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.

The unfashionable genius of William De Morgan

Visiting Sublime Symmetry at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery for New Scientist, 28 May 2018

William De Morgan was something of a liability. He once used a fireplace as a makeshift kiln and set fire to his rented London home. And as a businessman he was a disaster. The prices he charged for his tiles and ceramics hardly even paid for the materials, never mind his time.

At the turn of the 20th century, when serious financial problems loomed, only a man of De Morgan’s impractical stripe would resort to writing fiction. But the tactic paid off. No one remembers them these days, but the autobiographical Joseph Vance (1903) and subsequent novels were well regarded at the time, and hugely popular.

Sublime Symmetry at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery wants to tell the story of this polymathic artist but (like De Morgan himself, one suspects) it keeps disappearing down intellectual rabbit holes. De Morgan’s father was the freethinking mathematician Augustus De Morgan, whose student Francis Guthrie came up with the four-colour hypothesis (whereby designing a map, so that countries with a common boundary are differently shaded, requires only four colours). His whimsical tiled fire surround for his friend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) might have inspired that author’s nonsense verses. Other ceramic projects included the tiles on a dozen P&O liners. Ada Lovelace was a family friend.

On and on like this, until it dawns on you that none of this is an accident, the show’s endless rabbit holes are its point, and fashioning a man like William de Morgan – a mathematically inventive painter of pots, for heaven’s sake – would today be an impossibility.

With all our talk of STEAM and “Sci Art”, the sciences and the humanities are more isolated and defended against each other (“siloed” is the current term of art) than they ever were in De Morgan’s day. And the world itself, as a consequence, is a little less capable of sustaining wonder.

Fusion and freedom
Like Maurits Escher, half a century later, the ceramicist De Morgan drew inspiration from natural forms, and rendered them with a rigor learned from studying classical Arabic design. This fusion of the animate and the geometrical was best expressed on plates and bowls, the best of them made, not in a fireplace, but in the rather more sensible setting of Sand’s End Pottery in Fulham.

De Morgan’s skills as a draftsman were extraordinary. He could draw, free-hand, any pattern around a central line that would have perfect mirror symmetry. Becoming expert in lustreware, he painted his designs directly onto the ceramic surface of his pots and plates, manipulating his original sketches to fit every curve of an object.

It fits De Morgan’s somewhat disorganised reputation that lustreware should have become unfashionable by the end of the century, just as he perfected it.

Even now, it takes a few minutes’ wandering around the Guildhall Gallery for the visitor’s eye to accommodate itself to these objects: so very Victorian, so very hand-done and apparently quotidian. Make the time. This show is a gem, and De Morgan’s achievement is extraordinary. Among these tiles and pots and plates are some of the most natural and apparently effortless fusions of artistic proportion and mathematical rigor ever committed to any medium.

M C Escher: “Indulging in imaginary thoughts”

Beating piteously at the windows for New Scientist, 25 May 2018

Leeuwarden-Fryslan, one of the less populated parts of the Netherlands, has been designated this year’s European Capital of Culture. It’s a hub of social and technological and cultural innovation and yet hardly anyone has heard of the place. It makes batteries that the makers claim run circles around Tesla’s current technology, there are advanced plans for the region to go fossil free by 2025, it has one of the highest (and happiest) immigrant populations in Europe, and yet all we can see from the minibus, from horizon to horizon, is cows.

When you’re invited to write about an area you know nothing about, a good place to start is the heritage. But even that can’t help us here. The tiny city of Leeuwarden boasts three hugely famous children: spy and exotic dancer Mata Hari, astrophysicist Jan Hendrik Oort (he of the Oort Cloud) and puzzle-minded artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. The trouble is, all three are famous for being maddening eccentrics.

All Leeuwarden’s poor publicists can do then, having brought us here, is throw everything at us and hope something sticks. And so it happens that, somewhere between the (world-leading) Princessehof ceramics museum and Lan Fan Taal, a permanent pavilion celebrating world languages, someone somewhere makes a small logistical error and locks me inside an M C Escher exhibition.

