A place that exists only in moonlight

Visiting Turner Contemporary, Margate and Katie Paterson’s new show for the Financial Times, 30 January 2019

Cyril Connolly, literary lion of the 1930s, reckoned that the surest way of killing off writers was to baff on about their promise. Calling artists “visionary” might have the same effect now.

A new show at Turner Contemporary in Margate juxtaposes JMW Turner watercolours with work by Scottish-born conceptual artist Katie Paterson. The fit seems reasonable. Both artists are fascinated by light. But Turner was a visionary artist, while Paterson, born 1981, is not.. Her value (and it’s considerable) lies elsewhere.

Turner’s deft atmospheric squiggles hang next to an airfreight parcel, a shelving unit full of light bulbs and several thousand photographic slides depicting nothing. Paterson defends the wheeze with spirit: “I don’t find my work itself scientific,” she writes, on wall information at the head of the exhibition. “It deals with phenomena and matter, space-time, colour and light, the natural world as materials. Like Turner’s work, it is rooted in sensory experience.”

True, you can find sensory experience if you go looking for it. Her 2007 piece “Earth-Moon-Earth” used Morse code to bounce the score of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata off the Moon. An automated piano performs the rather gappy version that survived the round-trip. The moment you wonder where the missing notes went, you enter dreamland. 289 replacement light bulbs sit ready to power Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008) through the course of an average human lifetime. They are tuned to exactly recreate the effulgence of a full moon. I stepped into the installation expecting nothing, only to be propelled in my imagination back to the night walks of my childhood.

But sensory experience doesn’t sit at the heart of every Paterson work, or even many of them.

There’s lots of precision. “It needs to be accurate to be imagined,” says the artist of a 2008 wheeze in which people phoned up Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier to hear it melting in real time. If all you got was the artist splashing about in her kitchen sink, what would be the point of the work?

Her literalistic approach pushes Paterson into entertaining contortions. Alongside her concern for accuracy and truth, I think we should add a love of logistics. Second Moon (2013-14), a fragment of the Moon sent on a year-long journey counterclockwise around the earth via air freight, is a game of scale in which human and astronomical perspectives vie for contention. Other projects haven’t gone as smoothly. For five years Paterson sent letters of condolence to friendly astronomers, marking the deaths of individual stars. Dying Star Letters (2011-present) threatened to overwhelm her, however as improvements in observation caused her inbox to overflow with stellar deaths.

A core of necessary failure is present in many of Paterson’s pieces. Some projects are threatened by technological obsolescence. The 2,200 slides of empty space that make up The History of Darkness (begun in 2010) can only be added to for as long as someone makes slides (they’re already difficult to get hold of). A brand-new piece for this exhibition is a spinning wheel depicting the overall colour balance of the universe throughout its history. Its inks are pinpoint-accurate for now, but in two years’ time, when they have faded ever so slightly, what will The Cosmic Spectrum (2019) be worth?

Turner never had this problem. His criterion of truth was different. Paterson cares about measurement. He cared about witness. An honestly witnessed play of light against a cloud can be achieved through the right squiggle. An accurate measurement of the same phenomenon must be the collaborative work of meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, astronomers, colour scientists, and who knows how many other specialists, with Paterson riding everyone’s coat-tails as a sort of tourist.

As a foil for Paterson, we need someone who invents the world out of words, who thinks in conceits and metaphors, and who explores them with an almost naive diligence.

We need John Donne. “On a round ball / A workman that hath copies by, can lay / An Europe, Afric, and an Asia, / And quickly make that, which was nothing, all”. These lines from A Valediction: of Weeping come far closer to defining Paterson’s practice than anything Turner can offer. Donne’s Holy Sonnets, especially, are full of the sorts of questions that power Paterson’s art. “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” “Why are we by all creatures waited on?” “What if this present were the world’s last night?”

Mounted on the wall of Turner Contemporary, Paterson’s ideas include “The universe rewound and played back in real time;” “A wave machine hidden inside the sea;” “A foghorn set off at sea every time a star dies.” Not content with setting down her ideas in words (though you can buy a book of them here, printed in ink mixed with ground-up meteorite), Paterson tries to make the more doable ones actually happen. Her artworks are the koans of Zen meditative practice made real — or as real as the world allows.

Paterson’s out to celebrate the hugeness of our imaginations, while recognising our physical and temporal littleness. She’s not visionary; she’s metaphysical. The show’s terrific, but Turner’s not the right foil.

Implausible science and ambiguous art

Visiting Broken Symmetries at FACT, Liverpool for the Financial Times, 30 November 2018

In The Science of Discworld 4: Judgement Day, mathematician Ian Stewart and reproductive biologist Jack Cohen have fun at the expense of the particle-physics community.

Imagine a group of blind sages in a hotel, poking at a foyer piano. After some hours, they arrive at an elegant theory about what a piano is — one that involves sound, frequency, harmony, and the material properties of piano strings.

Then one of their number suggests that they carry the piano upstairs and drop it from the roof. This they do — and spend the rest of the day dreaming up and knocking over countless ugly hypotheses involving hypothetical “twangons” and “thudons” and, oh, I don’t know, “crash bosons”.

