SameAs – Science, Technology and Art

This week I attended a meeting about art and science, organised by SameAs. This is a newish group that aims to bring together “interesting people from diverse backgrounds to discuss science, technology and everything in-between”. Basically it is a free meeting held in a pub with some interesting speakers and a good crowd of people.

The evening event was all about science and art, or art and science (or even Art and Science), a plum pudding of art and science mixed up together in different ways.

Chris Thorpe was the highlight of the evening, for me. He spoke about art and technology rather than art and science, giving a riveting account of the Artfinder project.

In a slightly rambling but very effective way, he teased apart some aspects of our interaction with technology, notably mobile phones and tablets, and possibilities for using them in the world of art. He pointed out that they can locate us in time and space, telling us where we are and when, and what else is around us. How about an application that knows which artworks are nearby? That is quite a job – for starters you need a system for uniquely identfying all works of art. We also use our mobile devices as distractions – playing all kinds of daft games on them, or reading books and news (or even blogs). How about an application that makes it possible to view artworks, or to play games with them? Chris wants to unleash waves of creativity based on interacting with artworks in new ways.

He also mentioned work that the project has been doing on size factors – the size and shape of mobile devices is important – and on context. Using a device on the move is a different experience from using it on the sofa, in bed or at a table. He has been observing people using phones in galleries and he notes that mostly people take photos there in order to remember what it is that they have seen. He complains that current audioguides can create problems as gallery visitors crowd round an exhibit trying to see what number they have to press next. Technology should get out of the way of the art. He suggested that we need a Shazzam for art – you take a photo on your phone and it tells you what the work is and offers links to further information.

He thinks we need recommendation engines for art – both for artwrks and for museums. How often do we overlook small or specialised collections in favour of visiting the blockbuster galleries? He recognises that there is a danger of ever-decreasing circles of recommendations of artworks, where you become trapped in a monoculture of similar works. He aims to build in a degree of serendipity, citing John Peel as the ideal serendipity engine for music.

Artfinder should be hitting the marketplace soon and I recommend you to try it out.

Other speakers I enjoyed were Wynn Abbott, Julie Freeman and Tony Langford.

Wynn Abbott (director of the London Science Festival) talked us through a few art-medicine exemplars, some of them rather gruesome.

  • Orlan, a French artist, uses her own body as her canvas. She has planned a series of seven plastic surgery operations, each inspired by a different work of art. When complete, she will have the forehead of the Mona Lisa, the chin of BotticelliĀ“s Venus, etc. Each operation is filmed, and the income from the sales of the film helps to finance the next operation. Orlan remains conscious throughout each operation, with only local anaesthetic used.
  • Marilene Oliver is a London-based artist. Her project I Know You Inside Out took the Visible Human dataset as a starting point. She printed the images onto sheets of acrylic as a way of recreating the original human body. Later she moved on to using images of MRI scans to achieve a similar effect.
  • Annie Cattrell works with glass, and has produced beautiful recreations of lungs; nervous system; and parts of the brain. An exhibition of her work was reviewed in The Lancet.

Julie Freeman started out as a technologist but moved through creative technology into art and ended up as a digital artist, working mostly with scientists. She admitted that she secretly wanted to be a biologist! She spoke mainly about her project called The Lake. This involved tagging fish in a freshwater lake and then tracking their movements using sonar. The tracks were then digitally transformed into sound and animation. She built a viewing tower by the lake so that visitors (mostly anglers) could see the work, gaining a new insight into the life of fish. You can read more about her work on her website translatingnature.org.

Tony Langford is the co-founder of the Kinetica Museum (a museum of electronic and experimental art / technology) and the Kinetica art fair. He said that Kinetica aims to bring together scientists, artists, philosophers, and others. He described its exhibits as living art, and he cited Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder as early exemplars of the genre. The museum currently has no permanent home but there are plans for a series of exhibitions.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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