Escher, who died in 1972, is famous for using mathematical ideas in his art, drawing on concepts from symmetry and hyperbolic geometry to create complex tessellated images. And the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden has gathered more than 80 original prints for me to explore, along with drawings, photographs and memorabilia, so there is no possibility of my getting bored.

Nor is the current exhibition, Escher’s Journey, the usual, chilly celebration of the man’s puzzle-making ability and mathematical sixth sense. Escher was a pleasant, passionate man with a taste for travel, and this show reveals how his personal experiences shaped his art.

Escher’s childhood was by his own account a happy one. His parents took a good deal of interest in his education without ever restricting his intellectual freedom. This was as well, since he was useless at school. Towards the end of his studies, he and his parents traveled through France to Italy, and in Florence he wrote to a friend: “I wallow in it, but so greedily that I fear that my stomach will not be able to withstand it.”

The cultural feast afforded by the city was the least of it. The Leeuwarden native was equally staggered by the surrounding hills – the sheer, three-dimensional fact of them; the rocky coasts and craggy defiles; the huddled mountain villages with squares, towers and houses with sloping roofs. Escher’s love of the Italian landscape consumed him and, much to his mother’s dismay, he was soon permanently settled in the country.

For visitors familiar to the point of satiety and beyond with Escher’s endlessly reproduced and commodified architectural puzzles and animal tessellations, the sketches he made in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s are the highlight of this show. Escher’s favored medium was the engraving. It’s a time-consuming art, and one that affords the artist time to think and to tinker. Inevitably, Escher began merging his sketches into new, realistic wholes. Soon he was trying out unusual perspectives and image compilations. In Still Life with Mirror (1934), he crossed the threshold, creating a reflected world that proves on close inspection to be physically and mathematically impossible.

The usual charge against Escher as an artist – that he was too caught up in the toils of his own visual imagination to express much humanity – is hard to rebuff. There’s a gap here it’s not so easy to bridge: between Escher the approachable and warm-hearted family man and Escher the grumpy Parnassian (he once sent Mick Jagger away with a flea in his ear for asking him for an album cover).

The second world war had a lot to answer for, of course, not least because it drove Escher out of his beloved Italian hills and back, via Switzerland, to the flat old, dull old Netherlands. “Italy, the landscape, the people, they speak to me.” he explained in 1968. “Switzerland doesn’t and Holland even less so.”

Without the landscape to inform his art, other influences came to dominate. Among the places he had visited as war gathered was the Alhambra in Granada. The complex geometric patterns covering its every surface, and their timeless, endless repetition, fascinated him. For days on end he copied the Arab motifs in the palace. Back in the Netherlands, their influence, and Escher’s growing fascination with the mathematics of tessellation, would draw him away from landscapes toward an art consisting entirely of “visualised thoughts”.

By the time his images were based on periodic tilings (meaning that you can slide a pattern in a certain direction and have it exactly overlay the original), his commentaries suggest that Escher had come to embrace his own, somewhat sterile reputation. “I played a game,” he recalled, “indulged in imaginary thoughts, with no other intention than to explore the possibilities of representation. In my work I give a report on these discoveries.”

In the end Escher’s designs became so fiendishly complex, his output dropped almost to zero, and much of his time was taken up lecturing and corresponding about his unique way of working. He corresponded with mathematicians, though he never considered himself one. He knew Roger Penrose. He lived to see the first fractal shapes evolve out of the mathematical studies of Koch and Mandelbrot, though it wasn’t until after his death that Benoît Mandelbrot coined the word “fractal” and popularised the concept.

Eventually, I am missed. At any rate, someone thinks to open the gallery door. I don’t know how long I was in there, locked in close proximity to my childhood hero. (Yes, as a child I did those jigsaw puzzles; yes, as a student I had those posters on my wall) I can’t have been left inside Escher’s Journey for more than a few minutes. But I exited a wreck.

The Fries Museum has lit Escher’s works using some very subtle and precise spot projection; this and the trompe-l’œil monochrome paintwork on the walls of the gallery form a modestly Escherine puzzle all by themselves. Purely from the perspective of exhibition design, this charming, illuminating, and comprehensive show is well worth a visit.

