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.

Bloody marvellous

Visiting the exhibition Blood: Life Uncut at Copeland Gallery, London, for New Scientist, 20 October 2017

It caused a storm on social media when it was first shown in 2013, but Dan Glaser, director of Science Gallery London, has a deep and obvious affection for Casting Off My Womb, a scarf knitted over the course of a month by Australian artist Casey Jenkins using spools of yarn stored daily in her vagina. The scarf hangs across the gallery hosting Blood: Life uncut as a visceral and compellingly complex record of one woman’s menstrual cycle. “How else could you ever present that much data?” Glaser enthuses.

“Data” is one of Glaser’s watchwords. So is “visualisation”. He claims not to know much about art. It’s a pose, of course, but a useful one. After 15 years as a research neurologist, Glaser has reinvented himself as an impresario of science communication. His approach is bold: to wrest the gallery space off the art world and apply it to his own, very different ends.

This is the latest in a series of small, off-site exhibitions, and it’s in an out-of-the-way former industrial space in Peckham, south London, because the actual Science Gallery London building won’t be ready until next year.

Everything on show is meant to illustrate medical and scientific ideas. This is why they are here: they are only coincidentally works of performance art, or conceptual art, or what have you.

Normally, this approach encourages dull, derivative work. And if Glaser and his colleagues were as naive as they like to make out, that’s no doubt what we would have got. But the works here, including many new commissions, are often beautiful, and always visually arresting.

Inspired by research into sickle cell anaemia conducted at King’s College London (the gallery’s owner), Glaser and the show’s curator, Andy Franzkowiak, have assembled an exhibition that can be read both for its beauty and for its scientific pertinence.

Given the show quite literally drips with the red stuff, it is still capable of surprising subtlety. Turn from the mechanical behemoth perfusing a bucket’s worth of pigs’ blood in Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor’s installation The Body is a Big Place, and you confront a video filmed in the waters of a municipal swimming pool.

Those people clinging to the sides are organ donors, potential recipients and their families. They are each of them out of their depth in an alien environment, seen through a medium and at an angle that makes identities impossible to establish. If you want an image of what it is like to be caught at the end of your tether in the toils of a necessarily complex and bureaucratic system – well, this video is surely it.

Some of the best pieces here are the most direct. In a riposte to the usual cock-and-balls graffiti found in public toilets, the Hotham Street Ladies have decorated the walls of the gallery’s gents with menstruating uteruses made of icing sugar and sweets.

And then there’s Tough Blood by film-maker Stephen Rudder and choreographer Skylitz, a dance conveying, with brutal beauty, the excruciatingly painful episodes suffered by people with sickle cell anaemia.

The show ends with Jordan Eagles’ installation Blood Equality: a room full of overhead projectors displaying acetates smothered in the dried blood of sexually active gay, bisexual and transgender people.

It’s a campaigning piece, made to highlight the UK and US blood services’ refusal to accept donations from this cohort on the same basis as other groups. The eye is drawn first to the acetate sheets themselves, and naturally enough – given the associations between spilt blood and violence and pain – it’s not a pretty sight. It might not be until you turn to leave the room that it dawns on you that this blood is being projected. The walls and ceiling and floor are covered with it: rich, crackled, stained and impossibly beautiful.

In a strong show, it’s hard to think of a work that better expresses the intent of this queasy, seductive exploration of “the essential, expressive and visceral nature of blood”.

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.

Colour and Vision at London’s Natural History Museum

colour

The basic chemical and structural components of vision existed long before it evolved. Something happened to make eyes viable, although the exact nature of that innovation remains mysterious. But once visual information meant something, there was no stopping it – or life. For with vision comes locomotion, predation, complex behaviour, and, ultimately, consciousness.
for New Scientist, 3 August, 2016

 

“I have nothing to say as an artist”

That, anyway, was the provocative start to my interview with Anish Kapoor. He had a terrifying new show on at Lisson Gallery in London, all blood and sinew (well, latex…). Comparisons with Bacon are inevitable, though he says there’s something hysterical about Bacon’s work which he’s not entirely easy with.

