The three-dimensional page

Visiting Thinking 3D: Leonardo to the present at Oxford’s Weston Library for the Financial Times, 20 March 2019

Exhibitions hitch themselves to the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci at their peril. How do you do justice to a man whose life’s work provides the soundtrack to your entire culture? Leonardo dabbled his way into every corner of intellectual endeavour, and carved out several tasty new corners into the bargain. For heaven’s sake, he dreamt up a glass vessel to demonstrate the dynamics of fluid flow in the aortic valve of the human heart: modern confirmation that he was right (did you doubt it?) had to wait for the cardiologist Robin Choudhury and a paper written in 2014.

Daryl Green and Laura Moretti, curators of Thinking 3D at Oxford’s Weston Library, are wise to park this particular story at the far end of their delicate, nuanced, spiderweb of an exhibition into how artists and scientists, from Leonardo to now, have learned to convey three-dimensional objects on the page.

Indeed they do very good job of keeping You Know Who contained. This is a show made up of books, mostly, and Leonardo came too soon to take full advantage of print. He was, anyway, far too jealous of his own work to consign it to the relatively crude reproductive technologies of his day. Only one of his drawings exists in printed form — a stellated dodecahedron, drawn for his friend Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione of 1509. It’s here for the viewing, alongside other contemporary attempts at geometrical drawing. Next to Leonardo, they are hardly more than doodles.

A few of Leonardo’s actual drawings — the revolving series here is drawn from the Royal Collection and the British Library — served to provoke, more than to inspire, the advances in 3D visualisation that followed. In a couple of months the aortic valve story will be pulled from the show, its place taken by astrophysicist Steven Balbus’s attempts to visualise black holes. (There’s a lot of ground to cover, and very little room, so the exhibition will be changing some elements regularly during the run.) When that happens, will Leonardo’s presence in this exhibition begin to feel gratuitous? Probably not: Leonardo is the ultimate Man Who Came to Dinner: once put inside your head there’s no getting rid of him.

Thinking 3D is more than just this exhibition: the year-long project promises events, talks, conferences and workshops, not to mention satellite shows. (Under the skin: illustrating the human body, which just ended at the Royal College of Physicians in London, was one of these.) The more one learns about the project, the more it resembles Stephen Leacock’s Lord Ronald, who flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions — and the more impressive the coherence Green and Moretti have achieved here.

There are some carefully selected geegaws. A stereoscope through which one can study Arthur Thomson stereographic Anatomy of the Human Eye, published in 1912. The nation’s first look at Bill Gates’s Codescope, an interactive kiosk with a touch screen that lets you explore the Codex Leicester, a notebook of Leonardo’s that Gates bought in 1994. Even a shelf full of 3D-printed objects you are welcome to fondle, like Linus with his security blanket, as you wander around the exhibition. This last jape works better than you’d think: by relating vision to touch, it makes us properly aware of all the mental tricks we have to perform, in order to to realise 3D forms in pictures.

But books are the meat of the matter: arranged chronologically along one wall, and under glass in displays that show how the same theme has been handled at different times. Start at the clean, complex lines of the dodecahedron and pass, via architecture (the coliseum) and astronomy (the Moon) to the fleshy ghastliness of the human eyeball.

Conveying depth by drawing makes geometry comprehensible. It also, and in particular, transforms three areas of fundamental intellectual enquiry: anatomy, architecture, and astronomy.

Today, when we think of 3D visualisation, we think first of architecture. (It’s an association forged, in large part, in the toils of countless videogames: never mind the plot, gawp at all that visionary pixelcrete!). But because architecture operates at a more-or-less human-scale, it’s actually been rather slow to pick up on the power of 3D visualisation. With intuition and craft skill to draw upon, who needs axonometry? The builders of the great Mediaeval cathedrals managed quite happily without any such hifalutin drawing techniques, and it wasn’t until Auguste Choisy’s Histoire de l’architecture of 1899 that a drawing style that had already transformed carpentry, machinery, and military architecture finally found favour with architects. (Arguably, the profession has yet to come down off the high this occasioned. Witness the number of large buildings that look, for all their bulk, like scale models, their shapes making sense only from the most arbitrary angles.)

Where the scale is too small or too large for intuition and common sense to work, 3D visualisation has been most useful, and most beautiful. Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome (1543) stands here for an entire genre of “fugitive sheets” — compendiums of exquisite anatomical drawings with layered flaps, peeled back by the reader to reveal the layers of the body as one might discover them during a dissection. Because these documents were practical surgical guides, they received rough treatment, and hardly any survive. Those that do (though not the one here, thank God) are often covered with mysterious stains.

Less gruesome, but at the same time less immediately communicative, are the various attempts here to render the cosmos on paper. Robert Fludd’s black square from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617-21), depicts the void immediately prior to creation. Et sic in infinitum (“And so on to infinity”) run the words on each side of this eloquent blank.

