The inside story of blood

Visiting the Royal College of Physicians for New Scientist, 17 February 2018

AFFECTION and delight aren’t qualities you would immediately associate with an exhibition about blood flow. But Ceaseless Motion reaches beyond the science to celebrate the man – 17th-century physician William Harvey – who, the story goes, invented the tradition of doctors’ bad handwriting. He was also a benefactor: when founding a lecture series in his own name, he remembered to bequeath money for the provision of refreshments.

It is an exhibition conceived, organised and hosted by the UK’s Royal College of Physicians, whose 17th-century librarian Christopher Merrett described how to make champagne several years before the monk Dom Pérignon began his experiments. Less happily, Merrett went on a drinking binge in 1666, and let Harvey’s huge book collection burn in London’s Great Fire.

The documents, seals and signatures that survived the flames despite Merrett’s neglect take pride of place in an exhibition that, within a very little compass, tells the story of one of medicine’s more important revolutionaries through documents, portraits and some deceptively chatty wall information.

Before Harvey’s 10 years of intense, solitary study bore fruit, physicians thought blood was manufactured in the liver and then passed through the body under its own volumetric pressure. Heaven help you if you made too much of the stuff. Luckily, physicians were on hand to release this disease-inducing pressure through bloodletting.

It sounds daft now, but clues back then that something quite different was going on were sparse and controversial. The 16th-century physician Andreas Vesalius had puzzled over the heart. If, like every other organ, it fed on blood produced in the liver, why were its walls so impenetrably hard? But even this towering figure, the founder of modern anatomy, decided that his own observations had to be wrong.

It was Hieronymus Fabricius, Harvey’s teacher in Padua, Italy, who offered a new and fruitful tack when he mapped “the little doors in the veins” that, we know now, are valves maintaining the flow of blood back to the lungs.

Within 30 years, Harvey’s realisation that blood pressure is controlled by the heart, and that this organ actively pumps blood around the body in a continuous circuit, had overturned the teachings of the 2nd-century Graeco-Roman physician Claudius Galen in European centres of learning. The new thinking also put close clinical observation at the heart of a discipline that had traditionally spent more time on textual analysis than on examining patients.

The exhibition is housed in a building designed by Denys Lasdun. This celebrated modernist architect was so taken by Harvey’s achievements that he designed the interiors as a subtle homage to the human circulatory system.

With the royal college now celebrating its 500th birthday, its institutional pride is palpable, but never stuffy. As one staff member told me, “We only started talking about ourselves as a ‘Royal’ college after the Restoration, to suck up to the king.”

Those who can visit should be brave and explore. Upstairs, there are wooden panels from Padua with the dried and salted circulatory and nervous systems of executed criminals lacquered into them. They are rare survivors: when pickling methods improved and it was possible to provide medical students with three-dimensional teaching aids, such “anatomical plates” were discarded.

Downstairs, there are endless curiosities. The long sticks doctors carried in 18th-century caricatures were clinical instruments – latex gloves didn’t arrive until 1889. The sticks’ silver ferrules contained miasma-defeating herbs and, sometimes, phials of alcohol. None of them are as handsome as Harvey’s own demonstration rod.

But if a visit in person is out of the question, take a look at the royal college’s new website, launched to celebrate half a millennium of institutional conviviality and controversy. You will have to provide your own biscuits, though.

 

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.

The sooner we pave over this lot, the better

Venom: Killer and cure ran at London’s Natural History Museum to 13 May 2018…

Londoners! This holiday season, why not take the children along to the Natural History Museum? Its new exhibition Venom: Killer and cure brims over with fascinating and entertaining stories.

Have you heard about the emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa), which zombifies its cockroach prey with its sting before laying an egg on it that hatches into a larva that eats the cockroach alive while knowing, somehow, to leave its vital organs till last?

Too strong? Then how about the paralysis-inducing bites of the marine bloodworm (Glycera dibranchiata), whose copper-reinforced teeth are one of the toughest known structures in the natural world?

Oh, dear. There must be something child-friendly round here… How about the deer fly (Chrysops sp.)? The males feed exclusively on nectar! Unfortunately, the females feed exclusively on blood and have evolved an anticoagulant venom to keep their meals flowing.

Nods to some ingenious medicine aside, Venom seems hell-bent on convincing visitors that “nature” is a state of perpetual, terrible and gruesome conflict, and that – if your environmental competitors have their way – your whole lived experience is going to be filled with excruciating pain.

