Sci-art: a thing of the future, or the past?

by Simon Tait

Can art and science really serve each other well, or is the current enthusiasm for mixing and matching the opposites of the educational spectrum just an exercise in denerding perceptions of boffins?
It’s 50 years since the ICA opened Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity, set up now as the father of sci-art, which showed how the creative process was acquiring a new ally in the computer – the great cartoon model maker Rowland Emett even created his own computer for the show. Much of it seemed little more than Etch-a-Sketch with keyboard and sound effects.
Emett’s successors draw crowds today with their mechanical sculptures, often for Cabaret Mechanical Theatre which still puts on exhibitions around the world – currently in Baltimore, Wisconsin and South Korea - combining visual creativity, engineering inspiration and most of all fun.
But can science and art actually work together to open new doors to public understanding of science-based issues?
Deborah Bull – since July Baroness Bull of Aldwych in the City of Westminster – certainly thinks so, and her latest initiative opening near London Bridge next month will be an interesting test of the theory.
This is Science Gallery London which had been in her plans since she set up the Cultural Institute, now Cultural Strategy, at King’s College London in 2012. She, of course, comes from the arts, a former principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet who moved into arts admin and commentary before taking on this unique commission for the then principal of King’s Rick Trainor.


Her mission was to set up a bridge between academic research and cultural policy and practice. “There is a growing body of academic research into arts and culture, but all too often it is written and disseminated in ways that make it hard to access by the artists and organisations that could benefit from it most” she told AI in 2014. “My job is… to connect the college and its student body, its academics, its expertise and its know-how, with the cultural sector, because the arts can drive innovation in college, enrich the student experience, enhance research, and they can bring new people in, while the college’s expertise adds value to the cultural sector because of evidence around impact, new approaches, bringing expertise around the subject matter that the sector can benefit from”. This new adventure is slightly different, harnessing artistic visualisation and scientific research to give better public understanding.

Health and medical research is the obvious area of public interest, and the Wellcome Collection at Euston has used art since it opened in 2007, partly thanks to the fact that the pharmaceutical giant’s founder was also a collector of intriguing objects from Napoleon’s toothbrush to Japanese sex aids.

But what has changed since 2007 is that art has joined the community, despite the best efforts of the education department. The Olympics in 2012 was part of that, earlier Tate Modern was too, but the result has been that not only does the ordinary public not feel cut off from contemporary art, it can be constructively critical without dismissing it and, to be slightly patronising, understand it. So the Science Gallery has commissioned and sourced works of contemporary art that relate to issues of social significance that scientists have been studying. And this is being done in consultation with panels of 15-to-25-year-olds: the subject matter of the exhibitions is, first, addiction, then transplants and regenerative medicine, dark matter and anxiety, all things under research and pinpointed by the young consultants.

“It’s increasingly understood in this country that universities have to do more than research and teaching” says the gallery’s director, Daniel Glaser. “They have a duty to address bigger questions for society. The need for scholarship, serious thought, critical thinking, different ideas has never been greater. The need for a place where we are exposed to and engaged with rigorous thinking about the problems of tomorrow is absolutely critical, and there are very few spaces where that kind of exposure is encouraged.”

But is art the catalyst for that engagement? It will depend on the art, of course, and whether the democratisation of art has gone far enough. We’ll see on September 21 when the Science Gallery opens. Perhaps.


Latest News From Arts Industry

Row over sale of historic tower

Lloyd Webber joins chorus of disapproval


Heritage campaigners have attacked plans to sell an historic tower restored with public funds.

Banker Christian Tym, who bought the Grade I listed Hadlow Tower in Kent for £425,000 last August, palns to sell it for £2 million.

But local residents, who persuaded Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund to contribute more than £3 million to restore the eight-storey tower, are angry that the build could be used for property speculation.

The public money was provided on condition that the building was open to the public for at least 28 days a year. The residents say that not a single visitor has been allowed through the doors since Tym’s purchase. In the previous year, more than 700 people visited the tower.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, who founded the English Heritage Angel Awards is one of those who are angry that the tower is being sold.

Lord Lloyd-Webber, who gave two awards to the campaigners who fought for the restoration, said: “A huge amount of public money was spent on this project. If it’s going to be sold, it should be returned to Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. It can’t go into the pocket of a private person. I don’t think the public purse should be used to speculate.”

The Save Hadlow Tower Action Group fought to have the tower restored after it was severely damaged in the Great Storm of 1987, pouring £50,000 into the project.

Hadlow’s Tower was begun in the late 1780s and was commissioned by Walter May, whose son Walt added a 170ft octagonal tower in 1838. It fell derelict before being rescued by the artist Bernard Hailstone and was bought by the Vivat Trust for £1 following a compulsory purchase order by the local authority in 2011. The trust financed and staffed a visitor centre on the ground floor and opened to the public. The tower then received a multi-million pound restoration and was later rented out as a holiday home for £1,954 a week.

In 2016 the tower owners went into liquidation and it was sold to Tym, who said he was attracted by “the novelty factor”, in 2017.

The Heritage Lottery Fund said Mr Tym may be forced to repay part of the £3 million and expected him to report to the body this month.

Historic England said the tower owner was required to maintain the building and allow public access for at least 28 days a year as part of the covenant of the leasehold.

A spokesman said if not, “they would be in breach of contract and could be required to repay a proportion of the public money given as grant-aid by Historic England and other partners”.

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ACNI row splits chief executive and chairman

McDonough claims age discrimination

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NPG’s visitor slump down to counting glitch

The National Portrait Gallery’s disastrous slump in visitor numbers last year were down to a fault in the counting system, the gallery said today.

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Call for Creative Scotland probe

Labour politicians in Scotland have also called for an independent investigation into Creative Scotland.

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Support grows for Edinburgh tourist tax

Fringe companies back plans by council

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