The mechanisms of empathy

“Every culture we know of dances around a fire. Our heartbeats sync up, we all follow this one rhythm, and we feel the tribe unite. If I explain my break-up in words, you will be able to understand to a degree what I’m going through. But if I write a piece of music and play it to you, you might just start crying, and that’s totally incredible because I’m not giving you any framework. I’m not necessarily reminding you of something from your past. It’s purely those patterns that are bringing you to tears.”

A conversation with Keaton Henson for New Scientist, 16 July 2018

A world in a room

In the Trobriand Islands, a man’s worth is measured by the size of the pile of yams he builds in front of his sister’s house and leaves to rot. Beads mean fertility in South Africa. The Swedes are obsessed with shelving. Anthropology’s great strength – that it considers human practices objectively – is also its fatal weakness; it leaves nothing standing.How can this gallery be leaving visitors, not crushed by the species’ quintessential absurdity, but buoyed up, exhilarated, even to the point of tears?

Visiting the Horniman Museum’s new World Gallery for New Scientist, 26 June 2018

How Charles Dickens became a man of science

It is not accuracy we expect of Dickens; it is vision. It may be interesting that Our Mutual Friend uses the word “energy” in its new scientific sense. But what really thrills the heart is to follow Krook’s visitors up the stairs as they are about to find his body:

“‘See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won’t blow off – smears like black fat!’… A thick, yellow liquor defiles them… A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder…”

Visiting Charles Dickens: Man of Science, at the Charles Dickens Museum, London for New Scientist, 16 June 2018

Ceiling Cat is watching you make art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

 

Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain

Let us begin, at least, with a glimmer of humour.

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There you are. That’s your lot by way of larfs, should you visit this truly gimlet-faced retrospective of the art of British modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth.

Tate Britain’s show, which runs from 24 June to 25 October, is billed as the first major Barbara Hepworth exhibition in London for almost 50 years, and features some key sculptures in wood, stone and bronze. These, then, are the treasures which languish under insipid ersatz daylight, against walls painted in the sort of bluish neutrals you find in the toilets at Heathrow.

The first room is the worst, incarcerating Hepworth’s early torsoes under cheap plexiglass vitrines like so much pick-n-mix. But it is not the conspicuous lack of budget that disconcerts, so much as the way the show struggles to establish the young artist’s identity. Every artist operates in some sort of social fluid. Hepworth appears to have damn-near drowned in hers.

Hepworth and her lover Ben Nicholson together evolved an atelier identity, exhibiting together in 1932 at the gallery Arthur Tooth & Sons. Photographs of that show suggest an energy that’s wholly missing here. Nicholson and Hepworth got under each others’ artistic skins, but for reasons I don’t know enough to unpick, the image we’re left with in this show is not so much of Hepworth growing as an artist, so much as being easily led (by Nicholson, by Moore, by Laslo, by political affiliations of one sort or another).

It seems unfair to blame the subject of this show, but I did begin to wonder whether Hepworth herself ought to take some responsibility for what’s gone wrong here. The wall texts several times refer to her determination to control her own image, and I wonder if there isn’t some curatorial frustration peeking through here. What do you do, after all, with an artist who parlayed her way into a most insipid type of celebrity, who fashioned art innocuous enough to grace the UN, and counted its director general Dag Hamarskjold as a friend: arguably the least interesting famous man in history?

Something has failed here; it could well be me. I took a couple of snaps. The photographs aren’t up to much, but just look at the work. That has to be worth a visit, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? How is it my iPhone had a better time than I did?

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“I have nothing to say as an artist”

'Disrobe' (2013). Image ripped shamelessly from http://www.lissongallery.com/

‘Disrobe’ (2013). Image ripped shamelessly from http://www.lissongallery.com/

That, anyway, was the provocative start to my interview with Anish Kapoor the other day. He’s got 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 were talking to the sculptor for New Scientist. You can read the full interview here.