Emotion in Science and Art

What is the role of emotion in art and what is the role of emotion in science? Is science really the realm of the cold intellect, and art the dominion of the heart?  Is getting people to care about science dependent on finding ways to pull at their heartstrings, and what is the role of science/art collaborations in this context? This was a question recently posed in a thoughtful blog post by Lizzie Crouch, which has inspired me to think about what my take is on this important question.

Does this emotionally engage you? Methoxyverapamil (1991) Damien Hirst (image Damien Hirst/Science Ltd/Gagosian Gallery)

As a someone who identifies as both artist and scientist, I recognise methods as key to both practices. Science generally proceeds in one of two ways; the first is the scientific method, in which a hypothesis is developed and tested. In the second, a scientist uses particular methods  to explore a large dataset to see if it contains information that answers a key question. In principle, both of these techniques should be carried out in a cold and analytical manner, not allowing the scientist’s personal hopes and aspirations to enter the equation. And while that is something that all good scientists aspire to, it rarely equates to the whole picture. Even if we exclude things like confirmation bias or the ‘Decline Effect‘ in which scientific results have been shown to ‘wear off’ with time, most  scientists would probably argue that they find science to be an emotional venture. After all, there are underlying ideas — be it curing cancer or exploring the universe that drive the scientists onward, and which they care passionately about. That larger picture can take on almost mythic dimensions in the context of understanding the place of humanity in the universe or understanding whether consciousness is something that separates us from other forms of life. While the means of exploration of these concepts might be methodical and cold, they tap into the same emotional core within us that is often filled by religion (I will emphasise here I am not saying science is a religion or substitutes for religion or as some would argue, art). In her post, Lizzie emphasises that when communicating science, one must make people care about what you are doing; i.e. you must tap into that emotional core. Is art a way of doing that?

My answer to this is maybe. In his art history classic The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes argues that it’s hard to think of a piece of visual art that has fundamentally changed the world. There’s a beautiful naivete in thinking so, but there is actually a question of whether art incites us to act. Hughes argues “We have political art, but no effective political art.” Art can raise awareness, it can cut through to our hearts, but to what end? Do we act as a result? Perhaps on an individual level, but Hughes argues that its hard to think of a piece of visual art which has saved a single life. And so too is it in terms of art inspired by science? Some, such as Antony Gormley (in a Guardian editorial) are hopeful, asking whether art can play a role in terms of how we reinterpret our relationship with a changing planet. But is this realistic?

I do not see art as a visual communication tool; that responsibility belongs to graphic design. Art expresses; it imagines; it challenges and interrogates, and isn’t necessarily linear. I do not see sci-art as a form of science communication per-se. That doesn’t mean it can’t perform this role, raise awareness, etc– but take for example Ackroyd and Harvey’s Polar Diamond (2009), in which they made a diamond from a polar bear bone. The piece itself speaks to the fact that rarity creates value. Through the process in which the bone was combusted and an ‘immortal’ diamond was made from the carbon remains, CO2 was emitted– which is in fact playing a role in the destruction of the polar bears’ habitat. There is a feeling that is evoked through this piece– though it is hard to say what, precisely, is being communicated. It makes me feel sad; it’s a bit of an elegy. But it’s certainly not a message, and I can’t claim I’ve learnt anything. Putting aside the argument as to whether people respond to doom-and-gloom messages, I would say this piece has the potential to raise an eyebrow, to make somebody who already cares care a little bit more, for a time. And maybe that’s enough.

But coming back to the role of emotion in art and science. I think it’s in both places, but we have to recognise the subjectivity of all of this. Different individuals are touched by different things. It’s nearly impossible to make somebody care about something if they aren’t naturally inclined to care. I must confess, Damien Hirst’s spot paintings (image above) do nothing for me. Nothing. Many people, art critics included, seem to love them; they respond (in some sense emotionally, I guess?). Me, nada (unless it’s rage at what these paintings seem to sell for). And so too it is with science. I care about climate change, the environment. I’m fascinated about what neuroscience can tell us about our humanity, and am riveted by the photostream from NASA’s Curiosity rover. But I must make a confession. Solid state physics? Mechanical engineering? No disrespect, and I intellectually understand why they are important– but I confess I’m not exactly engaged. But I’m keeping an open mind and would love to have it changed by some brave artist.

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Experiments– CSM Art and Science MA Interim Show

Recently I had the thoroughly enjoyable experience of checking out the interim show of the world’s first ever Art and Science MA course. Run at the Byam Shaw campus of Central St Martins by Nathan Cohen and Eleanor Crook, this programme brings together students from a variety of backgrounds for a 2-year long artistic investigation of the relationships between what in modern society are perceived as disparate and disconnected fields of study. They are now one year in, and the results are impressive.

