Implausible science and ambiguous art

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.

Visiting Broken Symmetries at FACT, Liverpool for the Financial Times, 30 November 2018

 

 

Darkfield’s Flight: an immersive experience that leaves you half dead

Boarding Darkfield’s existentially challenged airline for New Scientist, 28 November 2018

There’s a shipping container sitting outside 14th-century Dartington Hall in south Devon, offering cheap flights to an unspecified destination. Even by the standards of today’s budget airlines, Flight, by theatrical production company Darkfield is cheap. How do they do it? Part of their winning formula, I think, must be the way they kill their passengers.

Because one thing is for sure – the plane I seemed to be on (mocked up to a high degree of realism, with seatbelts and overhead luggage bins and a safety card in the seat pocket in front of me describing what action to take in the advent of some difficult-to-parse existential disaster; then, once the lights went out, magicked from the absolute darkness of the shipping container by an immersive binaural soundtrack) that plane, as I was saying, most certainly broke up in the air. I heard the screams. Some of them may have been my own.

Afterwards, armed with a steadying pint from the nearby White Hart pub, I had to admit, however, that life had not altogether left me. Was I alive or dead? Had I flown on an orange airline, or a blue one? To steady myself, I dug out my laptop and began editing my interview with Flight‘s co-producer David Rosenberg.

Rosenberg and the Darkfield company are no strangers to Dartington Hall. Their first blacked-out and binaural entertainment, Séance, ran here in 2017. And while they’re a company known for pushing the boundaries of performance, their presence is by no stretch a novelty for the estate which, since its purchase in 1925 by social experimenters Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, has been attracting artists, educators and political philosophers in an effort to develop new ways of living.

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The work of the Dartington Hall Trust, which aims to maintain the estate as a place of radical experimentation, a model of rural regeneration, and a centre for progressive ideas and innovation, sounds hippyish – it is hippyish, in important respects – but that’s not to say it’s unserious. On the contrary. Important British institutions, including the National Health Service and the Arts Council, were conceived here.

A community devoted to self-renewal, the 1,200-acre estate is deep into ground-breaking experiments in land use, farming and housing, and artistic and social projects that involve the estate in the lives and aspirations of some of the most deprived communities in Britain.

“We want to be championing arts that are purposeful here, and have something to say about the world in which we live, whether through performance or the visual arts,” says Amy Bere, executive director of the Dartington Hall Trust’s arts programme. “We’re also looking for socially engaged and civic art, and for ways to reach those parts of our community who aren’t engaging with us yet.”

Darkfield’s offering is certainly likely to draw interest from all manner of people. Maybe not the timid, though. Scanning the transcript of our recent phone interview, I see that Rosenberg, a medical anaesthetist turned theatrical impresario, called the recent output Darkfield “a terrifying fairground of darkness”. He was joking. I think.

And of Flight – a 20-minute airline experience that leaves you inhabiting two worlds at once — one where you’re alive, and one where you very much aren’t — he said, “It’s not as scary as all that. Unless you dislike flying. Or you’re afraid of the dark. Or you have some existential terror about the way the universe is assembled.”

Simon Ings That’s a long list.

David Rosenberg But a short show. Glen Neath and I have been making performances in complete darkness using binaural sound for the last six years or so. But the commitment to sitting in a theatre for an hour in total darkness is a big one, so we’ve now begun making shorter, more intense pieces in shipping containers: pieces that would explore fear and anxiety in different ways.

Using the container means we can tour our material to places where audiences will engage with it in a different way – treating it a bit more like a fairground ride.

SI With this form of presentation, are you fated always to be exploring the uncanny?

