Misappliance of Science: The marriage of art and science is one only of financial convenience, argues Laura Gascoigne

Royal Society: Beyond Ourselves

In economically choppy waters, artists without lifejackets can be forgiven for clinging to any passing spar. So when a life raft floats past flying a flag marked ‘EDUCATION’, it’s understandable that they should haul themselves aboard. But the flag is misleading. The raft isn’t headed for the familiar port of art school, where people used to receive an art education. Its course has been reset for the art gallery, where people are educated through art rather than in it.

Art schools may have fallen off the funding map, but gallery education is riding the storm. Engage has emerged from the Arts Council cuts with a 50% increase in funding, while the Whitechapel and South London Gallery have had their ACE grants boosted – SLG’s by 107% – in recognition of their ‘community engagement’. Sheffield Galleries, meanwhile, have had the bung pulled on them for being, well, simply galleries. In the new rankings they count as ‘agencies with more of a support function’, as opposed to ‘art producing agencies’ like 301 Moved Permanently the speciously named Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, which has earned a whopping raise of 143.8% as an ‘international-quality visual arts destination’.

For those of you who happen to be wondering how many visitors it takes to make a destination, I consulted a philosopher of language and he answered one – and intending to visit is enough. But let’s leave that aside and take an instructive look at what this art-producing agency has been producing, in case there are any lessons in it for Sheffield. A recent commission that presumably influenced the Arts Council’s decision was Bonnie Camplin’s autumn exhibition Railway Mania. Camplin, by the way, is one of those ‘internationally acclaimed artists’ whose hitherto unknown existence raises further philosophical questions about how many foreign admirers it takes to generate international acclaim and whether one hand clapping somewhere abroad will do. But let’s not get picky. From the educational point of view, she had two things going for her. 1) She was visiting Professor at Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main. 2) She was engaged in an “ongoing investigation into the deeper meaning of science, technology and rational thought”.

Based on ‘a hoard of research’ into the industrial revolution and the birth of the railways carried out over three years, Camplin’s exhibition opened with a room-sized diorama lined in galvanised steel with ‘two ominous heaps of the combustible black sedimentary rock’ otherwise known as… Come on, science class! You at the back! Yes Stephenson, well done – coal. But the educational value didn’t stop there. The heaps were topped by two giant female heads called Irene Iree and Feral Cheryl, while a later room featured

301 Moved Permanently

depictions of ‘femme fashion figures in a variety of…uniforms representative of their various roles in industry’. Frau Professor Doctor has a parallel interest ‘in the entangled narratives of feminism’s movements’. On a lighter note, she ended with a film projection for which visitors could choose soundtracks from such popular favourites as ‘Trains in the Hills’, ‘The Power of Steam’ and  ‘The Great Western’.

Sheffield Museums missed a trick. There they were, sitting on the Ruskin Collection, and they failed to play the science hand. In the ACE funding stakes, they deserved to lose. As you can see from the above example, the education game requires no specialist knowledge. No former experience in the appliance of science is needed, though an MSc in the science of applications helps. If necessary, willing partners can be found in the scientific community to lend a sheen of academic credibility.

In times of hardship communities need to help each other, and artists and scientists are now pulling together. For artists, an association with science opens up new streams of funding; for scientists, a partnership with art generates publicity and gives off sex pheromones to attract corporate sponsors. This could explain the mystery of why distinguished scientists at the top of their professions should be bending over backwards to let artist ignoramuses look for deeper meanings in their work.

The Royal Society, no less, is currently hosting Beyond Ourselves – In the spirit of scientific enquiry, an Arts Council-funded exhibition featuring six contemporary artists ‘working within the realms of reflexion, hypothesis, philosophy and sensation and searching for new ways of expressing their compulsion to describe that which we do not yet know’ – a privilege of compilers of dodgy dossiers not normally accorded to scientists. Promised highlights include ‘a Starbucks coffee cup holder with scientist’s notation depicting Feynman diagram for an electron positron interaction’ by Geraldine Cox, an artist-in-residence at Imperial College ‘whose practice involves spending many hours with scientists listening to and developing a fuller understanding of the nature of their work’. Also on show is a series of sculptures by Chris Dunreath extending ‘his investigations into the deep realms of relativity and quantum physics’, using a choice of materials – in this case paper pulp – that ‘prompts us to remember that earthly things have their roots deep in the history of our universe’. Amazing really, I might have forgotten that without a reminder from a funny-shaped egg box.

Eventually some sharp-sighted curator was bound to spot an opening for a commissioning organisation to mine this potentially rich scientific seam. In 2009 Alice Sharp set up Invisible Dust with the marvellously named Professor Peter Brimblecombe – who sounds like an escapee from Hogwarts but is actually Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of East Anglia – and already she has five other scientists on her books. They include hydrologist Dr Kevin Hiscock, who recently put his Environmental Sedimentary Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at the disposal of UEA resident artist Liz Ballard. Their collaboration bore fruit at Cambridge Science Festival in March in a site-specific artwork at Jesus Green Lido which pumped a continuous jet of water into the air, alerting viewers to the dangers of pollution by activating ‘movement and interaction between water and sediment’ and disturbing ‘the usual topography of the pool’. Meanwhile fellow Invisible Dusters HeHe took inspiration from the lido’s ‘Deep Water’ sign to recreate the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in miniature (without environmental impact on the pool). HeHe, incidentally,

stands for Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen, a Parisian duo ‘renowned internationally for their architectural interventions that play with scale’. Which poses a final philosophical conundrum: if the currency were to devalue as fast as the price of international renown, would there be any money to pay international artists?

More Invisible Dust will be kicked up in May at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, where with support from the Wellcome Trust HeHe, Ballard and other Invisible Dust mites will be art-educating the inhabitants of the UK’s greenest city about pollution – HeHe via a fleet of vapour-trailing model aeroplanes and Ballard by melting luminous green dye in the River Wensum. (Interesting that one form of invisible dust recently dominating the news has yet to receive artistic attention, perhaps because funding has not been forthcoming.)

You Wensum, you lose some. Art and science partnerships would be harmless enough if they didn’t foster the pernicious notion that art needs added educational value to be worth funding. That way lies danger. Science doesn’t need art to find deeper meanings, nor does art need science. It’s a marriage of economic convenience that cheapens both.

The Jackdaw May-Jun 2011