The point — that the physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva might be constructing the very quantum reality they were hired to study — is lost on none of the 10,000-odd scientists and engineers involved with the project. And this awareness — that the very idea of science is up for grabs here — may explain why CERN’s scientists have taken so warmly to the artists dropped in their midst.

They come on brief visits from the 22 countries that contribute to CERN’s budget. The more established of them — people like Trevor Paglen and Tomás Saraceno — stay for weeks at a time, pursuing some special project. There are joint residencies next year that will see artists shuttling between CERN and astronomical observatories in Chile. Most productive of all are the lucky few chosen for CERN’s Collide International residency programme.

Winning the Collide International gets you two fully funded months in CERN’s labs and labyrinths, rubbing shoulders with arguably the best (and certainly the strangest) minds in physics.

For the exhibition Broken Symmetries at FACT in Liverpool, Arts at CERN director Monica Bello and Peruvian scientist and curator Jose Carlos Mariategui have commissioned new work by CERN’s recent residents, runners-up and honorable mentions. It’s a celebration of CERN’s three-year curatorial collaboration with FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Design. Next April the show moves to CCCB , the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, where it will effectively advertise CERN’s next three-year partnership, with Barcelona’s city council.

From there, Broken Symmetries travels to Le Lieu Unique in Nantes, France and iMAL, the centre for digital cultures and technology in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Belgium, where it finally shuts up shop in the summer of 2020. All this travelling has a point. Since the end of the nineteenth century, physics has been — out of intellectual and financial necessity — an international institution.

So there is a nice double-meaning to the title of the video made for this show by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who work under the name Semiconductor. The View from Nowhere refers to the scientific ideal of objective observation. But by echoing PM Theresa May’s notorious “citizens of nowhere” jibe, it just as effectively trumpets the rootless cosmopolitanism of the scientific community.

The video itself is almost pure anthropology, as the pair explore why it is that people working on the same project explain what they’re doing in so many different ways. Language is full of traps. The hidden world of particles can only be conceptualised by analogies and metaphors, which themselves are limited or misleading. The visual stylings of artists are just as unreliable, of course, but at least they supplement the vocabulary available to researchers. This is one of the possibilities that excites the architect of the residency programme, Monica Bello: “Since I began, it has been very important to me to bring artworks and experiences to the scientific community. This,” she points out, “is an audience in itself.”

Some art here addresses its patrons directly, in the eighteenth-century manner. Through narrative, memoir and archive, Taiwan-born Londoner Yu-Chen Wang explores the human scale of the CERN project. Her video installation We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there seeks to acknowledge CERN’s unsung multitudes: its technicians, analysts and engineers.

South Korean artist Yunchul Kim reveals the aesthetic elements of his patrons’ work. His sketchbooks, recently on show at the Korean Cultural Centre in London, stripped the components of the Large Hadron Collider (almost all hand-turned — there’s nothing mass-produced about the LHC) down to their design elements. Here, with a three-part sculpture called Cascade, Kim fashions a mechanism that, in homage to the LHC, makes sub-atomic activities visible. Each time a cosmic particle hits his handmade detector, a signal is sent to a gigantic chandelier-like structure. This, in response, pumps a clear, viscous liquid through countless narrow capillary tubes which trail across the floor of the gallery and up into swooping tubes of clear Perspex. Because the refractive index of the capillaries matches the refractive index of the Perspex, the capillaries vanish inside the tubes, leaving beads of liquid apparently suspended in mid-air, rather as one might imagine particles suspended in the magnetic ring of CERN’s collider.

Visitors to CERN run the risk of being inundated by information, and some artists here have saved themselves from drowning by clutching at esoteric straws. Works like Lea Porsager’s Cosmic Strike (a concoction of 3D-animated strings and a neutrino horn from the LHC stores) and Haroon Mirza and Jack Jelfs’s one1one — a bopping 100bpm disco floor drawing on incantation, ritual, and the relationship between written and spoken word — are not the betrayals of hard science they might at first seem. Physics at this extreme tips into metaphysics very easily, witness the ongoing arguments over whether elegant but untestable string theories count as science at all.

Diann Bauer’s Scalar Oscillation, a collaboration with the sound artist Seth Ayyaz, tackles the science head-on. How are we to encapsulate, in painting or poetry or any human medium, the scalar richness of the world, which is so much bigger than we are and so much more intricate than we can possibly perceive? A single sound shrinks to a click, then expands to reveal the oceanic reverberations hidden at its heart. Clean-edged, constructivist visuals try, and fail, to reduce the world to a single sign. Suzanne Treister takes an even more literal approach with The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History, which treats images like particles in an accelerator, projecting over 25,000 pictures from art history (from cave paintings to contemporary art) at 25 frames per second in a looped sequence.

James Bridle’s State of Sin simply offers the scientists of CERN something they can use: random numbers. A family of goofy tripods gathers numbers from the gallery environment: the temperature of the air, the airflow generated by a desk fan, from sounds in the gallery and from fluctuations in the light spilling from a neon tube. Bridle’s point being, CERN’s complex computations require a constant supply of random numbers, and such true randomness cannot be computed, but must be fetched from the messiness of the world.