By Louise Beer, Courtesy of CSM Art and Science MA website

I have had the privilege through my day job of interacting with this course and getting to know a few of the students. They are an eclectic bunch with a range of ages and backgrounds ranging from fine art to linguistics and anthropology. However, they are united by an interest in understanding and exploring the workings of our world through art. Topics touched upon in the interim show include visual perception, complexity science, autism, lost languages, processes of decay, fractals, amongst many other areas.

The first year has been a busy one, from what I hear. In addition to busying themselves with their artwork, they have had weekly philosophy lectures and visits to partnering institutions including The Wellcome Trust, The British Library, GV Art and the MRC Neuropharmacology Unit at Oxford. If interested, I’d encourage you to find out more about the course website.

By Anita Chowdry, Courtesy of CSM Art and Science MA course Website

Why do I find what this course is doing so compelling? After all, can’t artists who have an interest in science make art about science? Well, of course, yes.  And many talented people are doing so. However, I think that this taps into something important that is happening in this area right now—a realisation that science can feed art, and vis versa. Training people to appreciate and understand both of these is brave and important in a world that is becoming (often for good reason) increasingly specialised. And many is the day that I wished that I could have joined the students in their daily activities!

As I know and like many of the students on the course, I’m hesitant to pick favourites amongst the bunch from the interim show—and after all they have another year left! But I would encourage you to watch this space—there are some magical things afoot, and I very much look forward to working with this talented bunch over the coming year.

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Really good immersive environmental art

For environmental scientists, the world is often an extension of the laboratory. For that reason, I am am sometimes loathe to draw the line between where sci-art begins and environmental art begins. By environmental art, I mean art that directly engages with the the environment as an ‘issue’– not outdoor sculpture (much as I love that too). I highlight here two pieces, to be experienced in London right now, that I think are particularly worthy of notice.

White Noise: an urban soundscape (Bill Fontana)

Can you think of anything more incongruous to the sound of crashing waves, stones gently banging against each other than the sound and smell of traffic on Euston Rd? Working, as I do on that very road, I primarily think of it as an overly crowded clusterfuck that when at all possible should be avoided. I don’t take a bus down the Euston Rd because it is much faster to walk; a brave cyclist today lost her life at Kings Cross, thanks to an HGV. So, it’s as close as I can imagine to hell. Now, try to square that with being a place you can draw breath an look around without a sense of panic. Which is exactly what Bill Fontana does with his installation White Sound: an urban seascape, installed outside the Wellcome Collection. Projecting a recording of breaking waves onto pebbles, Fontana manages to stop (or slow as the case may be) busy Londoners in their footsteps, transforming the urban environment.

Chesil Beach, Image from Haunch of Venison website

Fontana’s use of sound is remarkable– and, I speculate, perhaps may be the source of the Wellcome Collection‘s interest in his work. The Wellcome Trust is a medical charity and has historically been a great sponsor of sci-art collaborations. The way that White Sound plays with our senses and memory to completely transform our sense of place is remarkable, and I am sure some neuroscientists would have something to say about this. I intend to go back (yes indeed voluntarily walking down Euston Rd!) before the exhibition closes on October 16th. See if I’m once again taken back to a beach that *I* experienced last summer whilst on the Isle of Lewis. Ah, memory.

High Arctic: Future Visions of a Receding World (National Maritime Museum)

Last Weekend, I ventured down to Greenwich to the National Maritime Museum to see their ‘exhibition’ High Arctic. I put the word, exhibition, in quotation marks in quotation marks, as this creation by Matt Clark of United Visual Artists is as much exhibition as experience, elegy, and multimedia immersive installation. Matt Clark is one of a number of illustrious artists (including the likes of Anthony Gormley, Ian McEwan, Sophie Calle, and DJ Spooky) who have participated in the Cape Farewell project, which facilitates the involvement of artists in the area of climate change via trips in the company of artists to the world’s most threatened places, such as Greenland, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, the Andes, and most recently the Scottish islands. I have written previously about my overall ambivalence towards some of the art that has come out of the project (despite how close it is to my heart) and the difficulty of making good climate art. However, High Arctic is a different beast entirely.

