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Posts tagged ‘science’

Science at the edge of the world

The 10-meter South Pole Telescope and the BICEP Telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

South Pole telescope and BICEP2 telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. | REUTERS

Antarctica science has been major news recently, with the apparent discovery of gravitational waves by the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) telescope, sited at the South Pole. If confirmed, this discovery is of huge significance to our understanding of how the universe began, as it supports the inflationary theory of how the universe formed, which proposes that there was a sudden stupendous enlargement of the universe in the first infinitesimal fraction of a second after the big bang. This inflation would have created ripples in space-time (gravitational waves), according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Astrophysicists have been searching for signs of these waves in cosmic microwave radiation – the afterglow of the Big Bang – which fills the entire cosmos. However, it was known that such waves would be miniscule and incredibly difficult to detect, but if they could be detected, it would help to prove that inflation had happened.

Staff at Halley VI launch a weather balloon to take samples from the atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

Staff at Halley VI launch a weather balloon to take samples from the atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

It is the dryness of Antarctica that makes it ideal for astronomical research, as atmospheric water vapour absorbs millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths, making it difficult to observe cosmic microwave background in most places on Earth. The combination of altitude – 11,000 feet – and cold (temperature averages -49° Celsius) in Antarctica makes for a very dry atmosphere. As an added bonus for astronomical research, nighttime lasts for six months. These conditions allow for optimum observation of very deep space.

As well as astronomical research, much other important scientific research also takes place in Antarctica. Scientists come to the continent from around the world to study climate, astrophysics, marine biology, geology, ecology, and more. The Antarctic ice sheet plays a vital role in the functioning of the global ecosystem. It stores 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water, and the seasonal changes in Antarctica’s sea ice have a profound influence on atmospheric and water temperatures and weather patterns.

As laid out in the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, Antarctica is a continent solely dedicated to science. But the extreme conditions of cold and dark in Antarctica make human life, habitation – and therefore scientific research – highly challenging. To undertake any scientific research in Antarctica depends not only on the quality and commitment of the scientists, but also on the nature of the scientific stations, facilities and equipment.

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

Ice Lab – Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first “Zero emission” polar research station (c) René Robert – International Polar Foundation

At the Arts Catalyst, we’re excited that our curated exhibition, ‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’, initiated and commissioned by the British Council, will tour to New Zealand’s IceFest in Autumn 2014, where it will show at the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, from 26 Sept – 12 Oct 2014. ‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’ presents some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, which enables scientists to do ground-breaking research in extreme conditions, as well as showcasing some of the science that takes place there.

‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’ features architectural projects that not only utilise cutting-edge technology and engineering, but have equally considered aesthetics, sustainability and human needs in their ground-breaking designs for scientific research stations. The exhibition features four international projects: Halley VI, UK (Hugh Broughton Architects), Princess Elizabeth, Belgium (International Polar Foundation), Bharati, India (bof architekten/IMS), Jang Bogo, South Korea (Space Group), and the Iceberg Living Station (MAP Architects) – a speculative design for a future research station to be entirely made from compacted snow. The featured stations are each architecturally pioneering – from Halley VI, the first fully relocatable polar research station, to Bharati, a striking modernist structure made from prefabricated shipping containers, to the Princess Elisabeth, Antarctica’s first zero-emission station, which seamlessly integrates renewables wind and solar energy, water treatment facilities, passive building technologies and a smart grid for maximizing energy efficiency.

Installation view of the Antarctica station models.

Ice Lab exhibition. Installation view of the Antarctica station models. Photo: McAteer Photography

Ice Lab, previously shown at Lighthouse, Glasgow, and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, includes original drawings, models, photographs and films of the stations, and highlights the diverse science that takes place in Antarctica – from collecting 4.5 billion year old meteorites that illuminate how the solar system formed, to drilling ice cores whose bubbles of ancient air reveal the earth’s climate history. As part of the exhibition, artist Torsten Lauschmann was commissioned to create two new artworks, ‘Whistler’ and ‘Ice Diamond’.

A person sitting on a rock reading the Ice Lab book surrounded by snow and one penguin.

Ice Lab book being read in Antarctica. Photo: Clare Thorpe

Accompanying the Ice Lab exhibition, there is a publication – available in print form and as a free downloadable e-book – with essays by Dr David Walton (British Antarctic Survey) and Sam Jacob (co-founder of FAT architects).

The Ice Lab exhibition builds on Arts Catalyst’s previous work on Antarctic issues, including Simon Faithfull’s 2006 Ice Blink exhibition of artwork resulting from his trip to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, and the 2007 POLAR: Fieldwork & Archive Fever series, with Kathryn Yusoff and the British Library, which incorporated a symposium, public talks, a publication Bipolar, and two new artists’ commissions from Anne Brodie and Weather Permitting.

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:

Do Not Lick: MadLab’s DIY biology residency at Arts Catalyst

Shoestring Lab workshop, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Shoestring Biotech: build your own lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

DIY Biology is a growing global network of individuals that aims to promote citizen science and access to biotechnology. Participants may call themselves biohackers, biotweakers, bioartists (or simply artists), citizen scientists or amateur/independent biologists, depending on their approach and background. Interests of DIY (do-it-yourself) biologists include building their own low cost lab equipment and running experiments that would typically be done in an academic or commercial environment.

Bioluminescence workshop, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioluminescence workshop, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Manchester’s MadLab (Asa Calow and Rachael Turner) was invited to be The Arts Catalyst’s first “institution in residence”. They took up their residency with us for two hectic weeks of Lab Easy in March. The residency offered both a professional development opportunity for MadLab, and the chance to run a series of workshops to engage a wider London public in the methodologies and ideas of DIY biotechnology. Ambitiously, Lab Easy held almost daily public workshops: from culturing bioluminescent bacteria to DNA extraction, cellular gastronomy to genetic modification. There was also a family day, an evening DIYBio salon and a peripatetic market foodlab in Deptford Market.

