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!”

 

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.”

Unseen, Amsterdam: Blanket coverage

When Records Melt at Unseen Amsterdam, discussed in New Scientist, 20 September 2018

Visit the Rhône Glacier in southern Switzerland, and you are more than likely to wander past a small shop. It’s worth a visit: the owners have carved out an ice grotto, and charge tourists for the eerie and beautiful experience of exploring the inside of their glacier’s mass of blue ice.

Now, though, it’s melting. The grotto is such an important part of their livelihood, some years ago the owners invested 100,000 euros in a special thermal blanket. “It’s kept about 25 metres’ depth of ice from disappearing and has kept the grotto in business,” explains the photographer Simon Norfolk. But a few winters on the mountain have left the blanket in tatters.

“It’s the gesture that fascinates me,” says Norfolk. “There is something insane about trying to reverse the inevitable – a gesture as forlorn and doomed as the glacier itself.”

Norfolk and fellow photographer Klaus Thymann climbed up to the grotto just before dawn, armed with a light attached to a helium balloon that cast a sepulchral light over the scene. “I wanted to recreate the same light you get over a mortuary slab,” Norfolk says.

Emilia van Lynden, artistic director of Unseen Amsterdam, finds the effect as aesthetically chilling as it is beautiful. Of the whole series, called Shroud, she observes: “We’re seeing a glacier being wrapped and prepared for death.”

“There’s next to no photo-journalism here,” van Lynden explains. “None of the images here expect you to take them at face value. They expect you to pay attention and figure things out for yourself. These are works into which you need to invest a little bit of time and effort, to see what the artist is trying to tell you.”

On the face of it, then, the presence at Unseen of Project Pressure, Norfolk and Thymann’s campaigning environmental charity, seems odd. The whole point of the outfit, which has collaborated with the likes of NASA and the World Glacier Monitoring Service, is not just to get us to think about climate change, but to do something positive about it.

But art photography, Norfolk and Thymann believe, is a more effective communication tool than straightforward photo-journalism.

Their point is eloquently made by this 24 hour time-lapse video, created with a thermal imaging camera. By revealing the heat-properties of the scene, Norfolk and Thymann underline the different temperatures in the ice-body versus the surrounding landscape – a key indicator of climate change.

“I believe artists often make the best social and environmental investigators,” says van Lynden. “The trouble with ‘straight’ photography is it looks for stunning subjects and leaves you, well, stunned by them. Glaciers are magnificent in their natural form even as they’re melting away.”

The series exhibited in Project Pressure’s show When Records Melt take a different approach.

Among van Lynden’s favourite works are photographs by Christopher Parsons, who is better known for photographic portraits of explorers and sports personalities. Parsons won Project Pressure’s open call, and was invited on an expedition to the Himalayas. He collaborated with scientists studying alterations in the microbial life around retreating glaciers, and his photographs, while full of dread, are also accurate records of how changing weather patterns are altering the course of life in these fragile environments.

Lhotse at sundown, Nepal

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin also take an apparently left-field approach to glacier retreat that nonetheless packs a powerful emotional punch. “Their work is literally a huge photograph of a bone that was found within the Rhône glacier,” says van Lynden. “They’re looking at the glacier as a living archive that now is slowly unravelling. All this information, all this stored data, which has been locked in the ice for however many thousands of years, is being lost.”

She is in no doubt that Project Pressure’s message is clear. If you’re not convinced by one series of photographs, says van Lynden, “then you have six other projects that showcase, each in its individual manner, the irreparable damage we have done to our planet.”

Jenna Sutela: Mars in a dish

Contemplating nimiia cétiï for New Scientist, 11 September 2018

The artist Jenna Sutela normally divides her time between London and Helsinki, but she has spent the last four months at London’s Somerset House Studios, thanks to a residency with Google Arts & Culture. Here, she’s been either making a video, learning about computers, teaching artificial intelligences to dream, or mastering Martian. Perhaps all of the above. It depends who you speak to.

