition’s sponsor.

I’ve been at a couple of conferences recently in London that were responding to rising concern about the ways the visual arts in the UK are being funded.

‘Take the Money and Run’ reflected on ethics and fundraising. It was organised by Live Art Development Agency, Artsadmin and Home Live Art, with Platform. The recent campaign by Platform to force Tate to release details of its sponsorship by BP was an underlying motif for the day.

There were several fiery and articulate presentations and provocations, of which you can get a sense from the twitter storify. I particularly enjoyed artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s tales of attempted manipulation and deceit by sponsors, from the overt and almost hilariously gauche (sponsors wanting to alter their artwork to promote their brand) to the hidden (the gradual realisation that the motivations of the sponsors of an apparently worthy exhibition were not what they seemed).

Their stories ably illustrated key points that the other speakers made:

  • that the type of funding an artist or organisation receives can and often does affect the work itself
  • that the arts have always been sustained by private sponsorship/patronage/philanthropy (different, but related), but now we have more ability to research the sources
  • the need to understand and reflect upon what it is that sponsors are buying, and if that is what we want to sell.

Points from the floor that I greatly appreciated included misdirected gratitude (as was said later in the day “BP doesn’t support Tate, Tate supports BP”), the irrelevance of personal moral responsibility (“It’s not about individual ethics. We’re all compromised. It’s about movements and changing politics”), and the Arts Council’s contentious use of the word “resilience” in relation to forcing companies away from reliance on public funding into the uncertain world of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy.

‘Public Assets: small-scale arts organisations and the production of value’ was convened by Common Practice to discuss value and sustainability in the small-scale arts sector. I attended with my colleague, curator Ele Carpenter.

Common Practice is a group of London visual arts organisations that commissions research around the value of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London. It has produced two interesting papers: ‘Size Matters’ by Sarah Thelwall, which argued for a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of value, and ‘Value, Measure, Sustainability’ by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, generated by a day-long symposium in 2012 which I attended, which argued for different ways of measuring the artistic contributions of small organisations beyond footfall and econometric indices.

The morning presentations opened up possibilities for creating new language and metaphors for value in small arts organisations. Artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun called for partnerships between cultural organisations and academia to create ‘alternative communities’, and new forms of cultural politics. Charlotte Higgins noted that the UKIP culture spokesperson says the arts are the last domain of the left that he need to conquer.

In the discussion, the notion of care, specifically curatorial care – for art and artists, for concepts and theory – was a recurring idea. A delegate suggested that those doing the ‘caring’ are often female, and that arts organisations suffer from the problem that ‘carers’ in society are not valued. One contributor spoke of gendered male theory in female-run organisations, but the conversation held off from addressing the social entitlement of men to hold positions of power.

New metaphors, outside those related to economic value, were requested, a point that was picked up in the breakout session I attended, where a contributor noted that ‘cultural industries’ in itself is a metaphor that requires attention. An amusing suggestion expanded the ecology metaphor into the idea that small arts organisations create the compost for artists’ practice. The proposer thought the way in which Eshun described theory made her think of theorists as worms, mixing the compost and enriching the soil. It was a popular idea, although it was felt that ecological analogies still rely on ‘growth’ or ‘competition’ models, in which, as Gordon-Nesbitt’s paper noted, “only those organisations able to adapt – particularly to corporate or philanthropic models of organisational development – will survive” and the small is only of worth if it contributes to, or grows into, the large.

The afternoon presented speakers with international but relevant perspectives. Maria Lind, Director of the Tensta Konsthall in Sweden, suggested that, whilst networks were essential for small organisations, it was easier to partner internationally because of competition for funding within a country. Lise Soskolne from W.A.G.E. in the USA meanwhile presented detailed argument for the need to pay artists working with non-profit organisations. She spoke of the contradictions swirling around the issue of pay to artists, as well as analysing the economy of philanthropy. W.A.G.E. has developed a certification program in the US that establishes a sector-wide minimum standard for artist compensation. Fee levels take into account pay levels within the organisation.

As Higgins and Eshun eloquently described, small arts organisations are small in size but big in scope and networks through which they support the development of artists’ practices (commissioning new work, helping artists to establish contexts for their work, providing residencies and mentoring, etc), enable audiences to experience new artworks and engage meaningfully with ideas and specialist practices, organise discussion and debate, and work imaginatively with long term communities of interest. All this caring, developmental work needs to be valued, not simply as underpinning the rest of the art world, but for having complex and in depth engagement with art and its many communities and discourses. So we were all left thinking about the elephant in the room: will the new Arts Council England research grants examine the ‘impact’ of their regular dissolution and undermining of so many small scale arts organisations across the UK?

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