Those with strong enough stomachs will marvel at the ingenuity of nature’s torturers. Even the Iberian ribbed newt (Pleurodeles waltl), which hardly sounds the fiercest animal in the pantheon, has ribs which burst out through its poisonous skin to deter predators.

Those of a philosophic bent will appreciate the show’s underlying narrative, explaining how human cunning makes us the most efficient, though by no means the only, harvester of venom. There’s a sea swallow (Glaucus atlanticus) here, in the form of an extraordinarily delicate and beautiful glass model made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. This pretty sea slug, about 2.5-centimetres long, eats Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis) and collects their venom in its own tentacles, which it fires at predators to defend itself.

The fine-art crowd will thrill to artist Steve Ludwin’s 30-year project of no certain purpose: injecting himself with snake venom. Those of a literary bent, meanwhile, will savour the elegant phrasing of Justin Schmidt’s sting pain scale. Of the Western yellow jacket wasp (Vespula pensylvanica) he writes: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”

Venom shows London’s Natural History Museum at its best: the exhibition is intimate, but not claustrophobic; unafraid of detail, but eminently accessible; visually arresting, but not exhausting.

I left trembling, angry and depressed. Had the show let me down? Quite the contrary: if anything, it had over-delivered.

How long, I wondered, must we put up with this ghastly horror-show world of ours? Why should we have to tolerate the way competing slow lorises (Nycticebus sp.) inflict festering wounds on each other, and male emperor scorpions (Pandinus imperator) feel the need to sting their females before they dare broach the subject of sex?

Venom has convinced me that nature is vile. It is pitiless and disgusting, and the sooner we pave over it the better.

The boring beasts that changed the world

Visiting the Museum of Ordinary Animals exhibition for New Scientist, 4 November 2017

SOME animals are so familiar, we barely see them. If we think of them at all, we categorise them according to their role in our lives: as pests or food; as unthinking labourers or toy versions of ourselves. If we looked at them as animals – non-human companions riding with us on our single Earth – what would we make of them? Have we raised loyal subjects, or hapless victims, or monsters?

This is the problem that The Museum of Ordinary Animals sets out to address. This show has been artfully, but still none-too-easily, stuffed into the already famously crammed setting of the Grant Museum, a 19th-century teaching collection packed full of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in fluid.

The exhibition, a sign announces, “begins in front of you, behind the dugong”. The corridor between cases is narrow. Easing past visitors distracted by a glass case of dolphin heads, I shave past the enormous, grinning skull of a saltwater crocodile. Here, as in our imagination, the ordinary animals tend to get squeezed out by the extraordinary ones.

The exhibition is small, so go around twice. Spend the first time reading. There is an art to visitor information and the show’s curators have nailed it here, citing just the right oddities and asking just the right questions to tip the viewer into a state of uncertain wonder.

This show, about animals that are useful to humanity, also turns out to be a show about how dangerously peculiar humanity is. The world has been shaped by our numbers, our intelligence and our activity. For example, all pet golden hamsters descend from a single female fetched from Syria in 1930. It was in a group meant for the lab until it was won in a bet.

And the settling of Europeans in Australia from 1788 triggered the fastest catastrophic species loss we know of. Our cats did most of the work, invading more than 99.8 per cent of the Australian land mass. Today, feral cats kill tens of millions of native animals in Australia every night.

The world has been shaped by our beliefs, too. In Europe, it was once common to bury people with their companion animals. Christianity saw off that practice in the late 7th century, because the faith denies that animals have souls. Then, around a thousand years ago, Benedictine dietary rules were formulated. At that time, chickens were feral, quarrelsome and didn’t lay anything like as many eggs as they do now. Today, the chicken is a more or less mindless and sedentary protein factory.

Having learned that humanity isn’t so much a species, more a narrow and superbly weaponised ecosystem, the visitor is ready for a second go. Now the exhibits resonate wonderfully: the bones, the pictures, the jars. Is the subject of Cornelis de Visscher’s mid-17th-century engraving The Rat-Catcher, the catcher himself or the rat in his cage? There are mice used in diabetes research, ironed flat at death and mounted on cards like obscene tombstones. Nearby, a mummified cat head possesses extraordinary innate dignity: no wonder the animal was a focus of worship.

Leaving Ordinary Animals and the museum, I found myself standing under an orange sky, courtesy of Hurricane Ophelia, which had recently brought ash and dust from runaway forest fires to smother Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Under that dead light, humans gawped at a red sun while, across the road from me, a pet dog, brought to heel, yawned, as though to say: who cares about the sky? Master will feed us. Mistress knows best.

