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.

Liquid Crystal Display: Snap judgements

Lead_Waad-AlBawardi,-The-Hidden-Life-of-Crystals,

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

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

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

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

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

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

JulesLister_24Sept2018Large_4024-Large

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

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

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

Shobana Jeyasingh: Shaping Contagion

Shobana-Jeyasingh-Dance,-Contagion,-photo-Jane-Hobson,-2

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

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

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

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

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

This is an incredibly dark subject to tackle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why was this threat not properly recognised at the time?

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

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

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

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

What is “cold delirium”?

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

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

And this wasn’t fully recognised then?

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

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

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

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

York Mediale 2018: Playing with shadows

Visiting York Mediale 2018 for New Scientist, 19 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Microphotography

The eye of a Metapocyrtus subquadrulifer beetle

Covering the Nikon Small World competition for New Scientist,11 October 2018

Microphotography has come along way since Nikon staged the first Nikon Small World competition in 1974. Finalists in 2018 harnessed a dizzying array of photographic techniques to achieve the spectacular results displayed here. A full-colour calendar of the winners is in the works, and people in the US can look forward to a national tour of the top images.

Yousef Al Habshi from the United Arab Emirates won first prize with the image above of the compound eyes and surrounding greenish scales of a weevil, Metapocyrtus subquadrulifer.  It was made by stacking together 129 micrographs — photographs taken through a microscope. “I feel like I’m photographing a collection of jewelry,” said Al Habshi of his work with these beautiful Philippine beetles, which are more usually considered agricultural nuisances and targets for pest control.

fern sorus — structures that produce and contain spores

Rogelio Moreno from Panama won second prize for capturing the spore-containing structures of a fern (above). He used a technique called autoflorescence, in which ultraviolet light is used to pick out individual structures. Spores develop within a sporangium, and Moreno has successfully distinguished a group of these containers from the clustered structure called the sorus. Sporangiums at different stages of development show up in different colours.

Spittlebug nymph in its bubble house

Saulius Gugis from the USA photographed this spittle-bug in the process of making its “bubble-house”. The foamy structure helps the insect hide from predators, insulate itself and stay moist. The photograph won third prize.

A spider embryo with the surface stained

Other highlights from the prize include a portrayal of the first stirrings of arachnid life by Tessa Montague at Harvard University. The surface of this spider embryo (Parasteatoda tepidariorum) is picked out in pink. The cell nuclei are blue and other cell structures are green.

The mango seed weevil

Looking for all the world like an extra from Luc Besson’s sci-fi film The Fifth Element, this magnificent mango seed weevil (Sternochetus mangiferae) earned Pia Scanlon, a researcher for the Government of Western Australia, a place among the finalists.

Yunchul Kim: Craft work

Visiting Dawns, Mine, Crystal by Yunchul Kim at the Korean Cultural Centre, London. For New Scientist, 27 October 2018.

NOSTALGIA was not the first word that sprung to mind when I visited a show at London’s Korean Cultural Centre by South Korean artist Yunchul Kim. At first glance, indeed, Kim’s art appears intimidatingly modern.

But for the scientists who are Kim’s most committed audience (and eager collaborators), there is something wonderfully old-fashioned about the way he works. Kim’s studio in Seoul is full of materials: homemade ferrofluids, gels, metals, all kinds of reagents, acids and oils. While labs (and not a few artists’ studios) grow more sterile and digital, his workspace remains stubbornly wedded to stuff. The artist’s wry description of his practice – “touching, staring, waiting for things to dry” – captures something of science’s lost materiality.

Kim’s latest work (see) shows a contraption in three parts that turns cosmic rays into bubbles suspended in space, a copper-aluminium sludge, stirred by hidden magnetic orreries, and a shattered gelatin rainbow. What are these but the results of a strange science that is the outcome of some spectacularly purposeless noodling?

The physicists at CERN loved it, and Kim soon found out why: “I make all my own machinery, and so do they,” he says. “Their love of craft is everywhere, from the colour for their cabling to the careful labelling of everything.”

