by Alexis Brachacki, MA Curating Contemporary Design
As a Design and Technology teacher in a large multi-ethic secondary school and a MA Curating Contemporary Design student, I look upon the forthcoming Curating Science Conference from an educational point of view.
What do we teach our kids and how is this learning relevant to a rapidly changing and unpredictable future? Is it necessary to be able to recite the kings and queens of England since 1066, to complete a quadratic equation before breakfast? In recent years concerns have been raised over the value of the content of the education delivered to our young people. According to figures from the OECD, secondary pupils in United Kingdom are slipping behind their international counter parts; in fact this country has dropped in the world educational rankings by about 10 places in same amount of years. Influential voices, educationists Sir Ken Robinson, Guy Claxton and organisations such as the CBI and the Design Council for a long time have been calling for radical reform. In response to these concerns, recent initiatives include a revised National Curriculum focusing on individualised learning and greater scope for creativity, problem solving and self-expression, and the introduction of Personal Thinking and Learning Skills (PLTS). Whilst these are important developments, they do not go far enough.
Let me describe the average day of a high school student. Period one, Maths, followed by French, then Art, and after lunch, English and Science. The next day, a completely different combination of lessons, taught in isolation by specialists, with little connection made between the subjects, therefore little transference of skills and knowledge. The kids look at me in amazement if I talk about gothic cathedrals or the plight of the Orangutan – how can I possibly discuss that, not being a history or biology teacher, and what’s it got to do with cutting wood? In schools, these subjects are positioned at opposite ends of the educational spectrum. Who would expect a chemistry teacher to draw or an art teacher to make their own pigments?
This polarisation and division of labour is a direct product of our 19th century industrial model of education. A professor in electrical engineering from the University of Westminster explained to me that whilst there was no shortage of applicants with outstanding grades in Maths and Physics and a strong theoretical understanding, they struggle to visualise structure and space, which he considered essential engineering skills, because making art and craft had not been taken seriously at school. He recommended that all engineering students have experience in visual arts and craft making.
Teachers of all disciplines and the creative industries need to build lasting partnerships and encourage designers and crafts people to work more closely with schools, providing ‘design and make workshops’, careers advice and work experience opportunities. It is true that there are many successful schemes available, for example, STEMNET, the Design Museum’s ‘Design Ventura’ and the V&A’s ‘Design for Life’, but these only compliment the education of the lucky few.
Maybe I am advocating a return to the spirit of the Renaissance, to break down the boundaries between the arts and science and offer a more holistic educational experience, cultivating generations of modern alchemists.
By Matthew Turtle, MA Curating Contemporary Design
Dissenting voices on the compatibility of the arts and science are a little hard to find these days. On the National Science Foundation website just over two weeks ago Dr. Bevil Conway wrote:
“Although art and science differ in their modes of production, their expert communities, and often their quantifiable utility, both avenues of investigation have provided me with a mechanism to appreciate (and hopefully uncover!) the mysteries of perception. Both are fun.”
Scientists have also become associated with areas far beyond just fun. They’ve recently been called punks and anarchists since they share that wanton sense of exploration, individualism and the desire to make the world around them. Naturally, art and science must therefore make complimentary bedfellows. Certainly, the furore surrounding GV Art’s display of a human brain in their January exhibition can be seen as proof of the provocateur’s existence.
Yet neither approach – art science sensationalism or media outrage – do much for the art. As was put recently by Glenn Adamson in his take on the Crafts Council’s Lab Craft exhibition, a craftsman uses the best tool for the job and you can’t do that if it is the tool that is the focus. Indeed, when we look back on the art movements of old we find that crucial node of debate and that wide spectrum of interpretation afforded by the critics of the time. This is not to say that I am advancing some kind of anachronistic suspicion of science (or artists’ use of it) but it appears that now might be a good time for reflection and discussion on where this all going.
Luckily, the wheels for this are now set in motion and things are moving quickly. In the UK the first Art and Science MA is set to begin at Central Saint Martins this year whilst the field of New Media Art is swollen with academic discourse. Meanwhile the number of organisations offering opportunities in art and science collaboration is considerable.
Hopefully Curating Science can offer signposts in how we interpret and convey the intersection between art and science. In this way we might move beyond tired eventualities, such as immersive installations that engage the senses but lack a critical mass or environmental art that tells you something you already know. It is the ability of art to convey, transcend and inform in novel and unexpected ways that gives it currency and legitimises it. Science can inform and lead this process but it should not become the end or the focus in itself. Nor should the process work in reverse. With this in mind, perhaps we can come up with ways to achieve that balance and bridge that gap.
We’ll have some guest posts and reading lists in the run-up to the conference, but we’ll also be tracking current debates, experiments in new ways of curating, and interesting links as we find them. The past few weeks have seen a good deal of discussion about the science exhibition, and displaying science collections…
In in the latest Museums Journal, Ken Arnold, head of public programmes at the Wellcome, and Thomas Soderquist, director of the Copenhagen Medical Museion, published a manifesto for curating science loosely inspired by Lars von Triers’ 1995 manifesto on purifying the art of film-making. Their objective is to call for a return to simplicity in the science exhibition, with a focus on original material and the sensory potential of objects. Other points argue for the importance of original research and the direct involvement of scientists, and daringly suggest that curators embrace rather than fight the ephemeral and unfinished nature of the exhibition. The manifesto can be read in its entirety on the Wellcome website.
The Medical Museion’s blog discusses in depth the curatorial thinking behind recent exhibition The Chemistry of Life, and it’s interesting to compare this process to the points in Soderqvist’s manifesto. Rather than ending in the 20th century, as the usual exhibition might have done, the curators have found some interesting ways to engage with the forefront of research in biochemical metabolism, and presented the exhibition as a ‘beta’ version that will evolve as the research does.