How many visitors will “get” Bridle’s work? How many, resting their chins on the frame of Juan Cortes’s ingenious clockwork galaxy Supralunar, will realise that the sounds shivering through their jawbones are drawn in real time from the movements of optic fibres inside the clockwork, and that they echo with surprising accuracy the patterns in astronomical data from which scientists have inferred the existence of dark matter? The answer to such boorish questions has traditionally been, “You get out of art what you bring to it, so it doesn’t matter.”

But with this sort of art, I think it does matter. Art that derives from other cultural production must always contend with a creeping sense of its own bankruptcy. Pop art succeeded in making art out of pre-existing media because it flaunted that bankruptcy, chose mass media, and was prepared to laugh at itself.

The art of Broken Symmetries, on the other hand, feeds off highly abstruse media — off bubble-chamber drawings and statistical analyses, all of them generated in pursuit of one fixed and timeless standard cosmological model. This art can’t but struggle to find a purchase in a world full of (indeed, glutted with) other, more familiar, more lively aesthetic vocabularies.

My uneasy feeling is that the artists have done rather too good a job of pointing up the existential implausibility of the whole enterprise. I was reminded of John Gardner’s short, savage novel Grendel, which tells the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view.

“They only think they think,” grumbles Grendel, who has the measure of both our intellect and our vanity. “No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spider-webs. But they rush across chasms on spider-webs, and sometimes they make it, and that, they think, settles that!”

 

Liquid Crystal Display: Snap judgements

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Visiting Liquid Crystal Display at SITE Gallery, Sheffield, for New Scientist, 31 October 2018

Untitled Gallery was founded in Sheffield in 1979. It specialised in photography. In 1996 it was renamed Site Gallery and steadily expanded its remit to cover the intersection between science and art. Nearly 30 years and a £1.7million refit later, Site Gallery is the new poster child of Sheffield’s Cultural Industries Quarter, with an exhibition, Liquid Crystal Display, that cleverly salutes its photographic past.

Most shows about art value the results over the ingredients. The picture matters more than the paint. The statue matters more than the stone. Exhibitions about photography give rather more space to process because photography’s ingredients are so involved and fascinating.

Liquid Crystal Display follows this photographic logic to its end. This is a show about the beauty, weight and messiness of materials we notice only when they’ve stopped working. It’s about the beauty created by a broken smartphone screen, a corroded battery, a cracked lens.

Site Gallery’s new exhibition – a cabinet of curiosities if ever there was one – collides science and art, the natural and the manufactured, the old and the new. It puts the exquisite sketches of 19th-century Scottish chemist and photographer Mungo Ponton (detailing his observations of how crystals polarise light), next to their nearest contemporary equivalent: microscopic studies (pictured) of liquid crystals caught in the process of self-organisation by Waad AlBawardi, a Saudi molecular biologist who’s currently in Edinburgh, researching the structure of DNA organisation inside cells.

This provocative pairing of the relatively simple and the manifestly complex is repeated several times. Near a selection of crystals from John Ruskin’s mineral collection sit the buckets, burners and batteries of Jonathan Kemp, Martin Howse and Ryan Jordan’s The Crystal World project, a tabletop installation recording their hot, smelly, borderline-hazardous effort to extract the original minerals from bits of scavenged computers. Curated by Laura Sillars, assisted by Site Gallery’s own Angelica Sule, Liquid Crystal Display reveals the material, mineral reality behind our oh-so-weightless holographic world of digital imagery. “Liquid crystals polarise light, produce colour and yet, as a material form, recede into the background of technology,” Sillars wrote in the catalogue to this show.

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This awareness is not new, of course. In the 1960s, liquid crystals were being burned on overhead projectors to create psychedelic light shows. J G Ballard’s novel The Crystal World (1966) concocted a paranoid vision of a world and a civilisation returned (literally) to its mineral roots. That story receives a handsome homage here from the scifi-obsessed Norwegian artist Anne Lislegaard, whose stark monochrome animation (above) turns the sharp shadows and silhouettes cast by contemporary domestic furniture into insidious crystalline growths.

Arrayed within Anna Barham’s peculiar hexagonal cabinetwork, a gigantic piece of display furniture that is itself an artwork, the pictures, objects, films and devices in Liquid Crystal Display speak to pressing topical worries – resource depletion, environmental degradation, the creeping uncanny of digital experience – while at the same time evoking a peculiar nostalgia for our photochemical past.

The exhibition lacks one large signature object against which visitors can take selfies. A peculiar omission in a show that’s relaunching a gallery. And a bit of a shame for an exhibition that, in its left-field way, has handsomely captured the philosophical essence of photography.

York Mediale 2018: Playing with shadows

Visiting York Mediale 2018 for New Scientist, 19 October 2018

The dancers performing Strange Stranger at this year’s inaugural York Mediale (tagline: “Art, Meet the Future”) weren’t just moving about in the shadows. They were leaving shadows behind them, thanks to wrist-worn tracking devices and a complex, computer-driven LED-lit set. And over the course of the festival, which ran from 27 September to 6 October this year, visitors were able to explore the set and leave their own shadows in the air.