Kim’s art is a reminder that science isn’t just there to be useful. It is also a craft. It’s something humans do, and something that, when presented this well, we are bound to enjoy.

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

Edward Burtynsky: Fossil futures

An overview of The Anthropocene Project for New Scientist, 10 October 2018

THE lasting geological impact of our species is clearly visible within the galleries of this potash mine in Russia’s Ural mountains. The Urals contain one of the largest deposits in the world of this salt, one of the most widely used fertilisers. Mining has left behind vast subterranean galleries, their walls machine-carved with enormous ammonite-like whorls.

The Canadian photographer and artist Edward Burtynsky took this photograph for The Anthropocene Project, a collaborative chronicle of geologically significant human activity such as extraction, urbanisation and deforestation. Works from the project are on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada, while this image and other photographs feature in Burtynsky’s exhibition The Human Signature, at London’s Flowers Gallery, to 24 November.

This September also saw the release of a documentary film, Anthropocene: The human epoch, and a book of colour photographs by Burtynsky, which includes new writing from author and poet Margaret Atwood.

Through publications, films and immersive media, Burtynksy and his Anthropocene Project collaborators – filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier – convey the unsettling visual reality of resource depletion and extinction: how our planet’s surface is being scarred, ground and shovelled into abstract, almost painterly forms.

The effects of mining, in particular, are irreversible. While animal burrows reach a few metres at most, humans carve out networks that can descend several kilometres, below the reach of erosion. They are likely to survive, at least in trace form, for millions or even billions of years.

There is an eerie poetry to this: burrows found in 500-million-year-old sediment tipped off geologists to the massive diversification of animal forms known as the Cambrian explosion. Will our own gargantuan earthworks commemorate more than just a mass extinction event?

Tomás Saraceno: Beneath an ocean of air

Visiting Tomás Saraceno’s Berlin studio for New Scientist, 13 October 2018

THE Argentine-born artist Tomás Saraceno maintains a studio in Berlin – if you can call a disused chemicals factory a studio. There is nothing small about this operation. Saraceno, who trained as an architect in Buenos Aires, now employs hundreds of people, with specialisms ranging from art history and architecture to biology and anthropology. If you’re serious about saving the world, you need this kind of cross-disciplinary team, I suppose.

Though Saraceno hasn’t exactly promised to save the world, he has been dropping some big hints. His utopian installations include Cloud Cities at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, in 2011 – a collection of geometric, inflated shapes. Even by the time of his Observatory/Air-Port-City show at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2008, these shapes contained autonomous residential units. A network of habitable cells floated in the air, combining and recombining like clouds.

A year later at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, gallery-goers got to explore these spaces via 16 interconnected modules made up of glass segments held in place by steel cables. And in June 2013, the K21 gallery in Düsseldorf invited visitors to wander more than 25 metres above the gallery’s piazza across a web dotted with inflated PVC spheres.

This is Saraceno’s answer to our global problems: he wants us to take to the air. That’s why he coined the term “Aerocene” for one of his projects. He wants people to think of climate change in terms of possibility, playfulness and, yes, escape. “We live beneath an ocean of air,” he once wrote, as he sketched his utopian vision of a city in the clouds. “But we’ve yet to find a way to inhabit it.”

Near his Berlin studio is a scruffy public park. Part of it is marked out for football. Behind one goal stands a graffitied stretch of the Berlin Wall. Today there’s another attraction: two men are running back and forth, trying to fill a black bag as big as a minivan with air. It is a fine, windless day; the air in the bag heats up quickly, and once it is sealed, the container rises into the sky. A bag no longer, it is clearly recognisable as one of Saraceno’s signature tetrahedral solar balloons.

These black balloons have been plying the skies since 2007. They are mascots of the artist’s multi-stranded effort to combine engineering, architecture and the natural sciences to create a new, democratic kind of environmental art, made of bubbles and aerial platforms and webs. An art that mitigates climate change, he says, and makes the sky habitable, by establishing a modular, transnational settlement in the skies through solar balloons that require no fuel at all. An art that ushers in utopia.