Cocktails and canapes, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and canapes, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Gjino Sutic's live mechatronic heart

Gjino Sutic’s live mechatronic heart

The residency attracted an extraordinary international gathering of artists, biohackers, designers and scientists, many of whom helped to devise and run the workshops. Not a day went by when someone from another DIYBio space across the globe turned up with a rucksack and unpacked various experiments. They included Dr Mark Dusseiller of Hackteria and Biotehna, Gjino Šutić from Zagreb, Ellen Jorgensen from GenSpace New York, Cathal Garvey from Cork, Thomas Landrain from La Paillasse Paris, Brian Degger from of Maker Space Newcastle, Kristijan Tkalec from Biotehna Llubljana, and Martin Malthe Borch from Copenhagen. MadLab and collaborators filled the Arts Catalyst space with wonderful conversation and strange experiments – as well as piles of petri dishes, boxes of pipettes, biotech kits, bits of electronics, soldering irons, trays of soil, jars of pond water, live fish, dead squid, bits of lego, a live biomechatronic heart, and in one corner a plastic cupboard area marked ‘Do Not Lick’, containing the outputs – I believe – from the self-cloning bacteria workshop (AKA genetic modification for beginners).

Bioluminescence, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioluminescence, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

The Arts Catalyst’s involvement with amateur biology largely stems from its collaborations with Critical Art Ensemble, SymbioticA, and other artists and art groups since the early 2000s. Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a US art collective of tactical media practitioners who appropriated scientific knowledge and practices with the aim of bringing biotech into the public domain for critical examination, a tactic they called “contestational biology”. Arts Catalyst presented CAE’s GenTerra in London and Oldham, and collaborated on Marching Plague, projects which contributed to CAE member Steve Kurtz’s 4-year hounding by the FBI on unfounded suspicions of bioterrorism – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Kurtz. In partnership with SymbioticA, a biological arts centre from Western Australia, we have run a number of ‘biotech art’ workshops, introducing artists and creative practitioners to hands-on experiences and critical and ethical discussion around biotechnology practices, including the BioArt Workshop in 2005  and Synthesis workshop in 2011. We have also worked extensively with the ecological artist Brandon Ballengee, whose practice incorporates primary biological research, largely into amphibians, and whose interests include the effective role that public volunteers (citizen scientists) can play in amphibian conservation efforts. We are interested in both the critical interrogation that artists can bring to advanced biology, as well as their playful, experimental and participatory approaches to art and research into living systems.

DIY Microscopy & Water Bear Hunting, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

DIY Microscopy & Water Bear Hunting, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Coincidentally Claire Pentecost, an artist and a long-term collaborator with Critical Art Ensemble, who was centrally involved in campaigning against the FBI’s case against Steve Kurtz, was London during the residency researching a new project on soil science, and called in to visit. It was a fascinating meeting of two generations of practitioners involved in DIY Bio and a moment of realisation of how the Kurtz case altered the amateur biology landscape at least in the US. Whereas, in 2004, FBI agents invaded Kurtz’s house in hazmat suits, arrested him and saddled him with mail fraud charges that took him four years to clear, in 2012 the FBI invited and flew 60 or so of the most prominent members of the DIYBio movement – from across the US, Europe and Asia – to a 3-day FBI organized conference in California. How times change.

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy,
MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

At the DIYBio Salon, Claire asked about the politics and critical stance of the new generation of DIYBio practitioners as represented at Lab Easy. Ellen Jorgensen from Genspace felt that DIY Bio was a movement of individuals with some unifying principles – freedom of expression, freedom of speech – but a spectrum of politics: some saw a DIY biology lab as a political statement, while others just want to do some science; some wanted to push boundaries, while others wished to operate within the regulations of established science. Cathal Garvey (a trained geneticist with a Class 1 licensed lab in his spare bedroom) spoke out passionately against patenting: “Most of you are not aware that you do not own your own DNA”; and Marc Dusseiller (nanoscientist and co-founder of Hackteria) spoke of a gradual movement towards a world without patents, as more people and companies, particularly in the developing world, are becoming involved. He felt that DIY Biology plays a role in a cultural shift towards openness: part of a pattern of movements including open democracy, open access to publications, open data, and open science.

More pics below …

PS. Interesting blog post (in Danish) about LabEasy from one of the collaborators, Martin Malthe Borch.

 

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and Canapes: the genetics of taste, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and Canapes: the genetics of taste, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Bioeletronics, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioelectronics, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab,
MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Beatriz da Costa 1974-2012

Beatriz da Costa, 1974 - 2012

Beatriz da Costa, 1974 – 2012

The artist Beatriz da Costa lost her long, fierce battle with cancer on the evening of 27 December 2012, at the age of 38.

This is not an obituary, but simply a personal reflection on the Arts Catalyst’s work with this courageous woman and inspired artist, who at her death had not yet achieved her full potential, but had still produced a remarkable and influential body of work. (There is a full biography on Wikipedia.)

I first met Beatriz in 2003, at our second presentation of GenTerra at the Natural History Museum in London, as part of our CleanRooms exhibition, a work on which she had collaborated with Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Beatriz had been unable to attend the first presentation in 2002 at Gallery Oldham, due to ill health. GenTerra was one of CAE’s “participatory theatre” works, which enabled its audiences to consider the consequences of creating transgenic life forms. GenTerra was a fictitious biotechnology corporation “balancing profits with social responsibility”. Lab-coated assistants (members of CAE) introduced GenTerra’s bioproducts to the audience, and would explain the practical applications of such research, such as disease treatment and xenotransplantation. Audience members were taught how to grow and store their own transgenic bacteria. They could then choose to spin a bacteria release machine with only one of its ten chambers holding active transgenic bacteria. They were told that the bacteria they might release into the environment was a benign strain and had to decide whether to play this game of ‘genetic Russian roulette’. The bacteria release machine was designed and made by Beatriz.

Beatriz with her bacteria release mechanism. GenTerra, Critical Art Ensemble and Beatriz da Costa

Beatriz da Costa with her bacteria release mechanism. GenTerra, Critical Art Ensemble and Beatriz da Costa

It is interesting to realise now how widely and deeply Beatriz’s interests as an artist paralleled and intersected with those of the Arts Catalyst, yet we did not work with her as a solo artist until 2009. Beatriz specialised in the intersections of art, science, engineering, and politics. She and her collaborators – including as a founder member of Preemptive Media, and a collaborator with Critical Art Ensemble – frequently engaged the public by running workshops that translated challenging new technical and scientific developments into accessible activities. She was an innovator in the use of technology and biotechnology in her art, with a remarkable drive to intellectually grasp and gain the technical skills to engage with emerging areas of science and technology. In 2008, she co-edited the MIT Press anthology Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience.