High Arctic (Image courtesy of Cape Farewell)

As I approached the entrance to the High Arctic exhibition, I was greeted by an affable museum worker, who handed me an ultraviolet torch, explaining that I should be quiet and experience, listen and think. ‘Find a place to sit and just absorb the experience,’ he said. Not what you typically hear, even when experiencing installation art. So, I entered a dark room hallway, shining my light on the walls. Norsk names emerged in the light, and then I emerged in a large room surrounded by lots and lots of white pillars of various sizes grouped in clusters. A minimalist ice-scape, names of places I shall never visit in the far north emblazoned on the relics. Projections (we think done in Processing) on the floor are there to be interacted with, to be intervened with by us humans trespassing. As you pass through the landscape, you are stopped in your tracks by haunting poetry of Nick Drake (also on the Svalbard expedition with Matt Clark) and excerpts of ships logs. Practically speaking, this is about all the matter-of-fact description of the exhibition that I can muster– it’s not to be described, but to be experienced. Which is why I feel like it works so well. It doesn’t describe or tell you, it shows you. There’s a penetrating sadness that somehow manages to evade being preachy or pedantic that hit me hard. The arctic is a dynamic landscape that grows and shrinks on an annual basis, but which it seems we are gradually losing. And it’s sad. And you should go see this.

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Science and art– Talking about a new art movement

Last Friday I headed over to the GV Art Gallery in London to check out their new and ambitiously titled show Art & Science: Merging Art and Science to Make a Revolutionary New Art Movement and hear a panel of bio-artists moderated by Arthur Miller discuss whether this is actually the case.

Oron Catts Pig Wings (image from GV art website, copyright The Tissue Culture and Art Project)

This evening proved to be a much-needed source of inspiration and challenge to what-I-thought was so. The art presented was an excellent overview of the different facets of the genere, ranging from Stelarc‘s performance art-cum-body modification to Oron Catts‘s famous pig wings (for sale!) to some gorgeous prints by Susan Aldworth. I highly recommend taking a look at this impressive little show to see work by some really talented and innovative artists working in scientists’ laboratories.

Susan Aldworth, Cogito Ergo Sum

The main theme for the evening was a discussion of whether art and science were converging/hybridizing to form a ‘third culture’ (as proposed by Arthur Miller), whether they were really separate entities, and if they were… what all of those artists were doing in laboratories anyways.

Arthur Miller started the discussion with the contentious question of whether a third culture was forming from the convergence of art and science. After centuries of operating in separate spheres, is it possible that this fringe movement of sci-artists are bringing these two seemingly different world-views together into something completely new? Overwhelmingly, the view of the artists was no– or at least not yet. But Miller’s question, like that of any good moderator, was provocative that a good discussion ensued. Catts, who works full-time in a laboratory alongside scientists, emphatically feels that they are separate discipline, and that despite the fact that he used scientific tools in his art, he is certainly not a scientist. Scientists work according to a set of axioms for/against some hypothesis and are nominally bound by the scientific method. In contrast, artists have more freedom, can explore ridiculous tangents, and most importantly, critique the media that they are using. Artists see science as a tool to be exploited to creative ends, whereas scientists have a duty to be -well- scientists.

Oblique: Images from Stelarc's extra ear project, Nina Sellars, image from ninasellars.com

An interesting distinction was made by the artists about the difference between science and engineering — as there is a convergence between art and science, at the other end of the spectrum, is there a convergence between engineering and science? This is seen in fields, such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and geoengineering. The artists saw a hierarchy– shouldn’t engineers be the servants of scientists and not their equals? Overall, the artists were wary of science driven by technological developments, and saw an important role for themselves in challenging that.

Questions from the audience brought up the issue of aesthetics (is sci-art also challenging notions of what is beautiful?), the politics of funding (UK arts funding has been drastically cut,  whereas science funding has survived by the skin of its teeth), how scientists and artists were regarded in the time of Leonardo, and why arts critics have not as of yet embraced sci-art.

Memory of a brain malformation, Katherine Dowson (image from katherinedowson.com)

As somebody who has extensive experience in (geo)science, and also has a passion for making and appreciating art, I found myself teetering between these two camps. I understood what the artists meant when they said that the realms of science and art are separate (even if they are increasingly cross-fertilising one-another). When making work, I often feel as though I need to flip a switch in my brain to move into art-mode– otherwise, I feel trapped within scientific constraints and unable to make things that are interesting and visually stimulating. I have to give myself that permission to explore and connect with a slightly deeper, less logical sense of being, give in to irony and humour. I applaude these artists who are doing so within the context of a laboratory.

So is a new culture forming? Probably not yet… but then again, Stelarc sees technology as an extension of the body and has a soon-to-be wifi enabled ear embedded in his arm, and it seemed that everybody was open to what the future might bring.

Disclaimer– this post was written based on my impressions of the evening. Hopefully I am not wrongly attributing anything to anybody. If you are interested in a full and accurate account of the evening, I understand a video of the discussion should be posted on Youtube by GV Art in good time.