You wouldn’t want to live there, though.

Fakery at the Science Gallery, Dublin

Visiting the Science Gallery, Dublin for New Scientist, 14 April 2018 

Had you $1800 to spend on footwear in 2012, you might have considered buying a pair of RayFish sneakers. Delivery would have taken a while because you were invited to design the patterned leather yourself. You would have then have had to wait while the company grew a pair of transgenic stingrays in their Thai aquaculture facility up to the age where their biocustomised skins could be harvested.

Alas, animal rights activists released the company’s first batch of rays into the wild before harvesting could take place, and the company suspended trading. Scuba divers still regularly report sightings of fish sporting the unlikely colourations that were RayFish’s signature.

RayFish was, you’ll be pleased to hear, a con, perpetrated by three Dutch artists five years ago. It now features in Fake, the latest show at the Science Gallery, Dublin, an institution that sells itself as the place “where art and science collide”.

The word “collide” is well chosen. “We’re not experts on any one topic here,” explains Ian Brunswick, the gallery’s head of programming, “and we’re not here to heal any kind of ‘rift’ between science and art. When we develop a show, we start from a much simpler place, with an open call to artists, designers and scientists.” They ask all the parties what they think of the new idea, and what can they show them. Scientists in particular, says Brunswick, often underestimate which elements of their work will captivate.

Founded under the auspices of Dublin’s Trinity College, the Science Gallery is becoming a global brand thanks to the support of founding partner Google.org. London gets a gallery later this year; Bangalore in 2019. The aim is to not to educate, but to inspire visitors to educate themselves.

Brunswick recalls how climate change, in particular, triggered this sea-change in the way public educators think about their role: “I think many science shows have been operating a deficit model: they fill you up like an empty vessel, giving you enough facts so you agree with the scientists’ approach. And it doesn’t work.” A better approach, Brunswick argues, is to give the audience an immediate, visceral experience of the subject of the show.

For example, in 2014 Dublin’s Science Gallery called its climate change show “Strange Weather”, precisely to explore the fact that weather and climate change are different things, and that weather is the only phenomenon we experience directly on a daily basis. It got people to ask how they knew what they knew about the climate – and what knowledge they might be missing.

Freddie Stevens

Playfulness characterises the current show. Fakery, it seems, is bad, necessary, inevitable, natural, dangerous, creative, and delightful, all at once. There are fictional animals here preserved in jars besides real specimens: are they fake, or merely out of context? And you can (and should) visit the faux-food deli and try a caramelised whey product here from Norway that everyone calls cheese because what the devil else would you call it?

Then there’s a genuine painting that became a fake when its unscrupulous owner manipulated the artist’s signature. And the Chinese fake phones that are parodies you couldn’t possibly mistake for the real thing: from Pikachu to cigarette packets. There’s a machine here will let you manipulate your fake laugh until it sounds genuine.

Fake’s contributing artists have left me with the distinct suspicion that the world I thought I knew is not the world.

Directly above RayFish’s brightly patterned sneakers, on the upper floor of the gallery, I saw Barack Obama delivering fictional speeches. A work in progress by researchers from the University of Washington, Synthesizing Obama is a visual form of lip-synching in which audio files of Obama speaking are converted into realistic mouth shapes. These are then blended with video images of Obama’s head as he delivers another speech entirely.

It’s a topical piece, given today’s accusatory politics, and a chilling one.

The internet poses an impossible paradox for digital artists

Visiting the Transmediale festival in Berlin for New Scientist, 21 February 2018

BERLIN’S festival of art and media culture Transmediale is an annual reminder that art is more than a luxury good. It gives us the words, images and ideas we need to talk to each other about a changing world.

Big social changes involve big shifts in how art is made and consumed. It is a nerve-racking process for artists, who can have no idea, as they embark on their ventures, whether the public will come to appreciate and enjoy their work. And at this year’s Transmediale, the chickens came home to roost.

To begin at the beginning, back in the 1950s, Andy Warhol and the pop art movement looked at the world through the prism of advertising hoardings and television. A new generation of artists has been making art out of the internet.

