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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).

www.artfund.org/arthappens-artscatalyst

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?

2014 at The Arts Catalyst

Arts Catalyst's 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Mixed reviews of 2014 as a year in the media. The Arts Catalyst meanwhile has had a pretty darned good 2014 – our 20th anniversary year – which is remarkable considering the difficult political and economic climate in which the non-profit arts sector is situated. Our projects continued our ongoing artistic and cultural investigations into space exploration, infrastructure, nuclear energy, ecology, polar studies, and ‘epic’ residencies for artists.

We launched our year in January, in the wake of China landing a probe on the Moon triggering fears of mining operations on the Moon, by declaring an artists’ ‘Republic of the Moon’ and transforming the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into the lunar republic’s Earth-based embassy. The exhibition was a popular and critical success. It included works by Agnes Meyer Brandis, Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Katie Paterson, and Joanna Griffin and the Moon Vehicle Group, and an evolving installation and residency by artists We Colonised the Moon (Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser). We animated the exhibition with performances, workshops, music, talks, a pop-up moon shop by super/collider and playful protests against lunar exploitation.

Republic of the Moon at the Bargehouse, 2014

Lunar protest, We Colonised the Moon in Republic of the Moon

We Colonised the Moon’s lunar protest, in Republic of the Moon

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

In June, we brought the spectacular artist road-rail vehicle SEFT-1 to London. SEFT-1 was created by Mexican artists Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene to explore the abandoned and ruined passenger railway networks of Mexico and Ecuador. Arts Catalyst, in partnership Furtherfield commissioned a new exhibition about their journeys, with video, photographs, objects, and a scale-model diorama of a viaduct ruin in Mexico, which the artists had explored on their travels. The exhibition reflected on how the ideology of progress is imprinted onto historic landscapes through the modern ruin.

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Bridge

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Viaduct

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Model of the Metlac Viaduct, 2014

July saw us visit Japan with a group of artists to explore the artistic, societal and political responses to nuclear energy post-Fukushima. In partnership with S-AIR in Sapporo, and curated by Arts Catalyst’s associate curator Ele Carpenter, we organized the Actinium exhibition, which included works by James Acord, Shuji Akagi, Chim↑Pom, Crowe & Rawlinson, Karen Kramer, Cécile Massart, Eva & Franco Mattes, and Thomson & Craighead, which formed part of the Sapporo International Art Festival Collaborative Program and acted as a base for discussions, screenings and field trips to nuclear facilities around Hokkaido, and further afield to Eastern Japan around Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Meanwhile, our curated exhibition Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica, commissioned by the British Council, and featuring some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, toured from MOSI (Manchester Museum of Science & Industry) to New Zealand’s IceFest in Christchurch and then to Otago Museum, New Zealand.

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first "Zero emission" polar research station in the mist at Utsteinen -Belare 2008-2009

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, “Zero emission” polar research station, Ice Lab

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

As part of our ongoing investigatory project with YoHa, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, we organized workshops in Leigh-on-Sea over the summer months to involve local people and artists in exploring and mapping the changing ecology of the Thames estuary. Wrecked is setting up a network of local people, artists and technologists to explore how local “situated” knowledge of the estuary can be combined with artistic investigations and citizen science techniques to explore and respond to a changing, contested estuary.

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Thames Estuary, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone. Photo: Fran Galardo

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked on the intertidal zone public workshop

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked public workshop. Photo: YoHa

Yours truly, stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea, Wrecked

Yours truly stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea (the reality of being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone). Photo: Jo Fells

The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party in October was delightfully celebrated with many friends, glow-in-the-dark cocktails, a moon landing darts game organized by We Colonised the Moon, a whisky tornado by Bompas & Parr, and music by Teleplasmiste and the Pond Scum Light Orchestra.