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Kinetica Art Fair: Zoo of the Future

Squeals when you pull its hairs. Echidna II by Tim Bech. Image courtesy of Kinetica website

Yesterday I visited the Kinetica Art Fair, hosted at the P3 Gallery at the University of Westminster.  You walk through a dark hallway that opens up into a large, cavernous space, full of objects that might be whizzing around or blinking or making funny noises or responding to you as you walk by.  This is a place where the art moves, reacts to you, or makes you react in weird and wonderful ways.  The Kinetica Art Fair brings together artists and galleries specializing in new media, kinetic, electronic, light, sound and science art. The result was a bit Steampunk meets the Space Age, highly interactive and a lot of fun.  For a quick view, take a look at the a BBC video of the extravaganza here.

A few of my personal highlights:

Cabaret Mechanical Theatre is a bit out of the official scope for this blog, but I loved it.  They make little moving dioramas, small machines that operated by hand crank, told a story.  My favourite automata was a box by artist Paul Spoon called The Dream.  A man is sleeping and all sorts of creatures pop out of cupboards, windows, disturbing him. It’s a bit surreal, a bit spooky, and very funny.

These fantastic little boxes reminded me of a Jan Švankmajer film, but in slightly jerky mechanical form… or something out of the film, The Science of Sleep.  Magic.


Image courtesy of Kinetica website

Fantastical mechanical creatures were presented by Christian Zwanikken.  Imagine something with the head of a bird and a metal body walking around, fighting another in an epic battle of the mechanical vs. the natural world.  The sheer strangeness of these dinosaurs trapped within mechanical bodies veering towards one another and then away was quite funny, but also made me think about the ways that we shape and control nature to our own needs and desires.


Image courtesy of Kinetica website

The Particle v1.1 @ The City from Alex Posada on Vimeo.

“The Particle” by Alex Posada gained applause from the audience that viewed the performance of this spinning sphere of lights.  As the lighted sculpture spun, a glowing orb was generated, deconstructed, sliced apart into its constituent elements, responding to the movements and activity in the surrounding space.  As a geologist, my mind immediately leapt to a spinning planet, the skin removed and then gradually re-assembled from the core to the crust.  Take a look at the video above to get a small taste of what this was like.




Point of Perception by Madi Boyd is a collaborative work with neuroscientists at UCL about the ambiguity of perception.   Staring at what seems like an infinite depth of space, you become more aware of the fact that you are observing something that you aren’t actually at all sure that you are seeing.  She combines built environments and projection systems to play with what you are actually seeing. I particularly appreciate this work because it isn’t too heavy-handed, either from the perspective of the art or the science.


Image courtesy of Katherine Dowson

I was delighted to discover that London has a gallery that focusses on art and science.  GV Art came to my attention due to the “brainstorm in a teacup” about their recent show on artists exploring the brain, which featured real tissue samples from the brain affected by Multiple Sclerosis.  Despite some derogatory comments by a conservative MP, the show was quite well received on the whole– especially from the medical community and by patients suffering from debilitating brain diseases.  More information about that particular show can be found here.  I will definitely be heading there to see some of their upcoming shows, many of which feature artists working with science, science images as art, and artists inspired by science.


photo of kinetica art fair website

Finally, from a standpoint of personal inspiration, I appreciated the work of Jasmine Pradissitto.  An ex physicist with a PhD from UCL, who went on to art school, she makes whizzy paintings based on various physical principles.  To be honest, I found them a little too aesthetically lovely… but I did give me some much needed inspiration that “I can do this too!”

So, to conclude.  What did I learn from the Kinetica Art Fair?  That there is a lot of very interesting art being made with both old and new technology.  That a small, but energetic community is making fantastic art using science and inspired by science. This art is fun, dynamic and interactive and capable of bridging what some see as an impassible gap between Science and Art.

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On the difficulty of making good climate art

<strong>Ackroyd & Harvey </strong><br>Storm Drawings<br />2 ink on paper / 2 luminescent paint<br />2007<br /><br />The ‘automatic’ drawings were created by Dan Harvey during a violent storm<br />whilst crossing the Greenland Sea on board the Noorderlicht. A ball soaked<br />in ink (drawings 1-2) and luminescent paint (drawings 3-4) was placed directly onto seawater soaked paper.<br />

Storm Drawing by Ackroyd and Harvey (image courtesy of Cape Farewell website)

So I could blame my busy life on it taking me ages to write a new blog post.  But instead I am going to attribute the fact that I had the notion of writing a post on the exhibition “Unfold, ” an art/climate change show, but was ultimately left feeling surprisingly apathetic to it all.  My scientific background and day job involve environmental science and my own practice has leanings in those directions, so I had high expectations that were not quite met…

So to begin.  Unfold was an exhibition of art produced on/inspired by participation of expeditions up to the Arctic, down to the Antarctic and into the Andes, facilitated by the Cape Farewell Foundation.  The Cape Farewell Foundation is a remarkable organisation that brings artists, writers, scientists, educators and media together as a cultural response to climate change.  The “scientists” are doing a poor job communicating issues surrounding climate change; climate change involves us all; why not fight with art?  The outputs of their expeditions are substantial– a number of exhibitions, pieces of music and writings including Ian McEwan’s novel “Solar.”