DR I think we’ll be able to broaden our output as we develop. But for now, by putting people in an environment where they feel quite vulnerable, the uncanny plays a large part in what we do. Our first piece, Séance, dealt with our beliefs about death and the beyond. Flight began, obviously enough, with the fear of flying, but then we got interested in the work of physicist David Deutsch and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. There’s a peculiar interpretation of the many-worlds model, not very well regarded but irresistible, called the quantum suicide fallacy. Suppose all probabilities are played out in the quantum realm: then we will only have a conscious experience of iterations in which our consciousness survives. So, in this respect, it’s impossible to die in a plane crash. Of course it’s also possible to be the only survivor of a plane crash, or the horribly mutilated sole survivor of a plane crash, or the only person in the crash to be hurt, and so on: it’s maybe not that much of a comfort. But this is the game we are playing in Flight. You perish and you survive, at the same moment.

SI Why plunge your audience into darkness?

DR In most instances vision is our leading perception. We attach sounds to images, rather than the other way around. You can show this with auditory illusions in which people moving their lips in a certain way but the sound that you hear is related to the lip movements.

SI So we’re all lip-readers!

DR To some degree, yes. We wanted to make work that wasn’t led visually in any way, and to achieve that we need darkness. In the dark, we can start with the sound and create environments and characters and to allow the audience to create visuals for themselves, in their imaginations.

SI You first worked with Darkfield co-founder Glen Neath on Shunt in 1988 – the theatre company that pioneered immersive theatre in the UK. Why, with that background, did you decide to turn the lights out?

DR As we explore virtual reality and augmented reality we’ve begun to to notice that a lot of immersive techniques provide experiences that are are paradoxically less immersive than old media. “Immersive” has become an entertainment buzzword. I joked the other day about going to an immersive funeral: it was very sad, and it smelt a bit like bread.

Sure, we could reach a point where virtual reality is indistinguishable from real life; but then it would be real life. Quite a lot of popular virtual reality experiences involve doing incredibly mundane things. The human imagination, on the other hand is — or at any rate feels — limitless. I have been more immersed in a book than I’ve ever been in a 3D film. Immersion isn’t about drowning the senses. It’s about providing enough gaps for our imagination to fill.

SI Have you gone any further in exploring sensory deprivation?

DR We’ve used anechoic chambers to strip sound of all its reflections, so it literally becomes sound from nowhere. But we haven’t really thought of a way to bring that into a performance context. The problem is the body itself is incredibly noisy. As soon as you remove all the other sounds, then your body really makes a racket and you end up focusing on that.

For myself, I remember in the late 1980s I went to a sensory deprivation tank in Manchester that was set up in this guy’s flat. There was a bit of a vogue for the idea at that time. It was a very basic experience: a body temperature bath with enough salt in it that you floated, in complete darkness and quiet. Just before he closed the door on me, the last thing he said was, Don’t touch your face.

SI Good grief.

DR So of course I spent the whole time not touching my face, wanting desperately to touch my face.

SI That sounds horrific.

DR It was a bit stressful.

The world bacteria made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion is more than opium

A review for the Telegraph: A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A history of Soviet atheism by Victoria Smolkin

On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin clambered into Vostok I, blasted into space, and became the first human being to orbit the earth.

“And suddenly I hear: Man is in space! My God! I stopped heating up the oven, sat next to the radio receiver, afraid to step away even for a minute.” This is the recollection of a 73-year-old woman from the Kuibyshev region, published in the state newspaper Izvestiia a little over a month later.

“We were always told that God is in the heavens, so how can a man fly there and not bump into Elijah the Prophet or one of God’s angels? What if God punishes him for his insolence?… Now I am convinced that God is Science, is Man.”

The opposition between religion and science set up in this letter is charmingly naive — as though a space capsule might shatter the crystal walls of heaven! But the official Soviet attitude to these matters was not much different. Lenin considered religion “merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.” Religion was simply a vicious exploitation of uneducated peoples’ urge to superstition. As socialism developed, superstitions in general would disappear, and religions along with them.

The art theorist Aleksey Gan called the constructivist Moscow Planetarium, completed in the late 1920s, “a building in which religious services are held… until society grows to the level of a scientific understanding, and the instinctual need for spectacle comes up against the real phenomena of the world and technology.”