Alexander Whitley and his dance company have caught our eye before with 8 Minutes, a visceral and surprisingly true-to-fact dance about the internal processes of the sun. Their new piece is a play on the concept of the “data shadow” – a digital profile formed from all the information we unintentionally leave behind through our routine use of technology. That Whitley has turned to the dark for Strange Stranger says something about the eeriness that’s been slipping into contemporary art for some while.

It’s a mordant piece, and perhaps technically not quite there yet, because the dancers aren’t just leaving shadows; they’re actually getting lost in shadows. The net effect of all this energetic movement, then, is a sense of creeping powerlessness.

The same mood – part melancholy, part anxious – also marks Strata Rock Dust Stars, the flagship exhibition at this new media arts festival, which, it’s just been announced, is due to return in 2020.

Curated by Mike Stubbs, director of Liverpool’s FACT gallery, the exhibition runs until 25 November. Melancholy notes are struck by David Jacques, whose installation Oil is the Devil’s Excrement (2017) reveals by degrees that we have never been in control of the oil that powers our civilisation: it’s oil that has been in control of us. (You don’t have to take his word for it, either: the title of the piece is actually a quote Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, the founder of OPEC.)

Isaac Julien’s Stones Against Diamonds is another powerful hymn to our fatal misreading of our own values. Shot in a remote region of south-east Iceland in 2015, it juxtaposes luxury goods with jewel-like icescapes and ice blocks and advertisement-shiny waterfalls. Ice, it transpires, is the ultimate luxury good being celebrated (or mourned) among these multiple video panels, by a glamorous isolated figure (Vanessa Myrie) who, we can only suppose, has consumed everything else there is to consume.

Like every other living thing on this planet, humans are destined to expand to exploit all resources available to them, at which point they’ll plunge off a demographic cliff. There’s no tragedy in this. The tragedy is that we know it’s happening. We know the destruction we’re causing. We know what the consequences will be.

Strata Rock Dust Stars offers the visitor various coping mechanisms by which we might deal with this realisation. Liz Orton’s The Longest and Darkest of Recollections (2016) fuses geology, photography and memoir in a museum-like display that captures perfectly our poignant struggle to assign meaning to a world far older and bigger and dumber than ourselves. Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s on-going obsession with moon-dwelling geese (the conceit of the 17th-century bishop and proto-sf author Francis Godwin) offers fancy and absurdity as a palliative for our tragic condition. In a delicious parody of all those Anthropocene maunderings, her latest venture, Moon Core (2018), asks whether the droppings and egg-shells of moon geese might not have entered the lunar geological record.

When fancy and imagination collide with the real world, however, the result is not always charming. Worlds in the Making, an early video work by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who make work under the name Semiconductor, creates, if you can picture such a thing, a sort of paranoid geology, perfectly false and perfectly believable, and a dreadful reminder of how much we rely on trust for our understanding of the world.

Another way of coping with the tragedy of the human condition is to laugh at it. Away from the flagship exhibition, I stumbled across a new work by Rodrigo Lebrun, a young Brazilian-born artist who has very little patience with the seriousness of much contemporary art. “It’s just another way of ostracising the public,” he told me, as he unlocked the shipping container where his barely finished video installation, Green (Screen) Dreams, advertises the apocalyptic charm of Sunthorpe — think grim Humber Valley Scunthorpe rebranded as a tropical holiday destination minutes before a collapsed ice shelf-triggered tsunami arrives, coincident with the entire planet bursting into flame.

Hijacking the hyperbolic visuals of television advertising, Lebrun has created an advertisement for the future: a world in which the vagiaries of environmental collapse afford us little pockets of tremendous commercial opportunity in the seconds before Armageddon, and where all the difficult questions about population and pollution, environmental integrity and resource depletion, are breezily crammed into an eyeblink-fast on-screen reminder that “Terms and Conditions Apply”.

“Instead of creating solutions, we’ve been creating these weird alternate realities,” Lebrun says, “CGI-driven entertainments to numb the senses.” His installation blows the gaffe on this confidence trick. It’s frightening, and funny, and above all it’s energising. Commissioned by Invisible Dust, an environmental arts charity we last encountered driving a gigantic mobile cinema around the Scottish coastGreen (Screen) Dreams gets its next outing At North Lincolnshire Museum from 19 January next year. But that’s surely only the beginning for the piece and for Lebrun himself, whose combination of wit and savagery seems as rare, these days, as a moon-goose’s teeth.

Microphotography

The eye of a Metapocyrtus subquadrulifer beetle

Covering the Nikon Small World competition for New Scientist,11 October 2018

Microphotography has come along way since Nikon staged the first Nikon Small World competition in 1974. Finalists in 2018 harnessed a dizzying array of photographic techniques to achieve the spectacular results displayed here. A full-colour calendar of the winners is in the works, and people in the US can look forward to a national tour of the top images.