<strong>Chris Wainwright </strong><br>Red Ice 3<br />Colour C Type print on aluminium<br />2009

Chris Waiwright, Red Ice, Image Courtesy of Cape Farewell

So, a number of artists are asking whether they can connect where the scientists have failed; how can a looming catastrophe be expressed?  How can the fragility of our polar landscapes be communicated?  How can scientific data and reasoning be turned into something that connects to the not-so-logical parts of our brains?  In one year, London saw two major exhibitions that tackled (in different ways) this theme: Radical Nature(Barbican) and Earth: Art of a Changing World (Royal Academy).  Of the two, I thought Radical Nature was the more successful, perhaps as it was really more about artists responding to Nature.  Highlights included Robert Smithon’s Spiral Jetty film, Joseph Beuys’ Honey Pump, and a heap of earth Grass Grows, courtesy of Hans Haacke.  These are classics, which have stood the test of time and inspire us to consider our relationship to the environment and the society of which we are a part.  However, I also found the Alaska Pipeline film by the Center for Land Use Interpretation and a project by Lara Almarcegui on the areas of East London destroyed by the Olympic construction to be poetic and provoking.  Tomas Sarecano’s etherial spheres hovered above the main gallery space.

Reconstruction of Agnes Denes Wheatfield- A confrontation in Dalston, part of the Barbican's Radical Nature Exhibition (photo by Johanna Kieniewicz)

In contrast, Earth: Art of a Changing World addressed climate change head on, with a very clear agenda.  It opened with a big sizzling globe.  Thankfully, it wasn’t all that bad.   A diamond made out of the bone of a polar bear by Heath Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, some lovely fragile clay flowers by Clare Twomey certainly made their point and were also featured in Unfold.  Sophie Calle took her mother’s jewelry to the North Pole.  Old works, such as Cornelia Parker’s brilliant Heart of Darkness and Anthony Gormley’s Amazonia Field were repackaged with a new message.

Heart of Darkness (2004), Cornelia Parker

I don’t mean to be flippant, as some of this was actually very good.  I was particularly touched by Ackroyd and Harveys’ trees grown from acorns sourced from Joseph Beuys’ trees; on the opposite end of the spectrum a joyful video, Doomed, by Tracey Moffat made much ado about explosions! and destruction! and Marielle Neudecker’s vitrine was just lovely….. But something was missing.  Maybe the show didn’t hold together in the right way; perhaps too many viewpoints were represented.  Many of the works in themselves were excellent, but when presented together as a whole were lessened.

So, coming back to the Unfold exhibition…. I found that it had some of the same problems as Earth: Art of a Changing World (and indeed featured some of the same artists).  I think that part of the problem is that we are looking at this theme a little too early.  It isn’t mature.  It isn’t an integral part of these artists’ practice.  With the exception of Harvey and Ackroyd, who have an acclaimed history of making environmental art, much of what was presented in these two shows was artists dipping their tow into this area.  Is Tracey Emin really a climate artist?  Not really, but like all the rest of us, she can respond…. But the sound of it all together is a bit of a cacaphony.  We’re talking over each other and nobody can hear a coherent message.  Radical Nature, for all the variation in media, and the mixture of classic land art with contemporary environmental art had a tighter focus and less of an agenda, aside from perhaps evoking a feeling of longing for what we are losing.  The artists in “Radical Nature” made nature, one way or another, an integral part of their practices and were able to engage with it in a highly sophisticated way.

To come back to my initial feeling of ennui and apapthy about climate art…. I do feel more optimistic than I did, initially walking out of the Unfold exhibition.  Perhaps I am looking for more artists who use the climate as a medium in their art and engage with this in a serious way.  And there are so many ways to do this.  In future posts, I hope to cover the Harvey and Ackroyd practice in greater detail, but also get into some really innovative uses of climate data in art.

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The art and science of glassblowing

Glassblowing is pretty neat.  There is something amazing about watching somebody start with a blob of cold glass and turn it to something colorful, delicate and shapely.  That said, glass blowing is typically thought of more as a craft than a fine art.  Glass blowers make extremely ornate vases; they make jewelry; they make figurines; they even make scientific equipment.  But it’s all about context– blown glass needn’t be solely decorative or functional. It can be used to communicate, to touch; it can be placed into a greater artistic context, and has been used to particular effect (in my opinion) in the realm of Sci- Art.