PigeonBlog, Beatriz da Costa, 2008. Photo: Kristian Buus

Pigeonblog, Beatriz da Costa. Interspecies, A Foundation London, 2010. Photo: Kristian Buus

In 2009, we presented Beatriz’s project Pigeonblog as part of Interspecies, an exhibition and programme which explored artists’ attempts to collaborate with animals. Pigeonblog was a collaboration between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers, a citizen scientific data-gathering initiative designed to college and distribute information about air quality conditions. Pigeons carried custom-built miniature air pollution sensing devices enabled to send the collected localized information to an online server. Pollution levels were visualised and plotted in real-time on an Internet map. Interspecies was shown at Cornerhouse, Manchester, and at the A Foundation in London.

That year, we also invited Beatriz to create a new project for the exhibition Dark Places, a series of commissioned artists’ projects exploring spaces and institutions below the radar of common knowledge, and examining how artists are evolving strategies for art as a form of knowledge production.

Beatriz’s project for Dark Places, A Memorial for the Still Living explored the ‘dark places’ of zoological science and presented a sombre reflection on endangered species of the British Isles. Produced remotely, with Beatriz sending detailed lists of species and specifications, the artwork manifested as a striking art installation which confronted visitors with the reality of British species threatened with extinction. Continuing the artist’s investigation into interspecies, her interest was to confront visitors with the only mode of encounter left once a species has become extinct: the description, image, sound or taxidermed shell of a once thriving organism. However, rather than focusing on already extinct species, her focus was on the ‘still living’; species classified as being under threat, but which still stand a chance for survival if immediate action is taken. Beatriz posited that, after they have been eradicated from our planet as a result of hunting, loss of habitat or climate change, our only opportunities for interaction with these species will be with bottled and mounted specimens. The possibility of an encounter ‘in the flesh’ will have disappeared, with humans reduced to studying preserved examples of each species.

Installation

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa. Dark Places, John Hansard Gallery, 2009-10. Photo: Steve Shrimpton.

A Memorial to the Still Living (detail), Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

To realise this exhibit, Beatriz worked collaboratively with the Arts Catalyst team and the collection curators at the Horniman Museum and the Natural History Museum in London. Central to the installation were taxidermed specimens of endangered animals alongside preserved botanical samples of plants under threat. Each specimen was given a ‘birth date’ (the date of classification and inclusion into the corpus of western science) as well as a ‘death date’ (the date of projected extinction).

A Memorial for the Still Living was shown as part of the Dark Places exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton (1), and then as a solo exhibition at the Horniman Museum in London. To coincide with the exhibition, the artist released the Endangered Species Finder, a mobile application that facilitates encounters with other species within their ‘natural’ environments. Beatriz believed that experience and encounter, not just policy and regulations, are what ultimately change our behavior towards our environment. Through her encouragement of a ‘go out and meet the species before it’s too late’ attitude, she hoped to make a small contribution to the collective effort of examining our current relationships to non-human species.

Endangered Species Finder, Beatriz da Costa, 2010

Endangered Species Finder, Beatriz da Costa, 2010

Of course, the project and its title, A Memorial for the Still Living, acquired a powerful poignancy after Beatriz’ diagnosis with breast cancer and as the disease progressed. Constructing the installation exactly to her specifications became invested with great importance for us, and I will mention here our producer Gillean Dickie, who worked creatively and collaboratively with Beatriz to fix every small detail as the artist wanted it.

Whilst more than 13,000 people saw the installation in Southampton and London, Beatriz herself never saw it in its physical form because she was too ill to travel. We documented it on video and photographs for her, and when she felt well enough, she came to London in early 2011 to talk about the work in a public event at the Arts Catalyst. Our curator Rob La Frenais took the opportunity to record an interview with Beatriz about her work, an interview which we will make available soon.

There is no doubt that we would have commissioned Beatriz again. We were in early discussion with Botanic Gardens Conservation International about a potential project with Beatriz, and we also – as she became more ill – discussed showing her powerful video installation, Dying for the Other, in the UK, a work which documented the lives of mice used in breast cancer research and humans suffering from the same disease. In order to produce Dying for the Other, Beatriz documented scenes of her own life during the summer of 2011 and combined them with footage taken at a breast cancer research facility in New York City over the same time frame.

Despite her worsening condition and the many surgeries that she endured, Beatriz – Shani to her friends, as we were by now – was often in contact with us, discussing projects, being interviewed by Skype for a research project by an embedded researcher with Arts Catalyst, discussing future plans until she could no longer think clearly or type and it had become clear to us all that her time was running out. It is of some consolation that she died at home, with people she loved, yet still unbearable and unfair that we have lost this vibrant, clever, committed woman and artist.

1. A Memorial for the Still Living was commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and co-curated with the Office of Experiments, John Hansard Gallery and SCAN, for Dark Places.

Transformism: new works by Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen

Urpflanze Part 2 (detail), Melanie Jackson, 2013

In ‘Transformism’, the Arts Catalyst’s latest exhibition which has just opened at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen reflect on our compulsion to alter and shape the materials, objects and living entities around us. They wonder at our ingenuity, and contemplate our relationships with biology and matter as they are radically transformed by human agency, whether the impulse is artistic or scientific.

Today, in our attempts to rework our living and material world to fit our beliefs of how it should be, we have powerful new tools. Molecular biology, nanoscience and engineering are converging, provoking scientists to dream up all kinds of transformed matter: vaccine-producing bananas, fluorescent cats, bacteria that excrete diesel, trees that clean up pollutants, nanorobots that can enter human cells. Science proclaims a new revolutionary age, in which we can make almost anything, if we only understand and imagine it. Yet the urge to create new forms and objects, whether driven by need, desire or simply fantastical dreams of what might be possible, is ages old. To understand where we’re headed, we should have some perspective on where we’ve come from.

Urpflanze Part 2 (detail), Melanie Jackson

Melanie Jackson’s investigations into mutability and novel forms are rooted in her awareness of the visual, sensual, historical, political and scientific aspects of materials and plants, and her interest in the intertwined role of myths and fantasy with aesthetics and technology. She is intrigued by scale, conscious that many new types of matter, such as liquid crystals, microscopic biological entities and smart materials, are rendered invisible because of scale or concealed within a hermetically sealed interface, yet they impact dramatically on our macroscopic visual and tactile environment and our dreams of magical abundance.