Some artists have attempted to imagine the internet itself, paying attention to developments in data management and artificial intelligence, so they can better imagine what the internet is and what it might become.

The performance premiering at the festival this year, James Ferraro’s Dante-esquePlague, was work of this sort: a credible, visceral and downright terrifying portrayal of consciousness emerging from the audio-visual detritus of social media.

Other artists have used the internet as a tool through which to look at the world. Much of this work resembles anthropology more than art. Take Lisa Rave’s film Europium, which flits between trading floors, TV showrooms and a wedding ceremony in Papua New Guinea to trace the material connections and cultural gulfs that distinguish different kinds of money, from seashell dowries to plastic banknotes. In so doing, she constructs a microhistory of the rare element europium that wouldn’t look out of place in a high-end magazine, and brings the hackneyed link between capitalism and colonialism to life.

“The internet sorts. It archives. Many of its artists are, in consequence, good little bureaucrats”

But there is a problem: artists working with the materials of the internet are further removed from physical reality than their forebears. They are looking at the world through what is, really, a single, totalising, bureaucratic machine. (It’s called the World Wide Web for a reason.) And in art, as in life, you are what you eat.

The internet sorts. It archives. Many of its artists are, in consequence, good little bureaucrats who offer “findings”, “research” and “presentations” (at Transmediale we even had an “actualisation”, from artist and gay activist Zach Blas), but rarely anything as trite as finished work.

Nothing ages on the internet; nothing dies. Nothing is ever resolved. Similarly with its art: Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s A Becoming Resemblance, which uses DNA from Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who leaked classified documents, is to all intents and purposes a brand new piece, but it is still presented as a fragment of a work begun in 2015.

Does the open-endedness of this art make it bad? Of course not. But internet art hardly ever gets finished. There’s always more data to sort, a virtual infinitude of rabbit holes to hurl yourself down, and very little that is genuinely new has had a chance to emerge. I defy a newcomer to tell the difference between the work premiering here and work that is 20 years old.

The field has, as a consequence, turned into the art world’s Peter Pan: the child that never grew up. And we treat it as a child. We tiptoe around anything resembling a negative opinion, as though every time one of us said, “I don’t believe this piece is any good”, a video artist somewhere would fall down dead.

In other words, the world of media art has suffered the same fate that has befallen the rest of the internet-enabled planet. The very technology that promised us the world on a screen has been steadily filtering out the challenges and contrary opinions that made our interests and ideas so vital in the first place, leaving us living in an echo chamber.

It was Lioudmila Voropai, a Ukrainian art historian, who got the gathered artists, curators and academics at Transmediale to confront some chilly realities about their field. We knew the book she was launching contained dynamite because it was entitled Media Art as a By-Product – no punches pulled there. Another reason was that she spent all her time telling us what her book didn’t do. It didn’t criticise. It didn’t take a political position. It asked a few questions. It didn’t have answers. Nothing to see here.

Finally someone piped up: “So the media art we’ve come here to enjoy and talk about and theorise over actually exists only to sustain museums of media art? Is that what you’re saying?”

And Voropai, perhaps figuring that she may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, let rip: “The extraordinary thing about media art,” she said, “is that the moment it was institutionally established, it was declared conceptually obsolete.”

This was only the beginning. Speaker after speaker made sincere efforts to get the left-wing, countercultural, transgressive Transmediale participants to look at themselves in the mirror. It took courage to try to get media artists to admit that their radical chic has been stolen by the likes of the just-as-countercultural far-right Breitbart News Network; that they have forgotten (as right-wingers like Donald Trump have not) how to entertain; and that they exist chiefly to sustain the institutions that fund them. These efforts were received with seriousness and courtesy.

