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Instar: Nottingham's Sci-Art Collective

25 October 17 interview: Adrian Shaw

Instar’s Trish and Nic are two properly dedicated and focused creative clever clogs with a passion for uncovering the art in science and the science in art. We sat down to find out the hows and whys of what they get up to...

What inspired the creation of Instar and how did your first project, Bat, come about?
Nick: We’d known each other for a long time through the local art and music scene, but a few years ago, we discovered we also shared a passion for the natural world. So, over a rainy pint in London, we decided that we could get the best of all worlds and combine these interests by utilising art to expose the infinite beauty and wonder of nature. After all, isn’t art, in all its forms, just humans trying to understand and interpret the mind-boggling perfection of the world? Especially the natural world around us. Instar seemed to perfectly describe what we wanted to achieve.

We both have backgrounds in converting and reimagining spaces; the more broken or abandoned the better. It’s one of the reasons that the name Instar came about; the idea of metamorphosis, the shedding of skin to reveal the next hidden layer.

With Bat, we saw an opportunity to use an ex-stable block, which has a brown, long-eared bat roost in its loft space, so we put in a bid to Arts Council England and got partnership funding with Nottingham Museums and Galleries at Wollaton Hall. Then we went about getting scientists and artists together, allowing them to respond to the space and the creature. This culminated in an interactive sound sculpture, static and moving images, as well as specimens, lectures and workshops. Not a traditional exhibition at all, just an exciting and fresh way of looking at bats, while at the same time pushing a big conservation message, which is the theme that guides all of our work.

Nick: Whether it’s an abandoned warehouse or derelict pier, these spaces sensually offer so much more than the conventional gallery. We curated and installed an exhibition called Thereby hangs a tail, which removed taxidermy from the regular museum setup and put it in a less conventional space.

Trish: What we realised was that the taxidermy you see in a museum is nearly always behind glass; a barrier that blocks your experience of the animal, a bit like if you see a polar bear at the zoo. Not as exciting as if you saw one walking toward you in Svalbard, so we removed the glass, and theatrically lit the specimens. There were ten in all: animals like a cassowary, puma, mandrill, even a hippopotamus skeleton, giving a fresh perspective, revealing the hidden things, not just a piece of art or taxidermy. Looking at the whole, from the environment, the colour, the written word, the space, the curation, and the interactivity, which is symbolic to our approach, the space becomes the art.

Was the museum concerned about the safety of the exhibits?
Nick: Initially, but we designed and invigilated it in such a way that there was never a problem and the staff there were of massive help and support.

Trish: As for the touching of specimens, we designed a taxidermy restoration area where the audience was encouraged to feel the fur of a sloth, or the feathers of a bird of paradise, or the tough, leathery back of an alligator. There was no need to police the space; the audience automatically knew what they could and couldn’t touch.

Appreciating its afterlife...
Trish: Exactly. It’s about honouring each animal individually and giving it new life; it’s one of the many themes behind our work.

In the early days of sci-art there was a great debate about whether a true sci-art object or project had to be both science and art simultaneously. What’s your definition of sci-art?
Trish: What’s been great, as far as our projects have been concerned, is that artists discovered their science side and scientists discovered a new artistic perspective and process. We’re not interested in the philosophical debates; overall, fun and wonder rule. We absolutely love science, we absolutely love art, and we’re keen to produce and exhibit unconventional art in unconventional spaces. We’re interested in exploring and discovering, not analysing and over-describing our work. Our interests lie in a guerrilla approach to art.

Your work is strongly successful in this; it’s certainly much truer than others...
Nick: We identify in the fact that nature is art. We’re particularly interested in the natural sciences but, having said that, social sciences are involved. So that’s part of our thinking as well. We’re interested in how modern humans are disengaging with the natural world, and working out how we can reconnect with it again.

Reconnecting with nature brings us nicely to Swift Street. Can you tell me about that?
Trish: Swift Street is Instar’s own conservation initiative that came about through noticing we had a lot of swifts in our area. They’re unmissable, screaming parties tearing around the rooftops and chimneys; the soundtrack of summer evenings.

Nick: Amazing birds, incredible fliers. 111.6km/h in level flight, they eat, drink, sleep, collect nesting materials, mate and bathe all on the wing. When they leave their nest, they’ll fly to sub-Saharan Africa and back three times before landing again at their own nest site to raise their first brood. The oldest swift lived to eighteen years old, so it will have flown roughly four million miles in its lifetime. That’s like flying to the moon and back eight times, and this is all from a bird whose closest genetic relatives are the hummingbirds. Just astonishing, and they visit us every year for just three months.

Trish: We realised that their numbers were declining. Between 1995 and 2011, we lost a third. Refurbishment of residential housing and demolition of old factory buildings has removed nest sites, so we thought, “Let’s put some back.” We got some local funding and now have thirty boxes on three streets, which is brilliant, because we know these streets have a connection – a mini movement – with people standing out on the street watching swifts and communicating with each other. And we’ve noticed a genuine passion concerning wildlife with everyone involved.

You obviously throw yourselves into your work. It must be very draining – how do you relax?
Nick: Well, we mix our relaxation with work. We recently went up to Knapdale in Scotland to look for beavers, and to see how they go about manipulating a space and creating a totally new environment. They’re amazing ecological architects and so beneficial to so many other species. It’s one of many rewilding projects going on around the country. We find this a very exciting area of conservation with so many possibilities for sci-art.

What’s next for Instar?
Trish: Well, we’re always developing and getting excited about the next project, as well as the one after that. But, without wanting to give too much away, we recently visited an old whaling station in the Azores as well as one that is still in operation in Iceland. And we have just purchased our own wetsuits. We can’t say any more than that.

Instar website

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