Monday, March 30, 2015

'Wired Up' at Arebyte Gallery, 28th March 2015

I love it when art and science climb into bed together. There's something thrilling about the friction of rigorous objectivity of science rubbing up against the subjectivity of art. Over the 2013-14 term I followed the progress of the Central St Martins Art & Science group, which combined the two brilliantly (articles here, here and here). These exhibitions stoked my curiosity, and I hungered for more in the same vein.

I found it at Arebyte Gallery's Wired Up "exploring social, neural and bacterial networks through art and science collaboration". Working as part of the University of Westminster's Broad Vision project, teams of artists and scientists have been devising work centred around the idea of being 'Wired Up'. In 2015 we're all wrapped up in network cabling like a fly in a spiderweb; every person a node in a hundred different networks, which are themselves networked together. It's a dizzying train of thought, one that proves the seed for some fascinating work. 

The most initially eye-catching was Internet by Alex Cottrill, Francisco Sajara Vidinha and Mary Woolf. A bamboo model of a telecommunications tower stands in front of a projected map of London. The map has been coloured to show the 'heat' of wireless signals in the capital. As can be expected from a major modern metropolis, this is a blister of angry red activity, only the very edges showing some lull. These shifting colours reveal London as a pressure cooker of electromagnetic activity, watched over by gigantic masts that we've quickly trained ourselves not to notice.

The piece also works on a straightforwardly aesthetic level. The organic bamboo tower works as a counterweight to its steel real-life counterpart and the illumination of the projection against it creates beautiful shadows and patterns. Also, quite simply, the shifting colours of the heatmap pop off the white gallery walls, making for an eye-catching display.

Living Wires
Nestled up against it is a similarly neat piece: Riccardo Branca's Living Wires. The artist explains that he's really working in collaboration with Physarum Polycephalum (a slime mould), to create an interactive exhibition that reacts to your presence. This consists of a box upon which a branch rests, terminating in a heartrate sensor. This is hooked to a projection that displays a closeup of the slime mould, which throbs in time with you. I've always dug slime moulds; they famously display a weirdly alien intelligence - able to puzzle out the optimum routes through mazes and (apparently) escape containers. Pretty impressive for a mould, and this one proves to be an excellent partner for Branca.

In Living Wires, the participant 'makes contact' with this inhuman world, giving us a taste of what it might be like to be part of a distributed plant consciousness. It's a teensy-weensy taste of course, functioning more as thought experiment than simulation, but in terms of provoking ideas it more than succeeds.

This is the best I could do in low light with my phone.
These pieces border the edges of a darkened box in the centre of gallery. This is The Room, by Mateusz Gidaszewski, Camila Gaspar, Shin-Young Wiz Choi, and Charlie Dixon. After being blindfolded, you enter a darkened space and are presented with softly glowing jars of liquid. Shake them gently and they glow brighter. Once you have them all glowing, the mirrored walls of the room place you within a spooky constellation of ever-dimming and growing lights, with squirts of peppery scent combining to create a strangely religious atmosphere.

The glowing fluid are cultures of Dinoflagellate (nocticula) and photobacterium phosphoreum. The action of shaking them, which introduces oxygen to the bacteria and makes them glow, proves extremely compelling. There's something magical and primordial about the gentle movements of the glowing liquid, the infinity of the reflected mirrors giving the illusion that we're in the boundless ocean, or perhaps floating through the interstellar void. I could have stayed in there for hours.

Most fun was Sensory Interfaces, by Coral Hermes, Pippa Ischt, Dagamara Rutkowska and Patrycja Wilosz. This comprised three interactive stations that combine our senses (vision/taste, touch/sound, vision/sound) and a fourth that explores the future of our senses. Devised no small amount of humour and imagination, this was straightforwardly fun. A highlight were two boxes, one containing cotton wool and one containing rocks. Place your finger in the former and you get soothing classical music, in the latter you get Slipknot.

It's a clever joke, and this light-hearted sense of exploration continues with the experiment that links taste and vision. Presented with a series of coloured liquids, you're invited to taste them and then sort them by flavour. The twist is that they're not the colours you'd expect them to be; for example, the lemon/lime flavour is dark orange and black cherry is bright yellow. It's curious how our brain fools us with expectations - I could have sworn that the bright yellow liquid was lemon flavoured... 

The vision/sound station is slightly less inspired next to the other two, but then these are two senses every human being knows to combine anyway. Finally the future headset, as represented by a faux-VR cardboard headset constructed from a mobile phone gives us a faintly endearing look at the future. There's something indefinably pleasant about this installation, which is geared - Science Museum style - to ensuring participants enjoy themselves while learning.

This is but a taste of what was on offer, though unfortunately this was a two day exhibition so your chance to see it has passed. But I'll be keeping an eye on work of this ilk, science and art perfectly dovetailing into one another to create exciting new hybrids.

Top picture from Dysfunctions by Andrea Fachini and Christopher Verhauwart

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