The assumption here — that religion evaporates as soon as people learn to behave rationally — was no less absurd at the time than it is now; how it survived as a political instinct over generations is going to take a lot of explanation. Victoria Smolkin, an associate professor at Wesleyan University, delivers, but with a certain flatness of style that can grate after a while.

By 1973, with 70 planetariums littering the urban landscape and an ideologically oblivious populace gearing itself for a religious revival, I found myself wishing that her gloves would come off.

For the people she is writing about, the stakes could not have been higher. What can be more important than the meaning of life? We are all going to die, after all, and everything we do in our little lives is going to be forgotten. Had we absolutely no convictions about the value of anything beyond our little lives, we would most likely stay in bed, starving and soiling ourselves. The severely depressed do exactly this, for they have grown pathologically realistic about their survival chances.

Cultures are engines of enchantment. They give us reasons to get up in the morning. They give us people, institutions, ideas, and even whole planes of magical reality to live for.

The 1917 Revolution’s great blow-hards were more than happy to accept this role for their revolutionary culture. “Let thousands of us die to resurrect millions of people all over the earth!’ exclaims Rybin in Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel Mother. “That’s what: dying’s easy for the sake of resurrection! If only the people rise!’ And in his two-volume Religion and Socialism, the Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky prophesies the coming of a culture in which the masses will wiillingly “die for the common good… sacrificing to realise a state that starts not with his ‘I’ but with our ‘we’.”

Given the necessary freedom and funding, perhaps the early Soviet Union’s self-styled “God-builders” — Alexander Bogdanov, Leon Trotsky and the rest — might have cooked up a uniquely Soviet metaphysics, with rituals for birth, marriage and death that were worth the name. In suprematism, constructivism, cosmism, and all the other millenarian “-isms” floating about at the turn of the century, Russia had no shortage of fresh ingredients.

But Lenin’s lumpen anticlericals held the day. Bogdanov was sidelined and Trotsky was (literally) axed. Lenin looted the church. Stalin coopted the Orthodox faith to bolster patriotism in a time of war. Khrushchev criminalised all religions and most folk practices in the name of state unity. And none of them had a clue why the state’s materialism — even as it matured into a coherent philosophy — failed to replace the religion to which it was contrivedly opposed.

A homegrown sociology became possible under the fourth premier Leonid Brezhnev’s supposedly ossifying rule, and with it there developed something like a mature understanding of what religion actually was. These insights were painfully and often clumsily won — like Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. trying to understand the business of gift-giving by measuring all the boxes under the tree. And the understanding, when it came, came far too late.

The price of generations of off-again, on-again religious repression was not a confident secularism, or even a convulsive religious reaction. It was poison: ennui and cynicism and ideological indifference that proved impossible for the state to oppose because it had no structure, no leaders, no flag, no clergy or dogma.

In the end there was nothing left but to throw in the towel. Mikhail Gorbachev met with Patriarch Pimen on 29 April 1988, and embraced the millennium as a national celebration. Konstantin Kharchev, chair of the Council for Religious Affairs, commented: “The church has survived, and has not only survived, but has rejuvenated itself. And the question arises: which is more useful to the party — someone who believes in God, someone who believes in nothing at all, or someone who believes in both God and Communism? I think we should choose the lesser evil.” (234)

Cultures do not collapse from war or drought or earthquake. They fall apart because, as the archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out, they lose the point of themselves. Now the heavy lifting of this volume is done, let us hope Smolkin takes a breath and describes the desolation wrought by the institutions she has researched in such detail. There’s a warning here that we, deep in our own contemporary disenchantment, should heed.

Ushering in the End Times at London’s Barbican Hall

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Mark Allan / Barbican

Listening to the London Contemporary Orchestra for New Scientist, 1 November 2018

On All Hallow’s Eve this year, at London’s Barbican Hall, the London Contemporary Orchestra, under the baton of their co-artistic director Robert Ames, managed with two symphonic pieces to drown the world and set it ablaze in the space of a single evening.

