Artists in the lab

What advancements in art result from the use of science? "Materia prima", an exhibition in an experiment format to reflect upon the convergence of art, science and technology.

Published: Dec 07, 2015
Artists in the lab

Image of the exhibition "Materia prima"

By Marta Lorenzo Jáudenes (@MartaLorenzoJ) My Art Diary

Much more has been written and done in relation with the convergence of art, science and, obviously, technology than what might be assumed by a priori by a viewer that is exposed for the first time to an exhibition combining these disciplines. Thus, according to the art critic and contemporary and digital art curator, Paul Waelder, "This relationship is characterised by its ability to generate a mutual influence. If a century ago, the interest of painters and sculptors in scientific developments manifested itself in a mainly intellectual way, over the last fifty years there has been an increasingly direct involvement in the creative use of technological innovations and the collaboration between engineers and artists".

Well, let it be said, this collaboration has never been easy, because scientists have tended to understand that art was a leisure accessory to life, instead of understanding its great potential to create and going beyond the limits of reality. This obviously brings to mind the pioneering role played by Leonardo da Vinci with his anatomical studies, findings and inventions, and it is not surprising that in the 1980s the NASA enrolled artists to contribute to the Space Race.

Anyway, let us talk about pioneering programmes and centres in supporting creators in the scientific field. There are research residencies programmes, like the Swiss Artist in the lab,  and institutions, such as CERN or Ars Electronica (and its award PRIX). Precisely curated by the director of the latter, Gerfried Stocker, and with works coming from this prestigious awards, is the exhibition Materia prima. Experimentos en arte digital y ciencia currently open at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial. Let us not be mistaken by the term “exhibition”, as this proposal goes way beyond an exhibition, it is some sort of experiment where participation, more in theory than in practice, I am afraid, is key. To this end, the exhibition space is designed around six labs open for the curiosity and participation of visitors, or using term that I like better, citizens. The idea is to replace the traditional concept of contemporary art exhibitions with a pseudo-laboratory just like Ars Electronica itself has been doing since 2009.

Each lab is very well structured in conceptual terms, they are the following:: bioLAB, a biotechnology lab focusing on genetics with an ethical component;fabLAB is where the  téchne is the central concept and it is equipped with last-generation machines like 3D printers and laser cutters; dataLAB, from the virtual space to the physical space of data (Oh, these are the real raw material in our contemporary economic model); visuaLAB, reinterpreting reality visually through the artist subjectivity; geoLAB, usually forgotten in processes, encompasses everything related with the Earth and the laws that govern it; and, finally, what gives meaning, a Philosophy LAB to reflect upon all matters, especially the need to generate collaborative knowledge transfer processes for the common good. Click here to see the programme of activities.

At this point, and as it would be two long to discuss each and every work of this show, I propose the following virtual tour:

María Castellanos and Alberto Valverde, "Environment Dress".

In their Environment Dress, as the title suggests, the Asturian María Castellanos and the Madrid native Alejandro Valverde work with wearable technology, currently very fashionable in the field of new media (see, for example, x.pose by the Japanese  Xuedi Chen, which, the more she uses her social profiles, the more visible grows her corset). In the specific case of this piece, the artists have designed some sort of smart armour that warns the person wearing it of the changes in the environment, such as UV radiation or temperature changes, to protect him or her. It is from this intersection between the man and the machine from where many artists have worked and still work. In fact, there are currently 10 well-known artists creating using the technologies, including wereable technology, offered by a leading tehnology centre in Barcelona, Eurecat. For those who want to know more, this is the first call of the grant ATA, created by the New Art Foundation, for creation and art training with advanced technologies.

From a different perspective, a conceptual, physical and mathematical one, the show includes the work of María Edwards, who I interviewed on this blog when she was awarded the first call of the European Network of Digital Art and Science, during which she has developed the piece Instrumento móvil de Aire & cuerda, exhibited in Materia prima.

Nelo Akamatsu, “Chijikinkutsu”.

The production of the Japanese Nelo Akamatsu is rather mystic. In his Chijikinkutsu, a term coined by combining  “chijiki”, meaning earth magnetism, and “suikinkutsu”, a type of sound installation used in traditional Japanese gardens, he creates a singular installation that challenges our attention, or rather our hearing sensitivity. A series of crystal glasses filled with water and a needle and a piece of copper wire floating on it creates a temporary magnetic field and generates a muffled sound. Because, even if we barely hear it, that does not mean it does not exist. Once again artists refer to our usual perception of everyday life.

Patricia Piccinini, “The Listener”.

Finally, it is worth devoting sometime to the contemporary sculpture, The Listener, by the artist Patricia Piccinini. At first, I did not understand why this piece was included in the show. Perhaps I was looking for breakthoughs, new approaches, naturally technological forms. And, clearly, I was following my almost cyborg side, forgetting what make us human, empathy. This is what the message of this humanoid figure that stares at us with tender eyes, about the ethics or its possible absence that may be behind biological experiments, as we know that work is being done even in bioprinting. Should we create a code to really understand what we are facing? Actually, I think every day that the more we use technology, the more vulnerable humans become.

Suggested reading materials

-Alsina, Paul: Arte, ciencia y tecnología. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, 2007.

-Ars Electronica 2015: Post City. Habitats for the 21 st Century.

-Artnodes, Revista de Arte, Ciencia y Tecnología: Nuevos medios, arte-ciencia y arte contemporáneo: ¿hacia un discurso híbrido?, nº 11, 2011.

-Reid R. y Traweek S.: Doing Science + Culture. Routledge, 2000.

-VV. AA.: Máquinas & Almas. Arte digital y nuevos medios. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2008.

-Wilson,Stephen: Information Arts. Intersections of art, science and technology. The MIT Press, 2003.

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