Yousef Al Habshi from the United Arab Emirates won first prize with the image above of the compound eyes and surrounding greenish scales of a weevil, Metapocyrtus subquadrulifer.  It was made by stacking together 129 micrographs — photographs taken through a microscope. “I feel like I’m photographing a collection of jewelry,” said Al Habshi of his work with these beautiful Philippine beetles, which are more usually considered agricultural nuisances and targets for pest control.

fern sorus — structures that produce and contain spores

Rogelio Moreno from Panama won second prize for capturing the spore-containing structures of a fern (above). He used a technique called autoflorescence, in which ultraviolet light is used to pick out individual structures. Spores develop within a sporangium, and Moreno has successfully distinguished a group of these containers from the clustered structure called the sorus. Sporangiums at different stages of development show up in different colours.

Spittlebug nymph in its bubble house

Saulius Gugis from the USA photographed this spittle-bug in the process of making its “bubble-house”. The foamy structure helps the insect hide from predators, insulate itself and stay moist. The photograph won third prize.

A spider embryo with the surface stained

Other highlights from the prize include a portrayal of the first stirrings of arachnid life by Tessa Montague at Harvard University. The surface of this spider embryo (Parasteatoda tepidariorum) is picked out in pink. The cell nuclei are blue and other cell structures are green.

The mango seed weevil

Looking for all the world like an extra from Luc Besson’s sci-fi film The Fifth Element, this magnificent mango seed weevil (Sternochetus mangiferae) earned Pia Scanlon, a researcher for the Government of Western Australia, a place among the finalists.

Yunchul Kim: Craft work

Visiting Dawns, Mine, Crystal by Yunchul Kim at the Korean Cultural Centre, London. For New Scientist, 27 October 2018.

NOSTALGIA was not the first word that sprung to mind when I visited a show at London’s Korean Cultural Centre by South Korean artist Yunchul Kim. At first glance, indeed, Kim’s art appears intimidatingly modern.

But for the scientists who are Kim’s most committed audience (and eager collaborators), there is something wonderfully old-fashioned about the way he works. Kim’s studio in Seoul is full of materials: homemade ferrofluids, gels, metals, all kinds of reagents, acids and oils. While labs (and not a few artists’ studios) grow more sterile and digital, his workspace remains stubbornly wedded to stuff. The artist’s wry description of his practice – “touching, staring, waiting for things to dry” – captures something of science’s lost materiality.

Kim’s latest work (see) shows a contraption in three parts that turns cosmic rays into bubbles suspended in space, a copper-aluminium sludge, stirred by hidden magnetic orreries, and a shattered gelatin rainbow. What are these but the results of a strange science that is the outcome of some spectacularly purposeless noodling?

The physicists at CERN loved it, and Kim soon found out why: “I make all my own machinery, and so do they,” he says. “Their love of craft is everywhere, from the colour for their cabling to the careful labelling of everything.”

Kim’s art is a reminder that science isn’t just there to be useful. It is also a craft. It’s something humans do, and something that, when presented this well, we are bound to enjoy.

Edward Burtynsky: Fossil futures

An overview of The Anthropocene Project for New Scientist, 10 October 2018

THE lasting geological impact of our species is clearly visible within the galleries of this potash mine in Russia’s Ural mountains. The Urals contain one of the largest deposits in the world of this salt, one of the most widely used fertilisers. Mining has left behind vast subterranean galleries, their walls machine-carved with enormous ammonite-like whorls.

The Canadian photographer and artist Edward Burtynsky took this photograph for The Anthropocene Project, a collaborative chronicle of geologically significant human activity such as extraction, urbanisation and deforestation. Works from the project are on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada, while this image and other photographs feature in Burtynsky’s exhibition The Human Signature, at London’s Flowers Gallery, to 24 November.

This September also saw the release of a documentary film, Anthropocene: The human epoch, and a book of colour photographs by Burtynsky, which includes new writing from author and poet Margaret Atwood.

Through publications, films and immersive media, Burtynksy and his Anthropocene Project collaborators – filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier – convey the unsettling visual reality of resource depletion and extinction: how our planet’s surface is being scarred, ground and shovelled into abstract, almost painterly forms.

The effects of mining, in particular, are irreversible. While animal burrows reach a few metres at most, humans carve out networks that can descend several kilometres, below the reach of erosion. They are likely to survive, at least in trace form, for millions or even billions of years.

There is an eerie poetry to this: burrows found in 500-million-year-old sediment tipped off geologists to the massive diversification of animal forms known as the Cambrian explosion. Will our own gargantuan earthworks commemorate more than just a mass extinction event?

Tomás Saraceno: Beneath an ocean of air

Visiting Tomás Saraceno’s Berlin studio for New Scientist, 13 October 2018

THE Argentine-born artist Tomás Saraceno maintains a studio in Berlin – if you can call a disused chemicals factory a studio. There is nothing small about this operation. Saraceno, who trained as an architect in Buenos Aires, now employs hundreds of people, with specialisms ranging from art history and architecture to biology and anthropology. If you’re serious about saving the world, you need this kind of cross-disciplinary team, I suppose.