The Urpflanze (Part 2) is the second part of Jackson’s ongoing investigation into plant form, aesthetics and transformation that takes its lead from Goethe’s concept of an archetypal plant, the Urpflanze, from which all plant forms could be generated. Contemporary science similarly imagines the potential to grow or print any form we can imagine, by recasting physical, chemical and biological function as a substrate that can be programmed into being. Jackson’s work begins in the botanical garden and looks to the laboratory, from clay pits to the factory floor, from analogue to digital clay, from its own animated pixels to the interior of the screen in a series of moving image works and ceramic sculptures.

Kingyo Kingdom (detail), Revital Cohen, 2013

Revital Cohen’s work explores themes relating to nature, technology, and human behaviour. In particular, living creatures that are produced and used as artefacts fascinate her. Her interest in these designed animals – whether pets, farm animals, or living drug factories – is driven by what motivates and influences the breeders and scientists, and what this commodification means for our relationship with these fabricated living beings.

In Kingyo Kingdom, Cohen explores the genus of fish that have been designed for aesthetic purposes, questioning the definitions used to indicate living creatures. Does one denominate a manipulated organism as an object, product, animal or pet? What are the design criteria involved in creating living creatures? Cohen’s interest in the cultural perceptions and aesthetics of animal-as-product took her to Japan where exotic goldfish have been developed over centuries of meticulous cultivation; breeding out dorsal fins and sculpting kimono-like Ranchu fish tails. Kingyo Kingdom explores the unique culture of breeders, collectors and connoisseurs with footage from the Japanese national goldfish competition, questioning the design and commodification of this species.

Kingyo Kingdon (film still), Revital Cohen, 2013

‘Transformism’ is the latest manifestation of the Arts Catalyst’s extensive investigations into how arts practice, culture and contemporary science interpenetrate and influence one another.

The philosopher Bernard Stiegler has asserted that the divorce between the rhythms of cultural and technical evolution is symptomatic of the fact that today technics evolves more quickly than culture (1), but perhaps there is more interplay than we realise. The works in ‘Transformism’ meditate on the vibrations and circulations of our changing material world and explores our complex relationships with the things we create, in the process softening the boundaries between culture and technology.

Transformism is at the John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, SO17 1BJ, from 22 January to 9 March 2013

The Transformism exhibition guide, with an essay by Isobel Harbison, is available from the John Hansard Gallery or can be downloaded in a variety of e-formats from The Arts Catalyst website.

Notes
1. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus

 

Nuclear landscapes: exploring New Mexico’s atomic legacy

View out over a desert landscapes
Looking out towards Trinity Ground Zero (20 miles away), New Mexico

My first trip to the States, in 1997, was to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, 560 square miles of beautiful, polluted desert landscape in the Columbian Basin, Washington State. This is where the first reactors were built for the Manhattan project to produce plutonium: fuel for the atomic bomb. During the Cold War, Hanford was home to nine nuclear reactors and five massive plutonium-processing complexes, a vast complex technological landscape. I travelled there to meet with the artist James Acord, the “nuclear sculptor”, who took us around and told us numerous tales about the history and contested landscape of Hanford.

The nuclear landscape of Hanford – contested, isolated, resonant with history, paradoxically visually beautiful and highly polluted, dense with security – fascinated me. Visiting New Mexico for ISEA 2012 (International Symposium of Electronic Arts): Machine Wilderness, I was keen therefore to explore this other significant landscape of nuclear history. The world’s first atomic bomb Trinity exploded in the deserts of southern New Mexico, using plutonium made in Hanford, while to the north of the state, the volcano-perching small town of Los Alamos was the heart and brain of the wartime atomic bomb programme. Both Hanford and Los Alamos remain home to significant scientific laboratories, closely associated with the military’s nuclear programme.

At ISEA, I met Matt Coolidge, the director of CLUI(Centre for Land Use Interpretation), an expert on the constructed landscapes of the States. Coolidge gave a brief presentation on the technological landscape of New Mexico, particularly Los Alamos, as part of the ISEA ‘Radical Cosmologies’ panel, but almost more interesting was when, afterwards, he showed us the large amount of Los Alamos laboratory surplus equipment in the back of his transit van, that he had bought from a place called the Black Hole in Los Alamos. Two artists on the same panel were Tom Jennings and Eve-André Laramee, who had a collaborative installation ‘Invisible Landscapes’ in the ISEA exhibition, referencing the Cold War atomic legacy of uranium mining and radioactive waste. Their installation included video projections and sculptures, digital photos and light box and sound sculptures (click here for iPhone video clip of the piece).

Installation with equipment and photographs

Tom Jennings & Eve-André Laramee, Invisible Landscapes, 2012

I visited the Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, a fascinating place, made more interesting by chatting with a guide and educator there, John Anderson, who worked for over 50 years in the nuclear world. I commented on his English/Russian name badge, and he explained that he had been part of a programme in which the US provided technical advice to the Russians on safety and decommissioning. He pointed out some of the most interesting exhibits, including a neutron bomb, mythologized as being able to leave infrastructure intact, destroying only living things, in fact their detonation, Anderson told me, would cause considerable destruction through blast and heat effects. He also talked about some ‘Broken Arrow’ incidents – US military terminology for accidental event that involves nuclear weapons, including accidental nuclear detonation or, astonishingly, the loss in transit of a nuclear weapon or material, primarily due to aircraft accidents. The Museum houses many fascinating exhibits and a magnificent large-scale outdoor display in development, which includes a B52 bomber plane, an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, and a nuclear cannon.

Snark missile, Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque

Titan Inter Continental Ballistic Missile, Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Watch from Hiroshima (photograph), Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque

My road trip to Los Alamos started out from Albuquerque, heading northbound along the Interstate 25, but I soon turned off to take the looping, scenic back route, which took me through ancient sacred grounds of Native Americans, winding along one of the steep canyons of the mesa, and around the crater of the Valles Caldera. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific head of the Manhattan Project, chose the site. He knew Los Alamos, the site of a small private school, from his youth, when he rode in the New Mexico landscape. Los Alamos suited the brief for the site: remote, far from the sea, and sparsely populated. By autumn 1943, a few thousand people were living in Los Alamos, working in the lab in the hills. They worked six days a week for two years, their work culminating in the atomic bomb explosions in 1945: the Trinity test, and the bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, the work at Los Alamos continued as the Cold War darkened, making bigger and “better” nuclear weapons.