Thinking 3D explores territories where words tangle incoherently and only pictures will suffice — then leaps giggling into a void where rational enquiry collapses and only artworks and acts of mischief like Fludd’s manage to convey anything at all. All this in a space hardly bigger than two average living rooms. It’s a show that repays — indeed, demands — patience. Put in the requisite effort, though, and you’ll find it full of wonders.

Teeth and feathers

Visiting T. rex: The ultimate predator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for New Scientist, 13 March 2019

PALAEONTOLOGY was never this easy. Reach into a bin and pick up a weightless fossil bone hardly smaller than you are. Fling it into the air, in roughly the direction indicated by the glowing orange light. It fixes in place above you with a satisfying click. Add more bones. You are recreating the head of the most fearsome predator known to natural history: Tyrannosaurus rex. Once it is complete, the skull you have made makes this point nicely – by coming after you.

The American Museum of Natural History is 150 years old this year. One of its collectors, Barnum Brown, discovered the first fossil remains of the predator in Montana in 1902. So the museum has made T. rex the subject of its first exhibition celebrating the big anniversary.

The game I was playing, T. rex: Skeleton crew, is also the museum’s first foray into virtual reality. It is a short, sweet, multiplayer game that, if it doesn’t convey much scientific detail, nonetheless gives the viewer a glimpse of the first great puzzle palaeontologists confront: how to put scattered remains together. It also gives a real sense of the beast’s size: a fully grown T. rex (and they could live into their late 20s) was more than 12 metres long and weighed 15 tonnes.

An extended version of this game, for home use, will feature a full virtual gallery tour. It has been put together by the Vive arm of tech firm HTC. Early on, in its project to establish a name in the cultural sector, the company decided not to compete with the digital realm’s top dog, Google Arts & Culture. Google, at least until recently, has tended to brand its efforts quite heavily because it brings a wealth of big data to its projects.

HTC Vive, by contrast, works behind the scenes with museums, cultural organisations and artists to realise relatively modest projects. By letting the client take the lead, it is learning faster than most what the VR medium can do. It cut its teeth on an explorable 3D rendering of Modigliani’s studio in the Tate Modern in London in 2017 and created an immersive exploration of Claude Monet’s approach to painting in The Water Lily Obsession, now a permanent feature at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The trick, it seems, is to focus, to make immersion and physical sensation the point of each piece. Above all, the idea is to slow down. VR isn’t a traditional teaching aid. The Monet project in particular revealed how good VR is at conveying craft knowledge.

But if, instead, a VR installation delivers a brief, memorable, even magical experience, this, too, has value. Skeleton crew is a powerful prompt to the imagination. It isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, the star of this show. The models are the real draw here. Traditionally fashioned life-size renderings of tyrannosaurs big and small, scaled, tufted and sometimes fully feathered, their variety reflecting the explosion of palaeobiological research that has transformed our understanding of millions of years of Mesozoic fauna over the past 20 years. We can now track trace chemicals in the material surrounding a fossil so precisely that we even know the colour of some species’ eggs.

T. rex: The ultimate predator certainly delivers on its brash, child-friendly title. Terrifying facts abound. T. rex‘s jaws had a maximum bite force 10 times that of an alligator – enough not just to break bone, but to burst it into swallowable splinters.

But the really impressive thing about the show are the questions it uses to convey the sheer breadth of palaeontology. What did T. rex sound like? No one knows, but here are a mixing desk and some observations about how animals vocalise: go figure. Is this fossil a juvenile T. rex or a separate species? Here is a summary of the arguments: have a think.

Staged in a huge cavern-like hall, with shadow-puppet predators and prey battling for dear life, T. rex: The ultimate predator will wow families. Thankfully, it is also a show that credits their intelligence.

“The best cities are the ones that don’t leave ruins”

Talking to Arthur Mamou-Mani for the Financial Times, 22 December 2018

Sir John Soane’s Museum, on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, is very carefully arranged. This is as well. The eighteenth century architect and antiquarian made it a condition of his bequest to the nation that future custodians can’t go fiddling about with its layout.

Still, the current management contrive all manner of mischief — witness the robot playing Jenga in one uncharacteristically uncluttered corner.

Suspended from its gantry on four wires, this digitally-controlled robot is building something out of hand-size wooden blocks. It’s a slow beast, and some hours must pass before its construction becomes apparent: a dome, of the sort that John Soane produced for the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Polibot does not look like a game changer. But according to Arthur Mamou-Mani, whose architectural practice built it, Polibot’s children are going to change the world.