Though Saraceno hasn’t exactly promised to save the world, he has been dropping some big hints. His utopian installations include Cloud Cities at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, in 2011 – a collection of geometric, inflated shapes. Even by the time of his Observatory/Air-Port-City show at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2008, these shapes contained autonomous residential units. A network of habitable cells floated in the air, combining and recombining like clouds.

A year later at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, gallery-goers got to explore these spaces via 16 interconnected modules made up of glass segments held in place by steel cables. And in June 2013, the K21 gallery in Düsseldorf invited visitors to wander more than 25 metres above the gallery’s piazza across a web dotted with inflated PVC spheres.

This is Saraceno’s answer to our global problems: he wants us to take to the air. That’s why he coined the term “Aerocene” for one of his projects. He wants people to think of climate change in terms of possibility, playfulness and, yes, escape. “We live beneath an ocean of air,” he once wrote, as he sketched his utopian vision of a city in the clouds. “But we’ve yet to find a way to inhabit it.”

Near his Berlin studio is a scruffy public park. Part of it is marked out for football. Behind one goal stands a graffitied stretch of the Berlin Wall. Today there’s another attraction: two men are running back and forth, trying to fill a black bag as big as a minivan with air. It is a fine, windless day; the air in the bag heats up quickly, and once it is sealed, the container rises into the sky. A bag no longer, it is clearly recognisable as one of Saraceno’s signature tetrahedral solar balloons.

These black balloons have been plying the skies since 2007. They are mascots of the artist’s multi-stranded effort to combine engineering, architecture and the natural sciences to create a new, democratic kind of environmental art, made of bubbles and aerial platforms and webs. An art that mitigates climate change, he says, and makes the sky habitable, by establishing a modular, transnational settlement in the skies through solar balloons that require no fuel at all. An art that ushers in utopia.

Could it be that this chap is just playing about with balloons? Trying to calculate Saraceno’s level of seriousness is half the fun. Over lunch, for instance, he tells me that he wants to return us “to a sort of Mayan sensitivity towards celestial mechanics”.

But some of his efforts are admirably practical. The balloon I’d just seen being demonstrated was an Aerocene Explorer: it comes in a backpack complete with instructions on how to create and fly lightweight sensors. Any data collected can be uploaded and shared with Aerocene’s online community, via a website where participants from all over the world are sharing their experiments and innovations.

Practicalities aside, much of Saraceno’s work is simply beautiful. For a show opening at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris on 17 October, the team is busy building playful orreries, mechanical models of the solar system that combine planetary orbits with the physics of soap bubbles and webs spun by his pet Cyrtophora citricola spiders.

These unbelievably delicate confections will be on show with some mirrored umbrellas that also double as solar cookers. When arranged in concentric circles, Saraceno imagines that in the manner of a solar thermal power plant, the umbrellas might even concentrate enough heat to inflate a large balloon. He hopes to try out the idea when Audemars Piguet – a Swiss watch manufacturer that has recent form in backing innovative science-inflected art – takes parts of his sprawling Aerocene endeavour to Miami this December for the Art Basel fair.

Meanwhile, there are myriad things to organise for Paris: workshops, concerts, public symposiums uniting scientific institutions, researchers, activists, local communities, musicians and philosophers. As he says: “People aren’t very interested in simple ideas. You have to give things a little bit of complication to get the audience to engage.”

balloons

He found this out the moment he started using solar balloons. The balloons, which work by simply zipping up some air in a heat-absorbing bag, have been around since the 1970s. His own projects have demonstrated their usefulness in meteorology, pollution monitoring, even passenger transport. In 2015, he flew in a tethered solar balloon over the dunes of White Sands in New Mexico, where the US launched its first rockets and where the world’s first tourist spaceport is located. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology got in on the act, and created technology so that you can use the Aerocene.org website to plan a meteorologically feasible journey, by balloon, from Point A to Point B, anywhere on Earth.

“Rats saved at the point of giving up fought for life 240 times longer when returned to danger”

Here’s the paradox. Saraceno’s work has always been playful, and part of the game, he explains, has been “trying to sell this work as some sort of global solution to something”. But while his visions of an airborne utopia remain as remote as ever, his Aerocene project has spawned a foundation that uses lightweight balloons for climate activism and pollution monitoring. And even the absurd spectacle of someone jetting from country to country to fly fuel-less balloons has become part of the art, as Saraceno’s studio begins to record his own carbon footprint.

Saraceno makes an important point about how we address climate change in our lives. The trick, he says, is not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. Escapism is fine. He has no time for the way so many artists and pundits are ringing humanity’s death knell. He has a special contempt for the lazy way the word Anthropocene crops up now in every climate conversation, as if, with the advent of this putative new era, our doom was sealed. “What a great way for a small number of people to disempower and demotivate us,” he says.

Given the seriousness of our environmental bind, isn’t escapism a bit irresponsible? Saraceno points me to a 1957 paper by psychobiologist Curt Richter. His gruesome experiments left rats to drown in water-filled containers from which they could not escape. But if he briefly rescued rats at the point they gave up swimming, and then returned them to the water, those rats continued to fight for life 240 times longer. Richter concluded that they had learned that there was hope. Faced with challenges on a planetary scale, we are scrambling for our lives, and can see no way out. “We need the energy those rats got when they saw some small hope,” says Saraceno.