This post was inspired by a recent trip to the Natural History Museum in London, where I saw some figurines made by the father and son duo, Rudolf (1822-1895) and Leopold (1857-1939) Blaschka.  Below is a ?diagram ?model ?sculpture of a radiolarian; other creatures included jellyfish, octopus, sea anenomes and squid.

A glass model of a radiolarian, Dorataspis diodon

The Blaschkas are best known for their glass flowers, but also made a number of sea creatures, such as the radiolarian that I saw at the NHM’s The Deep exhibition.  These stunning, delicate creations drew inspiration from scientific illustrations of sea creatures, the work of scientists such as Haeckel, as well as animals in their own aquarium.  Many of these sea creatures were commissioned by the South Kensington Museum (now the Natural History museum).  These intricate objects objects transcend beyond the mere model of the <insert name of cool sea creature> that you typically see in science museum displays.  Rather, they capture something intimate, sparkling…. that sideways glance that you might have through the window of an early submersible.  They aren’t presented in the context of illustration; rather they create a sense of wonder in the natural universe (whilst one completely forgets that this is a very close model of an actual creature)….

I was first alerted to the potential of glassblowing in Sci-art when I attended a talk at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio where Josiah McElheny and David Weinberg (an OSU physicist) spoke about their collaborative project, “Island Universe.”  Inspired by the galactic properties of the chandeliers in New York’s Metropolitan Opera, McElheny contacted Weinberg with an interest in making a glass sculpture of the Big Bang.

Island Universe at the White Cube Gallery, London

The result of computer models that Weinberg wrote are presented in these brilliant sculptures in which the length of the rods corresponds to time and the lights that illuminate them represent quasars; the glass spheres and discs are galaxies.  The “island universes” present different possible universes that could have resulted from different initial conditions.  Lowbrow art this is not; in addition to dancing the edge of science, art, and design, McElheny also questions ideas of modernity (an ongoing theme in his art) as the Big Bang was first postulated in 1965 when Modernity was just starting to disintegrate.  For a fantastic video about this piece, please check out the phenomenal  Art21, who profiled Josiah McElheny a few years ago.

The final artist I will be mentioning I learned of only a few days ago, thanks to a piece that showed up in The Guardian as I was beginning to gather my thoughts for this post.  Luke Jerram has collaborated with virologists at the University and Bristol, as well as a number of glass blowers to bring a series of objects ?representing ?expressing viruses including Swine Flu, HIV, and E-Coli, amongst others.

Ecoli sculpture (Luke Jerram)

Jerram’s sculptures touch on ideas of the sublime, while actually representing diseases that afflict millions around the world.  He is interested in our perception of the disease; the sculptures are intentionally transparent, questioning how scientific visualisations affect our perception of phenomena (such as disease).

You might have noticed, there are a lot of question marks in this piece– I am willing to put the work of the Blaschkas tentatively into fine art; that of McElheny and Jerram fits there solidly as it speaks to contemporary art dialogue.  But these are subjective categories…  What I find fascinating about sci art is its ability to turn our perception of what we think of as tangible phenomena and turn them on their heads.  Time as a three dimensional object? A stunning oversized glass virus that is out to get you (but being transparent you can’t really see…)  And amazing 19th century glass sea creatures that better recall outer space than inner space… I’m willing to put all of these artists’ work into the realm of fine art Rendering objects in glass takes a great deal of skill to be sure (in fact, Jerram commissioned this part of his work)… but it has the ability to take something familiar and turn it into something otherworldly and transcendent.

Posted in Astronomy, glass, Medicine, ocean | 3 Comments

Earthquake Art

I’m a geologist by training, and my present employment has a decidedly environmental slant. I use this as an excuse for my ongoing interest in land/environmental art.   While not explicitly classified as sci-art because it isn’t necessarily always directly commenting on Science, it nonetheless uses the Earth as an artistic medium, with artists employing (or taking advantage of) geological processes in the creation of their work.  I see sci-art as a bit of a continuum. I can’t think of any examples, but I certainly imagine that art made using biological processes that doesn’t specifically comment on biology would still be considered Sci-Art. So why not geology?