But the exhibition had thrown me out of my complacency, and rarely have I felt less easy with the human project.

The genius of making a little go a long way

Visiting Illuminating India at London’s Science Museum for New Scientist, 10 October 2017

One can taste the boosterism in the air at London’s Science Museum as it introduces its two-gallery exhibition, Illuminating India.

There is a cafe serving excellent Indian street food. Someone next to me used the word “Commonwealth” without irony. Would there have been such a spirit without Brexit? Probably not: this is a show about the genius of another country that very much wants to project Britain’s own global aspirations. Any historian of Anglo-British relations will give a sardonic smile at this.

When you visit (and you should), try to look around the smaller, artefacts-driven gallery first.

This room tells the stories of Indian science – stories plural because there can never be one, linear account of how such dissimilar and contesting cultures struggled and more or less succeeded in understanding and exploiting a space of such extraordinary complexity.

Naturally, since India has a past to boast of, pride of place goes to its indigenous cultures. It was the Indus valley civilisation, after all, whose peoples fashioned standardised weights around 4000 years ago: items that indicate high levels of arithmetical literacy, communication and trade.

And there are reconstructions of Ayurvedic surgical instruments described in records dating back to around 500 BC. Also on show is a 1800-year-old document containing the first example of the use of zero. Wonderfully, radiocarbon dating pushed the document’s age back by 500 years just before the exhibition opened.

It is a measure of the wisdom of the curators that such an illustrious past isn’t allowed to overshadow India’s more recent achievements. For example, Jagadish Chandra Bose’s early-20th-century crescograph, designed to observe plant growth at a magnification of 10,000 times, reminds us why he is often called the father of modern Indian science.

Another winning object is Chandrasekhara Raman’s spectrometer. Raman was the first Indian to win a Nobel prize, for physics, in 1930.

And what of that other great empire far to the north? Well, there is a map of George Everest’s career-defining Great Trigonometrical Survey of India – the teamwork of 70 years distilled on a single, meticulously drawn map. And nearby are details of a recent collaboration between Surrey Satellite Technology in the UK and the Indian Space Research Organisation on the Earth-surveying NovaSAR satellite.

Some of the deeper, darker questions about Anglo-Indian relations are posed in the second, photographic half of the exhibition.

There, the anthropometric photographs of Maurice Portman make a depressingly silly impression next to the respectful, revealing and entirely unlicentious photographs Ram Singh took of the women of his own harem: powerful political players all, who shaped the country through marriage and allied treaties.

It is hard to say why the split nature of Illuminating India works as well as it does. It has something to do with the way the rooms handle political power.

India’s science, from its ancient stepwells that gathered monsoon waters to the bureaucratic and algorithmic marvel that is today’s tiffin tin-based lunch delivery system, has been driven by the complex needs of a massive population making a living.

Similarly, its doing-more-with-less style of innovation is reflected in everything from the world’s cheapest artificial leg (the Jaipur leg, made of rubber, plastic and wood) to the world’s cheapest Mars-orbiting camera.

Visitors to Illuminating India will leave thinking that technology may, after all, be making the world a better place, and that what people do is ultimately more influential than who they are.

Listening to DX17

A visit to IWM Duxford for New Scientist, 5 July 2017. The artist Nick Ryan showed me round his new sound sculpture, DX17.

THERE are many stories at the Duxford airfield, Cambridgeshire. How it served British and American military interests for 100 years. Why Alexander Graham Bell wanted to call his daughter Photophone. How a technologist in Tasmania came half way round the world to the UK, only to discover that the technology he was developing was being used to send messages between mountaintops in – of all places – Tasmania.

Luckily for me, I’m being shown around DX17, Duxford’s new sound sculpture, by its creator Nick Ryan, a sound artist who is good at making sense of complicated stories. It was Ryan who recreated the soundscapes of the Yangtze river and spread them along a pedestrian bridge at Gatwick Airport’s Skybridge. He also incorporated the orbits of 27,000 pieces of space junk into a musical instrument called Machine 9.

DX17 is made of netting stretched over a steel skeleton. It’s an aerodynamic abstract with protrusions that suggest design elements from iconic aircraft.

The first thing you notice are the lights: the sculpture is filled with 100 spotlights, their beams playing through the mesh of the sculpture and onto the floor. Yet DX17 contains more sound than vision. Hidden in each beam is a sound recording selected by the Imperial War Museum – some originals, others documents read by Duxford staff and volunteers. Together, they celebrate the base’s 100 years of aeronautical activity.

