Arts Catalyst NEWS: The Live Creature and Ethereal Things: How Contemporary Art is Transforming Science


The Live Creature and Ethereal Things: How Contemporary Art is Transforming Science

Friday, October 13, 2017 - 10:00Semiconductor_0.jpg?itok=s2SgElN7Image: Semiconductor, Catching the Light, 2014

An Interdisciplinary Workshop

Institute of Physics, London, Friday 13th October 2017, 10am-6pm

Open call to physicists interested in joining the workshop

Arts Catalyst with Leverhulme-funded research fellow and artist Fiona Crisp and the Institute of Physics are exploring the value of extending artists’ practice into the realm of fundamental physics and astronomy research to explore how contemporary art’s extension into science can be transformative for science, for scientists, and for science’s relationship the wider world. Key themes that have emerged include bringing physics into the realm of human experience, the co-creation of new interdisciplinary knowledge, and the ability of artists to craft ideas and experiences from scientific data and concepts.

Many areas of contemporary science, including cosmology, particle physics and astrophysics, operate at scales and levels of complexity that lie beyond the imaginative and cognitive grasp of most people. Historically, Western culture measured space and time through the body, but over the centuries science and technology have pursued knowledge beyond the edges of bodily perception, from the macro extremes of the multiverse to the micro-scale of the sub-atomic world. Today, with advanced science and technology, and with the accelerating impact of human activity on the planet, we live in new scales of size and speed that we cannot easily comprehend. If so much knowledge comes through scientific instruments and mathematics, how can we humans - biological sensing beings that John Dewey refers to as the “live creative” – make sense of it within our own experience? A new generation of artists is now collecting data about their world using scientific instruments for their cultural purposes, making science intimate, sensual and intuitive, opening the potential for a greater cultural assimilation of scientific knowledge.

Another reason for the disconnect of modern science and public understanding is the institutional isolation of science. Today, there are signs that kinds of “micro science” or “civic/citizen science” are developing, a new form of people’s science made possible by new affordable tools and public access to the internet and to scientific data. Artists are at the forefront of this movement.

When John Dewey wrote about Art as Experience in 1934, he was attempting to shift the understanding of what is important and characteristic about art from its physical manifestations in the “object” to the process in its entirety, a process whose fundamental element is no longer the material object, but rather the development of an “experience” that personally affects your life. Dewey used the term “ethereal things” (from Keats) to condemn aesthetic theories that elevated art too far above its pragmatic experiential roots, but his co-opting of the term can also be understood as the artist’s use of the “earth and its contents” to create art. Replace “science” for art and a similar argument might be made to root science in its practical, experienced reality. Astrophysics and particle physics probe the limits of the known, the limits of language and concept, and present a kind of abstraction or transcendence that can free us from commonsensical thinking. Yet they are undertaken by human beings in real world laboratories and observatories, driven, shaped and influenced by those people’s cultural backgrounds, education, funding requirements, teaching obligations, family commitments, societal norms, aspirations, rivalries and dreams. Artists, not motivated by any desire to educate or inform people about science but simply by their own fascinations, have brought a variety of approaches to representing experiences of physics and encounters with physicists, relating scientific concepts to their origins and significance, and fostering vital personal experiencing with science, as well as using metaphors to expand perception.

Some examples of artists’ projects are described below:

UK artist Katie Paterson is known for her poetic and conceptually driven artworks, such as All the Dead Stars, a large map documenting the locations of 27,000 dead stars, 100 Billion Suns, a confetti cannon, each piece of paper matched to the colours of the brightest explosions in the universe, and History of Darkness, a slide archive of darkness from throughout the Universe, spanning billions of years.

Argentinian-born artist Tomás Saraceno’s project Hybrid Webs involved live spiders spinning tiny universes, each sculpture appearing as a unique galaxy interwoven from silvery spider silk by different arachnid species, cosmic dust deposited on the webs with intricate filaments alluding to dwarf and spiral galaxies, nebulae and quasars, while his 163,000 Light Years is a film lasting the length of time it takes for the light from the Large Magellanic Cloud to reach the Earth.