Earthquakes = Art? Tania Kovats

This post is about earthquakes. And not just art about earthquakes (there are some gorgeous Japanese prints along these lines), but contemporary art using Earthquakes. The catalyst for this post was a long time in the making—Tania Kovats, in her gorgeous “The Drawing Book” shows one of her own drawings—made using earthquakes.   She sees seismograms as drawings made by the earth with an instrument constructed by the human hand.   Keeping this fascinating conceptual idea in mind (and frankly wishing that I’d come up with it myself), I started to wonder whether there were other artists who have made contemporary art about Earthquakes. I came upon a fascinating article published in the journal Leonardo by Ella Mudie called “The spectacle of Seismicity: Making Art from Earthquakes.” The projects highlighted in this article include:

Trigger, The Loma Prieta Pony by Natalie Jeremijenko

At first, it may seem like a simple children’s rocking pony. However, she has configured the motor of a child’s mechanical pony to cause it’s bucking to follow the ground motion of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.   On one level an educational tool, but also something that plays to our kind of perverse relationship between risk and excitement.   When I lived in California, I longed to feel an earthquake.   Not just because I was studying geology at the time, but also for the excitement of it, and the excitement of things falling around me. I could die! (but probably wouldn’t).

Mori by Ken Goldberg

Mori, Image Courtesy of Ken Goldberg

Ken Goldberg bills his project Mori as an internet-based earthwork. Minute motions along the Hayward Fault in California are transmitted from a UC Berkley seismograph via the internet and converted to acoustic signals.   A viewer enters the gallery through a curtain and looks downward at the angular patterns of the seismogram, a visual reference to the view in the scientific data.   Mudie points the similarity of this experience to the concerns of land artists, such as Robert Smithson, who were interested in the relationships between interior and exterior spaces.  The concept of site/non-site.  The San Francisco Ballet also performed a related piece in which the dancers interpreted these sounds, as they played in real-time.  You can listen to the recording of the sound used in the performance here.

Parkfield Interventional Earthquake Fieldwork (PIEQF) by DV Rogers

PQIEF, Image courtesy of USGS and PQIEF

Parkfield, CA is a strange town, which bills itself as the earthquake capital of the world.  “Be here when it happens,” advertises the water tower.  I visited while an undergrad at UCSB.  Its fame is not without reason—it straddles the San Andreas fault and has (fairly) regular M6.0 earthquakes, which led the USGS to set up a field station there.   Taking place over 91 days, the PIEQF was a temporary intervention into the landscape in which the artist installed a re-engineered earthquake shake table in a trench, which would shake every time an earthquake occurred in California.   The installation was intended to visually comment on the dynamic landscape of California and our relationship with the landscape and earthquakes.  Geophones installed in the ground around the table could also activate the table.  It brought to bringing to light small vibrations (distant earthquakes or rumbling cars) which might not otherwise be noticed. DV Rogers eloquently noted, “PIEQF is a conceptual intervention within geological time. Collaborating with USGS scientists has enabled a linkage between earth science and art, enabling a vehicle to broaden and expand the reach of earthquake awareness, education and preparedness for the people of California using a contemporary cultural model.”

I haven’t seen any of these pieces in person. However, I find it interesting that, with the exception of Tania Kovats’s appropriation of a seismogram, they involve a participatory element. Perhaps because so much of what an earthquake is about is the physical sensation—yes, there is the aftermath of the fallen down buildings, buckled roads, etc, but event of the earthquake is exciting.  As Natalie Jerimijenko shows, there’s a slight perversity to it all.  A spectacle.  It’s why we love disaster movies– to experience it, but to return home safe and sound at the end of it all.  I am also extremely excited by the degree to which scientists were integral to the Mori project and the PIEQF. Not just merely accessories or inspiration, but active participants in the artistic process. Given that we’re talking about earthquakes here, it’s appropriate.

Posted in earthquake, Environmental art, participatory, USGS | 2 Comments

What makes good sci art? #1

What sci-art?  Is it art that comments on science?  Is it art that uses the tools of science?  Is it science that is done with the intention of being art?  Is it a beautiful image produced by a scientist as an artifact of the research process in a moment of insight?  When does sci-art simply become clever design? Does it matter?  And when is sci-art good, rather than simply being clever, intellectual, etc?  As fascinated as I am, sometimes I find myself somewhat unmoved by certain pieces of sci-art , or actually wondering about their merit.  Other pieces blow me away in their simplicity or complexity (congratulations Eduardo Kac, your brilliant bunny continues to flummox me to bits).

GFP Bunny (Alba) by Eduardo Kac

I hardly expect that one blog post is actually going to get down to the bottom of this.  And it’s something that I’m happy to devote endless hours of discussion to, and probably eventually several blog posts.  A lot of it will come down to personal preference, and the whole “what is art” argument (which I’m not interested in touching either).  But I think that there is a level of complexity to good sci-art that is often missed by pretty pictures of sciencey things.  To kick off this discussion, I thought I would (begin to) look at photography, a medium which is used and abused by those interested in “sci-art.”