Weaving these recordings comprehensibly through an object no bigger than a Spitfire was a technical challenge. Ryan and his project partner Sean Malikides opted to use light after deciding that digital solutions were clunky and historically inappropriate.

Each light shines a flickering beam through the mesh of the sculpture – a sound signal carried on light. 3D-printed handsets with a lens at one end turn the signal back to audio, and play it through headphones.

Visitors can press their “light-catchers” to illuminated spots on the sculpture, or catch beams projected from the sculpture onto the floor. Here and there, two beams intersect, and through your headphones, two audio samples blend. As you step away from a light source, the voice in your headphones – an airman’s memoir, instructions to ground staff, a loved one’s letter, a child’s recollections – slowly fade.

It wasn’t until they were testing their system that Malikides came across the pre-history of this “li-fi” tech. Alexander Graham Bell invented it, using sunlight and a deformable mirror to send sound information across space. In 2005, enthusiasts in Tasmania used a similar system to signal between mountaintops some 160 kilometres apart.

Bell considered the photophone more important than the telephone and wanted to name his daughter after the invention. His wife persuaded him that Daisy would be kinder.

There are many stories here. Good hunting. Fade to black. Transmission ends.

Skin-shuddering intimacy

Visiting Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, National Maritime Museum, Falmouth for New Scientist, 1 July 2017

TURN left as you enter Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, and you will be led through the history of a venerable and flourishing folk art. Turn right and you will confront a wall of 100 disembodied forearms. They aren’t real, which is a nuisance for the artists who tattooed them – since silicone is nothing like as easy to work with as human skin – but a comfort for the rest of us.

Alice Snape, editor of Things & Ink magazine, curated this wall to showcase the range of work by today’s tattoo artists in the UK. But you really need to see the rest of the exhibition first. You need time to contemplate the problem Snape’s 100 Hands is there to solve, that this is an exhibition whose subject is entitled to wander off, and cover up.

There’s something frustratingly arch about tattooing. Tattooists jealously guard their stencilled designs (called “flashes”) even as they create pieces that, by their very nature, come with their own sales reps. Clients (perhaps influenced by 2005’s reality show Miami Ink) wax lyrical on the deeply personal stories behind their tats, then plaster photos of them all over Instagram.

Practitioners exploit their liminal status even while they bemoan their lack of recognition. In a show full of repeating figures and useful (though never intrusive) signposting, my favourites were the boards that tell you “what the papers said” at different times in history. Every generation, it seems, has come to the same startling realisation that “tattoos aren’t just for sailors”, yet the information never seems to stick. Tattooing is an art that does not want to be fully known.

The problem facing the show’s curators is: how do you define the limits of your enquiry? If the art has to be invited in, cajoled, reassured, even flattered into taking part, how do you stop shaky inclusion criteria from compromising objectivity?

Natural history solved the problem long ago. The rule used to be that if you wanted to study something you went out and shot it: the rifle was as much part of your kit as your magnifying glass. The Maoris of Polynesia, aware of the value Western visitors put on souvenirs, used to catch people, tattoo their faces, decapitate them and sell their heads to collectors. The draughtsman aboard Charles Darwin’s ship the Beagle had a travel box lined with the tattooed skin of dead Maori warriors.

These days the tattooed collect themselves. Geoff Ostling, for one, has arranged for his heavily (and beautifully) tattooed skin to go to the National Gallery of Australia after he dies. Gemma Angel, an adviser to this exhibition, spent her doctoral study among the 300 or so items in the Wellcome Collection’s archive of human skin, and she reckons there’s a growing interest in post-mortem tattoo preservation.

It is to this exhibition’s great credit that it takes no time at all to find a voice pinpointing exactly what is so discomforting about this idea. In a cabinet of personal testimonies I find this remark by a Catherine Marston: “Tattoo is an art form but I don’t think they should be collected because when a person dies they die too. You hear of some really weird designers that use skin that’s cut afterwards, once they die then that goes on display. I think that diminishes the whole idea of a tattoo. It’s art with a time zone rather than timeless.”

Such voices are valuable here because even this democratic, eclectic exhibition can’t quite capture the shuddering intimacy of the form it celebrates. Tattoos are not just artworks, they are also performances. Getting a tattoo hurts just enough to make you dizzy, and lodges that intimate moment in your memory.