Mamou-Mani, who studied at the École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-Malaquais, now lectures at Westminster University. He also runs FabPub, a commercial, community-minded digital fabrication space. “I think a lot of people see the work we do as not real architecture,” he says, “but I think things could be a bit different, and that’s why I have my own practice.”

When Mamou-Mani was studying at the Architectural Association, around 2003, computer-generated design was a fairly dry topic. Patrik Schumacher (the principal of the architecture practice Zaha Hadid Architects) had already given this style of working (using computers to evolve forms according to a set of parameters) — its own term of art: parametricism. “But by styling this work, we’re constraining something that, so far as I can see, hasn’t blossomed yet,” Mamou-Mani says. “I feel it’s evolving into a much more material craft. It’s not about computers. It’s about developing and understanding the craft of marrying new machines and new materials. It goes way beyond code.”

Festival-goers at this year’s Burning Man in Nevada got a taste of his aesthetic as they helped assemble — and then ritualistically burned — Mamou Mani’s Galaxia temple, its distinctive spiral shape formed from twenty timber trusses that converged towards the sky. Documentation of the project appears here alongside some of Soane’s own more jaw-dropping architectural imagery. Joseph Michael Gandy’s watercolour
A bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England springs to mind: the building rendered as ruins, laid out as though for archaeologists of the future.

Through experiments in robotics, Mamou-Mani’s practice is out to develop new ways of building that will make architects, engineers and contractors work more closely together, to the point where design, technology and construction become a single, more or less collegiate field. The point, then, is not what Polibot is, but what it could become. It’s not just a pick-and-place machine. It’s the early prototype of a universal builder.

There have been many experiments in the large-scale 3D printing of buildings. But the kinds of hefty, industrial robot arms that are usually employed for this work are far too cumbersome and delicate to wheel onto a building site. MX3D’s exceedingly elegant 3D-printed steel bridge, for example, years in the developing, will be installed on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in Amsterdam’s red light district around the middle of 2019. It was supposed to be printed on-site, but whole business –with six-axis robots building a six-metre-wide structure from layers of molten steel — proved far too dangerous to set going in a public space.

Gigantic mecha robot arms will never spew out quick-setting skyscrapers at a single sweep, Mamou-Mani says, for the simple reason that it would make construction less, not more efficient. “Really, construction is mostly about bringing big chunks of stuff together. Currently, concrete is still the material of choice for the construction industry, but we’re slowly switching to timber, and this will be a revolution, because once you start working with timber, you’re no longer casting anything on site. You’re thinking entirely in terms of prefabrication and assembly.”

Mamou-Mani dreams of building simple towers from elements (“prefabricated properly, by robotic arms, like cars”), and assembled on-site by gigantic Polibots. In the exhibition that accompanies his dome-building robot show, hangs a visualisation of his practice’s “DNA Blockchain skyscraper”, soaring above its fictive city’s skyline like a monstrous chromosome. As I stare, somewhat aghast, Mamou-Mani explains his vision of buildings that can expand and contract, depending on the economy. “We don’t need to surround ourselves with buildings that we construct when everything is going well, only to leave them empty when their time is past. Why do we think that permanence is necessary?” Elsewhere in the exhibition, the wall information proclaims that “the best cities are the ones that don’t leave ruins.”

Soane’s antiquarian ghost must surely be clanking his chains over that one. Indeed, its by no means obvious at first how this exhibition relates to its hallowed venue. The more the visitor learns, however, the nicer the fit appears. This museum, in Soane’s lifetime, was more an experimental workshop than a collection of architectural curios. Soane — no slouch when it came to technical innovation — filled it with peculiar and playful juxtapositions, with originals and fakes, copies and fantasias, in his pursuit of new concepts and techniques.

Mamou-Mani — the man who would rob future generations of their ruins — puts it well: “There is a reason we protect things, and build traditions around them. It’s because these things were revolutionary. We preserve them because they still have the power to inspire us. We can’t go on like the modernists, constantly wiping the slate clean.”

If there is a contradiction here, so be it. There is never just one style of architecture at work in the world. As for the evident gap between little Polibot’s game of solitaire, and its creator’s vision of a transformed construction culture, I know better than to huff about it. All great advances in industrial culture are prefigured by model-making. Model aircraft, to take an obvious example, have been flying a great deal longer than people have. Nor is the toy and model scene any less relevant to that industry today, witness the stellar career of SpaceShip One’s designer Burt Rutan — a man who still turns up at modelling conventions to complain about the lack of balsa wood.

Mamou-Mani’s animated wooden construction kit at the Soane is both a charming toy and an important vision of our necessary future. “Depending on trees for construction will give us lots of trees, but more than that, it’ll make us think about our materials in a new way, from their growth to their assembly, to their disassembly and their reuse or recycling.” Mamou-Mani’s sense of urgency is compelling, and rooted in some hard truths. Construction is arguably the least sustainable industry on earth. “We’re going to need to rethink everything. If architects and planners think they can just continue doing business as normal, then we’re doomed,” he says. “It’s as bad as that.”