View from Los Alamos mesa

Main entrance to the Los Alamos National Laboratory

I drove around the fenced lands of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The area is divided into seventy-four Technical Areas. The lab is now engaged in a range of programs related to security, environmental technology, renewable energy, health sciences, and son on. But nuclear weapons are still the main activity and responsibility of the lab. I passed the main gates of the lab, and rejoined the main road into town from the other side. Entering town, the former gates of the lab are recognizable by an unused guard tower on one side, and a guardhouse on the other, now a restaurant. Beyond the gate, Technical Area 21 on the left, is one of the most contaminated sites. Facilities here were used for early research with plutonium and uranium. It’s the site where chemical operator Cecil Kelley died in a plutonium criticality accident in 1958.

Technical Area 21, Los Alamos

Los Alamos has the clean, planned look of an affluent middle class suburb. I stopped off at the Bradbury Museum, predominantly a science museum, with a specific emphasis on nuclear science. It has an excellent large-scale annotated map of the area, some interesting exhibits, including replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man – the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs – and a cinema, which showed a very interesting film on the history of Los Alamos and the Manhattan project.I visited the tiny Los Alamos Historical Museum, which – unlike the Bradbury Museum – includes panoramic photographs of destroyed city of Hiroshima. Behind this small interesting museum is Bathtub Row, the remaining teachers’ cottages from the former school, which became the housing for the main lab scientists. These bungalows were considered luxurious for having bathtubs. Oppenheimer’s house is at the far end of the row.

Oppenheimer’s House, Los Alamos

I drove up the valley, along “Acid Canyon”, where untreated waste was dumped between 1943 and 1953. It is next to the town’s high school. I was heading for the “Black Hole” of Los Alamos, a vast collection of surplus Los Alamos laboratory equipment, bought at auctions and acquired by other means, over decades, by the late owner of the Hole, Ed Grothus. Grothus once worked at the lab, but resigned due to his ethical concerns, staying in Los Alamos as an outspoken critic. The Black Hole has been selling off the collection for years, and the weekend I was there, Grothus’ adult children were having a big sale at the Hole. Several artists – to whom Matt, I or my colleague Rob had mentioned this – also turned up, overjoyed at the opportunity to buy extraordinary items of fascinating old nuclear lab equipment.

Black Hole, Los Alamos

Black Hole, Los Alamos, interior

On the way back to Albuquerque, I took the Turquoise Trail, Highway 14, called after the several turquoise mines that were once here. The road passes through former mining towns, some now deserted. Gold, silver, lead, zinc and coal were all mined around here. I stop for a beer before sunset in the town of Madrid, now a community of artists and creative types, with a main street lined with cafes, bars and craft shops catering for tourists.

White Sands National Memorial, in the heart of White Sands Missile Range

A few days later, I set off South, taking Interstate 25 in the other direction. An hour’s drive, and I turned left onto Highway 380, and headed out along the Northern perimeter of the White Sands Missile Range. White Sands is the largest military installation in the United States, covering is almost 3,200 square miles. This was the site of the first atomic explosion. Ground Zero at Trinity is now only open to the public on two days a year, but I pulled over on the stretch of road that I calculated was closest to the site.

I stepped out of the car into the heavy heat of the desert, and looked south across the dry lands towards the mountains. From where I stood, about 20 miles from Ground Zero, I would have felt the heat and shock wave of the explosion, and the mushroom cloud would have been clear to see, reaching 7.5 miles in height.

“The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range …” – General Farrell

Trinity Ground Zero, White Sands Missile Range, on GoogleMaps

Ground Zero, Trinity, 48 hours after the explosion, 1945

If you’re interested in this topic, here are a couple of great books:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes – an astonishing epic book interweaving science, politics and human psyches to tell the story of the first atomic bomb

Atomic Culture: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Scott C Zeman – interesting collection of essays covering a range of cultural expressions of atomic energy

Higgs: its cultural significance

4 photos of a man walking through CERN's underground tunnel

Gianni Motti, Walking for Arts Sake, 2005. Artist Gianni Motti walks the 27 km underground ring at CERN.

“If we combine the Z-Z and the Gamma-Gamma,this is what we get: they line up extremely well, and in the region of 125 GeV. They combine to give us a significance of five standard deviations.”
– Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, 4 July 2012

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
– Stephen Crane, poet (1871-1900)

The excitement in the physics world about CERN’s discovery of a Higgs boson is still intense. But what is its cultural significance?

I’ll start briefly with science itself, but in a historical context. The quest to understand what matter is made of is ancient. In 5BC, a philosopher called Democritus suggested that if you keep dividing an object, eventually you would come to the smallest unit of stuff that couldn’t be divided. He called this unit an “atom”. The ancient Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools in India also developed theories of atomism and how atoms combined into more complex objects. In Islamic Asharite atomism, atoms are the only perpetual, material things in existence, and all else in the world is “accidental”, meaning something that lasts for only an instant. During the 19th century, scientists discovered the atom, particularly through the work of John Dalton, but soon realised that the atom was made up from smaller particles: a nucleus of protons and neutrons with electrons around it. Scientists continued trying to find out what atoms were made of by smashing up protons, but instead of making things simpler, they uncovered many different sub-atomic particles, which were labeled the “particle zoo”.

Many great scientists applied their minds to understanding how these particles interact with each other. During the 20th Century, scientists developed a theory to explain how all these particles behave called the standard model of quantum mechanics, an immensely powerful model which has enabled scientists to relate all the other forces of nature under a common set of equations. But the model couldn’t explain how particles acquired mass, without which the universe would fly apart. A theoretical model proposed in the 1960s by British physicist Peter Higgs, called the Higgs mechanism, explained how fundamental particles acquire mass. In Higgs’ model, as elementary particles pass through a field called a Higgs field, they acquire mass (the Higgs boson is the particle of the Higgs field). Here’s a simple explanation of the Higgs boson.

The search for Higgs became the Holy Grail of physics. It has gone on for decades, in the Tetravon, Illinois, USA, and then – after the US cancelled its Superconducting Super Collider – at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Finding it finally confirms a vital part of the standard model of particle physics, and opens up fascinating new arenas for physicists to explore.

