The three-dimensional page

Robert Fludd’s black square from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617-21), depicts the void immediately prior to creation. Et sic in infinitum (“And so on to infinity”) run the words on each side of this eloquent blank. Thinking 3D explores territories where words tangle incoherently and only pictures will suffice — then leaps giggling into a void where rational enquiry collapses and only artworks and acts of mischief like Fludd’s manage to convey anything at all.

Visiting Thinking 3D: Leonardo to the present at Oxford’s Weston Library for the Financial Times, 20 March 2019

Teeth and feathers

Visiting T. rex: The ultimate predator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for New Scientist, 13 March 2019

PALAEONTOLOGY was never this easy. Reach into a bin and pick up a weightless fossil bone hardly smaller than you are. Fling it into the air, in roughly the direction indicated by the glowing orange light. It fixes in place above you with a satisfying click. Add more bones. You are recreating the head of the most fearsome predator known to natural history: Tyrannosaurus rex. Once it is complete, the skull you have made makes this point nicely – by coming after you.

The American Museum of Natural History is 150 years old this year. One of its collectors, Barnum Brown, discovered the first fossil remains of the predator in Montana in 1902. So the museum has made T. rex the subject of its first exhibition celebrating the big anniversary.

The game I was playing, T. rex: Skeleton crew, is also the museum’s first foray into virtual reality. It is a short, sweet, multiplayer game that, if it doesn’t convey much scientific detail, nonetheless gives the viewer a glimpse of the first great puzzle palaeontologists confront: how to put scattered remains together. It also gives a real sense of the beast’s size: a fully grown T. rex (and they could live into their late 20s) was more than 12 metres long and weighed 15 tonnes.

An extended version of this game, for home use, will feature a full virtual gallery tour. It has been put together by the Vive arm of tech firm HTC. Early on, in its project to establish a name in the cultural sector, the company decided not to compete with the digital realm’s top dog, Google Arts & Culture. Google, at least until recently, has tended to brand its efforts quite heavily because it brings a wealth of big data to its projects.

HTC Vive, by contrast, works behind the scenes with museums, cultural organisations and artists to realise relatively modest projects. By letting the client take the lead, it is learning faster than most what the VR medium can do. It cut its teeth on an explorable 3D rendering of Modigliani’s studio in the Tate Modern in London in 2017 and created an immersive exploration of Claude Monet’s approach to painting in The Water Lily Obsession, now a permanent feature at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The trick, it seems, is to focus, to make immersion and physical sensation the point of each piece. Above all, the idea is to slow down. VR isn’t a traditional teaching aid. The Monet project in particular revealed how good VR is at conveying craft knowledge.

But if, instead, a VR installation delivers a brief, memorable, even magical experience, this, too, has value. Skeleton crew is a powerful prompt to the imagination. It isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, the star of this show. The models are the real draw here. Traditionally fashioned life-size renderings of tyrannosaurs big and small, scaled, tufted and sometimes fully feathered, their variety reflecting the explosion of palaeobiological research that has transformed our understanding of millions of years of Mesozoic fauna over the past 20 years. We can now track trace chemicals in the material surrounding a fossil so precisely that we even know the colour of some species’ eggs.

T. rex: The ultimate predator certainly delivers on its brash, child-friendly title. Terrifying facts abound. T. rex‘s jaws had a maximum bite force 10 times that of an alligator – enough not just to break bone, but to burst it into swallowable splinters.

But the really impressive thing about the show are the questions it uses to convey the sheer breadth of palaeontology. What did T. rex sound like? No one knows, but here are a mixing desk and some observations about how animals vocalise: go figure. Is this fossil a juvenile T. rex or a separate species? Here is a summary of the arguments: have a think.

Staged in a huge cavern-like hall, with shadow-puppet predators and prey battling for dear life, T. rex: The ultimate predator will wow families. Thankfully, it is also a show that credits their intelligence.

“The best cities are the ones that don’t leave ruins”

Suspended from four wires, this digitally controlled cable robot is building something out of hand-size wooden blocks. It’s a slow beast. Hours must pass before its construction becomes recognisable: a dome, of the sort that John Soane produced for the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Polibot does not look like a game changer. But according to Arthur Mamou-Mani, whose architectural practice built it, Polibot’s children are going to change the world.

Talking to Arthur Mamou-Mani for the Financial Times, 22 December 2018

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.

The V&A heads east

external

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.

Internal

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.

When science becomes performance art

The great storehouses of our culture are now, for good and ill, in the cloud. Good: a museum can print an archival-grade sculpture or painting to inform an exhibition. Bad: no one can remember the password.

Watching David Morton’s play The Wider Earth at London’s Natural History Museum for the Financial Times, 19 October 2018

Hooked at the Science Gallery, London: From heroin to Playstation

Happy Chat Beast tries to be good in Feed Me © 2013, Rachel Maclean

Popping along to the newly opened Science Gallery London and getting Hooked for New Scientist, 26 September 2018

IN THE spacious atrium of the new London Science Gallery, Lawrence Epps is tweaking the workings of a repurposed coin-pushing arcade game. It is part of the gallery’s first show, Hooked. He hands me one of 10,000 handmade terracotta tokens. Will I be lucky enough to win a gold-leafed token, or maybe one of the ceramic ones stamped with images of an exotic sunset? No.

Reluctantly (I’m hooked already), I leave Again and follow Hannah Redler-Hawes up the stairs. Hooked is Redler-Hawes’s responsibility. Fresh from co-curating [JOYCAT]LMAO at the Open Data Institute with data artist Julie Freeman, she took on the task of building London Science Gallery’s launch exhibition. She soon found herself in a room with six “young leaders” – selected from local schools in the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth – who, for the past year, have been shaping the direction of London’s newest public institution.