The world bacteria made

Visiting Bacterial World at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for New Scientist, 23 November 2018

“It’s like a cheetah going after a wildebeest,” says Judith Armitage, lead scientist for Bacterial World, an exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. She’s struggling to find a simile adequate to describe Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, a predatory bacterium found, among other places, in the human gut. Indeed, it’s monstrously fast: capable of swimming 100 times its own body length every second.

Other bacteria are built for strength, not speed. Campylobacter jejuni, which we have to thank for most of our food poisoning, has a propeller-like flagellum geared so that it can heave its way through the thick mucus in the gut.

Armitage has put considerable effort into building a tiny exhibition that gives bacteria their due as the foundational components of living systems –and all I can think about is food poisoning. “Well that’s quorum sensing, isn’t it?” says Armitage, playing along. “After 24 hours or so biding their time, they decide there’s enough of them they can make you throw up.”

Above our heads hangs artist Luke Jerram’s gigantic inflatable E. coli, seen floating over visitors at the first New Scientist Live festival in 2016. It seems an altogether more sinister presence in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History: the alien overseer of a building so exuberantly Gothic (built in 1860, just in time for the famous evolution debate between Thomas Huxley and “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford) that it appears more grown than made.

Armed with just 55 exhibits, from the Wellcome Collection, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Natural History Museum in London, Armitage has managed to squeeze 3.8 billion years of history along a narrow balcony just under the museum’s glass roof. Our journey is two-fold: from the very big to the very small, and from the beginnings of life on Earth to its likely future.

Towering stromatolites, the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth, reveal the action of countless anaerobic bacteria whose trick of splitting water would result, a million years later, in an extremely rusty planet filling up with toxic oxygen. To survive, let alone thrive, in the ghastly conditions ushered in by the Great Oxygenation Event required bacterial adaptations on which all living things today depend. For example, Paenibacilla (pictured) promote crop growth, and symbiotic bacteria of the genus Rhizobium pack essential hard-to-get at iron into our vegetables. Cellular adaptations defend against caustic oxygen, and have, incidentally, thrown up all manner of unforeseen by-products, including the bioluminescence of certain fish.

As multicellular organisms, we owe the very structure of our cells to an act of bacterial symbiosis. Our biosphere is shaped to meet the needs of ubiquitous bacteria like Wolbachia, without which some species of environmentally essential insect cannot reproduce, or even survive.

Naturally, we humans have tried to muscle in on this story. For a while we’ve been able to harness some bacteria to fight off others, thereby ridding ourselves of disease. But Armitage fears the antibiotic era was just a blip. “New antimicrobials are too expensive to develop,” she observes. “Once they’re shown to work they’ll be kept on the shelf waiting for the microbial apocalypse.”

But look on the bright side. At least once the great Throwing Up is over and the human population shrinks to a disease-racked minimum, the bacteria released from our ballooning guts can get back to what they’re good at: creating vibrant ecosystems out of random raw material. “Bacteria will eat all the plastic.” Of this Armitage is certain. “But,” she adds, “it takes time for metabolic cascades to evolve. We’ll probably not be around to see it happen.”

On the way out, my eye is caught by another artwork:  uneasy and delicate pieces of crochet by Elin Thomas depicting colonies of bacteria. The original colonies were grown on personal objects: a key, a gold wedding ring; a wooden pencil. A worn sock.

Microbial World is a tremendous exhibition, punching way above its tiny weight. It doesn’t half put you in your place, though.

The V&A heads east

external

for New Scientist, 1 November 2018

Tristram Hunt, director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, revealed dramatic plans today for the museum’s expansion into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. The development comprises the construction of a brand-new five-floor museum and the relocation of the V&A’s huge research and storage facility to the nearby Here East building – once part of the 2012 Olympic Games complex and now a thriving tech and creative campus.

A somewhat over-excited Hunt declared the new development a “cultural saucepan”, which rather undersold such a colossal logistical and architectural undertaking. Once the building work is complete, around 2021, the real fun begins, as the US’s Smithsonian Institution joins forces with the V&A to provide around a quarter of the new site’s cultural attractions. It’s a significant departure for the sprawling US behemoth (which boasts 19 museums, 21 libraries, 9 research centres and a zoo), as V&A East will be its first overseas outpost.

The deal will also bring some of the Smithsonian’s staggering scientific collection available outside the US for the very first time. (Hunt promptly asked the Smithsonian’s secretary David Skorton if he could borrow the Space Shuttle. While Skorton couldn’t promise that, he had pointed things to say about the role of institutions like the Smithsonian and the V&A in maintaining international links and fostering global cooperation, even as governments seem hell-bent on throwing up obstacles. (It can’t have been a coincidence that Skorton made these remarks scant hours before the start of the US mid-term elections.)