“If the internet disappears, our lives will be held hostage by an invisible infrastructure”

Attempts to puncture the “new media art” bubble from the inside might have seemed a bit laughable to outsiders. Occupying most of the venue’s impressive foyer, Hate Library was a printout of the results (pictured left) artist Nick Thurston obtained when he typed “truth” into the search box on the online bulletin board of the white-supremacist Stormfront Europe group. The idea, I think, was to confront the Transmediale crowd with the big, bad world outside. But to the rest of us, this felt like old news. If you go there, and type that, surely you get what you deserve?

hate words

Even so, I am inclined to admire people who take their social and artistic responsibilities seriously enough to ask uncomfortable questions of themselves, and risk a bit of awkwardness and ridicule along the way.

After all, much of this work does get under your skin. It does make you look at the world anew. As I was leaving, I looked in at Yuri Pattison’s installation Vitra Alcove (some border thoughts). Pattison has mashed up videogame-generated coastal cities and garbled news tickers to capture the queasy liquidity of mediated life.

Sitting there, bombarded by algorithmically generated fake news and dizzy from the image blizzard, I was reminded of the few fraught days I once spent sitting among New Scientist‘s news team as it fished for real stories in a web-borne ocean of alarmism, self-promotion and misinterpretation. Pattison’s work says at least as much about my life as L. S. Lowry’s paintings of matchstalk men and cats and dogs said about my grandfather’s.

In January 2015, Eric Schmidt, then executive chairman of Google, declared that the internet was destined to disappear. He was talking about the internet of things: how the infrastructure that is beginning to weave together the materials and objects of daily life would burrow its way into our lives, and so become invisible.

But if, in the act of becoming ubiquitous, the internet also disappears, then our lives will be held hostage by a bureaucratic infrastructure we can no longer see, never mind control. Media art explores and shines strong light onto this complacent, hyper-conformist, not-so-brave world. Of course the art is strange, hard to explain – and a work in progress. How could it not be? That is its job.

Ceiling Cat is watching you make art

Visiting 😹 LMAO at London’s Open Data Institute for New Scientist, 2 February 2018

On Friday 12 January 2018, curators Julie Freeman and Hannah Redler Hawes left work at London’s Open Data Institute confident that, come Monday morning, there would be at least a few packets of crisps in the office.

Artist Ellie Harrison‘s Vending Machine (2009; pictured below) sits in the ODI’s kitchen, one of the more venerable exhibits to have been acquired over the institute’s five-year programme celebrating data as culture. It has been hacked to dispense a packet of salty snacks whenever the BBC’s RSS feed carries a news item containing financial misfortune.

No one could have guessed that, come 7 am on Monday morning, Carillion, the UK government’s giant services contractor, would have gone into liquidation. There were so many packets in the hopper, no one could open the door, say staff.

Such apparently silly anecdotes are the stuff of this year’s show, the fifth in the ODI’s annual exhibition series “Data as Culture”. This year, humour and absurdity are being harnessed to ask big questions about internet culture, privacy and artificial intelligence.

Looking at the world through algorithmic lenses may bring occasional insight, but what really matters here are the pratfalls as, time and again, our machines misconstrue a world they cannot possibly comprehend.

In 2017, artist Pip Thornton fed famous poems to Google’s online advertising service, Google AdWords, and printed the monetised results on till receipts. The framed results value the word “cloud” (as in I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth) highly, at £4.73, presumably because Google’s algorithm was dreaming of internet servers. It had no time at all for Wilfred Owen: “Froth-corrupted” (Dulce et Decorum Est) earned exactly £0.00.

You can, of course, reverse this game and ask what happens to people when they over-interpret machine-generated data, seeing patterns that aren’t there.

This is what Lee Montgomery has done with Stupidity Tax (2017). In an effort to understand his father’s mild but unaccountably secretive gambling habit, Montgomery has used a variety of data analysis techniques to attempt to predict the UK National Lottery. The sting in this particular tale is the installation’s associated website, which implies (mischievously, I hope) that the whole tongue-in-cheek effort has driven the artist ever so slightly mad.

Watching over the whole exhibition – literally because it’s peeking through a hole in a ceiling tile – is Franco and Eva Mattes’s Ceiling Cat, a taxidermied realisation of the internet meme, and a comment on the nature of surveillance beliefs (pictured top). “It’s cute and scary at the same time,” the artists say, “like the internet.”