Addiction, she argues, is a normal part of life. Every tribe has its social lubricants, and, as she points out, “we are creatures who like to explore, who like pleasure, who like extending our boundaries intellectually, emotionally and physically, and we are also creatures who aren’t that fond of pain, so when we encounter it we look for an escape route”.

A visit to Hooked becomes increasingly unnerving, as one by one you identify all the apparently innocuous corners of your own life that contain at least an element of addictiveness, from caffeine to Facebook. That journey begins with the show’s iconic image, a lolly-turned-pincushion from the series Another Day on Earth by Olivia Locher, whose work explores the moment when getting what you want becomes taking what you can’t help but take.

The Science Gallery ethos is to leave its visitors with more questions than answers. It is there to pique curiosity, rather than address ignorance. The success of this approach, pioneered by Science Gallery Dublin in 2008, can be measured by the project’s rapid expansion. There are Science Galleries planned for Bangalore this year, Venice in 2019 and Melbourne in 2020, not to mention pop-ups everywhere from Detroit to Davos.

Science Galleries do not amass private collections. Each show is curated by someone new, displaying work from art, science, engineering and territories that, frankly, defy classification. Shows already announced for London include explorations of dark matter and prosthetics. That latter show, explains the gallery’s departing director Daniel Glaser, is going to be very hands-on. A different proposition to Hooked, then, which is about international art and curatorial rigour.

Glaser joins our exploration of the wet paint and bubble wrap of the half-assembled exhibition. Among the more venerable pieces here are Richard Billingham’s films from the late 1990s, capturing the gestures and habits of life on benefits in the deprived corner of West Bromwich, UK, where he grew up. Smoking, snorting, hammering away at a PlayStation might be addictive behaviours, or might become addictive, but the films remind us they are also ways of dealing with boredom. They kill time. They are ordinary activities, and of obvious utility.

“We’re all users, which means we’re all at risk of tipping into harm,” says Redler-Hawes. “Addiction is a natural part of being human. It’s a problem when it’s harming you, but when that happens, it’s not just you that’s the problem.”

This point was brought sharply into focus for her when she discussed addiction with the gallery’s young leaders group. “My idea of addiction was a forty-something in a room unable to work, but these young people were absolutely engaged and a bit afraid that so much of the environment they had grown up in was very obviously vying for their attention, and quite literally trying to get them hooked.”

Naturally enough, then, online experiences feature heavily in the exhibition. Artist Rachel Maclean‘s celebrated and extremely uncanny film Feed Me (2015) is a twisted fairy tale where ghastly characters communicate in emojis and textspeak, as each pursues a lonely path in search of the unattainable.

More immediate, and more poignant from my point of view, is a new video installation by Yole Quintero, Me. You. Limbo, which very quickly convinces you that your phone is much more a part of you than you ever realised. Anyone who has had a relationship decay into a series of increasingly bland WhatsApp messages will get it. “A lot of these pieces are about love,” Redler-Hawes comments, quietly.

Although the emphasis here is on established artists, there are pieces that point to just how mischievous and hands-on this institution is likely to become in the years ahead. Katriona Beales‘s Entering the Machine Zone II is a new commission, developed with the assistance of Henrietta Bowden-Jones, founder of the first NHS gambling clinic. It is the world’s most pointless video game – though I defy you to stop playing once you have started. It propels you with frightening rapidity towards the dissociative state that, for gamblers in particular, is the real attraction of their vice – far more addictive than the promise of money.

It is also the state one achieves when climbing a demanding learning curve. Addiction in the guise of flow isn’t bad. Though then, of course, we call it passion. Not everyone will be comfortable with this show’s broad definition of addiction. But there’s nothing lazy about it. If the show doesn’t change your mind, it will certainly have sharpened your opinions.

The tour done, Glaser takes me around the building itself – a £30 million development that has transformed a car park and an underused wing of the original 18th-century Guy’s Hospital into a major piece of what the papers like to call “the public realm”. What this boils down to is that people come and eat their lunches here and find themselves talking to lively, well-briefed young people about curious objects that turn out to be about topics that don’t often come up in ordinary conversation.

Accessibility here is about more than wheelchairs, it is about ensuring that the people who used to visit the McDonald’s that formerly occupied the cafe area can still find affordable food here. This is important: there is a hospital next door, and streets full of people desperate for a steadying cup of tea. It is about building a terrace around the gallery’s 150-seat theatre, so you can come in and see what’s going on without finding yourself intruding or getting trapped in something you’re not interested in. It is about getting into conversations with the staff, rather than being approached only when you are doing something wrong.

Glaser, who has spent the past five years directing this project, is a neurologist by trade, and is keenly aware what a difference this space will make to researchers at King’s College London, the university associated with Guy’s. These days, knowing how to communicate with the public is a key component to securing funding. With this Science Gallery, Glaser tells me, “a major world university is turning to face the public. It’s becoming an asset to London. We’re a part of the city at last.”

Lunar renaissance

The punchier contestants who entered the never-awarded Lunar X Prize are racing to launch their probes. Who will make moonfall first? My money is on Israel’s SpaceIL. While everyone else was crashing through the X Prize’s deadlines, trying to design wheeled vehicles for their rovers, SpaceIL was racing ahead with a vehicle that bounces about the lunar surface like a steel bunny.

A preview piece for New Scientist, looking forward to the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing

Spellbound at the Ashmolean: Sensible magic

The world is big and it doesn’t come pre-labelled. We need to enchant the world in order to manoeuvre through it. For every daft superstition we pick up along the way, we acquire a hundred, a thousand meanings that do make sense, and without which we simply could not function.

To explain magical thinking from first principles is hard. To do so with exhibits is a real challenge…

Visiting Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean for the Financial Times, 3 September 2018

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.”