Art shaped by science “is the new avant-garde”, physicists are told

26 June 2015

Artists are beginning to think like scientists and scientists like artists as aesthetics is being redefined, Professor Arthur I. Miller argued at an event on “Physics in Public Spaces” held at the IOP’s London centre on 23 June.

Prof. Arthur I. Miller
Prof. Arthur I. Miller

Speaking at the meeting, organised by the IOP’s Physics Communicators Group, Prof. Miller contended that Leonardo da Vinci essentially made no distinction between art and science and a new generation was making the same discovery. The movement emerging from this, which had been termed artsci, had “every right to call itself the new avant-garde”, but like the avant-garde movement of the early 20th century and the impressionists before that, it was usually rejected by the establishment art world, he said.

Prof. Miller, who is Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at University College London, surveyed the developing relationship between artists and scientists over the past century, noting how new technologies had often driven the emergence of new art forms. While art inspired by or exploring scientific themes was expanding, artsci was “wider in scope and more extreme”, he said. Using algorithms to make computer-generated drawings in imitation of Mondrian, or music in imitation of Bach, works had been created that many found difficult to distinguish from those by the original artists.

Asked if a future computer might ever be able to create a work like Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto (written as the composer recovered from a nervous breakdown), Prof. Miller replied: “Why not?”. Echoing his book Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art, Prof. Miller contended that art, science and technology were becoming fused.

Prof. Peter Hobson
Prof. Peter Hobson

Prof. Peter Hobson, Professor of Experimental Particle Physics at Brunel University London, and artist Jayne Wilton described their collaboration on a project to represent breath. Wilton uses visual media and sound to capture the trace of breath as it moves across a surface. Prof. Hobson said: “I saw Jayne’s show at the Beldam Gallery and I was particularly struck by her techiques. I thought I could assist by offering some techniques that I didn’t see being used, and we met up occasionally over the next couple of years. We applied for a Leverhulme Fellowship and she got it.”

In particular, Prof. Hobson provided Wilton with a range of optical techniques, such as Schlieren and digital holography. Wilton said that meeting practitioners of another discipline can be like an irritating grain from which a pearl can be generated.

Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, described its successses with the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition and with science-fiction themed events, which appealed to the public beyond science enthusiasts. The audience for an event with poet Simon Barraclough, for example, was “98% from ‘the poetry crowd’,” hesaid, while a three-month exhibition on developments in photography that had been driven by astronomy drew 70,000 people.”There was pressure to make it a ‘kiddy-friendly’ and ‘family-friendly’ exhibition, but we resisted that. We aimed it at young adults,” he said.

Harry Cliff
Harry Cliff

The Science Museum was also focusing more effort on reaching an audience other than schoolchildren, its fellow of modern science, Harry Cliff, explained. The museum receives around three million visitors a year and its work with school groups had reached “saturation point”, he said. The only way to grow its audience beyond that was to develop its work with adults, and it had also sought to re-establish its reputation as a place to go and learn about serious science, he said.

Originally brought in to develop its Collider! exhibition, which opened in November 2013, he said the challenges included overcoming a general fear of hard science and doing justice to a place such as CERN where the scientific artefacts were “spectacular but enormous”, while trying to give these meaning and not just treating them as props. Solutions included recreating a 1960s/70s office corridor from CERN and making a scripted drama of a private meeting that was held just before the announcement of the Higgs boson’s discovery.

The IOP’s chief executive, Prof. Paul Hardaker, described some of the Institute’s emerging ideas for public outreach and engagement and how these might be reflected in its new home in London’s King’s Cross. He said the IOP’s strategy for 2015-19 included a commitment to increase participation in outreach activities from the current 100,000 a year to one million, with a greater focus on the 16-19 age group.

Prof. Hardaker described how discussion about public engagement had moved from a deficit model in which the emphasis was on helping the public to understand science, to one of dialogue with the public. Although the internet was important in this, it would be a mistake to see it as a panacea, he said, and around 80% of people still relied on television or radio for their information about science. “Internet-based engagement is not particularly effective: it polarises views, reinforces stereotypes and reduces the diversity of thinking,” he said.

This did not mean that there was no role for the internet in trying to close the communications gap between scientists and society, he said, and the IOP was involved in reaching schoolchildren with non-curriculum based  outreach activities, which had to start in primary schools.

The IOP also needed to engage in interaction in cultural spaces, and the new building in King’s Cross would play a key part in this. The site had been chosen partly because of its nearness to organisations such as the University of the Arts and Nature Macmillan, and the refurbished building would offer more opportunities to draw peope in – they could, for example, walk in off the street to a reception and downstairs to a gallery, lecture theatre and exhibition space. The building would have a physics-themed cafe and, it was hoped, some spaces for physics-based companies. There would also be flexible meeting rooms on the top floor and there were plans to hold around four exhibitions per year.

The footfall on the adjacent Caledonian Road was of people who were close to the IOP’s target demographic, Prof. Hardaker said, but the Institute also wanted the building to be used by the IOP’s existing members and its plan was to have rooms available for members to hire at a subsidised rate. Although the IOP’s strategy and its ideas for the new building were ambitious, it believed these were achievable through working with partners and charitable foundations, and encouraging discussions had taken place so far, he said.