Today, I ended up by accident in an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts called ‘Earth – Art of a changing world’. I saw the poster while standing in the queue for the Anish Kapoor show, which a friend had recommended seeing. Finally arriving at the desk after queueing in the rain behind some far too cheerful people, I asked for a joint ticket for Anish Kapoor as well as Earth. The ticket I received read Anish Kapoor/GSK contemporary. What on…er… Earth was a GSK exhibition? An arts movement I had not heard of? The initials sounded somewhat familiar, though. After checking with the ticket lady, I was assured that it was the right exhibition, Earth, and that this exhibition was located in a special gallery at the back of the building. So, after indulging in the spludgy goodness of the Anish Kapoor exhibition, I trekked around the building, through the slightly surreal Burlington Arcade (even more surreal if you are walking through it in a black hoodie sporting a bright biohazard logo, trousers and shoes that are on the brink of falling apart and no make-up). At the other end, I found the mystery entrance, framed by Oyster stalls (the animal, not the travel pass) and hot water bottle carrying waitresses. Even more confused by this point, I entered the building. There, I indeed found myself in the right place, and GSK turned out to be the initials of the sponsor, GlaxoSmithKline – whoops! So now I knew why the initials had had a familiar ring – just had not expected to find them in such a place. But then, I should not be surprised, having just finished writing my chapter on the politics around museum engagement…
Ticket queue at the Royal Academy of Arts
The exhibition, once I had acclimatised, was actually rather good! I liked that it addressed a few themes that I am currently thinking and writing about, such as the role of the artist and the bridging of public and scientific spaces. The exhibition booklet, for instance, hints at the debate around the changing role of the artist in the face of ecological/technological issues. Will artists become negotiators, translators, de-mystifyers and visionaries – or ‘provocateur(s), upholder(s) of the collective conscience, observer(s)’? Pointedly, one of the forewords is written by Chris Rapley, Director of the London Science Museum. I was also lucky to catch quite a bit of the curator talk during which Kathleen Soriano and (as far as I could determine) David Buckland gave a substantial amount of background to the exhibition. The aim of the exhibition, for instance, was described as ‘not wanting to display photos of polar bears or icebergs’ to communicate the topic, but deliver a ‘fresh, poetic approach’ through art.
‘CO2morrow’ by Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni
I was pleasantly surprised that the curators were not overselling the exhibition. The artwork came across as very diverse, tackling the subject matter from a healthy variety of angles and offering surprises even to the most jaded geographer. Obviously, I could empathise with some works more than others, but most of them could relate to – through empathy with the artistic approach, the choice of topic, or the artists’ technique of making the visitors trace their journey. Something important that ‘eARTh’ addressed for me was the often tragi-comical and clumsy ways in which humans interact with their so-called environment: ‘macho’ car cult(ure), damaging love for nature and fascination with disaster (at its most comical portrayed in Tracey Moffatt’s ‘Doomed’). This is a nuance often left out of the communication of environmental issues. I always have the feeling that the message of ‘buy smaller cars, use less water, bring your own bags’ will not work unless the complexity behind such seemingly banal behaviours is addressed. There is much more to say about this exhibition, however, I am quite exhausted from cycling around in London traffic for hours and from a general overload of sensory impressions after cramming too many things into one day! I am curious, though, how other visitors have experienced/are experiencing the exhibition. If you have seen it (or even if you have not seen it!) – please leave a comment!
Ah, and I almost forgot to mention that there are a few more events coming up in connection with this exhibition. I’d especially recommend going to the ‘Fire’ debate on Friday, 22 January 2010 (6.30–10pm)!
Source: Arts Catalyst
I have heard the name ‘Dark Places’ being mentioned quite a few times this year. I vaguely remember looking something up, but cannot recall any details. From next week, however, the unenlightened masses will be allowed a peek into the mystery that is ‘Dark Places’… at least if you’re in, around or in travelling distance of Southampton, where the following exhibition can be viewed:
Office of Experiments, Steve Rowell, Beatriz da Costa,
Victoria Halford and Steve Beard
24 November 2009 – 23 January 2010
John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, Southampton, SO17 1BJ
Open: Tuesday to Friday 11am – 5pm, Saturday 11am – 4pm
Closed: 24 December 2009 – 4 January 2010
And: it’s FREE!
According to the website, ‘Dark Places uncovers sites of secrecy and technology across Britain’. I am curious how this is set in scene… must get myself down there!
Image source: Exploring the Invisible
Thanks to a friend who specialises in knowing about free things in London (thanks, Ron!), I found out about the Tesla art-science group at UCL and their free talk series, facilitated by Gordana Novakovic and Amanda Egbe. Conveniently close to the British Library where I’d been hovering over some books for most of the day, their most recent talk, ‘Creative Collaborations with Superorganisms’ also made a convenient break from reading/writing routine. The talk was given by Dr. Simon Park, a microbiologist from the University of Surrey, who became interested in engaging people with field through art-science.