 

Liz Else and I talked to the sculptor for New Scientist.

 

I have said this over and over again: you make what you make, and you put it in front of yourself first of all. Inevitably, a certain concept arises, and exploring that concept is the real work. If I started off with some big message for the world, it would keep getting in the way.

There is an emotional world and an objective world, and the two mesh. Thirty years ago I began working with the idea that for every material thing, there’s a non-material thing alongside it – sometimes poetic, sometimes phenomenological. For example, I once made a stone chamber and painted it a very dark blue. Thanks to the psychological implications of the colour, if you look inside the chamber it’s as though this stone thing had a non-thing inside it. The cavity becomes an object. You get an effect like that when you look at a polished concave surface. The eye wants to fill the hollow with a sort of convex ghost.

I’ve been interested in what I call “void works” for many years: applying deep, dark colour to mostly concave forms so the space and object are confused. This lead me to Vantablack, a superblack made from carbon nanotubes. It’s extraordinary – the light gets in and is not able to get out. (Indeed, Vantablack absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light.) The discovery of a new material like this opens up the most incredible possibilities. I love the idea that one could walk into a room that isn’t dark and at the same time isn’t there. You could have lights on, but the room wouldn’t be there. There’s something magical about that. It’s that wonderful, liminal moment between wonder and fear – that’s what I aim for.

I don’t mind too much when people call me an illusionist. I’m pretty sure that everything we consider to be real is illusory, or has an illusory element. From a psychological point of view, there’s more deep truth in the unreal than there is in the real. After all, objectively speaking, colour doesn’t even exist. So that’s the game. Keep your balance. Whenever subjectivity and objectivity are put into opposition, never come down on either side.

I’ve always been deeply fascinated by raw pigment, which is at once a colour – a pure, psychological idea – and a real substance. It has this otherness you can’t quite point at. My latest works at Lisson Gallery are made with silicone, all very red and very visceral. I work with red a lot, because of its darkness. The psychology of the red generates a much darker dark than black or blue.

And I’ve always been deeply interested in geometry, and I’ve put some of my pieces into motion to get at forms I can’t produce by any other method. Descension is a whirlpool that produces a natural parabola. It took me 20 years to get it to work, because it needs to be built at a certain scale, and be spinning at a certain rate. What surprised me, once I’d achieved those wonderful parabolic curves, was what happened at the bottom of the pool. A void opened up, a form I never expected to find there, for all the world as though this thing was boring its way the centre of the Earth!

Art and science do sit naturally quite close to each other. But making a statement of that sort in a piece of art is just going to get in the way. Science is apparently rational and art, perhaps, more confused. But they both start out as experimental processes, and both are contained by rules. A poetic purpose is every bit as real as an apparently scientific one. There’s objectivity in art, just as much as there’s subjectivity in science.

Creative. Interactive. Wrong.

People are by far the easiest animals to train. Whenever you try to get some bit of technology to work better, you can be sure that you are also training yourself. Steadily, day by day, we are changing our behaviours to better fit with the limitations of our digital environment. Whole books have been written about this, but we keep making the same mistakes. On 6 November 2014, at Human Interactive, a day-long conference on human-machine interaction at Goldsmith’s College in London, Rodolphe Gelin, the research director of robot-makers Aldebaran, screened a video starring Nao, the company’s charming educational robot. It took a while before someone in the audience (not me) spotted the film’s obvious flaw: how come the mother is sweating away in the kitchen while the robot is enjoying quality time with her child?

We still obsess over the “labour-saving” capacities of our machines, still hanker after more always-elusive “free time”, but we never think to rethink the value of labour itself. This is the risk we run: that we will save ourselves from the very labour that makes our lives worthwhile.

Organised by William Latham and Frederic Fol Leymarie, Human Interactive was calculated (quite deliberately, I expect) to stir unease.

