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Sci-Art: The final frontier

 A chair in space, the unexpected beauty of a magnetic field and the Sun uncut - here's what happens when art meets science.

‘Art and science are very very different things, but I don’t see why they would be in conflict,‘ says Nicola Triscott, director of Arts Catalyst, a leading arts organisation with a focus on science.

   Escape Vehicle No. 6, Simon Faithfull (video still)
   Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

Triscott set up Arts Catalyst in 1993, at a time when science seemed to be playing an increasingly influential - and also controversial - role in our lives: the genetics revolution was taking off, concerns for the environment were spreading and the internet was in its early infancy. ‘I thought it’d be really good if I could start some exchanges between artists and scientists and see what happened,’ she explains.

Whilst scientific discoveries are best left to scientists, art can provide an avenue for reflecting on our relationship with science. ‘It’s a way of opening up space for discussion,’ says Triscott.

‘We’ve worked a lot with artists who are interested in cultural social and political implications of what’s happening in science and technology,’ she adds. Republic of the Moon, an upcoming exhibition commissioned by Arts Catalyst for instance showcases artists’ interpretations of what would happen if we set up a colony on the Moon.

New meanings

Film still from Brilliant noiseArt can also give us a new way of looking at and understanding scientific information. Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt's film Brilliant Noise uses raw data from the SoHo satellite to present a view of the Sun that is radically different to the colourised, processed images we are used to.

Artist Katie Paterson often attempts to capture the bewildering vastness of space and time in her work.  Her History of Darkness is a collection of telescope images of darkness throughout the universe, featuring thousands of images that span billions of years of our universe’s history. This kind of work can perhaps give us a more powerful sense of our place in the universe than mere facts and figures, and scientific organisations are beginning to recognise the value artists can bring.

NASA has a longstanding art programme, whilst UCL’s astrophysics group recently welcomed Katie Paterson in as their first ever artist in residence. Funding bodies like the Wellcome Trust are also forging relationships between researchers and artists.

What do working scientists make of this? Some would rather stick to their own experiments, but Triscott has found that theoretical physicists are often the most receptive to sci-art collaborations. ‘Theoretical physicists have to be very open to different ideas and ways of framing and thinking about things,’ she explains.

In fact, artists and scientists have more personality traits in common than you might think. Both need imagination and creativity, along with a burning desire to experiment, test new ideas and simply ‘do stuff’. And both are driven by a passion that can frequently veer into obsession.

Unlike science, art does not attempt to find any definite answers but instead offers new perspectives. ‘I’d like visitors to leave thinking they’d had a really interesting, moving fascinating, thought-provoking or playful experience,’ says Triscott. ‘The more ways we have of looking at the world, the better’.


Without further ado, let’s have a look at some physics art:

  •  Brilliant Noise (Semiconductor films: Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt)– the Sun as you’ve never seen it before.
          Embedded youtube video
          Read more about Brilliant Noise

  • The Way Things Go (Peter Fischli and David Weiss) – often copied but never equalled.
  • The Nightwatchman (Simon Hollington and Kypros Kyprianou, commissioned by Arts Catalyst)– A nuclear power station visitor centre where all is not as it seems.
  • Magnetic movie (Semiconductor films: Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt) – what if you could see magnetic fields?
  • For the more literary minded amongst you, try Litmus, an anthology of short stories about eureka moments in science, written by authors in partnership with scientists.


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