Giacinto Scelsi’s portentously titled Uaxuctum: The legend of the Maya City, destroyed by the Maya people themselves for religious reasons, evoked the mysterious and violent collapse of that once thriving civilisation; the second piece of the evening, composer and climate activist John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, looked to the future, the rise of the world’s oceans, and good riddance to the lot of us.

Lost Worlds was a typical piece of LCO programming: not content with presenting two very beautiful but undeniably challenging long-ish works, the orchestra had elected to play behind a translucent screen onto which were projected the digital meanderings of an artistically trained neural net. Twists of entoptic colour twisted and cavorted around the half-seen musicians while a well-place spotlight, directly over Ames’s head, sent the conductor’s gestures sprawling across the screen, as though ink were being dashed over all those pretty digitally generated splotches of colour.

Everything, on paper, pointed to an evening that was trying far too hard to be avant garde. In the execution, however, the occasion was a triumph.

The idea of matching colours to sounds is not new. The painter Wassily Kandinsky struggled for years to fuse sound and image and ended up inventing abstract painting, more or less as a by-product. The composer Alexander Scriabin was so desperate to establish his reputation as the founder of a new art of colour-music, he plagiarised other people’s synaesthetic experiences in his writings and invented a clavier à lumières (“keyboard with lights”) for use in his work Prometheus: Poem of Fire. “It is not likely that Scriabin’s experiment will be repeated by other composers,” wrote a reviewer for The Nation after its premiere in New York in 1915: “moving-picture shows offer much better opportunities.” (Walt Disney proved The Nation right: Fantasia was released in 1937.)

Now, as 2018 draws to a close, artificial intelligence is being hurled at the problem. For this occasion the London-based theatrical production company Universal Assembly Unit had got hold of a recursive neural net engineered by Artrendex, a company that uses artificial intelligence to research and predict the art market. According to the concert’s programme note, it took several months to train Artrendex’s algorithm on videos of floods and fires, teaching it the aesthetics of these phenomena so that, come the evening of the performance, it would construct organic imagery in response to the music.

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Mark Allan / Barbican

While never obscuring the orchestra, the light show was dramatic and powerful, sometimes evoking (for those who enjoy their Andrei Tarkovsky) the blurriness of the clouds swamping the ocean planet Solaris in the movie of that name; then at other moments weaving and flickering, not so much like flames, but more like the speeded-up footage from some microbial experiment. Maybe I’ve worked at New Scientist too long, but I got the distinct and discomforting impression that I was looking, not at some dreamy visual evocation of a musical mood, but at the the responses of single-celled life to desperate changes in their tiny environment.

As for the music – which was, after all, the main draw for this evening – it is fair to say that Scelsi’s Uaxuctum would not be everyone’s cup of tea. For a quick steer, recall the waily bits from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That music was by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who was born about two decades after Scelsi, and was — both musically and personally — a lot less weird. Scelsi was a Parisian dandy who spent years in a mental institution playing one piano note again and again and Uaxuctum, composed in 1966, was such an incomprehensibly weird and difficult proposition, it didn’t get any performance at all for 21 years, and no UK performance at all before this one.

John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean (2013) is an easier (and more often performed) composition – The New Yorkermusic critic Alex Ross called it “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”. This evening its welling sonorities brought hearts into mouths: rarely has mounting anxiety come wrapped in so beautiful a package.

So I hope it takes nothing away from the LCO’s brave and accomplished playing to say that the visual component was the evening’s greatest triumph. The dream of “colour music” has ended in bathos and silliness for so many brilliant and ambitious musicians. Now, with the judicious application of some basic neural networking, we may at last be on the brink of fusing tone and colour into an art that’s genuinely new, and undeniably beautiful.

Not your typical fictional voyage to Mars

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Watching The First, Beau Willimon’s new TV series, for New Scientist, 3 November 2018

FOR reasons that remained mysterious by the end of episode one, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been grounded. This left him watching helplessly as a launch accident wipes out his former crewmates, bound for Mars on a rocket bankrolled by prickly space visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). By the episode’s end, the disaster has taken a huge psychological toll, not least on Ingram herself.