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: We Colonised the Moon’s moon landing darts. Photo: Marek Kukula

Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Kosmica Mexico moved into its third festival in Mexico City in November in partnership with Laboratorio Arte Alameda and the Centro Cultura Digitale, programmed by Nahum Mantra. Artists, scientists, performers, scholars, space explorers, workshop leaders and musicians from Mexico, UK, France, Canada and USA came together to explore the cultural and artistic aspects of space exploration, including Bompas and Parr and super/collider’s recreation and extension of their intoxicating and wildly popular event ‘A brief history of drinking in space’ from Republic of the Moon’ as well as topics such as sex and sexuality in space, and nostalgia for the Earth.

Bompas & Parr's Whiskey Tornado at Kosmica Mexico

Marie-Pier Boucher, Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente try out Bompas & Parr’s Whisky Soda Vaporisation Chamber in ‘A Brief History of Drinking in Space’ at Kosmica Mexico 2014

In a series of international “epic residencies” throughout the year, we enabled artist Alistair McClymont to spend several weeks at the Central Laser Facility in Didcot with some of the most powerful lasers in the world, facilitated visits and field trips for six artists and curators to Japan (Revital Cohen, Tuur Van Balen, Ele Carpenter, Jon Thomson, Alison Craighead, Karen Kramer and Susan Schuppli), and supported Kuai Shen’s research in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. We also advised and supported the Mexican project La Gravedad de los Asuntos, led by Nahum Mantra, which – inspired by The Arts Catalyst’s zero gravity programme (2000-2005) – saw a group of Mexican artists and scientists, including Ivan Puig, Ale de la Puente, Arcángel Constantini, Fabiola Torres-Alzaga, Gilberto Esparza, Iván Puig, Juan José Díaz Infante, Marcela Armas, Miguel Alcubierre, Tania Candiani and Nahum, go to Star City Russia and undertake artistic research in zero gravity.

All that and a new website, our first e-reader, and a map of the Arts Catalyst’s two decades of experimental, trail-blazing projects.

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

And, towards the end of the year, we said ‘au revoir’ to curator Rob La Frenais, off to undertake new freelance projects (although he will be working with Arts Catalyst on one-off projects in the future) …

HAPPY 2015!!!

HAPPY 2015!!!

Related reading material – for those who want:
Republic of the Moon manifesto
Railways, ruins & modernity blog post (on SEFT-1)
Nuclear Culture blog (Actinium)
and my blog posts on nuclear culture in Japan – Part 1 Part 2
Ice Lab book
Alistair McClymont’s blog (Beam Time residency)
Arts Catalyst Reader Volume 1
A Brief History of The Arts Catalyst (20th anniversary booklet)

Railways, ruins and modernity: artists’ explore Mexico’s abandoned rail network

 

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Bridge

Our latest exhibition, Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene’s ‘SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe – Modern Ruins 1:220‘ has already been featured in several blogs around the world. Even Jonathan Jones at the Guardian wrote a very nice piece about it. However, there is still much to say about this remarkable project, not to mention the stunning pictures and video. The exhibition, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and presented in partnership with Furtherfield Gallery, at the heart of Finsbury Park in London – ends next weekend (27 July). Do catch it if you haven’t yet.

I’ll start with a video which nicely captures the concept of this ambitious and delightful project, in which the artists designed and built their own silver road-rail exploration probe SEFT-1 (which they call a “spaceship”) and set out to travel the forgotten passenger railways of Mexico and visit the communities isolated when Mexico abruptly discontinued its passenger services after privatisation in 1995.

For five years (between 2006 and 2011), Puig and Domene travelled in the SEFT-1 (Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada or Manned Railway Exploration Probe), recording the landscapes and infrastructure between cities, interviewing people they met, taking photographs and videos, and sharing their findings online, at www.seft1.com (more pictures at the bottom of this page).

On their journeys, they encountered hundreds of “modern ruins” – places and systems deserted quite recently, not because they weren’t functional, but because political and economical priorities changed. Their photographs show remote, derelict stretches of track slowly decaying back into forest or desert landscapes, presenting an eerie image of the past that is also a dystopian vision of an abandoned future.

