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?”

Art that brings meaning to medicine

Visiting Zhang Yanzi’s A Quest for Healing at Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh, for New Scientist, 31 May 2018.

Scar is mounted on the wall of a small, brand-new gallery space in Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Museums. Because of the way the room is laid out, this is probably the last piece you will come to. And that’s good, as Scar offers the perfect coda to Zhang Yanzi’s solo show A Quest for Healing.

Scar is modelled on a surgical bed Zhang spotted at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences. (The building itself was where treatments were developed for the bubonic plague, which raged in Hong Kong even into the 20th century.) It’s a violent and terrible cruciform structure, wrapped in bloody bandages – or at least, that’s my first impression. I step closer: the “blood” is ink made of cinnabar, a vermilion-red pigment traditionally used in Chinese painting. Zhang, one of China’s foremost contemporary artists, is no stranger to traditional techniques; much of her work has its roots in the artistic and poetic depictions of landscape known as Shan shui

And those “bloody” smears and stains turn out to be exquisitely detailed miniature scenes of flowing water, framed by “hillsides” of calligraphy, combining poetry with Zhang’s private thoughts. What at a distance seemed to be a work about violent medical intervention, becomes, closer in, to be something deeply personal, calming – even kind.

The stereotypical view of contemporary art is that it’s too clever for its own good and heartless with it, constantly tripping the unwary viewer into moments of horrified realisation (ever looked closely at a Grayson Perry pot?) Zhang’s work pushes in the opposite direction. In the centre of the gallery, an outsize felt-covered “broken heart”  is pierced with thousands of acupuncture needles. This is shocking enough, but only until the eye adjusts and you realise that those pins – so fine, and so many – are more likely cushioning the heart from further assault.

A Quest for Healing is not a sentimental show. Several pieces convey a powerful sense of human fragility. The most colourful piece here is also the most daunting: a wall-mounted pyramid of medical blister packs, their pills removed and replaced by strips of paper on which schoolchildren – thousands of them – have inscribed their prayers and wishes for the future. The weight of expectation borne by Wishing Capsules (pictured above) feels positively oppressive.

Then there are the linked drawings of Limitless, filling one wall with exquisitely drawn ants – half living things, half calligraphy, massing like clouds of stars. You can’t separate these tiny figures from each other, but then again,  you can’t write the whole lot off as a mere texture, either.

There’s a clever perspectival game being played in this show: our cosmic insignificance is a given, but our complexity demands that we press ourselves against each other, in an effort to understand.

Artists who dabble in medicine are a dime a dozen. Zhang is different. She’s steeped in this imagery, growing up in Jiangsu Province in the 1970s, playing with her doctor father’s stethoscope. While by no means rejecting Western medicine, Zhang makes us aware how much more effectively the Chinese tradition gets us to think about mortality, and time, and the nature of being a material body: yearning, growing, dying. And the work that results from all this? A Quest for Healing is, simply, the most humane art about medicine I have seen in years.

Semiconductor at CERN: Making the invisible, visible

Another New Scientist assignment, interviewing artist duo Semiconductor, who turn the most abstruse scientific observations into captivating sensory experiences.

RUTH JARMAN: Since we first started making work we’ve been interested in nature and matter. We went looking for matter that exists beyond the bounds of our perception, and we turned to science as a means of bringing that matter into view. We’re not led by archives or data sets. We’re interested in the way people talk about their field, and how they use language to balance their observations and their experiments. For some fields – radio astronomy springs to mind – the observable bit of the work can only be considered information: as a bit of the natural world, it’s just chaos: pure white noise.

Whenever we work with scientific data, we ask how we can best perceive it. About fifteen years ago we made a film of the sun, using data being studied at the space sciences laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. That work was relatively unproblematic: the sun is unquestionably there for you to observe. With our installation HALO, though, we’re creating an immersive environment that enriches the data captured by Atlas, one of two general-purpose detectors at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. And Atlas detects collisions that actually don’t happen unless you force them!

In the early universe, there would have been the energies and speeds for proton-proton collisions like this to have shaped the early universe. That’s no longer true. We found ourselves making a piece of work that isn’t really about nature as it exists at the moment. It was departure for us and, a troubling one at first.

JOE GERHARDT: Proton-proton collisions take place inside the Atlas millions of times a second, Of those events, just a few thousand are considered worth mining for data. The proton-proton collisions are recorded by detectors wrapped around the barrel of the instrument. Beyond them are the transition radiation trackers – long wires that register whenever a particle collides with them. Where along the wire the collision happens is not recorded, but you can say the collision happened somewhere along its length. Rows and rows of long metal wires: we imagined something a bit like a giant harp being plucked.

JARMAN: Initially we interpreted the wires as a purely sculptural device. We wanted to convey the craft and know-how that went into the Atlas machinery, without simply illustrating what was already there. After endless iterations it became obvious that these wires were there to be played.

For the people at CERN, the events recorded by the Atlas are sources of information. We on the other hand treat those collisions as natural phenomena in their own right. In our installation you’re conscious of the surrounding technology, but at the same time you’re made aware that there’s a complex natural world beyond the machinery. The soundscapes generated by HALO represent that wider world.

