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Exploring Sci-Art at Pint of Science Festival

25 May 17 words: Adrian Shaw

We had a grand old time at Pint of Science Festival this year. One of the events explored sci-art, so our Adrian Shaw got down to enjoy a subject close to his heart...

As a ‘sci-artist’ of some twenty years standing, I was very keen to observe the exciting series of events that made up this year’s programme (the second consecutive year that the Pint of Science Festival has run internationally).  

I went to several events, but concentrated my attention on the sci-art part held at Nottingham Contemporary from Monday 15 - Thursday 18 May.

Founded in the UK by Drs Michael Motskin and Praveen Paul, et al, Pint of Science had its origins in 2012 at Imperial London, and the Creative Reactions festival in Cambridge-based  around ideas of pub-centred discussions involving scientists and others. The first festival, in 2016, occurred around the planet in about 100 cities in twelve countries, across five continents. The current second 2017 festival was similarly widely dispersed; in the UK, involving 24 cities.

The Nottingham part of the programme, held around various venues in the city, was apparently as a result of several meetings held initially at Rough Trade and other venues, plus meetings and telephone contact between the participating twenty local artists paired with science graduate researchers at Nottingham University.

I was very impressed indeed by this hard evidence that the mutual interaction of apparent opposites has, over the year, grown to mutually rewarding and educational advances, breaking down apparent barriers and resulting in many very interesting and worthwhile – even perhaps invaluable – incarnations the sci-art works themselves, not least…

Pair after pair of science and art creatives presented the results of their endeavours and cooperation with mutual complementary sentiments – each member learning much from each other, and increasing mutual appreciation – the future is very bright for sci-art. Yet, I remember the initial launch in London in the nineties, backed with funding from The Wellcome Foundation (whose research laboratories, incidentally, trained me as a scientist!) which at times encountered many difficulties. That includes the many attempts of initial planning meetings to develop a “mutual language” between scientists and artists in order to progress this potentially fecund area of mutual cooperation, to society’s advantage.

I remember from my own experience as a PhD in Analytical Chemistry undergoing a BA Hons programme at St Martin’s UAL, some derision when I suggested in 1996 that the future in development in art lay in cooperative experiments with science; “art-sci” or “sci-art”, as it became.

Later, I was a very keenly involved participant in the first ARSCie show at The Blyth Gallery at my other, former, alma mater, Imperial College, London, where scientists and artists collaborated. And I was lucky enough to have experience as both areas of research and practice.

Most recently, for example, my critical theory and practice during my AA2a Arts Council England Artist Residency at the University of Lincoln in 2013-14 – where earlier I had taught Chemistry and Science Skills – encompassed the application of my PhD research in luminescence spectroscopy an examination as an Anglo-Indian of my mixed cultural heritage via re-imaging old family photographs, and through my artist-trained ability and knowledge in photography, painting, and other light-based methods, using my one (mixed) blood as a source of image production.

Returning to the Sci-Art Creative Solutions workshop presentation at Nottingham Contemporary, several points were obvious. Most positively, things have clearly progressed since the “old days”!  

Besides the solid evidence in the work presented, most of the individuals involved testified to the realisation that similarities between science and art were much more than they had initially thought. The long hours of process-led research and experimentation, similar patterns of conceptualisation and imagination, hard work, a mode of enquiry and open-mindedness prevailed  between the two apparent “opposites”.

My own observations of the presentations, in short, led to a personal satisfaction that sci-art is coming of age. That the future is very bright and also as a source of encouraging students in science, and those in art, to appreciate both their own studies in each area and widen their appreciation of “the other”.

My one caveat is that much still needs to be done in encouraging the wider population by adequate funding of education and research – especially post-Brexit – and, as in other areas, getting more people of colour involved.

Both art and science have the potential in themselves – and across the “divide” – to stimulate discovery and personal revelation in the imagination, globally. And in a bid to further democratise and demystify both arts and sciences for the benefit of the public, and to draw them into both.

Also, perhaps as an ironic observation, not everyone would have been drawn into the “pub atmosphere” that the title of this exciting Global Event indicated – for religious, cultural and health reasons – and so would not have heard of this stimulating and productive development, and the chance to appreciate first hand its exciting future.

Finally, my observation of the work produced at the recent Festival also underscored the essential nature of a true sci-art object; it must simultaneously be both science and art incarnate.

This essential feature was discussed in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal a few years ago.   It was open to discussion if this was always evident in the otherwise interesting and stimulating results exhibited, but the process of combining the fields of art and science is always worthwhile, as the Pint of Science international festivals have clearly shown.    

As an original sci-artist, it was a privilege to be invited to observe the sci-art proceedings in Nottingham by the local festival organisers, who thus deserve my sincere thanks.

Pint of Science website