I remember a few years back going to an amazing MOMA San Francisco exhibition “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible.”  It was jaw dropping. From my memory, it primarily comprised  photographs from the 19th century.  The first photographs through microscopes; the first photographs through telescopes.  The discovery of photography coincided with a flourishing in science, and there were a few brave souls who took advantage of this.   Artistic intent  barely figured any sort of role in the production of many of these photographs.  It was a combination of experimentation with media, an aesthetic sense, seeing something in nothing….  very much the way contemporary artists think about their work, come to think of it.

Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot, Direct electric spark obtained with a Ruhmkorff coil or Wimshurst machine, also known as "Trouvelot Figure"; 19th-century photograph; © Musée des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris

Compare this with NASA’s “Earth as Art” series of Landsat images.  Many of these satellite images are beautiful.  I have found remote sensing data of all sorts an inspiration for my own work. Yet despite their spectacularity, I find that they pale in comparison with some often rough, peepholes through a microscope.  They don’t lack for meaning—they pose many profound questions about the detatchment of the viewer from the object, are we seeing what we think we are seeing, what mysteries lie within the reality before our eyes that we can comprehend not?  There’s a postmodern sense of estrangement that I doubt NASA is aware of.

Coast of Guinea Bissau, Image courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office

And maybe that’s it.  A sense of naiveté.  That sense of discovery.  A sense of something that hadn’t been done before.  But is that the case for the shots taken with the Deep Field Camera?  Seeing further into the universe than ever before?  Seeing far into the past; far beyond when the Earth even existed as a planet; to the time when galaxies were closer; presenting a very strange view of reality that was…is..was… is………. whatever….

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Photo credit: NASA/ESA/S. Beckwith(STScI) and The HUDF Team.

Yet with all it’s superprofundity on the early eve of your day, I just can’t qualify it as art.  In the Duchampian “if the artist declares it as art….” sense I don’t think NASA is declaring these images to be art.  They are as art. They contain the beauty and mystery underlying many great works of art, but lack the gestalt.  The messiness; the fumbling around for Truth; that visualising reality in a way that had never been done before (I mean, let’s face it; even the Deep Field Hubble folks had taken photos of spiral/disc/what-be-you galaxy-a-plenty).  And there’s a lack of intentionality– there’s a declaring it to be art after the fact; coming back to Duchamp, it’s as if they are inadvertent readymades.

I am not claiming to make a grand this-is/is not-art statement here.  I realise the line is ambiguous.  But I find it incredible that some of those perfectimperfect MOMA images affected me in a way that few contemporary scientific images (in their traditional forms) actually do.  But it doesn’t mean that science can’t be beautiful either,  isn’t often something that makes you stare in wonder, and contemplate your place in it all.

Some thoughts to ponder until next time….

Posted in Astronomy, Bio Art, Photography, Satellite imagery, What is sci art | 2 Comments

A blog about science in art and art in science

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Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Science and art—two fields that seem to be poles apart.  In today’s culture, you are shoved into one box or another, without much room for escape.  What would our old pal Leonardo da Vinci think of that?  The man who suggested a primitive theory of plate tectonics and invented flying machines was also one of the greatest artists the western world.  Science and art used to go hand-in-hand, and were regarded as essential elements of being an “educated” person.  I’ll admit that I’m making a bit of a generalisation here, but do go with it—in school, students who are talented in art, are not encouraged scientifically—and those who excel science are rarely encouraged in visual art (I say visual because an exception seems to be made for music). To do professionally today is nearly unheard of (though I can’t say I’d mind making a stab at trying).

George Gessert, Natural Selection (1994-present)

But… there are signs that society might be coming around… a bit at least.  Topics relevant to science are increasingly feeding contemporary art.  Bio-artists are using techniques of biology in making their art, questioning issues around genetic engineering and the environment.  It is now not unusual for science departments at universities or not-for-profit organizations to have an artist in residence.  Sometimes this is seen as good PR, a good “engagement” strategy; other times there is a genuine recognition of the contributions that science can make to contemporary art and what the fields can learn from each other.  Believe it or not, there is even a scholarly journal dedicated to art and science. There are increasing calls for artists to engage with the issue of climate change and provide the impetus for action that scientists seem incapable of doing.

Josiah McElheny, Island Universe (2008). Courtesy White Cube.

Josiah McElheny, Island Universe (2008). Courtesy White Cube.

So, why blog?  Mostly as a way of keeping myself up to date on the happenings in the small, but vibrant field of sci art, and a way to occasionally share any relevant work I might make, and highlight the work of various artists engaging with science in various ways.  I am interested in what constitutes “good” sci-art (as far as you’re willing to take that word when it concerns the subjectivity involved in the interpretation of art) and whether making a beautiful image within the context of science = art.  So, here begins the discussion….

Posted in art, introduction | 1 Comment