UK artist group Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt)’s film Do You Think Science asks a group of space physicists the unanswerable and, in doing so, reveals hidden motivations driving scientists to the outer limits of human knowledge. In striving to answer the question, the physicists open a Pandora’s Box of limitations within science itself, revealing their own philosophical confines. In other works, such as Brilliant Noise and Catching the Light, Semiconductor have mined raw unprocessed data to create static-filled, jittery, mesmerising black and white films of solar storms.

Italian artist Micol Assaël’s interest in science and forgotten scientific theories led her to collaborate with a physics research institute in Moscow. Referencing the Russian scientist Alexander Chizhevsky (1897-1964), who conducted experiments testing the influence of ionised air on living creatures. Assaël’s Chizhevsky Lessons consists of a vast room constantly charged with negative ions, which build up a weak electrostatic tension inside the space. Visitors receive an electrostatic charge upon entering the space, causing small electric sparks whenever they touched an object or another person, confronting the viewer with the immateriality of electricity.

Scientists who collaborate with artists have begun to articulate what they gain from these exchanges. James Wells, the theoretical physicist who was the “inspirational partner” for CERN artist in residence Julius von Bismarck has talked about valuing having someone around who sees the world in a different way, whose influence, Wells remarked, could shake up accepted mindsets, noting that the process of becoming a scientist can “snuff out the daring impulse” in young scientists and that the “tremendous daring and openness of ideas” of artists might really benefit the scientific community: “The first thought of an artist is not can we do this, but ‘this is what I want to do’”.

In their artworks, the artists discussed above make no attempt to depict the scientific concepts involved in their subject matter. Rather they reveal and explore phenomena, ideas and histories of discovery outside everyday human experience, making us able to sense and experience them or in some way grasp their significance and profoundness, as well as – in some cases – providing insight into the human beings whose work is to study the fundamental science of the universe.

This inquiry has been triggered by artist Fiona Crisp, who has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust for her research project, Material Sight, that employs non-documentary photography and film to bring science back within our world as experience by using still and moving imagery to place us in a bodily relation to the physical spaces and laboratories where fundamental science is performed. Crisp is undertaking this research at three sites: the Laboratori Nazionale del Gran Sasso in Italy, the world’s largest underground research centre for particle physics, Boulby Underground Dark Matter Laboratory, which occupies the UK’s deepest working mine, and the combined facilities at Durham University that include The Centre for Advanced Instrumentation and the Institute of Computational Cosmology.

♣ The aim of the workshop is to bring together a dynamic group of artists, scientists, curators, academics and educationalists to discuss their experience and ideas relating the interface of contemporary art and fundamental physics and/or cosmology.

♣ The event will be structured to promote as much discussion as possible and it is intended that this discourse will move beyond the instrumentalised model, often favoured by funding and commissioning bodies, of art illustrating science or promoting science.

♣ We will produce an e-book extending out from the workshop’s proceedings, which will incorporate a variety of texts by contributors, interviews, and images from artworks.

♣ We aim to establish a network that can work towards a re-imagining of the non-expert’s encounter with fundamental physics and the physics of the universe.

We are inviting contemporary artists who have worked with scientists (or in scientific residencies), scientists who have been involved in conversations and collaborations with art/artists that have altered their perception of their science and/or how they practice it, and others with specialist interests and expertise in this topic.

Speakers include Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer, Royal Observatory, Professor Tara Shears, Physicist, Liverpool University, Fiona Crisp, artist and Leverhulme Fellow, Dr Suchitra Sebastian, Director, Cavendish Arts-Science Project and Lecturer in Physics, University of Cambridge, Monica Bello, curator and Head of Arts@CERN, Nicola Triscott, Artistic Director, Arts Catalyst, and Ruth Jarman, artist.

If you would like to be part of the conversation, please send a statement of interest, outlining your experience of working or conversing with artists, and how this has altered your perception of science, your practice, and/or how scientific knowledge is produced, with a brief biog, to Nicola Triscott, Artistic Director/CEO, Arts by Sunday 1 October 2017.

We will contact you by Friday 6 October if we are able to offer you a place on the workshop. Numbers are very limited, so we will not be able to include everyone. However, this is the start of a longer-term projects, and hope to involve more people as it evolves.