The artists Google invites to explore the potentials of its machine learning systems normally wind up in its lab in Paris. This time, however, Google engineer Damien Henry (the co-inventor, incidentally of the Google Cardboard VR headset) has been travelling to London to assist Sutela and her artistic mentor, the Turkish-born data artist Memo Akten, in a project that, the more you learn about it, resembles an alchemical operation more than a work of art.

Here – so far as I understand it – is the recipe.

  1. Take one nineteenth-century French medium, Hélène Smith, who made much of her communications with Martians. (The Surrealists lapped this stuff up: they dubbed her “the muse of automatic writing”.) Make up some phonemes to match her Martian lettering. Speak Martian.
  2. Prepare a dish of Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium that we expect would cope rather well with conditions on Mars. Point a camera at it, and direct the video signal through a machine learning system. (Don’t call this an AI, whatever you do. Atkin has issued a public warning that “every time someone personifies this stuff, every time someone talks about ‘the AI’, a kitten is strangled.”)
  3. Lie to your AI. Tell it that your dish of wiggling bacteria is in fact a musical score. Record the music your AI makes as it tries to read the dish. Hide kittens.
  4. Keep lying. Tell it your dish of wiggling bacteria is a text.
  5. – a language.
  6. – a map.
  7. Write down the text. Speak the language. Read the map. Put the whole enterprise into a single twelve-minute video and hang it up in the foyer of London’s Somerset House Studios.

Titled nimiia cétiï and on view in Somerset House Studios until 15 September, Sutela’s video installation is heavy-going at first, but well worth some close scrutiny. Everything you see and hear came from that petri dish: the landscape, the music, the alien script, even its eerily convincing Martian vocalisation. “There is,” Henry tells me with avuncular pride, “absolutely no scientific goal to this project whatsoever.”

The point being that Sutela is one of the first artists, if not the first, to appropriate the rules of machine learning entirely to her own ends. It’s a milestone of sorts. She’s not illustrating an idea, or demonstrating some technical capability. She’s using machine learning like a brush, to conjure up imaginary worlds.

Which is to take nothing away from nimiia cétiï‘s considerable technical achievement. Sutela is forcing her recurrent neural network to over-interpret its little petri dish-shaped world. We’re a long way from inventing a machine that sees pictures in a fire, but these results are certainly suggestive.

«e tesi leca rizini nirnemea riechee sat ze po mizi» as a Martian might say.

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.”

The Art Machine

Skipping merrily about the Vallee de Joux for New Scientist, 30 June 2018

IT’S not often that artists presenting new work ask for the lights to be turned off, but here it makes sense. We hunker in the dark of hall 2 at the Messe Basel exhibition centre in Switzerland as tiny lights spill over the mesh sides of a large mechanical sculpture, producing tracks and spirals, and interference.

There is plenty of noise, too: HALO is essentially a gigantic bass harp, playing a score derived from raw data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva. In 2015, CERN’s art programme hosted Joe Gerhardt and Ruth Jarman, who make art under the name SemiconductorHALO is the most recent work to come out of that residency.

Its construction was commissioned by Swiss watch-maker Audemars Piguet, which has championed some of the biggest names in scientifically inflected art since 2012. In partnership with Art Basel, Europe’s biggest art fair, the company has backed the strangest projects. Take Robin Meier‘s jungle-like installations, inspired by the synchronous flashes of fireflies; or Theo Jansen‘s Strandbeests – eerily lifelike and intentional automata made of recycled plastic.

This isn’t mere “sponsorship”; it’s Renaissance-style patronage. The company’s engagement with and promotion of artists extends well beyond the launch of any individual artwork.

Once HALO has stopped reverberating, Jarman talks about how Semiconductor got started 20 years ago. “We were interested in matter, and how science provides us with the tools to perceive matter and material processes that would otherwise be hidden from us,” she says.

Acts of perception matter to artists, while scientists are more interested in the information those perceptions contain. HALO came about, Gerhardt recalls, through the artists’ desire to work with readings that were as close to natural perception as possible, before all the artefacts and noise are stripped away. “We spent three months working through the hierarchy – fighting our way to the vault, if you like,” he says.

