The Arts Catalyst mixes artists and scientists up in a pot to see what emerges, and they arrange talks to involve the public in the results. After years of prevarication, I girded up my loins and headed down Clerkenwell Road to sit with a crowd of very well-turned-out techno nerds and artists in an atmosphere of bonhomie.
Please excuse the slightly 'note-form' style of this posting- it's taken ages to write it up and I've got some assessments to mark. It was also written on Text Edit which has a charming tendency to get creative with the vocabulary and substitute rhyming words for the ones you meant to use. Science/art- appropriate I suppose! This is who we listened to:
Alistair McClymont: Inspired by the urban myth that you could watch the film of The Wizard of Oz and synchronise it perfectly with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Alistair became interested in the tornado, his favourite part of the film, and decided to make his own DIY one.
His tornado is minimal and industrial-chic with a fan at either side and one at the top, scaffolding to hold it up and a humidifier puffing damp air out at the base of it, all presented in a darkened room with stark white lighting to illuminate the wispy transience of the column of air.
To look at, it nods in the direction of The Mutoid Waste Company, although he was describing the aesthetics of the sense of touch: the air in the whole room is obviously moving but it is only when you approach the tornado itself that you feel the pull of the vortex. It took two years to 'tune' the column of air to behave like a tornado; he liked the idea of starting in control and then allowing the tornado to have a life of its own.
The piece of work I preferred was the suspended raindrop, captured so that you can look at it close-up.
Through the droplet the world is upside down, with an occasional tiny rainbow . Rain drops are not raindrop shaped, they are curved at the top and flattened at the bottom; there was a lovely close-up photograph of the droplet. Alistair made a machine to blow upwards and hold the droplet still, with a metal plate above it to hold the stream of air in exactly the right place to counteract gravity; each one lasts half an hour then starts to evaporate, rises and flies away as it gets really small. A gallery assistant with a syringe replaces the droplet when this happens, introducing a performative element to the piece. The contrast between the deliberately ugly blowing machine, with industrial filler seeping out of its sections, and the tiny, gleaming raindrop was perfect.
Alistair is an example of an artists who makes things himself a voyage of discovery rather than getting other people to do it for him; as he says, 'you learn about something by doing it'
He wants to take it to the seaside!
The other thing that was engaging about his talk was the description of the faux-poetic names of air fresheners, like 'After the Rain'. He told us that he made a pile of tarmac heated by infra-red heaters that made the smell of a road after the rain when water was added because as a cyclist, this is what is personally evoked by the title of the air freshener. Ha ha!
The next artist, Patrick Stevenson-Keating, was more of a designer and had hand-made a DIY particle accelerator to accelerate electrons, which are lighter than protons and easier to accelerate.
He bought a Vacuum pump to create 45,000 volts and in the first version of his collider, he showed us the plasma created by electrons colliding with air left in the glass after most of the air had been pumped out. This was a sleek-looking glass tube that looked like a scientific instrument.
He advised DIY science artists to 'get help when you need it'; he was helped by a physicist from Cambridge.
Patrick developed this further into a hand crafted particle accelerator with hand blown glass vacuum chambers shaped like suspended test tubes and light bulbs to tap into science's aesthetic potential; they were told that they couldn't hang things from the ceiling so he made table top versions.
The glass vessels were made by visiting a craftsman glass-blower in Harlow and he learned how to blow the glass himself, which he said gave him a strong connection to the pieces as well as an insight into the craft itself: there is no 'thinking time' in glass blowing; you have to plan it all in advance
The components he used (apart from the blown glass) were all off-the-shelf; a two stage rotary pump to chuck out a stream of air although the physicists he consulted recommended a diffusion pump which rips the air out in a different way. The air is pulled out to allow the electron particles shot from an electron gun to accelerate without bumping into other things (like air particles). The electrons then crash into a phosphorous coating at the end of the glass globes and make it glow.
Electron gun is the source of particles.
He equates himself to gentlemen scientists in their garden sheds during the enlightenment; I was more reminded of my brother and myself pottering about with our chemistry sets as young teenagers, coating pins with copper and (in Bruv's case) cooking up explosions that resulted in second-degree burns. You could buy all the chemicals by mail order or by going to the chemists in Prudhoe where they had little drawers full of white powder that they would sell you in paper wrappers.
Patrick's finished pieces were exhibited in Milan's version of Harrods, where passing customers gazed on in amazement from their forest of shopping bags.
Next up was Song Hojun,from South Korea, wearing a banner saying 'Science is Fantasy'.
He told us about Russia creating the 'mother of all bombs', which the USA responded to by creating 'the father of all bombs'. So Hojun created 'The Strongest Weapon in the World', a weapon of mass happiness that spouts out happy messages and which will cease to exist if there is a nuclear explosion next to it.