Welcome to the future – don’t expect it to be easy. Set 15 years from now, the world of The First is not very different from our own. Some cars drive themselves. Media gadgets proliferate. The women who currently hold high executive positions in private space companies are now public figures.

The First is not your typical fictional voyage to Mars. “It would have been safer to just get into space in the first episode,” says series creator Beau Willimon, best known for his stylish US remake of political thriller House of Cards. “But space exploration, with all of its excitement, doesn’t happen overnight. A Mars project will take years of planning.”

Virtually the whole of the first season of this intriguing Martian epic will be set on Earth. It is a risky approach, but one that persuaded Charles Elachi, a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to be a consultant for the show. “Only one organisation has successfully landed something on Mars,” he tells me with relish, “and I used to head it.”

“What attracted me,” says Elachi, “was Willimon’s desire to look at the Mars project in the round, taking in the scientific aspects, but also all the technical and personal and political challenges. How do you convince people to commit to these amazing projects? Important as the science is, exploration is a human endeavour.”

Elachi has seen the truth of this at first hand, having witnessed the decades of effort and sacrifice required to land rovers on Mars, and he is impressed that the series, although it accelerates events tremendously, still reflects the likely scale of a Mars mission.

“The series starts 15 years in the future, but for me, as the show’s technical consultant, it’s really a story of the next 15 years,” says Elachi. “It’s about all the things that come before that first flight: the power sources, the vehicles, all the equipment that needs to be developed and deployed before a human ever boards a rocket.”

Building the backstory to the series was essential. And according to Willimon, it was cool: “A lot of the questions we had were questions that researchers themselves are asking,” he says. “Every design element on the screen has a clear function and a precise reason for being there. We don’t want this to be an 8-hour science lecture, but it’s important for the audience that we can explain everything in the frame.”

It takes thousands of people to get one astronaut into space. Engineers, scientists, the medical team, the ground-support team: people bring thousands of years of combined experience to the business of making several minutes tick by without failure.

Willimon, whose father served months at a time on nuclear submarines, also knows the sacrifices families make. While his father was away, he says, “I used to make these drawings and maps and plans, trying to figure out where he was, under what ice shelf, in what ocean? And I’d try to work out what he was doing.”

This makes The First a very personal project. “We all ask ourselves, What does it all mean? Is there a God? Where’s my place in the universe?” Willimon reflects. If we asked these things of ourselves all the time, we’d go mad. “But space travel,” he says, “literally travelling into the heavens, forces your hand.”

The V&A heads east

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for New Scientist, 1 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liquid Crystal Display: Snap judgements

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Visiting Liquid Crystal Display at SITE Gallery, Sheffield, for New Scientist, 31 October 2018

Untitled Gallery was founded in Sheffield in 1979. It specialised in photography. In 1996 it was renamed Site Gallery and steadily expanded its remit to cover the intersection between science and art. Nearly 30 years and a £1.7million refit later, Site Gallery is the new poster child of Sheffield’s Cultural Industries Quarter, with an exhibition, Liquid Crystal Display, that cleverly salutes its photographic past.

Most shows about art value the results over the ingredients. The picture matters more than the paint. The statue matters more than the stone. Exhibitions about photography give rather more space to process because photography’s ingredients are so involved and fascinating.

Liquid Crystal Display follows this photographic logic to its end. This is a show about the beauty, weight and messiness of materials we notice only when they’ve stopped working. It’s about the beauty created by a broken smartphone screen, a corroded battery, a cracked lens.

Site Gallery’s new exhibition – a cabinet of curiosities if ever there was one – collides science and art, the natural and the manufactured, the old and the new. It puts the exquisite sketches of 19th-century Scottish chemist and photographer Mungo Ponton (detailing his observations of how crystals polarise light), next to their nearest contemporary equivalent: microscopic studies (pictured) of liquid crystals caught in the process of self-organisation by Waad AlBawardi, a Saudi molecular biologist who’s currently in Edinburgh, researching the structure of DNA organisation inside cells.