In the face of global problems and a fourth industrial revolution, science, art and design are coming back together to solve some huge global problems, Hunt argued: “problems we can only address by working on them together.”

Collaboration between nations and across disciplines was, said Skorton, “sorely needed in the world right now.”

Architects O’Donnell & Tuomey are responsible for designing the new museum building, which succeeds in being at once gobsmackingly radical and endearingly dumpy. Wonderfully, it’s inspired by the external shape and internal structures of Balenciaga frocks.

Internal

For our purposes, however, the V&A’s storage and research facility provides the main headline. Architects Diller, Scofidio & Renfro plan to core out part of the handsome but essentially anonymous-looking Here East building, creating a kind of panopticon from which the public can view the museum’s vast and closely packed holdings. Even the floor of the main gallery is clear, allowing for some really quite vertiginous inspection of the ground floor’s larger treasures. Smaller galleries extend through the surrounding collection, affording additional perspectives, while technology is being developed so that visitors can digitally unpack every crate, and even deploy robot cameras to explore some less accessible corners.

Elizabeth Diller called her firm’s design “an immersive cabinet of curiosities”. She has form in this area, of course, having just completed The Shed, a huge multi-arts venue due to open in New York next year.

Hunt and Skorton are right, of course: collaborations between countries and across disciplines are needful. The V&A’s news today proves they can also be breathtaking, expensive, exceedingly ambitious, and very pretty indeed.

When science becomes performance art

Watching David Morton’s play The Wider Earth at London’s Natural History Museum for the Financial Times, 19 October 2018

Science discovered show business long before a 22-year-old Charles Darwin set off on a round-the-world mapping expedition aboard HMS Beagle. The Royal Institution had been staging public lectures for more than a decade before he was born, and was notorious for its hazardous stagecraft. Audiences regularly contended with toxic fumes, safety lamps plunged into explosive gases, powerful electromagnets dangled above their heads, and model volcanoes altogether more pyrotechnic than anything you’ll find at a school science fair.

Audiences for The Wider Earth, David Morton’s puppet-populated play about Darwin’s voyage, are treated more kindly in the brand-new 350[CHK]-seat Jerwood theatre at the Natural History Museum in London. The worst you can say about this show is that it’s a bit loud.

The Wider Earth’s whirling set (ship. mountain, house on a hill, cliff, jungle…) is, like the script, the direction, the puppets and the production, a creation of David Morton and his Dead Puppets Society. A superior animated map-cum-sketchbook, provides backdrops at flicker-book speed for an annoyingly televisual script (Oh, for a decently written monologue!) which is rather more clever than it seems. Once I was done wincing at all its many eillisions and simplifications, the absence of fellow evolutionary pioneer Alfred Russel Wallace and all the rest of it, it dawned on me that this jumped-up family-friendly puppet show (the iguana deserved an ovation) succeeded where many longer and more scholarly treatments fail. It put the then-controversial geology of Charles Lyell [SP?] front and centre of its story, arguing that Darwin’s theorising was not merely inspired by Lyell’s work, but was a conscious and deliberate exploration of its implications. Together, Lyell and Darwin provided the evidential backbone for our materialist view of the universe, and Morton’s thunking, didactic narrative nevertheless turns this talk into the sort of staggeringly radical nonsense it must have seemed in Darwin’s day.

The Wider Earth sold out Sydney Opera House before arriving at London’s Natural History Museum for its European premiere. Considered purely as theatre, it’s surprising it did so well. As a hybrid science entertainment, however, it’s virtually faultless, a welcome innovation from a museum that, lumbered as it is with the task of keeping school-kids occupied during wet half-term holidays, decided (from around the time of 2016’s exhibition Colour and Vision, if memory serves) to communicate unashamedly through spectacle, beauty and wonder.

The workhorse museums of Albertopolis — the V&A, the Science Museum and the rest — have to work harder than most to realise new aesthetic and artistic opportunities. In a city that can sustain shows like the V&A’s recent Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, which boasted a working replica of a baroque theatre, it’s easy to forget how hard it is for our most venerable institutions to innovate. Nothing kills the spirit of experiment quicker than high visitor numbers, and the legalities and expenses around venerable bricks and mortar have a deadening effect of their own.

If younger institutions find it easier to combine exhibitions with events of all kinds, including dramatic performance, it’s usually because they inhabit newer buildings. Also, the prevailing culture isn’t expecting them to act as agents in some great global stocktaking exercise. The Science Gallery network, which opened a new gallery in London this September, places more emphasis on audience involvement than on the acquisition and preservation of objects. None of its galleries, existing or under construction, have plans to acquire a permanent collection. Neither has The Shed, a huge multi-arts venue due to open in New York next year.

