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Acronyms, bat caves and sentient architecture: February update from Washington DC

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Dense mass of bats within a passageway in Carlsbad Cavern using thermal imaging camera (c) Nickolay Hristov / Louise Allen

So here I am, back in Washington DC on Super Tuesday (writing this the day before I post), observing a racist litigious pathological liar, serial bankrupt and (it almost goes without saying) climate change denier head towards the Republican nomination. Anyhoo, I’d better get this blog updated on my February DC art-science activities before House of Cards Season 4 starts on Friday, because that’s going to wipe out this weekend.

February started strategically with a meeting of SEAD (The Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design) Working Group hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. The group shared and discussed trends that have emerged in the last few years since the network’s White Papers initiative in 2012, the outcome of which was published by MIT Press as ‘Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation‘. I was asked to present to the meeting on the international context for art, science and technology – a wide brief for a fifteen minute presentation! Luis Girao from the EU was also present for part of the day and spoke about the EU’s STARTS initiative.  The meeting follows the recent National Academies launch of the planning phase of a project to examine the value of incorporating curricula and experiences in the arts and humanities into college and university STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and workforce training programs, as well as integrating more STEM into the academic programs of students who are majoring in the humanities, arts and related disciplines.

Fields to Freedom, Desert Art Lab (c) Desert Art Lab

Fields to Freedom, Desert Art Lab (c) Desert Art Lab

From strategy to academia, I dived straight into the massive College Art Association annual conference, this year in Washington DC, which included a panel discussion on ‘Cultivating an Ecology of Networked Knowledge & Innovation thru Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts & Design’, moderated by Leonardo Executive Editor Roger Malina. Malina noted that the current enthusiasm for “STEAM” – the introduction of art into science and technology teaching – is driven and shaped by the desire to attract and retain more scientists and engineers, rather than for having more science/technology-informed artists. I would say this is true on both sides of the Atlantic. Panel member Nettrice Gaskins gave an inspiring presentation on the art/science programme she runs at the Boston Arts Academy, and noted that she had found it easier to get artists to engage with science, than to get scientists to engage with the arts. There was also a great talk by biologist Nickolay Hristov about his work at the Center for Design Innovation (CDI) in North Carolina, where he studies bats and develops new techniques for filming and visualising bats.

In the overwhelming number of sessions, panels and talks at the CAA conference, one of my standouts was the ‘Ecologies of Creative Activism’ session, organised by the New Media Caucus, where I found much potential fodder for the Arte Util archive, including the work of ecoarttech – a delightful project on goat keeping and Desert Art Lab‘s community cactus gardens.

Amazing to catch up with some wonderful artists from different parts of the world converged on DC for the CAA meet, including Jane Prophet, Marta de Menezes and Armin Medosch. Fantastic conversations.

Sentient Chamber, Philip Beesley (c) The Artist

Sentient Chamber, Philip Beesley (c) The Artist

During the month, I also enjoyed the latest edition of DASER (DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous), again at the National Academy of Science, which had some cracking talks, including Richard Foster’s illuminating reflections on creativity, a subject which usually makes me nod off, and architect Philip Beesley’s talk on his fascination with non-repeating geometries and living architecture: his idea of a new approach to shelter that is gentle and responsive to nature, rather than rigidly repelling natural forces. Video of the talks here.

Beesley’s Sentient Chamber,  created by a group of architects, engineers, scientists, and artists in his Living Architecture Systems Group at the University of Waterloo, Canada, was installed upstairs from the DASER salon as a site-specific interactive work in the National Academy of Sciences’ spectacular building on Constitution Avenue. This experimental and delightful work incorporates new lightweight structures, interactive robotics, and ideas from synthetic biology to pursue an architecture as close to being alive. In form, the artwork is a suspended translucent artificial forest that reacts to your presence with changing light and murmuring sounds.

Both the exhibition and the DASER series are organized by CPNAS – the National Academy of Sciences’ Cultural Program – which is led and championed by curator JD Talasek, who attracts my huge admiration for the quality, breadth and boldness of the contemporary art program that he has introduced and sustained at the NAS for several years.

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.

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