Co-curator Freeman is a data artist herself. If you visited last year’s New Scientist Live you may well have seen her naked mole-rat surveillance project. The 7.5 million data points acquired by the project are now keeping network analysts busy at Queen Mary University of London. “We want to know if mole-rats make good encryption objects,” says Freeman. Their nest behaviours might generate true random numbers, handy for data security. “But the mole-rat queens are far too predictable… Crisp?”

Through a mouthful of salt and vinegar, I ask Freeman where her playfulness comes from. And as I suspected, there’s intellectual steel beneath: “Data is being constantly visualised so we can comprehend it,” she says, “and those visualisations are often done in a very short space of time, for a particular purpose, in a particular context, for a particular audience. Then they acquire this afterlife. All of a sudden, they’re the lenses we’re looking through. If you start thinking about data as something rigid and objective and bearing the weight of truth, then you’ve stopped discerning what is right and what is wrong.”

Freeman wants us to analyse data, not abandon it, and her exhibition is an act of tough love. “When we fetishise data, we end up with what’s happening in social media,” she says. “So many people drowning in metadata, pointing to pointers, and never acquiring any knowledge that’s deep and valuable. There should be some words to express that glut, that need to roll back a little bit. Here, have another crisp.”

Plastered

Stereo recordings, Imax movies, Steam-generated games: for over a century we’ve relied on innovations in media to deliver us a taste of the sublime. As the pioneering pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”

But even if that was true in 1939, I’m not sure it’s true any longer — not now we live enmired in media, and, indeed, have to make special efforts to escape them.

For me, 2017 ended with a couple of little disappointments both involving virtual reality.
Having wandered disembodied around Amedeo Modigliani’s “Ochre Atelier“ (an international curatorial effort which took five months to construct) I left London’s Tate Modern feeling as though I’d been transported, not to Paris, but to some Pixar-driven studio circa 1995. Virtual environments can actually render grit, dirt and water stains to a high creepiness level — but not on the sort of budget the Tate can command. The Ochre Atelier was a cartoon.

Not long after, I was prevented from wandering around Yinka Shonibare’s reconfigured, virtual version of the “Townley Venus” at the Royal Academy. The invigilator had saved me from walking into a wall, but I stalked out of that overclean, over-smooth virtual interior convinced that current museum technology can only insulate us from the sublime and the beautiful.
The technologies of digital reproduction are doing to objects exactly what they have done for books and music. They’re are making everything simultaneously accessible and boring.

A misplaced compulsion to entertain is only part of this story, and not the most interesting part. For cultural institutions, the chief promise of digital is its ability to reproduce and preserve. The effort to copy and disseminate objects of antiquity is both venerable and important. Indeed Mari Lending’s new book, Plaster Monuments: Architecture and the Power of Reproduction, reveals the role of casting in preserving entire architectural epochs. She recounts how in 1857 and on a visit to the Paris International Exhibition, the V&A’s first director Henry Cole persuaded 15 European princes to sign up to an ‘International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art’.

In Cole’s day, the technologies of reproduction consisted of photography, electrotyping and plastercasting. Casting, alas, proved far more damaging than was at first realised. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the former circus strongman who conveyed the 7-ton bust of Pharaoh Ramesses II out of Luxor (it’s now in the British Museum) was no vandal, but he still managed to to take all the paint off when he cast the figure of Anubis in the tomb of Seti I, in the Valley of the Kings.

Worse followed: Belzoni’s facsimile of Seti’s tomb, shown at the Egyptian Halls in London in 1821, was one of several events that led Thomas Cook to form his travel agency. This in turn triggered arguably history’s greatest cultural catastrophe, since tourism is predicated on the idea that original objects, buildings and places can be made more or less universally accessible. Suddenly the traces of past ages were fixed in place, and people travelled to them. The damage Belzoni did to the tomb of Seti I pales in comparison to the wholesale dilapidation visitors have visited upon the entire complex at Luxor.