I hadn’t expected our conversation to take this dark turn, but creating such small glimmers of hope is his business. If he is a joker, then he is one in the best sense of the word.

Should we take Saraceno’s work seriously? I was doubtful, but now I think, why look a gift horse in the mouth? He enthuses people. He gets us thinking. And he is right: a little hope goes a long way.

Pierre Huyghe: Digital canvases and mind-reading machines

Visiting UUmwelt, Pierre Huyghe’s show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, for the Financial Times, 4 October 2018

On paper, Pierre Huyghe’s new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London is a rather Spartan effort. Gone are the fictional characters, the films, the drawings; the collaborative manga flim-flam of No Ghost Just a Shell; the nested, we’re not-in-Kansas-any-more fictions, meta-fictions and crypto-documentaries of Streamside Day Follies. In place of Huyghe’s usual stage blarney come five large LED screens. Each displays a picture that, as we watch, shivers through countless mutations, teetering between snapshot clarity and monumental abstraction. One display is meaty; another, vaguely nautical. A third occupies a discomforting interzone between elephant and milk bottle.

Huyghe has not abandoned all his old habits. There are smells (suggesting animal and machine worlds), sounds (derived from brain-scan data, but which sound oddly domestic: was that not a knife-drawer being tidied?) and a great many flies. Their random movements cause the five monumental screens to pause and stutter, and this is a canny move, because without that  arbitrary grammar, Huyghe’s barrage of visual transformations would overwhelm us, rather than excite us. There is, in short, more going on here than meets the eye. But that, of course, is true of everywhere: the show’s title nods to the notion of “Umwelt” coined by the zoologist Jacob von Uexküll in 1909, when he proposed that the significant world of an animal was the sum of  things to which it responds, the rest going by virtually unnoticed. Huyghe’s speculations about machine intelligence are bringing this story up to date.

That UUmwelt turns out to be a show of great beauty as well; that the gallery-goer emerges from this most abstruse of high-tech shows with a re-invigorated appetite for the arch-traditional business of putting paint on canvas: that the gallery-goer does all the work, yet leaves feeling exhilarated, not exploited — all this is going to require some explanation.

To begin at the beginning, then: Yukiyasu Kamitani , who works at Kyoto University in Japan, made headlines in 2012 when he fed the data from fMRI brain scans of sleeping subjects into neural networks. These computer systems eventually succeeded in capturing shadowy images of his volunteers’ dreams. Since then his lab has been teaching computers to see inside people’s heads. It’s not there yet, but there are interesting blossoms to be plucked along the way.

UUmwelt is one of these blossoms. A recursive neural net has been shown about a million pictures, alongside accompanying fMRI data gathered from a human observer. Next, the neural net has been handed some raw fMRI data, and told to recreate the picture the volunteer was looking at.

Huyghe has turned the ensuing, abstruse struggles of the Kamitani Lab’s unthinking neural net into an exhibition quite as dramatic as anything he has ever made. Only, this time, the theatrics are taking place almost entirely in our own heads. What are we looking at here? A bottle. No, an elephant, no, a Francis Bacon screaming pig, goose, skyscraper, mixer tap, steam train mole dog bat’s wing…

The closer we look, the more engaged we become, the less we are able to describe what we are seeing. (This is literally true, in fact, since visual recognition works just that little bit faster than linguistic processing.) So, as we watch these digital canvases, we are drawn into dreamlike, timeless lucidity: a state of concentration without conscious effort that sports psychologists like to call “flow”. (How the Serpentine will ever clear the gallery at the end of the day I have no idea: I for one was transfixed.)

UUmwelt, far from being a show about how machines will make artists redundant, turns out to be a machine for teaching the rest of us how to read and truly appreciate the things artists make. It exercises and strengthens that bit of us that looks beyond the normative content of images and tries to make sense of them through the study of volume, colour, light, line, and texture. Students of Mondrian, Duffy and Bacon, in particular, will lap up this show.

Remember those science-fictional devices and medicines that provide hits of concentrated education? Quantum physics in one injection! Civics in a pill! I think Huyghe may have come closer than anyone to making this silly dream a solid and compelling reality. His machines are teaching us how to read pictures, and they’re doing a good job of it, too.

Hooked at the Science Gallery, London: From heroin to Playstation

Happy Chat Beast tries to be good in Feed Me © 2013, Rachel Maclean

Popping along to the newly opened Science Gallery London and getting Hooked for New Scientist, 26 September 2018

IN THE spacious atrium of the new London Science Gallery, Lawrence Epps is tweaking the workings of a repurposed coin-pushing arcade game. It is part of the gallery’s first show, Hooked. He hands me one of 10,000 handmade terracotta tokens. Will I be lucky enough to win a gold-leafed token, or maybe one of the ceramic ones stamped with images of an exotic sunset? No.

Reluctantly (I’m hooked already), I leave Again and follow Hannah Redler-Hawes up the stairs. Hooked is Redler-Hawes’s responsibility. Fresh from co-curating [JOYCAT]LMAO at the Open Data Institute with data artist Julie Freeman, she took on the task of building London Science Gallery’s launch exhibition. She soon found herself in a room with six “young leaders” – selected from local schools in the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth – who, for the past year, have been shaping the direction of London’s newest public institution.