This provocative pairing of the relatively simple and the manifestly complex is repeated several times. Near a selection of crystals from John Ruskin’s mineral collection sit the buckets, burners and batteries of Jonathan Kemp, Martin Howse and Ryan Jordan’s The Crystal World project, a tabletop installation recording their hot, smelly, borderline-hazardous effort to extract the original minerals from bits of scavenged computers. Curated by Laura Sillars, assisted by Site Gallery’s own Angelica Sule, Liquid Crystal Display reveals the material, mineral reality behind our oh-so-weightless holographic world of digital imagery. “Liquid crystals polarise light, produce colour and yet, as a material form, recede into the background of technology,” Sillars wrote in the catalogue to this show.

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This awareness is not new, of course. In the 1960s, liquid crystals were being burned on overhead projectors to create psychedelic light shows. J G Ballard’s novel The Crystal World (1966) concocted a paranoid vision of a world and a civilisation returned (literally) to its mineral roots. That story receives a handsome homage here from the scifi-obsessed Norwegian artist Anne Lislegaard, whose stark monochrome animation (above) turns the sharp shadows and silhouettes cast by contemporary domestic furniture into insidious crystalline growths.

Arrayed within Anna Barham’s peculiar hexagonal cabinetwork, a gigantic piece of display furniture that is itself an artwork, the pictures, objects, films and devices in Liquid Crystal Display speak to pressing topical worries – resource depletion, environmental degradation, the creeping uncanny of digital experience – while at the same time evoking a peculiar nostalgia for our photochemical past.

The exhibition lacks one large signature object against which visitors can take selfies. A peculiar omission in a show that’s relaunching a gallery. And a bit of a shame for an exhibition that, in its left-field way, has handsomely captured the philosophical essence of photography.

Shobana Jeyasingh: Shaping Contagion

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Discussing Jeyasingh’s 14-18 NOW dance commission for New Scientist, 11 October 2018

It still sounds mad – 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, commissioned a dance piece about the global flu pandemic. Why did you take this tragedy on – and how on earth did you shape it?

Shobana Jeyasingh    I began by looking at the smallest element of the story, H1N1, the virus responsible for the Spanish flu. The mechanics of virology appealed to me from the moment I began my reading and research. I spoke to two experts at length: Wendy Barclay, at Imperial College, and John Oxford at Queen Mary College, both in London.

All the strategies the flu virus has for penetrating the cell fascinated me. How it battles past the cilia on the cell’s wall is only the beginning. Once inside the cell it has to find the nucleus, and because it has no motive power of its own, it must hitch rides on transport proteins which themselves are unidirectional, so the virus must leap from one protein to another in search of its target like someone leaping on and off trams.

It’s a strange and amazing narrative, even before the virus starts harnessing the cell’s machinery to churn out copies of itself, which is surely the strangest twist of all.

This is an incredibly dark subject to tackle

That’s what I said to John Oxford, who was part of the team that researched the shape of the H1N1 virus. But his work had made him feel very differently. He’d embarked on this huge archaeological project, looking for the best-preserved tissue that might be infected with the virus. Tissue from people buried in lead coffins, or in Alaskan permafrost.

And he found the families of these victims still recalling how their dying had been cared for. People knew they were in danger, if they nursed somebody with the flu. But, regardless, people gave that care to their family, their spouse, their child. And their everyday heroism was being remembered, even now. It’s a dark story, yes, but Oxford showed me that story in an incredible, wonderful light.

The way your dancers personify the virus is frankly terrifying. They’re not “robotic” but at one time they move like nightmare quadripeds – columns of flesh armed with four extrusions of equal power and length, like RNA strands

At this point, they’re not portraying living things. A virus is a sinister code more than a lifeform in its own right. It’s a strategy, playing itself out in opposition to the body, by recruiting the body’s own forces. It’s not “attacking” anything. It’s far more subtle, far more insidious than that. What killed you, once you were infected with H1N1, was not the virus itself, but the violence of your own immune response. Just the drama of it was fascinating for me.