It’s a point not lost on Olivier Audemars, HALO‘s patron. Although neither he nor his colleagues are directly involved in the commissioning process, he is as fascinated with science as with the art his company supports. The first scientists took their measures and concepts of time from the watch-makers, he explains the day after HALO‘s unveiling. “The greatest names in science used this analogy of the watch-maker to explain their vision of the universe, including Einstein of course, with his claim that God does not play dice with the universe,” Audemars says. “Though in that case,” he smiles, “it seems he was wrong.”

Courtesy-of-the-artist-and-Audemars-Piguet--(30)

Technical and scientific interests drive a company like his, and shape its culture. “If I have an interest in cosmology and quantum physics, it’s because I’ve had those conversations, with my parents, even my grandparents.”

The artists who win commissions are invited to the company’s headquarters in the Swiss town of Le Brassus, and seem to fall quickly under their patron’s spell. Art history is not short of examples of this sort of arrangement going horribly wrong. But then, not every patron is a watch-maker, whose employees must couple art and science, mechanism and craft.

Jansen’s Strandbeests (on show this week in Singapore) are mechanism personified. Meier’s fields of artificial fireflies (last seen earlier this year in Thailand) are governed by how neighbouring pendulums synchronise. And HALO is a homage to the LHC – the largest machine in history – and a homage made mostly of one-off, handcrafted parts. The fact that on maps the LHC resembles a giant watch is, surely, just a coincidence.

At this year’s Art Basel, the walls of the Audemars Piguet collectors’ lounge displayed recent works by the Italian-born, London-based artist Davide Quayola. The company invited Quayola, whose work uses new technologies in unfamiliar ways, to take pictures around Le Brassus. The upshot was Remains – outsize, phenomenally high-resolution images of dense woodland, generated by laser scanning.

Quayola says that he wanted to look at the valley, not with his own eyes, but through the eyes of a machine. He goes on: “I wanted to hand over to the machine the traditional activity of walking out into the landscape in search of an encounter with nature. For me, technology is not a tool. I prefer to think of it as a collaborator, engaging with things in ways unique to itself.”

It is a collaboration of equals, although initially the machines had the upper hand. “Scanning the valley using lidar technology was much more complicated than I had expected,” Quayola admits.

First there was the sheer amount of time required, with each scan taking some 10 minutes as the “camera” turns full circle, shooting out tens of millions of laser beams. And then there are the readings it gathers, which only make sense from one vantage point. To really capture the environment can take up to 60 scans for a single patch of forest. There’s a final complication: all those scans must be correctly linked to yield a coherent map of an area constantly being buffeted by the weather.

The resulting images are clearly not photographs, but equally clearly are not the product of the human eye. Get up close to this cloud of points and you can distinguish each constituent; the image can not only be seen, but read. Parallel rays spill from a clump of foliage, an artefact of an uncorrected optical occlusion. And a dark, knotted surface turns out to be built up from strangely wobbly rows and columns of dots representing “thin” data, revealing the raw back-and-forth of the scanning process.

From an ordinary distance, what is startling about these works is the total absence of lines in an image that is so obviously detailed. The lidar eye has no interest in edges and planes, yet it is “seeing” with an acuity we immediately recognise as close to, or even better than, our own.

Quayola, of course, did much more than set his machines running. Since laser scanning results in a vast Excel spreadsheet, he used a computer to render the data as point clouds and then spent a while moving through them digitally, selecting the angles and frames he wanted to work on. It’s an odd process – “like being a traditional photographer, stranded somehow in a purely digital realm”, he says.

Audemars Piguet does not own what it commissions.”The work belongs to the artist,” says Audemars. “That way, the project can continue to grow.” HALO, for instance, is getting a more flexible tuning mechanism, while camera drones are contributing to the next version of Remains. “We can’t predict the life course of these projects, and we wouldn’t want to,” he says. “Artists give us new ways of seeing the world. If that process is out of our hands, good. Why would we want to spoil the surprise?”