Beyond the jolly, anecdotal presentations about the computer games industry from Creative Assembly’s Guy Davidson and game designer Jed Ashforth, there emerged a rather unflattering vision of how humans best interact with machines. The biophysicist Michael Sternberg, for instance, is harnessing the wisdom of crowds to gamify and thereby solve difficult problems in systems biology and bioinformatics. For Sternberg’s purposes, people are effectively interchangeable components in a kind of meat parallel-processing system. Individually, we do have some merit: we are good at recognising and classifying patterns. Thisat least makes us better than pigeons, but only at the things that pigeons are good at already.

Sternberg would be mortified to see his work described in such terms – but this is the point: human projects, fed through the digital mill, emerge with their humanity stripped away. It’s up to people at the receiving end of the milling process to put the humanity back in. I wasn’t sure, listening to Nilli Lavie’s presentation on attention, to what human benefit her studies would be put. The UCL neuroscientist’s key point is well taken – that people perform best when they are neither overloaded with information, nor deprived of sufficient stimulus. But what did she mean by her claim that wandering attention loses the US economy around two billion dollars a year? Were American minds to be perfectly focused, all the year round, would that usher in some sort of actuarial New Jerusalem? Or would it merely extinguish all American dreaming? Without a space for minds to wander in, where would a new idea – any new idea – actually come from?

Not that ideas will save us. Ideas, in fact, got us into this mess in the first place, by reminding us that the world as-is is less than it could be. We are very good at dreaming up scenarios that we are not currently experiencing. We are all too capable of imagining elusive “perfect” experiences. Digital media feed these yearnings. There is something magical about a balanced spreadsheet, a glitchless virtual surface, the beauty of a symmetrical avatar under perfect, unreal light.

Henrietta Bowden-Jones, founder and director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, is painfully aware of how digital media encourage our obessive and addictive behaviours. Games are hardly the new tobacco — at least, not yet — but psychologists are being hired to make them ever-more addictive; Bowden-Jones’s impressively understated presentation suggested that games may soon generate behavioral and social problems as acute as those thrown up by on-line gambling.

The day after the conference, Goldsmith’s College hosted Creative Machine, a week-long exhibition of machine creativity. In a church abutting the campus, robots sketched human skulls, balanced pendulums, and noodled around with evolutionary algorithms.I expected still more alienation, a surfeit of anxiety. In fact, Creative Machine left me feeling strangely reassured.

Those of us who play with computers, or know a little about science, harbour what amounts to a religious conviction: that that somewhere deep down, at the bottom of this messy reality, there is an order at work. Call it mathematics, or physics, or reason. Whichever way you cut it, we believe there’s a law. But this just isn’t true. Put a computer to work in the real world, and it messes up. More exciting still, it messes up in just the ways we would. Félix Luque Sánchez’s simple robots on rails shuttle backwards and forwards in a brave and ultimately futile attempt to balance a pendulum. Anyone who’s ever tried to balance a book on their head will recognise themselves in every move, every acceleration, every hesitation – every failure.

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Even a robot who knows what it’s doing will get entangled. Patrick Tresset has programmed a robot called Paul with the rules of life drawing and draughtsmanship. Paul, presented with a still-life, follows these rules unthinkingly – and yet every picture it churns out is unique, shaped by tiny, unrepeatable fluctations in its environment (a snaggy biro, a heavy-footed passer-by, a cloud crossing the sun…).

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If an emblem were needed for this show, then Cécile Babiole provides it. She has run the phrase “NE DOIS PAS COPIER” (literally: “one shouldn’t copy”) through a 3-D copier, over and over again, playing a familiar game of generational loss. And it’s the strangest thing: as they decay, her printed plastic letters take on organic form, become weeds, become coral, become limbs and organs. They lose their original meaning, only to acquire others. They do not become nothing, the way an over-photocopied picture becomes nothing. They become rich and strange.

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Maths, rationality and science are magnificent tools with which to investigate the world. But we commit a massive and dangerous category error when we assume the world is built out of maths and reason.

With a conference to beat us, and an exhibition to entice us, Latham and Fol Leymarie have led us, without us ever really noticing, to a view of new kind of digital future. A future of approximations and mistakes and acts of bricolage. It is not a human future, particularly. But it is a future that accommodates us, and we should probably be grateful.