Many heritage sites are now permanently closed. Those wanting to explore Seti’s 3,300-year-old tomb will have to make do with a trip to Basel and a 100-micron-resolution facsimile of two chambers, courtesy of the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative. This project, run by Factum Foundation in collaboration with the University of Basel and under contract to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, is embarked on nothing less than the wholesale recreation of the treasures of the Valley of the Kings.

Multi-spectral composite photography; 3D scanning; additive 3D printing; high-resolution CNC routing: the technologies employed and built from scratch by the technicians and artisans of “digital mediators” Factum Arte allow us to copy originals without ever touching them. But there is something kitschy about Seti’s immaculate new e-tomb: what it has gained in freshness, it has lost in dignity.

Similarly when I visited the RA, though I enjoyed the way Shonibare had repurposed the Roman Venus statue, I found its VR setting (based on a Gavin Hamilton painting) profoundly dispiriting. he hadn’t just brought an old painting to life. He’d done something far worse. He’d cleaned it up. He’d made it good as new.

The eighteenth-century culture in which Belzoni operated – doing an honest but far from perfect job of reproducing the treasures of his day — can, I think, point us in a healthier direction.

Belzoni’s was a world where no one worried much when a nose or a leg fell off an old statue. They simply patched them up. This honourable practice goes back at least as far as the 16th-century sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who argued that the ravaged sculptures of antiquity ”were screaming for his help”.

The poster-child of that era (at least for Londoners, who can visit the museum he made of his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields) is the architect Sir John Soane. Soane, born 1753, once grubbed up the garden of Pitzhanger, his country manor, to plant imaginary ruins. This was not (or not entirely) a Romantic indulgence. He used them mostly to tease antiquarians. He would take shards and fashion them into whole items, not willy-nilly, but on the basis of diligent study and educated taste. He knew the past was gone, and approximations were necessary. Lacking today’s precision instruments and the over-weaning, millennial rhetoric that accompanies them, he never once imagined that the past could be entirely recouped, or that the present moment might be made to last forever. One design for his Bank of England (a masterpiece now largely destroyed) showed how it would look in ruins.

Soane was rather fond of imagining what posterity might make of his museum. In 1812, and in the voice of an archaeologist of the future, he wrote:

“It is difficult to determine for what purposes such a strange and mixed assemblage of ancient works or rather [plaster] copies of them, for many are not of stone or marble, have been brought together…”

Not every young man could afford a Grand Tour of Europe. Soane considered his collection of copies the next best thing. He was right.

It was the stubborn whiteness of plastercasts, perhaps, the lack of an accurate means of coloration, not to mention a growing awareness of the damage being done by even the most careful copying — that saved Soane and his generation from imagining that they could render objects as they had been at their moment of completion.

Today we are armed with technology that can copy the surface appearance and even some of the structural elements of originals to perfection, or as close to perfection as makes no odds. This inadvertently puts us in the position of Lord Duveen, the British art dealer who, believing that authenticity was but a bathtime away, saw to the scrubbing of the Elgin Marbles. Nor was he the first restorer to kill through kindness. Writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were already complaining about this sort of thing in 1851, after seeing a newly cleaned Rubens: “It is,” they wrote, “like a piece of music from which all the half-tones have been removed: everything screams and bellows like earthenware gone mad.”

Nothing material will be damaged by today’s digital scrubbing — indeed, much valuable information will be uncovered and saved. But if we think that returning objects to their pristine state brings us closer to an authentic view of the past, then we are seriously short-changing our imaginations.

Soane and his fellows knew what we affect to deny: that time is real, and that everything ages and crumbles and dies. That’s why they considered art even more important than artworks.

As he reflected on the potential of scanning and 3D printing, Tristram Hunt, the current director of the V&A, pointed out in a recent article that “the lost artefacts of the ancient past have never felt more tangible, and less controllable.” Factum Arte founder Adam Lowe goes further. In the future, he says, we will handle each object “like an interpretation of a musical score. There will be different performances of the same object. They can be compared, discussed and understood.”

I would like to think the future will be full of John Soanes as, with a clear conscience, we start patching together bits of the past into new objects: not at random, not out of mischief, but as Soane and his contemporaries did — out of an imaginative engagement with a past we accept is irretrievably lost.