The medical profession doesn’t get much of a look-in here?

Doctors recognised what kind of disease the Spanish Flu was from its symptoms, but they had no idea that viruses even existed. How could they? Viruses are so small, without an electron microscope you can’t even see them. Several suspected, rightly, that the disease was airborne, but of course filters that can screen out bacteria are no defence against viruses.

So the work of helping people fell, not on the medical profession, who were powerless against what they couldn’t understand, but onto the women – nurses, mothers, wives, carers – who risked their own lives to look after the sick. The last section of the work, “Everyday Heroes”, is about nursing: the irony that while men were either winning or losing on the battlefield, women at home were fighting what was mostly a losing battle against a far more serious threat.

Why was this threat not properly recognised at the time?

Nobody knew what caused the flu, or why the youngest and the fittest seemed most prone to die. The onset was so sudden and dramatic, people would fall sick and die within a few hours.  Someone perfectly healthy at lunchtime might be dead at teatime.

In Manchester, the man who was in charge of public health, James Niven, woke up quite early to the fact that flu transmission shot up when people were gathered together. He tried to ban the Armistice Day celebrations in his city, but of course he was overruled. There was a huge spike in flu cases soon after. There are so many fascinating stories, but in 20 minutes, there’s a limit to what we can explore.

Contagion is not a long piece, but you’ve split it into distinct acts. Why?

It seemed the only way to contain such a complex story. The first section is called “Falling Like Flies”, which was the expression one Indian man used to describe how he lost his entire family in the blink of an eye: his little daughter, his wife, his brother, his nephews.  This section is simply about the enormity of death.  The second, “Viral Moves”, explores the dynamics of the virus. The third section, “Cold Delirium”, is about, well, exactly that.

What is “cold delirium”?

It’s a name that’s sometimes given to the virus’s neurological effects. One of the things we’ve begun to appreciate more and more – and this is why the official death count for the 1918 pandemic has risen recently – is that Spanish flu packs a huge psychological punch.

A lot of people who committed suicide in this period were most likely suffering the neurological effects of the virus. It triggered huge mental problems: screaming, fits, anxiety, episodes of aimless wandering.

And this wasn’t fully recognised then?

People noticed. But there was no means of reporting these cases to give people an idea of the shape and scale of the problem. Flu was not a reportable illness, like typhoid or plague. At the turn of the 20th century in Mumbai they had a plague that was fully documented and shaped the provision of public health. But in the case of flu, milder forms were so familiar, people didn’t really take much notice until the sheer numbers of the dead became unignorable.

And remember, in 1918 communication was not so effective. In Alaska, 90 per cent of a village community died, but there wasn’t any way to connect this episode to 20 million deaths in India. The connected global map that we carry around in our heads simply did not exist.

Contagion‘s set is a series of white boxes, arranged neatly at one end, and at the other end rising up into the air chaotically. Do they represent blood cells or grave markers? 

You’re on the right track, though the idea first came from looking at pictures of hospital beds. Hospital beds tend to be ordered and in lines, and then this huge event comes along to disrupt everything, and sweep everything before it.

York Mediale 2018: Playing with shadows

Visiting York Mediale 2018 for New Scientist, 19 October 2018

The dancers performing Strange Stranger at this year’s inaugural York Mediale (tagline: “Art, Meet the Future”) weren’t just moving about in the shadows. They were leaving shadows behind them, thanks to wrist-worn tracking devices and a complex, computer-driven LED-lit set. And over the course of the festival, which ran from 27 September to 6 October this year, visitors were able to explore the set and leave their own shadows in the air.

Alexander Whitley and his dance company have caught our eye before with 8 Minutes, a visceral and surprisingly true-to-fact dance about the internal processes of the sun. Their new piece is a play on the concept of the “data shadow” – a digital profile formed from all the information we unintentionally leave behind through our routine use of technology. That Whitley has turned to the dark for Strange Stranger says something about the eeriness that’s been slipping into contemporary art for some while.