The great storehouses of our culture are now, for good and for ill, in the cloud. Good: a museum can print an archival-grade sculpture or painting to inform an exhibition. Bad: no-one can remember the password.Good: a VR entertainment called Hold the World, in which a more than passable David Attenborough avatar leads you round the laboratories of the Natural History Museum. Bad: you have to be a Sky subscriber to enjoy the trip.

Meanwhile the museum becomes a place of interpretation, more than of preservation, and to do this well, new forms of address are always welcome, particularly among institutions on limited budgets. The Darwin Museum’s lovely but tiny show Darwin: Man of Science is immeasurably expanded by tours-in-character, actorly recitations of famous mysteries, and an authentic magic lantern show. The other day, in the even more crammed environs of University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology, Tom Bailey’s solo show Zugunruhe made politics of ornithology, combining Eritrean, Egyptian, Iranian and Sudanese songs shared by residents of the Calais “Jungle” with calls from globally migrating birds.

Introducing performance to the museum space goes back at least as far as Kenneth Clark’s stint as director of the National Gallery in the 30s and 40s. But its contemporary currency is something new, and it’s encouraging the development of new kinds of curation. Never mind the museological mischiefs of artists like Mark Dion and Salvatore Arancio (whose show Surreal Science is currently running at London’s Whitechapel Gallery). Young curator-artists are placing performances, debates, workshops and even discos at the heart of the museum and gallery experience. Again, money is part of the story, since this kind of programming is best left to a self-renewing supply of guest curators. In the last couple of years Shrinking Space, a science-event production company consisting of just two people, Andy Franzkowiak and Mary Jane Edwards, has created a son-et-lumiere for Kew Gardens Wakefield, arranged an exhibition about blood for Science Gallery London, strung a sonic solar system across the Royal Albert Hall and staged various world-ending events (or at least, the war-rooms for same) in festivals up and down the country.
Just as we once asked, “Is it art?” we may very well want to ask, is this sort of thing museology? Only posterity can give us an answer. What is apparent is that very many creative people are bringing serious thought to bear on what museums can do for a technological era that has made knowledge simultaneously accessible, and boring.

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.”

Spellbound at the Ashmolean: Sensible magic

Visiting Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean for the Financial Times, 3 September 2018

Some wag has propped a ladder in front of the entrance to the Ashmolean Museum’s new autumn show Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

Visitors are more than likely to walk around that ladder, rather than under it. This demonstrates no mere quirk of psychology — no half-way embarrassing propensity to superstition. It reveals something fundamental about us: that we rely on symbols, and often these symbols carry more weight than our raw perceptions.

Perhaps someone told you, most likely in a quite unserious way, that it’s unlucky to walk under a ladder. Whether or not you ever took it seriously, this notion has enriched your idea of what a ladder is. Literally: it helps you recognise ladders. That’s why walking around the ladder seems natural, while walking under it requires a small conscious effort.

The world is big and it doesn’t come pre-labelled. We need to enchant the world in order to manoeuvre through it. For every daft superstition we pick up along the way, we acquire a hundred, a thousand meanings that do make sense, and without which we simply could not function.

To explain magical thinking from first principles is hard. To do so with exhibits is a real challenge. Spellbound proceeds by discrete steps, and the first of its three rooms seems to be introducing us, not to magic at all, or ritual, or witchcraft, but to cosmology.

John Dee’s purple crystal ball is here; the astrologer and antiquary claimed that the angel Uriel gave it to him in 1582. Dee’s reputation as one of Europe’s most gifted mathematicians was not in the least dented by his claim. The scientific spirit was abroad by then, but no one had any very clear idea which bits of the world would succumb best to scientific analysis.

Not far away is a French brass prognosticator used to calculate bloodletting times. It’s a handsome, precision-made scientific instrument, owing its existence to laws, then common throughout Europe, requiring physicians to calculate the position of the moon before conducting an operation.

The manuscripts and books here are less about what we would now call science, and are actually much more to do with love. For the Medieval mind, love is a cosmological principle: all parts of the universe, according to this alchemical vision, are striving towards union and self-fulfilment. Young things strive towards adulthood. Base metal strives to become tarnishless gold. Union generates at least the promise of perfection. Even the elements marry.

In the second room, we confront the obverse of this universal yearning: namely, unbridled anxiety. Becoming the best you can be does, after all, imply defending yourself against the worst.

A shoe hidden up a chimney breast; a mummified cat in the attic, a child’s cap in a wall cavity: the trouble with these objects is their simplicity. They can be touching. But many are ordinary to the point of tawdriness, and you can’t help but wonder whether we’re being invited to overinterpret these scraps of cloth and leather, discovered in walls and cellars and foundations. The point isn’t lost on the curators; a “witch’s ladder” — a long string tied with feathers — most likely began life quite innocently, we are told, as a device to scare off deer. Scholars of witchcraft are wise to, and no doubt coolly amused by, the salacious imaginations of amateur collectors.