Does the discovery of Higgs validate “Big Science”? Big Science is a term coined to describe the large-scale scientific projects, which emerged after the Second World War, funded by national governments or groups of governments. This way of doing science has often been criticized for elitism and for undermining the scientific method (difficult to replicate and validate findings), as well as for the enormous amount of funds they need – and the sources of those funds, often military or tied to commercial interests, which also affect the objectivity of science. However, CERN has been careful to validate its findings, with separate experimental teams and equipment running in the facility. But the emergence of Big Science is in itself a cultural phenomena in modern society. They are often staggering feats of engineering. Alvin Weinberg and others have argued that it is one of the wonders of the modern age:

“When history looks at the 20th century, she will see science and technology as its theme; she will find in the monuments of Big Science—the huge rockets, the high-energy accelerators, the high-flux research reactors—symbols of our time just as surely as she finds in Notre Dame a symbol of the Middle Ages. … We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth.” – Alvin Weinberg

Inside of a vast neutrino detector with tiny boat at bottom. Artwork by Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky, Kamiokande (2007), detector tank at Super-Kamioka Nucleon Decay Experiments, underground neutrino observatory, Japan

There may, of course, ultimately be practical benefits from this discovery. New physics invariably leads to understanding previously unknown phenomena, and to new potential technological applications. Without the understanding enabled by quantum mechanics, for example, there would be no transistors, and hence no personal computers and no lasers (although the scientists who developed quantum mechanics weren’t trying to make anything, simply trying to understand how atoms behave).

More than anything, however,for me Higgs represents a story of human curiosity, on an international scale and over a duration that has rarely – if ever – been matched. It is a remarkable expression of the human aspiration to find stuff out, which is an almost spiritual commitment by our species. And although the vastness and complexity of the universe may remind us of our insignificance, at the same time we should be astonished that we are even aware of the universe’s scale and complexity, and grateful to those physicists who have revealed some of its extraordinary workings.

It is worth remembering at the same time that science cannot answer all questions, and that curiosity takes many forms. Semiconductor’s delightful film “Do You Think Science …?” (2006) reveals that many (though not all) scientists realise that their work is not designed to understand everything. There are many questions that need different forms of investigation, to which we can all contribute: Why do human beings sometimes behave so appallingly; how do we decide how they should behave; how can we deal with mental turmoil? These are questions that science cannot tackle.

The Higgs boson may explain how the universe is glued together, but the significance of the discovery – after decades of dedicated searching by many scientists – should be to remind us to remain curious, to keep asking questions, and that astonishing things are achievable …

Ruins, conflict, culture and science: dOCUMENTA (13)

Kader Attia, The Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012

Many adjectives have already been wielded to describe this year’s documenta, “earnest”, “grim”, “despondent” and “concept-less” among them. Certainly, there are few laughs in this year’s documenta (the 13th since its founding in 1955 by an artist banned by the Nazis), but in all it’s a deeply satisfying experience.

Many of the works by 300 artists – mostly new commissions – are site-specific, installed in railway stations, disused shops, hotels, cinemas, old hospitals, the natural history museum, and scattered throughout Karlsaue park. I appreciated the serious-minded intent behind the works, and the internationalism of the exhibition both in content and representation, with artists from fifty-six countries including many from Africa and Asia.

A large number of the works mark significant events or occurrences, including varied perspectives on recent upheavals in Egypt, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The works in the main exhibition in the Fridericianum have a particular focus on conflict, catastrophe, ruin, trauma, survival and repair across many historical events, as though such events and restorations were on an endless loop. There are many absorbing works here, but I spent a particularly long time in Kader Attia’s disturbing, fascinating installation, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, a maze of repaired African artefacts, vintage colonialist texts and wood-carved busts of disfigured faces, and a slideshow of facially injured World War I soldiers provocatively juxtaposed with mended African masks.

Many powerful works are sited in and around the Hauptbahnhof railway station, among them William Kentridge’s stunning video and sound work The Refusal of Time (which elicited a round of applause), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s augmented reality audio tour of the station linking it to a darker past, Clemens von Wedemeyer’s three-screen multiple histories of a monastery in Germany: from concentration camp to girls reformatory to psychiatric clinic, and Lara Favaretto’s vast pile of industrial debris.

Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument IV (Kassel), 2012

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012

dOCUMENTA (13) has been called “genre-busting”. Its curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev stated that she wanted to broaden documenta’s focus from the visual arts to culture at large. This has been largely done through the mode of the artist’s enquiry, but there are also non-artists involved, including physicists, biologists and social scientists, and a scattering of historical artefacts.

The role of science in this “culture at large” is most prominently represented by the Austrian physicist Anton Zeileger’s Quanta Now, a series of five important quantum physics experiments installed in the Fridericianum, including the double slit experiment and quantum entanglement of photon pairs. There is also an installation in the same building of Russian biologist Alexander Tarakhovsky’s work on epigenetics, and the Bavarian priest and artist Korbinian Aigner’s multiple paintings of the new strains of apples he created while in Dachau concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Donna Haraway’s writings on multi-species co-evolution inspired the artist Tue Greenfort to compile and present an archive of artists’ materials, texts, books, videos and documentation of artworks dealing with the relationship between human and non-human species (including Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema, an Arts Catalyst commission).

Anton Zeilinger, Quanta Now (installation detail of the experiment on quantum entanglement of photon pairs), 2012

Korbinian Aigner, Apples, 1912–1960s

Ecological themes are very present, in the process-based projects by Pratchaya Phinthong, whose simple installation – two dead tsetse flies, one female carrying the deadly disease sleeping sickness and her sterile consort – is underpinned by a research project, in which Phinthong has been traveling in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zambia and providing locals with inexpensive traps to help control the tsetse fly populations, and Amy Balkin, who has been trying to get the Earth’s atmosphere included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Ecology is closely tied closely to politics in the beautiful and coherent exhibition in the Ottoneum, Kassel’s natural history museum, with Amar Kanwar’s moving installation The Sovereign Forest tackling the forcible displacements of indigenous communities and peasants in Odisha (Orissa), India, by commercial interests, Claire Pentecost’s elegant and thoughtful installation Soil-Erg, in which she proposes a new system of value based on living soil, and Maria Thereza Alves’ installation on five centuries of damage done to Lake Chalco in Mexico and the people who live there.

Pratchaya Phinthong, Sleeping Sickness, 2012

Claire Pentecost, Soil-Erg, 2012

Elsewhere, the politics of nuclear energy are presented both in Mika Taanila’s stylish 3-screen video work The Most Electrified Town in Finland and the Otolith Group’s film Radiant, which explores Japan’s fated love affair with the unstable atom which culminated in the Fukushima reactor meltdown.