He showed us a metal sculpture which you hit really hard with a construction hammer (wearing a construction hat) that shouts 'I love you' if you hit it hard enough (really, really hard)
He made some radioactive jewellery to allow potential suicides to taste death before doing it, with a cutter to remove the jewellery if they change their minds. To do this he ordered uranium off the Internet and advertised the jewellery for $900,000,000 on eBay (he showed us his ad on a slide). 'Why so expensive?' asked a potential buyer. 'That's what your life is worth', was the reply.
Hojun was humorous and demonstrated a different way of being an artist-scientist: he is an enabler with a strong sense of global community and of the effect his artworks might have on other people. As he told us about his DIY satellite, he took out a Primark bag and extracted a mock-up of his little satellite to pass round the room. the satellite has to piggy-back on a bigger satellite on its way into space, and Hojun has booked a slot on a rocket next April. He showed us pictures of Russian and French scientists in white coats: as the satellite was ejected from its adaptor dock (this reminded me of watching piglets being born in Denmark), and the French scientist caught it in both hands. The antennae have to be wrapped around the satellite and ping out when the restraints melt in the heat.
At the Paris air show to sign the contract, about 100 media people had been invited so Hojun hired a cameraman to film the occasion. No one turned up apart from the cameraman but he still made his speech, and there was a shot of the guy-in-a-suit who had supplied the contract smiling smugly beside him.
So, permission: that was very important and took six years. Hojun has his certificate which he got by registering with the Korean Government. Finance: 100,000 dollars to put it into space: Hojun was selling t-shirts to finance his project (of course I bought one: every penny scraped from my bag wasn't enough but he let me off a couple of quid).
The satellite itself is in San Jose in an exhibition but he showed us what was going to happen when it's up: you hold hands with your friends, press a countdown button and upon a signal from Earth a light in the satellite sends out a morse code message that you have reserved in advance. The satellite will only last a year (possibly up to six) after its launch in Kazakhstan after which it will within 30 years return to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.
Hojun says that artists don't have requirements like scientists do, and so they can learn more from science than scientists. I loved his approach, which was utterly without boundaries. He made it plain that we should all be launching our own satellites through the Open Source Satellite Initiative. As he says: 'creation is belief', and he left us with the appeal, 'Where's my satellite?' and it was passed back to him by the curious audience.
Last up were the Owl Project, who again had a humorous approach to their work. I have seen them before, I think, at one of Diana Mavroleon's parties in her woodland in Cromer, where they sat at night in a boy-scout style tent playing amplified pieces of wood, illuminated by footlights made of small logs embedded into the grass in a semicircle with a tea-light on each. Every insect in the universe flooded to the patch of light under the trees and weevils and earwigs rained softly down on us as we watched and listened.
They showed us log-type computer with hinged lids and the iLog, a hand-held synthesiser with its technology packed into a hollowed out log and activated by pulsing lights. 'They're quite hard to use', they stated, with happy smiles. Each instrument has a single action, and they told us that they couldn't possibly justify manufacturing them commercially as they take a day to make. Instead, they do workshops where people make their own, with, for instance, sensors down the side for a flute-player to activate the sounds. Good on them! Like Hojun, their sharing is a transfer of power to the audience.
Some of their iLogs are solar powered, charging up by day so that they make sounds to party with at night. They delighted in their nerdiness (as did Alistair); it's funny to see the partying tendencies of self-confessed nerds and I do wonder sometimes if I partied myself out before the age of thirty.
I have my own nerdy mini-synth at home (Shut UP! shouts Offsprog Two as I create farts and bleeps) but I don't want to go to any parties with it, definitely. It's a fireside activity, for me.
They displayed a sound lathe, which gave them the aesthetic problem that carving a beautiful object sometimes resulted in an ugly sound and vice versa.
On the River Tyne they have installed a wooden water mill that uses the energy and relative saltiness of the water to create sounds that are broadcast through huge wooden horns, one of which is two meters across. They built the horns themselves, creating computer programs to help with the angling of the wooden slats to maximise the volume so that a 9 volt battery will last for two weeks ; one of the speaker cones was curved using steam but this was a slow process and was abandoned.
As they said, instead of milling flour, they mill data (salination readings are taken every hour and used to alter the synth sounds), and physically, they are re-envisioning obsolete technologies.
I did like the most Geordie of the blokes who had worked on the construction with them.
'I thought it'd never work', he prophesied glumly and perhaps with a tinge of disappointment. I laughed: I know that type!
What a brilliant evening. Lovely to sit next to Emerald (who has designed so many beautiful CD covers for my songs) and of course to see Nicky Triscott again after probably fifteen years. Nicky is the driving force behind the Arts Catalyst and I must say, this was the most absorbing and exciting event that I have been to for yonks.
Not counting Club Artyfartle, of course!