Could it be that this chap is just playing about with balloons? Trying to calculate Saraceno’s level of seriousness is half the fun. Over lunch, for instance, he tells me that he wants to return us “to a sort of Mayan sensitivity towards celestial mechanics”.

But some of his efforts are admirably practical. The balloon I’d just seen being demonstrated was an Aerocene Explorer: it comes in a backpack complete with instructions on how to create and fly lightweight sensors. Any data collected can be uploaded and shared with Aerocene’s online community, via a website where participants from all over the world are sharing their experiments and innovations.

Practicalities aside, much of Saraceno’s work is simply beautiful. For a show opening at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris on 17 October, the team is busy building playful orreries, mechanical models of the solar system that combine planetary orbits with the physics of soap bubbles and webs spun by his pet Cyrtophora citricola spiders.

These unbelievably delicate confections will be on show with some mirrored umbrellas that also double as solar cookers. When arranged in concentric circles, Saraceno imagines that in the manner of a solar thermal power plant, the umbrellas might even concentrate enough heat to inflate a large balloon. He hopes to try out the idea when Audemars Piguet – a Swiss watch manufacturer that has recent form in backing innovative science-inflected art – takes parts of his sprawling Aerocene endeavour to Miami this December for the Art Basel fair.

Meanwhile, there are myriad things to organise for Paris: workshops, concerts, public symposiums uniting scientific institutions, researchers, activists, local communities, musicians and philosophers. As he says: “People aren’t very interested in simple ideas. You have to give things a little bit of complication to get the audience to engage.”

balloons

He found this out the moment he started using solar balloons. The balloons, which work by simply zipping up some air in a heat-absorbing bag, have been around since the 1970s. His own projects have demonstrated their usefulness in meteorology, pollution monitoring, even passenger transport. In 2015, he flew in a tethered solar balloon over the dunes of White Sands in New Mexico, where the US launched its first rockets and where the world’s first tourist spaceport is located. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology got in on the act, and created technology so that you can use the Aerocene.org website to plan a meteorologically feasible journey, by balloon, from Point A to Point B, anywhere on Earth.

“Rats saved at the point of giving up fought for life 240 times longer when returned to danger”

Here’s the paradox. Saraceno’s work has always been playful, and part of the game, he explains, has been “trying to sell this work as some sort of global solution to something”. But while his visions of an airborne utopia remain as remote as ever, his Aerocene project has spawned a foundation that uses lightweight balloons for climate activism and pollution monitoring. And even the absurd spectacle of someone jetting from country to country to fly fuel-less balloons has become part of the art, as Saraceno’s studio begins to record his own carbon footprint.

Saraceno makes an important point about how we address climate change in our lives. The trick, he says, is not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. Escapism is fine. He has no time for the way so many artists and pundits are ringing humanity’s death knell. He has a special contempt for the lazy way the word Anthropocene crops up now in every climate conversation, as if, with the advent of this putative new era, our doom was sealed. “What a great way for a small number of people to disempower and demotivate us,” he says.

Given the seriousness of our environmental bind, isn’t escapism a bit irresponsible? Saraceno points me to a 1957 paper by psychobiologist Curt Richter. His gruesome experiments left rats to drown in water-filled containers from which they could not escape. But if he briefly rescued rats at the point they gave up swimming, and then returned them to the water, those rats continued to fight for life 240 times longer. Richter concluded that they had learned that there was hope. Faced with challenges on a planetary scale, we are scrambling for our lives, and can see no way out. “We need the energy those rats got when they saw some small hope,” says Saraceno.

I hadn’t expected our conversation to take this dark turn, but creating such small glimmers of hope is his business. If he is a joker, then he is one in the best sense of the word.

Should we take Saraceno’s work seriously? I was doubtful, but now I think, why look a gift horse in the mouth? He enthuses people. He gets us thinking. And he is right: a little hope goes a long way.