In documenta-Halle, Thomas Bayrle’s car engine prayer-machines and collaged airplane suggest our very dreams rely on carbon-burning technologies, while Yan Lei has hung a room with 360 paintings, produced one per day over a year, inspired by internet images. During dOCUMENTA (13), the paintings will be gradually removed, spray painted in the local Volkswagen car factory, and then returned to the exhibition.

Mika Taanila, The Most Electrified Town in Finland, 2012

Thomas Bayrle installation, dOCUMENTA (13), 2012

Yan Lei, Limited Art Project, 2012

Karlsaue park is the site for many intriguing works, both in the landscape and installed in small buildings. Standouts for me are Omer Fast’s extraordinary tale of a couple’s disturbed, unsettling response to the death of their soldier son in Afganistan (confirming my art crush on this remarkable artist), CAMP’s gentle reflections on maritime life and the informal economy across the Indian Ocean, and Sam Durant’s alluring playground-gallows.

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012

Sam Durant, Scaffold, 2012

Two real “conflicts” disturbed the civilised art-going days of the dOCUMENTA (13) previews. First, the failure of dOCUMENTA (13)’s aim to transport the El Chaco meteorite, a 37-ton, 4,000-year-old lump of space rock, from aboriginal land in Argentina to Kassel, as proposed by artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolas Goldberg, continued to stir debate during the opening week. It was a controversial proposal, strongly and successfully protested by indigenous Argentians.

Indigenous Argentinians protesting the removal of the El Chaco meteorite for inclusion in documenta 13

And then, on preview day, above the peaceful sunlit Karlsaue park, rose Critical Art Ensemble (CAE)’s shatteringly–loud helicopter, rising and sinking several times an hour, audible – and frequently visible – across the town, invading art-going experience and drowning conversations. In A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, CAE raised a huge bar graph depicting wealth disparity across the world. 99% of the world’s incomes fitted onto the banner, but the globe’s richest 1% required a helicopter to soar 250 meters up in the sky. Exclusive €300 tickets were purchased by an irony-unencumbered fifty people, only twelve of whom showed up on the day to be escorted down a red carpet for their flight. The 99%, meanwhile, could buy a lottery ticket and the chance to win a ride.

Some of the reason for this economic disparity, as well perhaps as the mechanics for the endless cycle of manmade disasters, are revealed in Mark Lombardi’s obsessive mapping of corruption, politics and finance, that make visible the hidden connections between political and economic processes, corporation, and individuals.

Critical Art Ensemble, A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, 2012


How life transforms: reflections on a conversation with Rob Kesseler and Enrico Coen

Micrograph of seed

Rob Kesseler, from Seeds, time capsules of life, Rob Kesseler, Wolfgang Stuppy,
Papadakis Publisher..

Why do I like Rob Kesseler’s work? At first glance, his highly detailed, colour-enhanced micrographs of pollen, seeds, fruit and leaves might pass for the sort of “science photography” that has become familiar in the media, particularly in publications such as New Scientist. Is there a difference when an artist produces these images? Kesseler’s work focuses almost entirely on the microscopic aspects of plants: their functional, structural, decorative qualities. He translates that material into imagery, which he incorporates in a whole series of works in different media – glass etchings, ceramics, sculptural objects, and large format images. Visually, his works combine astonishing detail with meticulous colouration, giving a luscious, seductive quality to subject matter that seems at the same time alien and familiar.

At the Arts Catalyst, we generally say we’re not really interested in art that ‘illustrates’ science. But Kesseler clearly isn’t illustrating science. He’s sharing his fascination in the intricate structure of these forms and in the process of making images. If this jogs us into thinking about biodiversity or how natural patterns and forms come about, that doesn’t appear to be his primary intent, although he collaborates extensively with scientists.

Micrograph of pollen printed on silk, hanging from tree

In an era of quick fixes, instant gratification and time-saving tools, I’m fascinated by obsessives – which many artists and scientists are. Kesseler has been collecting, preparing and studying plants and their pollen for many years. His images give me aesthetic pleasure, yet this aesthetic pleasure derives from a combination of eye appeal and intellectual-emotional appeal. I’m not just looking at his work out of context. From my background, I know what the object in the image might be, the process by which the image has been made, and the technical and artistic skill that has gone into its making. I’m aware of the artist’s intent in how it is presented. I am also mesmerized by the intricacy and breadth of nature’s design. Yet even my ‘pure’ visual aesthetic appreciation is culturally shaped: by fashion and by years working within the contemporary visual arts.

Micrograph of plant fragment

Artwork by Rob Kesseler, from Seeds, time capsules of life, Rob Kesseler, Wolfgang Stuppy,
Papadakis Publisher.

The other evening, I chaired a discussion between Rob Kesseler and biologist Enrico Coen, organised by the Art, Science and Technology research group at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. In his new book Cells to Civilizations, Coen attempts a unified account of how life transforms itself – from the evolution of complex animals, to how a newborn learns to behave in society, to the development of human culture. He identifies some shared core principles underlying evolution, development, learning and culture, and suggests that there is always a ‘twin feedback loop’ of reinforcement and competition – an accelerating and a limiting force – and, in each case, drivers of population variance and persistence. That’s an incredibly brief précis of Coen’s investigation into the relationships between our biological past and the evolution of human culture, in which he also introduces the concepts of cooperation, “combinatorial richness” and recurrence and discusses their roles in the process. Once you grasp his basic idea, it becomes an entertaining game to identify ‘twin feedback loops’ at work in all sorts of cultural changes around us (including these periodic upsurges of interest in ‘art and science’).

In our brief conversation, we talked about how images are made and used in science and in art, and about the role of aesthetics. Coen felt that imagery in science is primarily used to communicate findings, and therefore it is intended to be ‘provocative’ in some sense. Kesseler said that in his artwork he tries to bring out the 3-dimensionality of forms, their structure and characteristics. Both mentioned that aesthetics change as a consequence of our experiences. But our conversation was constrained by time, and I hadn’t then delved into Coen’s book, so I want here to think a little more about some of his ideas.

At the conclusion of our meeting, I was left wondering how valid it was to extend an approach of identifying common mechanisms in evolution, development and learning (that we can comfortably understand as subjects for scientific investigation) to encompass human cultural change. Surely this is too complex a subject for scientific study. Culture has been said to be “what makes us human”, encompassing all that we inherit by learning from others, including language, customs, technology, and material artifacts. But culture, it seems, is not limited to human beings. Researchers are discovering and studying the foundations of such social learning and traditions in a wide variety of species including primates and birds.