Also on the Medical Museion blog: how do we communicate the anarchistic element in the production of science through the material and visual objects of science? This question was brought up in response to a recent article in The Scientist ‘Researchers are Punks‘ describing individualism and creativity of the maverick scientist, and has potential to spark some interesting discussion (for starters, the notion brings back to mind the short-lived and never really defined ‘museopunk’ movement, the activities of which are archived here, which might have found some common ground).
And at New Scientist’s CultureLab, Oron Catts, co-curator of the exhibition Visceral: The Living Art Experiment at the Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin, talks about 10 years of SymbioticA at Perth and using art as a means to comment on controversial issues in the life sciences. The exhibition blog for Visceral (which closed on 24 Feb with a ‘funeral’) gives some insight into the challenges of curating a ‘living’ exhibition. As artists turn to living systems in DIY biolabs and other scary-sounding developments, will these kinds of challenges become a common part of the curator’s role?
Ele Carpenter is a curator and writer based in London. Her Open Source Embroidery project explores the relationship between craft and code. www.open-source-embroidery.org.uk
Ada Byron Lovelace (1815-1852) is famous for describing computer
programming 100 years ahead of her time (1). She also made the
intellectual connections between weaving and computing, art and
science. A true academic, she paid careful attention to first
principles, and took care to define her terms. She was a mathematician like her mother, but was also influenced by the idea of her absent father the poet Lord Byron. Ada Lovelace called her passion for integrating artistic and scientific thinking “poetical science” (Toole, 1992, p319).
In her letters Ada describes her mathematical work as increasing her
poetic imagination. ‘Poetical Science’ uses metaphor to think
through new ideas about science and mathematics. Not just a form of data visualization – but as a mode of conceptual thought.
In 1841 Ada wrote an essay that explored scientific enquiry as a form of imagination:
“Imagination I think is especially two fold. First: it is the
Combining Faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas,
conceptions, in new, original, endless, every varying Combinations. It
seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent
connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition.
Secondly: it conceives & brings into mental presence that which is far away, or invisible, or which in short does not exist within our
physical & conscious cognizance. Hence is it especially the religious
faculty; the ground-work of faith. It is a God-like, a noble faculty.
It renders Earth tolerable (at least it should do so); it teaches us
to live, in the tone of the eternal. Imagination is the Discovering
Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen
worlds around us, the worlds of Science.” (Toole, 1992, p136-7)
Here it seems as if Ada is using the language and concepts of
contemporary art discourse: rendering the invisible, juxtaposing
subjects and ideas, collapsing distance, visioning or visualizing,
teaching us quality of everyday life on earth, and as a way of seeing
into the “worlds of science”. Here the notion of poetic imagination,
or ‘poetical science’ creates an aesthetic and critical space for
creative practice, and is equally relevant in our inter-disciplinary
(1) Ada Lovelace understood the potential of Babbage’s ‘Analytical
Engine’ to be much more than a calculator. Lovelace translated an
article about the engine by Luigi Menabrea in 1842, adding her own
thorough notes, which were longer than the original paper. It is these
notes that reveal how she understood the analytical processes of the
engine and the potential for it to be programmed to manipulate symbols as well as numbers. The paper and notes were published in Scientific Memoirs, Vol 3 (1842).)
Plant, Sadie (1997). Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New
Technoculture. London: Fourth Estate.
Toole, Betty Alexandra (1992). Ada the Enchantress of Numbers: A
Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron’s
by Andrew Donovan, Director, Inter-Arts & Business Operations
The Australia Council’s Synapse art/science strategy is approaching its tenth year. In this time, we have funded significant research collaborations between artists and scientists in the field of robotics, locative media, virtual reality, cinema research and haptic technology. Additionally, we have funded nearly 20 residencies with science institutions in partnership with the Australian Network for Art & Technology.
The Synapse ARC Linkage Grant scheme aims to support artists in genuine research collaborations with scientists. The challenge of this approach is to ensure that the research work of the artists and the scientists is influencing each discipline.
Our experience is when first steps are taken in these art/science partnerships, scientists often have the perspective that the artist’s role is to visualise the science research or communicate science outcomes to the broader community. Indeed at an art and ecology roundtable held in 2008, there was a strong division between scientists and artists about their role in addressing climate change. The scientists argued for working with artists who would use their data in a logical and representational way, while the artists maintained their strong desire to interpret and use the data in a far more abstract creative development process. There was also a strong division between artists working with communities to make artworks that create awareness, and those who create work for communities that provoke issues of climate change.
While respecting the benefits of each approach, Synapse has aimed to promote a richer form of collaboration: one where the artist and the scientist are equal partners.
There is nothing wrong with an artist working with a scientist on a science communication project, and it should be encouraged. However, science needs to value the research and development side of artistic practice, and the potential new thinking and knowledge an artist’s approach to their science can bring (and vice versa). The Australia Council’s art/science program endeavours to enable such partnerships and promote the value in exploring collaborative practice-based research.
There have been some excellent outcomes in the ARC Linkage program, where the artist/scientist collaborations have continued well beyond the length of the research program. And where the artist and the scientist have together truly influenced the research outcomes of the disciplines. These are examples of a trans-disciplinary approach to solving problems and are exciting signposts of a future where discipline silos are breaking down. A description of these project can be found at here.
Other Australian examples include the wonderful work of SymbioticA in Western Australia, which is also enjoying ten years of success in partnering artists with scientists within the biological science department of the University of WA.
Curators of art/science need to be acutely aware of the different approaches to this practice. Work needs to be exhibited both within an aesthetic context, but also within a context of purpose, which may include scientific, social and ethical enquiry, and in a way that evokes to an audience a sense of process and collaboration between the two disciplines.