Though the art is the point of the show, it would not work nearly so well without the artefacts it has borrowed from working tattooists and from the Science Museum in London. People make tattoo guns out of virtually anything that vibrates. The first machines were made out of Victorian doorbells. You can salivate at images all you like, but nothing gets under the skin like a doorbell-based tattoo gun once wielded by Johnny Two-Thumbs of Hong Kong.

 

Hello, Robot

Visiting Hello, Robot: Design between human and machine at MAK, Vienna for New Scientist, 6 June 2017

Above the exhibits in the first room of Hello, Robot, a large sign asks: “Have you ever met a robot?” Easy enough. But the questions keep on coming, and by the end of the exhibition, we’re definitely not in Kansas any more: “Do you believe in the death and rebirth of things?” is not a question you want to answer in a hurry. Nor is my favourite, the wonderfully loaded “Do you want to become better than nature intended?”

That we get from start to finish of the show in good order, not just informed but positively exhilarated, is a testament to the wiliness of the three curating institutions: the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the Design Museum Ghent in Belgium, and MAK in Austria.

One of the show’s advisors, architect Carlo Ratti, head of the MIT Senseable City Lab, nails the trouble with such shows: “Any environment, any city, any landscape can become a robot when it is equipped with sensors, actuators and intelligence.” By the time robots do useful work, they have vanished. Once, we called traffic lights “robots”, now, we barely see them.

Robots, an exhibition currently at London’s Science Museum, gets caught in this bind. By following a “science fiction becomes science fact” trajectory, it creates a show that gets more boring as you work your way through it. Hello, Robot is much cannier: it knows that while science fiction may spin off real artefacts now and again, it never becomes science fact. Does writing down a dream stop you dreaming? Of course not.

Hello, Robot is about design. Its curators explore not only what we have made, but also what we have dreamed. Fine art, speculative designs, commercial products, comic books and movie clips are arranged together to create a glimpse of the robot’s place in our lives and imaginations. Far from disappearing, robots seem more likely to be preparing a jail-break.

The longings, fantasies and anxieties that robots are meant to address are as ancient as they are unrealisable. The robot exists to do what we can imagine doing, but would rather not do. They were going to mow our lawns, now we’re glad of the exercise and we might prefer to have them feed our babies – or look after much older people, as Dan Chen’s 2012 End of Life Care Machine envisions.

This robot mechanically strokes a dying patient – a rather dystopian provocation, or so Chen thought until some visitors asked to buy one. Exhibited here, Chen’s piece is accompanied by a note he wrote: should he encourage people to leave family members alone in their final hours or deny them the comfort of a machine?

Hello, Robot asks difficult questions in a thrillingly designed setting. It is a show to take the children to (just try not to let them see your face in Room 3 as you check on a computer to see if your job’s about to be automated).

There’s a deep seriousness about this show; if design teaches us anything, it is that no one is ever in charge of the future. “The question of whether we need, or even like [robots] is not really ours to ask,” a wallboard opines. “Do we actually need smartphones? Ten years ago, most people would probably have answered no.” Our roles in this “lifeworld” of the future are still to be defined.

Catching the exhibition in Germany, I go round three times until it’s late. I adore industrial robot YuMi’s efforts to roll a ball up a steep incline, and I grin as I walk past a clip of the automated kitchen in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. Still, I can’t quite take my eyes off a 2005 photograph of a Chinese factory by Edward Burtynsky, who visited China’s shipyards and industrial plants. Identical figures performing identical actions remind me of iconic British newspaper sketches of weaving machines from the industrial revolution.

We have not outgrown the need for human regimentation – we simply outsource it to cheaper humans. Whether robots become cheap enough to undercut poor people, and what happens if they do, are big questions. But this show can bear them.

What price original art?

At what point does a practical problem become an existential one? When do we have to admit that not everyone can experience everything – and what do we do about that? Forgery is no solution because good forgeries are, by definition, as exclusive as originals: if the original turns up, the forgery loses all value. But what if we undermined cultural norms to the point where fakery was the norm?

A visit to the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and the Tinguely Museum Basel for New Scientist, 13 May 2017.

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the man who shaped biology and art

Biomorphic portrait of D'Arcy Thompson

Darren McFarlane, Scarus, Pomacanthus, 2012, oil on canvas. (University of Dundee Museum Services © the artist)

Even as geneticists like Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobzhansky were revealing the genetic mechanisms that constrain how living things evolve, Thompson was revealing the constraints and opportunities afforded to living things by physics and chemistry. Crudely put, genetics explains why dogs, say, look like other dogs. Thompson did something different: he glimpsed why dogs look the way they do.

For New Scientist, 1 February 2017