Curated by artist Marina Wallace and Sophie Page, a medieval scholar from University College London, Spellbound treats with high seriousness a subject that’s often trivialised. Original artworks have been commissioned. (My favourite is Katharine Dowson’s Concealed Shield — a huge glass heart in a walk-in hearth-space, pierced with ruby-red lasers.) The exhibition seeks to distil much of a major three-year collaborative academic research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, into the interior lives of ordinary people between 1300 and 1900. The venue is, to say the least, appropriate. Dr Xa Sturgis, the Ashmolean’s director, was once a magician (“The Great Xa”, no less). The museum’s founder, Elias Ashmole, was a university astrologer whose clients included Charles II.

High seriousness can, of course, get awfully dull, and it says much for their nerve that Wallace and Page have saved so much of the connective tissue in their argument for the final room. The historian Malcolm Gaskill has had a hand in the arrangements here, and has pulled off something remarkable: a series of cases that comprehensively pricks our assumptions, humanising not only those accused of witchcraft, but also their accusers.

Most suspected witches, it transpires, were not isolated figures hounded by their hysterical communities. They were their accusers’ elderly relatives in the main. They were rarely ever prosecuted, since trials were discouraged and expensive to boot; and if they were ever brought to trial, it was to answer charges that (setting aside some notorious outliers) had far more to do with personal relationships and intense emotions than hysterical superstition. Even if you were found guilty, you had an evens chance of being let off.

My favourite object here is a 17th-century “witch balance” in which people accused of sorcery were weighed against a bound copy of the scriptures. If you weighed more than a couple of hardbacks, you were deemed innocent. This fearsome-looking device was, in truth, a ritual exoneration machine.

With its final spaces focused on two witchcraft trials from the English fens in the 1640s, Spellbound turns out to be, quite unexpectedly, a show about grief, and how it festers. When we are hurt, we find it easy to blame others. Now picture the intensity of hurt that holds sway in small communities absent antibiotics, and clean water, and refrigeration, and any real clue about the causes of disease.

Spellbound is about being poor and discontented so that, in the words of one clergyman in 1587, “she might seek vengeance when refused alms, whereafter he doth think himself unhappy that he was so foolish to displease her”.

It’s about watching your children die, one after another, and struggling to understand why. It’s about how, far from being brutalised, ordinary people harnessed every scrap of cosmological meaning — every hope, fear, rumour, bit of lore and priestly urging — in an effort to handle misfortune.

Spellbound is an unsettling show, and not in the ways you expect. You may hope to be titillated with all its talk of Satan and his little devils. What you don’t expect is that Spellbound will make you want to be a kinder person.

Surreal Science at the Whitechapel: Object lessons

Visiting Surreal Science at London’s Whitechapel Gallery for New Scientist, 8 September 2018

WHENEVER the artist Salvatore Arancio visits a new city, he heads for the nearest natural history museum. He goes partly for research: his eclectic output, spanning photography and ceramics, explores how we categorise and try to understand natural and geological processes.

In the main, though, Arancio wants to be overwhelmed. “A lot of these collections are so vast, after a while you find yourself wandering around in a spaced-out state, inventing mental landscapes and narratives. It’s that feeling I’m trying to evoke here,” he tells me as we watch the assembly of his new show, Surreal Science, a collaboration with art patron George Loudon.

Loudon famously collected work by Damien Hirst and his generation years before they became global celebrities – until the day a canvas he bought wouldn’t fit through his door.

At that point, Loudon turned to the books, images and models (in clay, felt, glass and plaster) that educated 19th-century science students. “Looking back, I can see the move was a natural one,” Loudon says. “Artists like Hirst and Mark Dion were exploring the way we catalogue and represent the world. Around the time that collection felt complete I was travelling to South America a lot, and I became interested in the scientific discoveries made there – by Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates.”

This isn’t a collection in the sense that there is any demarcation to it. “It’s somebody’s personal eye that chooses this over that,” says Loudon. Nevertheless, a clear theme has emerged: how the explosion of science in the 19th century meant that scientists had to turn artist to produce educational materials for students. And, when the burden became too much, how companies of artisans emerged to satisfy the demand.

Loudon’s collection has been shown before, at the Manchester Museum last year, but Surreal Science is a different enterprise. The objects, designed to be handled, are exhibited here on open shelves, bringing the visitor tantalisingly close to the work in a very un-museumlike manner. Needless to say this makes for a nerve-racking build.