Pierre Huyghe: Digital canvases and mind-reading machines

Visiting UUmwelt, Pierre Huyghe’s show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, for the Financial Times, 4 October 2018

On paper, Pierre Huyghe’s new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London is a rather Spartan effort. Gone are the fictional characters, the films, the drawings; the collaborative manga flim-flam of No Ghost Just a Shell; the nested, we’re not-in-Kansas-any-more fictions, meta-fictions and crypto-documentaries of Streamside Day Follies. In place of Huyghe’s usual stage blarney come five large LED screens. Each displays a picture that, as we watch, shivers through countless mutations, teetering between snapshot clarity and monumental abstraction. One display is meaty; another, vaguely nautical. A third occupies a discomforting interzone between elephant and milk bottle.

Huyghe has not abandoned all his old habits. There are smells (suggesting animal and machine worlds), sounds (derived from brain-scan data, but which sound oddly domestic: was that not a knife-drawer being tidied?) and a great many flies. Their random movements cause the five monumental screens to pause and stutter, and this is a canny move, because without that  arbitrary grammar, Huyghe’s barrage of visual transformations would overwhelm us, rather than excite us. There is, in short, more going on here than meets the eye. But that, of course, is true of everywhere: the show’s title nods to the notion of “Umwelt” coined by the zoologist Jacob von Uexküll in 1909, when he proposed that the significant world of an animal was the sum of  things to which it responds, the rest going by virtually unnoticed. Huyghe’s speculations about machine intelligence are bringing this story up to date.

That UUmwelt turns out to be a show of great beauty as well; that the gallery-goer emerges from this most abstruse of high-tech shows with a re-invigorated appetite for the arch-traditional business of putting paint on canvas: that the gallery-goer does all the work, yet leaves feeling exhilarated, not exploited — all this is going to require some explanation.

To begin at the beginning, then: Yukiyasu Kamitani , who works at Kyoto University in Japan, made headlines in 2012 when he fed the data from fMRI brain scans of sleeping subjects into neural networks. These computer systems eventually succeeded in capturing shadowy images of his volunteers’ dreams. Since then his lab has been teaching computers to see inside people’s heads. It’s not there yet, but there are interesting blossoms to be plucked along the way.

UUmwelt is one of these blossoms. A recursive neural net has been shown about a million pictures, alongside accompanying fMRI data gathered from a human observer. Next, the neural net has been handed some raw fMRI data, and told to recreate the picture the volunteer was looking at.

Huyghe has turned the ensuing, abstruse struggles of the Kamitani Lab’s unthinking neural net into an exhibition quite as dramatic as anything he has ever made. Only, this time, the theatrics are taking place almost entirely in our own heads. What are we looking at here? A bottle. No, an elephant, no, a Francis Bacon screaming pig, goose, skyscraper, mixer tap, steam train mole dog bat’s wing…

The closer we look, the more engaged we become, the less we are able to describe what we are seeing. (This is literally true, in fact, since visual recognition works just that little bit faster than linguistic processing.) So, as we watch these digital canvases, we are drawn into dreamlike, timeless lucidity: a state of concentration without conscious effort that sports psychologists like to call “flow”. (How the Serpentine will ever clear the gallery at the end of the day I have no idea: I for one was transfixed.)

UUmwelt, far from being a show about how machines will make artists redundant, turns out to be a machine for teaching the rest of us how to read and truly appreciate the things artists make. It exercises and strengthens that bit of us that looks beyond the normative content of images and tries to make sense of them through the study of volume, colour, light, line, and texture. Students of Mondrian, Duffy and Bacon, in particular, will lap up this show.

Remember those science-fictional devices and medicines that provide hits of concentrated education? Quantum physics in one injection! Civics in a pill! I think Huyghe may have come closer than anyone to making this silly dream a solid and compelling reality. His machines are teaching us how to read pictures, and they’re doing a good job of it, too.