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 with Citlaltépetl in the background

As Professor Malcolm Miles noted in his talk at the opening of the exhibition, ruins hold an allure for us, provoking a different emotional response from the pristine. In the case of modern ruins, they may make us to dwell on the waste and decay of industrial economies; if we look around, such ruins are everywhere in our urban environment. Power leaks, declines and becomes derelict, noted Miles, a notion encapsulated in Shelley’s famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, but, he felt, in an age of climate change it is easy just to dismiss industry as well as modernity, and perhaps ruins can tell us also about survival. Modernism and industry, he argued, brought us many benefits. It’s hard to look back at that idea now, as it predicted where we are, even if this isn’t the world we wanted.

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Railways are an icon of modern industrialisation, part of our identity in the UK. It was British companies who partnered with the Mexican government in the second half of the 19th century to build the iconic railway line that connected Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean, a line that now lies in ruins. In the UK, in 1963, Beeching closed many tracks, and since then the rail network has continued to suffer from disinvestment and prioritisation of road transport by successive governments.

Recognising the historical links between Britain and Mexico’s railways, for this new exhibition, the artists invited British expert model railway constructor Neville Reid to collaborate by creating a scale diorama and model of the ruined viaduct spanning the Metlac gorge in Mexico. One gallery has become a space for the process of model ruin construction. All details – down to the vegetation – have been meticulously researched and reconstructed.

10 July 6

10 July 3

10 July 1

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The SEFT-1 exploration probe  and exhibition are still open this weekend and next (11am-6pm): 18–20 July and 25–27 July 2014.

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 in La Loma station, Durango

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 interior of cabinIvan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 under the stars of Taviche

SEFT-1 in Mars

Announcing 3 funded PhD studentships, Northumbria University/BALTIC

Image of scientist in clean room looking down microscope

Cultural Negotiation of Science. Image credit: Dr. Juergen Schmoll. Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, Durham University

I don’t often paste announcements here, but is such an exciting opportunity it needs to be circulated as widely as possible.

Northumbria University and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, UK, have announced three funded PhD studentships, relating to the Cultural Negotiation of Science research group that has continued to develop from a symposium at BALTIC last year in which the Arts Catalyst took part. This is a practice-led research group in which questions of cultural production are addressed across the spectrum of biomedical and fundamental science, medical genetics and physical geography. The studentships are all based within the innovative BxNU Institute of Contemporary Art partnership between Northumbria University and BALTIC.

Imaging & Imagining Fundamental Science
Principal Supervisor: Fiona Crisp, Reader in Fine Art.
http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=53641

This practice-led Fine Art Studentship will broadly address how inter-disciplinary research might evolve the cultural tools of interpretation, imagination and visualisation to negotiate shifts in Fundamental Science in both historical and contemporary sphere.

‘Meeting Place’ Practice performed across the disciplines
Principal Supervisor: Christine Borland, BALTIC Professor.
http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=53639

The proposed project will investigate, through practice-based research, the reciprocal relationship between the life sciences/medicine and contemporary visual/performing arts as it is constructed, perceived, negotiated or performed at the nexus of physical and conceptual human bodies.

Abstract Geology – Critically Engaged Fine Art Practices of the post human within a new geologic era
Principal Supervisor: Dr Rona Lee, Professor of Fine Art.
http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=53644

This practice led Fine Art studentship is offered in the context of transdisciplinary engagement with the Anthropocene (or proposition that the impact of humanity upon the Earth’s ecosystems has triggered a new terrestrial epoch) and the ‘geological turn’ within contemporary thought that this has prompted. 

Deadline for applications is 14th April 2014.

The studentships are open to Home/EU and International students. The studentship includes a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (in 2014/15 this is 13,863 pa) and Home/EU fees. Overseas candidates are also eligible to apply. (Essentially, this means that International students might – but not necessarily – have to take a lower stipend to cover the additional cost of international tuition fees.

20 years of The Arts Catalyst

Speaking at the inaugural London LASER event at the University of Westminster about some of Arts Catalyst’s seminal projects over the past 20 years:

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