It’s a mordant piece, and perhaps technically not quite there yet, because the dancers aren’t just leaving shadows; they’re actually getting lost in shadows. The net effect of all this energetic movement, then, is a sense of creeping powerlessness.

The same mood – part melancholy, part anxious – also marks Strata Rock Dust Stars, the flagship exhibition at this new media arts festival, which, it’s just been announced, is due to return in 2020.

Curated by Mike Stubbs, director of Liverpool’s FACT gallery, the exhibition runs until 25 November. Melancholy notes are struck by David Jacques, whose installation Oil is the Devil’s Excrement (2017) reveals by degrees that we have never been in control of the oil that powers our civilisation: it’s oil that has been in control of us. (You don’t have to take his word for it, either: the title of the piece is actually a quote Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, the founder of OPEC.)

Isaac Julien’s Stones Against Diamonds is another powerful hymn to our fatal misreading of our own values. Shot in a remote region of south-east Iceland in 2015, it juxtaposes luxury goods with jewel-like icescapes and ice blocks and advertisement-shiny waterfalls. Ice, it transpires, is the ultimate luxury good being celebrated (or mourned) among these multiple video panels, by a glamorous isolated figure (Vanessa Myrie) who, we can only suppose, has consumed everything else there is to consume.

Like every other living thing on this planet, humans are destined to expand to exploit all resources available to them, at which point they’ll plunge off a demographic cliff. There’s no tragedy in this. The tragedy is that we know it’s happening. We know the destruction we’re causing. We know what the consequences will be.

Strata Rock Dust Stars offers the visitor various coping mechanisms by which we might deal with this realisation. Liz Orton’s The Longest and Darkest of Recollections (2016) fuses geology, photography and memoir in a museum-like display that captures perfectly our poignant struggle to assign meaning to a world far older and bigger and dumber than ourselves. Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s on-going obsession with moon-dwelling geese (the conceit of the 17th-century bishop and proto-sf author Francis Godwin) offers fancy and absurdity as a palliative for our tragic condition. In a delicious parody of all those Anthropocene maunderings, her latest venture, Moon Core (2018), asks whether the droppings and egg-shells of moon geese might not have entered the lunar geological record.

When fancy and imagination collide with the real world, however, the result is not always charming. Worlds in the Making, an early video work by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who make work under the name Semiconductor, creates, if you can picture such a thing, a sort of paranoid geology, perfectly false and perfectly believable, and a dreadful reminder of how much we rely on trust for our understanding of the world.

Another way of coping with the tragedy of the human condition is to laugh at it. Away from the flagship exhibition, I stumbled across a new work by Rodrigo Lebrun, a young Brazilian-born artist who has very little patience with the seriousness of much contemporary art. “It’s just another way of ostracising the public,” he told me, as he unlocked the shipping container where his barely finished video installation, Green (Screen) Dreams, advertises the apocalyptic charm of Sunthorpe — think grim Humber Valley Scunthorpe rebranded as a tropical holiday destination minutes before a collapsed ice shelf-triggered tsunami arrives, coincident with the entire planet bursting into flame.

Hijacking the hyperbolic visuals of television advertising, Lebrun has created an advertisement for the future: a world in which the vagiaries of environmental collapse afford us little pockets of tremendous commercial opportunity in the seconds before Armageddon, and where all the difficult questions about population and pollution, environmental integrity and resource depletion, are breezily crammed into an eyeblink-fast on-screen reminder that “Terms and Conditions Apply”.

“Instead of creating solutions, we’ve been creating these weird alternate realities,” Lebrun says, “CGI-driven entertainments to numb the senses.” His installation blows the gaffe on this confidence trick. It’s frightening, and funny, and above all it’s energising. Commissioned by Invisible Dust, an environmental arts charity we last encountered driving a gigantic mobile cinema around the Scottish coastGreen (Screen) Dreams gets its next outing At North Lincolnshire Museum from 19 January next year. But that’s surely only the beginning for the piece and for Lebrun himself, whose combination of wit and savagery seems as rare, these days, as a moon-goose’s teeth.