Addiction, she argues, is a normal part of life. Every tribe has its social lubricants, and, as she points out, “we are creatures who like to explore, who like pleasure, who like extending our boundaries intellectually, emotionally and physically, and we are also creatures who aren’t that fond of pain, so when we encounter it we look for an escape route”.

A visit to Hooked becomes increasingly unnerving, as one by one you identify all the apparently innocuous corners of your own life that contain at least an element of addictiveness, from caffeine to Facebook. That journey begins with the show’s iconic image, a lolly-turned-pincushion from the series Another Day on Earth by Olivia Locher, whose work explores the moment when getting what you want becomes taking what you can’t help but take.

The Science Gallery ethos is to leave its visitors with more questions than answers. It is there to pique curiosity, rather than address ignorance. The success of this approach, pioneered by Science Gallery Dublin in 2008, can be measured by the project’s rapid expansion. There are Science Galleries planned for Bangalore this year, Venice in 2019 and Melbourne in 2020, not to mention pop-ups everywhere from Detroit to Davos.

Science Galleries do not amass private collections. Each show is curated by someone new, displaying work from art, science, engineering and territories that, frankly, defy classification. Shows already announced for London include explorations of dark matter and prosthetics. That latter show, explains the gallery’s departing director Daniel Glaser, is going to be very hands-on. A different proposition to Hooked, then, which is about international art and curatorial rigour.

Glaser joins our exploration of the wet paint and bubble wrap of the half-assembled exhibition. Among the more venerable pieces here are Richard Billingham’s films from the late 1990s, capturing the gestures and habits of life on benefits in the deprived corner of West Bromwich, UK, where he grew up. Smoking, snorting, hammering away at a PlayStation might be addictive behaviours, or might become addictive, but the films remind us they are also ways of dealing with boredom. They kill time. They are ordinary activities, and of obvious utility.

“We’re all users, which means we’re all at risk of tipping into harm,” says Redler-Hawes. “Addiction is a natural part of being human. It’s a problem when it’s harming you, but when that happens, it’s not just you that’s the problem.”

This point was brought sharply into focus for her when she discussed addiction with the gallery’s young leaders group. “My idea of addiction was a forty-something in a room unable to work, but these young people were absolutely engaged and a bit afraid that so much of the environment they had grown up in was very obviously vying for their attention, and quite literally trying to get them hooked.”

Naturally enough, then, online experiences feature heavily in the exhibition. Artist Rachel Maclean‘s celebrated and extremely uncanny film Feed Me (2015) is a twisted fairy tale where ghastly characters communicate in emojis and textspeak, as each pursues a lonely path in search of the unattainable.

More immediate, and more poignant from my point of view, is a new video installation by Yole Quintero, Me. You. Limbo, which very quickly convinces you that your phone is much more a part of you than you ever realised. Anyone who has had a relationship decay into a series of increasingly bland WhatsApp messages will get it. “A lot of these pieces are about love,” Redler-Hawes comments, quietly.

Although the emphasis here is on established artists, there are pieces that point to just how mischievous and hands-on this institution is likely to become in the years ahead. Katriona Beales‘s Entering the Machine Zone II is a new commission, developed with the assistance of Henrietta Bowden-Jones, founder of the first NHS gambling clinic. It is the world’s most pointless video game – though I defy you to stop playing once you have started. It propels you with frightening rapidity towards the dissociative state that, for gamblers in particular, is the real attraction of their vice – far more addictive than the promise of money.

It is also the state one achieves when climbing a demanding learning curve. Addiction in the guise of flow isn’t bad. Though then, of course, we call it passion. Not everyone will be comfortable with this show’s broad definition of addiction. But there’s nothing lazy about it. If the show doesn’t change your mind, it will certainly have sharpened your opinions.

The tour done, Glaser takes me around the building itself – a £30 million development that has transformed a car park and an underused wing of the original 18th-century Guy’s Hospital into a major piece of what the papers like to call “the public realm”. What this boils down to is that people come and eat their lunches here and find themselves talking to lively, well-briefed young people about curious objects that turn out to be about topics that don’t often come up in ordinary conversation.

Accessibility here is about more than wheelchairs, it is about ensuring that the people who used to visit the McDonald’s that formerly occupied the cafe area can still find affordable food here. This is important: there is a hospital next door, and streets full of people desperate for a steadying cup of tea. It is about building a terrace around the gallery’s 150-seat theatre, so you can come in and see what’s going on without finding yourself intruding or getting trapped in something you’re not interested in. It is about getting into conversations with the staff, rather than being approached only when you are doing something wrong.

Glaser, who has spent the past five years directing this project, is a neurologist by trade, and is keenly aware what a difference this space will make to researchers at King’s College London, the university associated with Guy’s. These days, knowing how to communicate with the public is a key component to securing funding. With this Science Gallery, Glaser tells me, “a major world university is turning to face the public. It’s becoming an asset to London. We’re a part of the city at last.”