Celebrating two years of the NHM Art-Science Interest Group

The Museum’s Art-Science interest group (ASIG) is a forum for interesting talks and provocations, aimed at exploring interactions between science and the arts. It meets every few months.

We had our eighth meeting on Thursday 15th November 2018. It was our two year anniversary, so we were celebrating with wine, interesting talks and a growing number of ASIG participants. There were participants from the NHM, art galleries, including our neighbours the Serpentine, other museums, and universities.

We were treated to talks by three great speakers:

Caroline Ward (Royal College of Art) is an artist whose final year project was on cyanobacteria and the great oxygenation event, exploring human/non-human contributions to Earth’s atmosphere, and collaborating in particular with Anne Jungblut.

Caroline’s project tackled human influences on the environment, how the environment has shaped us, and how we read the signs of geochemical processes. She jumps from modern ecocide to the Orbis spike – the 1610 relative increase in oxygen in the atmosphere following South American genocide – to the first mass release of oxygen by cyanobacteria in deep time.

The NHM is the place of connections, from living cyanobacteria, to their fossilised remains in stromatolites, to banded iron formations, the first rust that formed from the great oxygenation event. Connections happened because of Anne and Jon Todd, spanning Life and Earth Sciences.

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Banded iron formation in Hintze Hall
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Cyanobacteria seen under the microscope

Michiko Nitta, an artist who, together with Michael Burton as Burton Nitta, has linked art and biological sciences through such projects as Algaculture and The Algae Opera, working on the human microbiome, food security, and humans living in the future.

Michiko told us about some of her Burton Nitta projects, where they explored alternative ways to thrive in a future world with food shortages and high levels of contamination. They have been working with the concept that animals, including humans, are superorganisms, made up of a network of many different species, and we could harness interactions with these or new species to solve future problems.

In Algaculture, taking inspiration from photosynthetic organisms such as the sea slug Elysia chlorotica, which obtains chloroplasts from its algal food, they created algal suits that people would wear to provide food for them. In The Algae Opera, the audience could even taste the songs of an opera singer who feeds carbon dioxide to the algae living in her suit.

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Near future algaculture symbiosis suit © Burton Nitta

In another project, Landscape Within, they address the problem of hyper-accumulating foods such as rice, which contains dangerous levels of arsenic, or wheat, with lead. Michiko showed us how they made rice sausages as a demonstration of the removal of arsenic from the rice by fluorescent engineered bacteria inside an additional digestive machine, harvesting the metal contaminants for other uses. This presents us gastronauts with an exciting new dining possibility: arsenic-free, green fluorescent rice poo!

Burton Nitta will exhibit a multi-media work at Science Gallery London in 2019.

Chiara Ambrosio, associate professor in history and philosophy of Science at UCL, was our third speaker.

Chiara has a keen interest in the relations between art and science and gave a lively talk about why history matters in understanding the complex relationship between scientists and artists. In particular, she focused on the history of the representation of the rhino, from 16th Century Durer’s rhinoceros to 18th Century Jan Wandelaar’s depiction of ‘Clara’, the first rhino to be brought to modern Europe, for the anatomist Bernard Siegfried Albinus’ book Tabulae sceleti and musculorum corporis humani.

Focusing on the notion of ‘representation’, conceived as a crucial common link between scientific and artistic visual practices, she exposed a broad range of tensions, dilemmas and questions that cannot be resolved by science alone, showing how artists productively challenged a lot of the concepts and ideas that scientists had taken for granted.

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Plate from Tabulae sceleti and musculorum corporis humani

Talks were followed by wide ranging discussions. There were some great provocative ideas; we were challenged to do science differently, to think about the shortcomings of the scientific method. Art-science can and should go beyond ‘engagement’. Artistic research contributes to epistemology; sharing questions is an essential basis for true collaboration and we should be challenging the assumed knowledge hierarchy. We were challenged with the notion that artists can be more literate about science than scientists are about art. Art-science collaboration should result in us doing science differently; there are many ways to create knowledge.

And did you know that ‘amateur’ is derived from the Latin for ‘lover’?

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An NHM Art-Science Interest Group meeting

More about the Art-Science Interest Group

Please visit the NHM ASIG page on the Museum website to find out more about our activities or to sign up to our mailing list.

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