I think the talk would have been equally interesting had he just talked about microbes for hours. After all, one doesn’t get exposed to the intricacies of the field through mainstream media very often, apart from the one half hour of ‘The Material World’ once a week if you’re lucky or, somewhat second hand, through a food scare or the like. Although I do listen to ‘The Material World’ as often as I can, there were quite a few things in his talk I did not know about or had ascribed to the latest fantasies of social scientists or science fiction writers. The biggest surprise, perhaps, was that we can culture and study only a small part of bacteria ‘out there’ (I think it was around 1% !) – there is a vast area of what Park terms ‘Dark Microbiological Matter’ of which we don’t know what they do in the environment.
At the beginning of the talk, Park traced the joint human-bacterial history and co-evolution. Obviously, humans entered the picture a bit later and remain ‘a process instead of becoming a finished beast’ (I think he was quoting W. Hou Je Bek there). Park showed how our body is made up of distinctly separate, but symbiotic bacteria and cell territories. A telling example later on about our relationship with bacteria was death by cyanide: cyanide is not harmful to the body, but kills the bacteria in such a fashion that the bacterial exodus kills the body.
In terms of our human-bacterial future, Parks pointed towards the current climate change debate. He lamented that we only know that bacteria can have huge effects on the climate, but about the ‘how’ we can only speculate.
Next, we were given an insight into bacterial life which is ‘not as simple as people think’. For instance, they can respond to their environment, order themselves into formations, communicate with each other, pack hunt, ‘vote’ on a decision (e.g. sporulation) and grow into different shapes according to their environment. Their behaviour ‘in the wild’ also differs from their behaviour in controlled laboratory environments (must be one hell of a job to study them!). It was interesting to hear that bacteria sometimes ‘form patterns that scientists don’t understand yet’.
Park then moved on to the ‘art side’ of the talk, drawing attention to the fact, that microbiology already meets art (the word ‘bacteri-art’ came to my mind…) in both useful and annoying ways: all art has invisible microflora growing in or on it (which can destroy artworks or be the purpose of them at the same time), and there is, of course, an overlap of artistic and technical representation in science illustration. We were shown some examples of ‘art directly or accidentally portraying microbes’ – examples of illnesses or notable absence of bacteria – and some more recent examples of artworks where microbes were used as part of the artistic process, starting from Alexander Fleming’s ‘germ paintings’. Other artists included Daro Montag, Edgar Lissel and Susan Boafo (who used algae and light for her project ‘Speaking with the Sun’).
In the last part of the talk, Park presented some of the outcomes of his own collaborations. In the first of these, the ’60 Days of Goodbye Poems of Ophelia’, artist Jo Wonder and Park tried to recreate the John Everett Millais painting with bacteria to document the painting’s life cycle. It was quite amusing to hear Park talk about ‘finding a suitable bacterial palette’ for the ‘morphing painting’. I wonder what Millais would have though about this endeavour…
Other projects included the ‘Microcosmos’, an installation using the colour, shape and even DNA sequences to created sounds and moving visuals, ‘Cybernetic Bacteria’ which explored links between organic and digital forms of communication, a project amplifying ‘bacterial fingerprints’, ‘Exploring the Invisible’ during which bioluminescent bacteria were grown in such quantities that they could run their own photobooth, and ‘Creative Collaborations with Natural Unruly Forms’, a project using Park’s ‘favourite’ species: slime mould. The latter explores the slime mould’s capacity to move over objects in search of food, creating ‘intelligent biogenic designs’. If I remember correctly, slime mould can even find the quickest way out of a maze (which I probably wouldn’t ;) ).
The Q & A was also very fascinating. We all came from quite different backgrounds with different interests in the subject matter, so the questions and comments ranged from our body’s design based on cell death to the ‘geology of blood’ (how iron and other ‘inorganic’ substances evolved into the body from the environment). The latter prompted Park to talk about the ‘arms race’ between the body and bacteria to bind iron during an infection.
So, by the end of the evening, we all ended up with a positively weird picture of hungry, ambitious, sociable, hitch-hiking, exploring, communicating bacteria which artist are helping to ‘express themselves’ in different sort of ‘collaborations’, for instance, by making them grow on and in different materials (I most vividly remember the growths in the agar agar jars and the shockingly exquisite bacterial fabric designs). It made me very curious about what kind of ‘collaborations’ there will be in the future between different forms of live – in and outside of art. Watch this space!
Check out the Nanobama to see how it was made. It is also interesting to see how the imagery is used to mobilise people to engage with nanotechnology in a supportive way (to promote economic growth). This is quite a different use compared to the nanoart of, for instance, Alessandro Scale and Robin Goode who use the nanoscale to draw attention to ‘invisible’ but materially present problems in our world.