Book cover for 'Cells to Civilisations'

In Cells to Civilisations, Coen argues that the ingredients for human cultural change are grounded in evolution, development and learning over many generations. He also points out that our scientific understanding of these processes is in itself a cultural product. Theories of evolution, development and learning, such as those developed by Darwin or Turing, are themselves outcomes of our cultural heritage. And so indeed is all science, and all art. Culture creates the conditions in which science and art – and aesthetic appreciation – develop, and science and art feedback into the evolution of culture. As artists and scientists, we are products of the frameworks within which we operate. Thus Coen’s book presents a counter-perspective to some popular misconceptions of both science and art, firstly that science can be culturally neutral, and secondly the notion of the artist as solitary genius. Rather, Coen says, science is completely embedded in and framed by culture, and the development of an artistic work is the outcome of a culture formed by multiple individuals in a particular society at a particular time.

Coen also suggests that humans readily acquire concepts that allow us to deal with objects that we can see or touch (apples or mountains, for example), in which we have many generations of experience in understanding, but that we struggle with concepts that require us to think in other dimensions or on other scales outside our immediate experience. Thus Einstein’s theories of relativity are harder concepts for us than Newton’s laws of motion. Which perhaps suggests that the work of artists like Kesseler can help us to “conceptualise” ideas and forms that exist in a liminal space beyond our normal senses and experiences, by finding morphological parallels in the visible world.

The conversations was recorded and is intended to be broadcast on Mark Aitken’s gardening programme ‘I can hear the grass grow’ on Resonance FM

Performance, theatre and science

A woman lying face down with video projection in background

Curious Directive, Your Last Breath, 2012

Last week, I went to Curious Directive’s show Your Last Breath. Curious Directive create devised theatre works incorporating scientific ideas, and this piece tells the story of an extreme skiing accident that led to the discovery of suspended animation, a story interwoven with three others, taking place at different times over 150 years, and told through spoken word, movement, music and video.

I thought the piece was very strong and it made me think about science in theatre, and Arts Catalyst’s involvement in theatre and performance over the years. Setting up Arts Catalyst 18 years ago, I wanted to explore and develop new types of engagement between artists and scientists to see if it was possible to create more symbiotic relationships between the two fields. I was also interested in seeking out artists whose work might express both the form and content of an interdisciplinary engagement. Some of our early work (around 1994-96) included theatre workshops and commissions. I didn’t consciously move away from theatre, but the playwright Diane Samuels, who attended our 1997 Eye of the Storm art and science conference at the Royal Institution, noted that the speakers were mainly visual artists (as well as scientists), and not theatre practitioners, and it led her to wonder: “Is there a playwright who has truly collaborated with a scientist rather than used scientific material to feed their work? Is such a thing possible?

It was a question that Samuels went on to explore in her playwriting, while the Arts Catalyst has continued to work with artists across a broad spectrum of visual arts and contemporary performance practices. We have worked with artists who would describe themselves as live artists, sound artists, musicians, video artists, media artists, choreographers, dancers, bioartists, sculptors, writers, painters, conceptual designers, and others, so we tend just to use the terms “contemporary art” and “artists”.

Our curatorial vision has been to enable experimental and critical artistic engagements with contemporary science. Over the years, we have experimented with many forms of engagement, including multidisciplinary labs and field trips, research clusters, etc. While much of our commissioned work is shown in galleries, we tend towards a process-based, performative approach, and we often present work in experiential or event-based forms. We’ve commissioned works from several live artists, including Laurie Anderson, Marcel.li Antunez Roca, Aaron Williamson, Anne Bean, Ansuman Biswas, and Kira O’Reilly, as well as Critical Art Ensemble’s “participatory theatre”, which I wrote about in an essay ‘Performative Science: The case of Critical Art Ensemble’ for ‘Interfaces of Performance’, a publication exploring contemporary performance incorporating state-of-the-art technologies. So I’d say our curatorial door is certainly open to theatre practitioners, and we have included several writers, performance artists and theatre makers in our various workshops and field trips. But we’ve not been involved in the scripted form of theatre for many years.

Actors on a circular stage seen from above (black and white)

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen at the National Theatre, 1998

Of course, there have been great plays that interweave themes of science in their stories – Bertolt Brecht’s marvellous The Life of Galileo (1937), Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists (1961), and George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), which – unsurprisingly, given its contemporary relevance – is about to have a re-staging at the National Theatre. There have also been successful mainstream plays that experimented with weaving science into the dramatic form of the play, such as Michael Frayn’s skillful Copenhagen (1998), and Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood (1988).

Lately, just as there is an explosion of visual artists engaging with science, there seems to be a huge increase in theatre shows that incorporate scientific ideas. Of course, no one goes to the theatre or to an art gallery to find out about science. At least, I don’t think so – there are surely better ways to find out about science. They go for an experience that will be social, transformative, uplifting, challenging, entertaining. So the issue is always: is the work good? Does it uplift, unsettle, move, provoke or fascinate?

After being unmoved by a succession of plays engaging with scientific ideas, in 2010 the US theatre critic Alexis Soloski asked: “Why does theatre plus science equal poor plays?” In the UK last year, critics were generally unimpressed by the National Theatre’s multi-authored climate change play Greenland, Paul Callan in the Express calling it “two solid … hours of hectoring and statistics”. Were these indicators of the danger of becoming so enthralled by the science that the playwright/artist neglects the art? Or were they just unsuccessful plays that happened to have science in them? Any play can fail.

Increasingly, I’ve become aware (certainly in the UK) that there is some exciting stuff around by contemporary theatre makers, who are intrigued by science and its cultural and societal implications, and incorporating it into their work; many of whom are also experimental in their processes and form. Curious DirectiveThird Angel, Unlimited, and Reckless Sleepers have been brought to my attention. The arts journalist Honour Bayes wrote in the Guardian last year that (far from “poor”) the results of the engagement between theatre and science were “exciting, explosive and unexpected”.

I’m deeply interested in the construction of stories, myths and metaphors and how these influence, and are influenced by, the direction of science and technology in a society. Clearly, theatre has an important role in this.

Two people, faces covered by sheets, face each other over a table

Reckless Sleepers, Schroedinger

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