This is the story of an encounter between artist and scientist.
Christine Partridge, April 2020.
Edited by Will Stanley.
Its beginning was a Cultural Negotiation of Science workshop (www.cnos.org.uk) where artists and scientists came together to explore ways of seeing and methods of working. Here I met Dr Paula Salgado and learnt about her research into the bacterium C. difficile.
It was a day of creative play, experimentation and conversation that has led to further conversations in Paula’s laboratory, my art studio and a teashop. Our meeting was the beginning of an art project that is on-going. In this blog I share the story so far as an artist working with a scientist.
The C. difficile bacterium is only visible through layers of technology (optical lenses, chemical dyes, computer algorithms) – a recreated image (Mackenzie, 2018). In contrast, my art practice is material – where thinking through making, the raw, messy, sensual language of the material and its layers of historical and cultural meanings weave together within imagination to bring something new into being. How can these, different in way of working, together expand understanding in art and science?
Inspired by the many images of C. difficile that Paula shared, I started by making some paper shapes that reflected the outline of the bacterium. Using natural materials where possible is important to me and I made these shapes using cotton paper pulp. Cotton is a fibre that has a long, multi-layered history (in slavery, water use, money). The paper was dyed with either graphite powder (pure carbon, the molecule of life) produced from petroleum coke and unusable electrode material, and lathe turnings of red ochre (oxidised iron) – used by early artists in cave paintings – iron in the earth, iron in blood – life and the planet enmeshed. These shapes were hand-gilded the with copper or silver. It was a process of learning as I was doing, letting the materials speak – the cotton creating textured surfaces that picked up the silver and copper.
Alongside the making, I read multiple research papers on the bacterium and became fascinated by the complexity of this single-cell organism. A tenacious survivor for over 3.5 billion years, fear surrounds it – its ability to cause severe diarrhoea and death, its ability to develop antibiotic resistance. These nuggets of data were woven into a poem – another form of transformation – and the words of the poem were written onto the paper shapes.
One particular fact – that the bacterium’s protein “coat” self-assembles lodged in my mind and – out on a run – the idea of doing an experiment came to me. An experiment that would involve inviting artists and scientists to work together to “self-assemble” something from the shapes. Building on the tradition of art “happenings’ which requires the viewer to actively participate in the work, I developed a simple set of “instructions” and with Paula arranged to pilot them with a couple of scientists – invitations were issued… But then a different microbe, a virus, appeared on the scene, and all happenings were cancelled.
Stuck at home I reflect – have I slipped into illustration, seduced by the desire to communicate my passion about art and science to others? Given the ghostly computer images have their own eloquence – am I adding anything? The scientific images have their own persuasive expressiveness and need no addition.
Art is seen to privilege imaginative and wild thinking – where thoughts flow freely, unconstrained by objectivity. Science is associated with critical thinking, the systematic application of logic to a problem. Creativity is commonly said to be the domain of the artist not the scientist – so how differently (if at all) might artists and scientists creatively approach the experimental happenings (when they happen)? Is this a valid “hypothesis” for the events? Would a more valid area of research be to draw attention to the encounter between the artistic perspective and the scientific and how both have validity? (Mackenzie, 2018)?
The happenings could be seen as a space for conversation across different systems, each with their own history and assumptions. A potential place of complex encounter and exchange across the relational boundary between people and the system, boundary between art and science?
For now, these questions hover in this space of social isolation and I can only wait till this contagion passes.
About Christine Partridge:
As a child I played with paint, had a chemistry set and microscope, tried to hatch a silkworm moth, and collected fossils. Discovery and creativity continued to be twin passions I pursued in my varied career as a research scientist, expedition leader, trainer, coach and facilitator. These experiences are part of the rich tangle of roots that feed and nourish my practice as an artist.
I work in a variety of media but essentially see myself as a painter who works in two and three dimensions. The written word in the form of poems is also becoming a part of my on-going practice. I see my poems as small word pictures and am intrigued by how, through an artist book. I can express the poem in both form and words.
MacKenzie, L. (2018) Evolution of the subject: Synthetic biology in fine art practice. Proceedings of 5th Biennial Transdisciplinary Imagining Conference, Edinburgh UK