GERHARDT: The scientists at CERN call the raw numbers they receive from the Atlas “minimum bias data”. I love that. We tend to assume science is all about looking at the world with the least bias possible, but of course when you’re experimenting, you’re doing exactly the opposite. You want to bring the maximum amount of bias possible to an experiment so you can focus on what interests you. That’s what an hypothesis is.

JARMAN: We’ve plucked 60 collision events from the millions that occur each second in the LHC, and use them to trigger HALO’s light and sound effects. To do that, of course, we’ve had to slow them down immeasurably so as to make them comprehensible. Once you reanimate the data in this way, you can start tracing the beautiful geometries of each collision. And as one of our chief collaborators pointed out early on, this is the very material CERN’s not interested in.

GERHARDT: The interesting stuff for us is usually the stuff the scientists discard. Mark Sutton, a research fellow at Sussex University, explained to us that any particle that makes a pretty, spiralling track back towards the centre of the detector lacks the energy to escape the machine’s magnetic field. We know all about those particles. It’s the absences, the unexplained gaps in the chart that matter to the scientists.

When the hammers that “play” HALO hit certain strings, resonators pass and amplify their vibrations to neighbouring strings, until the wires become visible waveforms. Meanwhile, we’ve got spots of light being projection-mapped through the mesh surrounding the installation. We wanted a way of feeling and seeing particles and waves simultaneously, and this “quantum” way of thinking is oddly easy to do once you start thinking about harmonics. Particles and waves begin to make sense as one thing.

JARMAN: When HALO opens at the Art Basel this week, there will be information boards explaining all the science and technology we’ve drawn from. Ideally you’ll through the installation twice – once naively, and the second time armed with some background information. Of course, the test of the piece is that first, direct engagement with the piece. That’s what matters most to us.

GERHARDT: HALO is a circular installation in a space big enough that you can approach it from a distance and observe the hammers striking its strings and the lights passing through its mesh. Once you’re inside the piece, then it will appear that you are the source of all the events that are animating it. It’ll be a much more intense, immersive experience. It occurred to us recently that it’ll be like inhabiting the workings of a watch: appropriate for a piece paid for by a Swiss watchmaker.

JARMAN: The fit wasn’t conscious, but it’s undeniably there. We were invited to look around the factory of Audemars Piguet, our sponsors and long-time associate partners of Art Basel, where HALO has its first outing this week. We saw watches being assembled by hand using screws that you can’t even see properly with the naked eye. My favourite was a watch that actually chimed; someone had made it a lovely little acoustic box to amplify the sound.

GERHARDT: Our visit reminded us that there’s bespoke side to CERN that we wanted to capture. Big as it is, nothing about the LHC is run off on an assembly line. It’s crafted and shaped. It’s an artisanal object.

JARMAN: Entering any big science institution, you find yourself playing anthropologist. So much of our work involves simply observing scientists at work in their domain. A film we made as part of our residency, The View from Nowhere, reflects this.

GERHARDT: Unpicking the hierarchies in these places is endlessly fascinating. At CERN there’s a big philosophical divide between the experimenters and the theorists. The theorists always think they are the top dogs because they get to decide which experiments are even worth doing!

JARMAN: At CERN everything is so much more lo-fi then you expect it to be, and perfectly accessible on a human level. You get a powerful sense of everything having been developed in this wonderful bubble in which nobody has had to make excuses for doing their work. There’s a wonderful honesty about the place.

GERHARDT: As an artist in an environment like that, staying naive is really important. The moment you think that “you know your field”, you stop really listening.

And besides, every institution is different. Our residency at the Smithsonian in 2010 was very much about archiving geological history, about finding a place for everything. And the Galapagos residency which followed was about removing human traces from the world and turning back time.

JARMAN: There are always going to be scientists who are outwardly supportive of an artistic programme, and there are always going to be people who hide away from it and think that they don’t want to have anything to do with it. We’re quite persistent. We do as many very short interviews as possible because we know we don’t have a lot of control over the direction our visits and residencies take us. For this residency we worked most closely with John Ellis and Luis Álvarez-Gaumé, both high-profile theoretical physicists. We were supposed to meet with Luis once a week and he performed wonderfully for us until one day he announced: “I’ve given you all my tricks! Now you have everything I know.”

GERHARDT: In any scientific institution, people just want to make sure that you’re not getting their budget. As long as their science budgets aren’t going to artists, as long as that money’s coming from somewhere else, people are happy. Of course, if the arts budget was just 1 per cent of the science budget, the arts would probably be a hundred times better off.

JARMAN: Every now and then we’ll come across a scientist who will say, “Oh, so will I be able to use your work to illustrate my work?” We’re up front about this: what we do is almost certainly not going to represent anyone else’s efforts in the way they want.

Saying that, the feedback that we do get from scientists has always been amazing. At the end of our Berkeley residency, working with images of the sun, we were able to show our hosts work assembled from thousands of their images. These people would study just a single image for a very long time, and there was this real appetite to have their work presented in a new way.

We felt we were showing them pictures of what they already knew, we felt slightly ridiculous, but the whole event became a kind of celebration of their science — that somebody from outside the department would even be interested in what they were doing. I remember one chap talking to us afterwards. Half-way through he stopped himself and said: “Is it OK me talking to you like this? My wife and family don’t let me talk to them about space science.”

It was then we realised we were fulfilling this other role: reminding these people why they do what they do.