This is the moment of truth for Arancio, who had to plan this installation-cum-exhibition armed only with photographs of Loudon’s collection and sheets of careful measurements. It is the first chance he has had to see his arrangements realised in situ.

The ceramic pieces he has created provide a foil for the items in Loudon’s collection. An arrangement of ceramic flowers above an anatomical cut-away torso suggests a mandrake-like marriage of vegetable and human. Next to it is a discomforting juxtaposition of plaster models of teeth and wax copies of lemons. Models of cell division are easily mistaken for geodes. Again and again, Arancio’s ceramic pieces – pools, leaves, corals and tubular spider forms – mislead the eye, so we miscatalogue what we see.

“I tried to create pieces that carried George’s objects off into some kind of fantastic realm,” says Arancio. Even before key elements of the show are installed –proper lighting, a looping educational film from 1935 and an experimental soundtrack by The Focus Group – it is clear that the experiment has succeeded.

For Loudon, it is a vindication of his decision to collect objects that until recently weren’t recognised by the fine-art market. He moves from shelf to shelf, past exquisite Blaschka glass slugs, felt fungi, a meticulously repaired elephant bird egg. “Now these objects have lost their original purpose, we can look at them as objects of beauty,” he says. “I’m not claiming that this is art forever. I am saying it is art for today.”

Life in the dark

Going to the dark side at London’s Natural History Museum for New Scientist, 13 July 2018:

At some point in the last couple of years, someone at London’s Natural history Museum must have decided that it should get beautiful. In 2016 Colour and Vision set a high bar; Life in the Dark shows just how far they have come.

Parts of Life in the Dark are designed by the Jason Bruges studio, which is better known for huge, open-ended generative artworks like the digital crowd massing along a 145-metre wall at Sunderland’s railway station, and the liquid-crystal digital waterfall at Westfield Shopping Centre which, years ahead of the competition, proved that bytes, set free with the right algorithms, could be just as unpredictable and fascinating as actual water droplets.

Their work here at the museum is at a more modest scale, but unobtrusive it most certainly is not. There’s a room hung with card mobiles and a complex lighting track that fills with phantom bats as you walk through it, like a sort of 3D flickerbook.

The final room of the show is lit by bioluminescent denizens of the deep ocean – or at least, their digital avatars. Hung from a false ceiling above the visitors, Jason Bruges’s complex three-dimensional, 3000-point display accurately reflects the behaviour and movement of more than half a dozen species. Naturally, there’s been some poetic licence with the light-show’s strength and density.

It’s a moot point whether visitors will appreciate the careful research that’s gone into all those different blues dangling and flashing above their heads, or whether indeed anyone will notice that the animated badger and hedgehog are programmed not to approach each other on the video wall that greets you when you enter the exhibition. The journey as a whole is what matters, as the show’s curators lead us from English woods at sunset, through caves of ever-increasing depth and strangeness, into the deep ocean where suddenly everything and anything seems biologically possible, and not always in a good way.

Life in the Dark is an extraordinarily powerful (not to say downright creepy) exercise in letting go of everything you thought was normal in nature. The possum-like aye-aye’s needle-like middle finger, tapping for grubs under the bark of night-time trees, is bad enough, and it comes as no comfort to read that “If you go into a cave in Central America, you will likely see huge mounds of guano (bat poo) covered with feasting cockroaches.”

One inadvertent effect of this show was to confirm me in my lifelong aversion to caves. Given enough time, everything that lives in them evolves to go blind. Everything shrinks. Everything bleaches itself out – except for the African dwarf crocodiles who, thanks to the guano diet of their prey, turn a sickly orange. On learning that giant centipedes, Scolopendra gigantea, hang from cave walls to pounce on passing bats, I high-tailed it to the section about the deep ocean, and where, oddly for an environment that is mostly lightless, virtually no animal is blind.

Animals that inhabit the middle ranges of the water column use bioluminescence for camouflage, matching their self-made light to the dwindling intensity of downwelling sunlight. The eyes of the spookfish Opisthoproctussp point upwards to detect prey, while mirror-like structures in its belly reflect the bioluminescence produced there, breaking up its silhouette from below.

Lower still, brittle stars, Ophiomusium lymani, flash brightly to temporarily blind predators, while others produce a gently glowing mucus to signal their toxicity. The Atolla jellyfish, confronting a predator, uses a swirling “burglar alarm” display to attract even bigger predators, triggering the deep-sea equivalent of a bar-room brawl, through which it makes an unobtrusive exit.

New nocturnal species are turning up all the time, only 5 per cent of the world’s oceans have been explored, and there are bound to be cave ecosystems still awaiting discovery. It’s appropriate, then, as well as interesting, to learn something about the researchers who’ve contributed to this show. Who knows, the unobtrusive videos in this show may inspire a new generation of researchers.

They’ll have to be a lot less squeamish than I am, though.