Never the Twain Shall Meet? Bridging the Art and Science Gap at Trinity

By Michaela Vitagliano [Visiting Student Blogger]

Hi, Michaela here. I hope you enjoyed my last post on GAA sports. Now onto yet another wonderful place – one that originated and was pioneered at Trinity College itself.

Most know that Trinity is home to the Book of Kells and the Long Room Library, but, should you find yourself lucky to walk around Trinity’s gorgeous campus, there is yet another eye-opening attraction to visit. Even better is that this one is free and there is no need to queue around the block. (N.B. With a Trinity ID card, however, you can cut the queue and receive free admission to the Book of Kells).  Where is it, you might ask? Unlike the two better-known sites that reside by the arts building on campus, the Science Gallery of Dublin lies at the other end of campus, naturally, by the science buildings and gym. You might even notice a difference as you walk from one end of campus to the other. The perfume of cigarettes, dazzling array of fur coats, and fashionable footwear will suddenly transform into the smell of sweat, duffel bags, and practical jumpers. In this – I admit – slightly exaggerated polarity, a grey zone seems to exist in the popular Student Pavilion, affectionately referred to as The Pav, where one can grab chips and a pint for a couple of euro.

Now this divide is not only physical, but happens to be ingrained in the very social fabric of society. Society likes to simplify and label things: You’re either a STEM or a Humanities person. Is the concept of a Renaissance man (or woman) completely gone from this era of history? Are students, perhaps, so insecure about their own passions or job prospects, that they bicker amongst themselves as to which discipline is more useful and important? Who knows? We might have to leave it to philosophers to deal with that question, but luckily Trinity College does appear to be at the forefront in coming up with a solution to this apparent dichotomy.

michaela_blog-2_photo-1Above: Science Gallery Dublin

The Science Gallery of Dublin is a place where science and art collide. Not only can both camps find something to enjoy and to come away with, but more importantly, the very nature of this gallery asks people to question this commonly held binary. Opened in 2008 in Dublin, Science Gallery has spread, and aims to find homes in eight more cities by 2020. Unlike most museums which might only have a wing dedicated to a special exhibition, the whole gallery is an ever-changing programme of special exhibits. So far I have been to ‘Seeing’ and ‘Design and Violence’. Both exhibits had an eclectic collection of items, and it was clear that scientists, researchers, artists, designers, inventors, students, and entrepreneurs were all instrumental in designing and curating these exhibitions.

 

/SEEING/

24.06.16 – 18.09.16

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‘Seeing’ was the first exhibit I saw, and a friend – who happened to be one of the museum guides – generously offered to give me a tour. The exhibit itself played with perception and sight. Dotting the walls were quotes such as ‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see’ by Thoreau. Even the lighting employed different colour gradients and blends to create new atmospheres. Several questions were posed such as ‘where does seeing begin?’ and different artists took this theme to its many different applications and meanings. Some focused on sight as a part of human connection, others on how in control we are of our eyes. Some toyed with the idea of observer/object while others showed how perceptions and sight (or lack thereof) can impact one’s life. Upon entering, a camera snapped a picture of my face, and proceeded to distort it one pixel at a time, until it could no longer recognise the image as a human face. I am always impressed, but also disturbed when a machine can recognise a human face, and then proceed to identify just whose face that is. There were so many things to see (ha!), but I’ve listed a few of my favourites below:

  • Blanks, capturing visual tracks across blank paper, 1996. Angelika Bock. Staring at a blank screen, monitors track your eye movement as you try to trace a picture with your eye in a steady controlled manner. Here both subject and observer were combined, and the art piece required interaction to come alive.
  • Oakes Twins Collection, realistic ink drawings on concave paper, 2009-2016. To acknowledge the fanned out formation of light rays that a human eye sees, these drawings were constructed on curved paper and supported with a concave easel. The end result was a curved canvas that mimicked the shape of our eyes. It definitely asked viewers to question how 3D and 2D worlds interact, in our brains, eyes, and in art.
  • 3 RNP, a human model is drawn by 3 robots named Paul, 2014. Patrick Tresset. In this installation, a human sits for up to 40 minutes as three robots, sitting in old school desks, observe and then sketch their model. The human, of course, is the observer of this exhibit, but at the same time becomes the object of study. In a neat reversal, the robots become artistic agents and the ones doing the observing.
  • Mobility Device and White Cane Amplified, documentaries of collaborative performances, 2013 and 2015. Carmen Papalia. This installation depicted two videos of Carmen Papalia walking through a city. Legally blind, in the first video he is accompanied by a marching band to replace his white cane as a means of gathering info about his environment. Cityscape suddenly becomes soundscape. In the second video, he uses a bullhorn to perform the social function of a white cane while trying to maintain his agency and communicate his emergent needs. The plaque below revealed that without the white cane, it was very hard for others to know that he was legally blind. And while he appreciated the agency of telling others of his needs, he felt that the line between asking for help and imposing on society was a fine one.
  • Seen/Unseen, video about human connection, 2014. Alia Pialtos. This video stemmed from a desire to visualise the gaze and to make visible the invisible sight lines between individuals. At first one can only see threads and strings moving in an odd fashion – seemingly alive. A slow zoom out finally reveals the source of movement to be physical extensions of eyelashes. It was a documentary of two people looking at each other and blinking.

 

/THE END IS NIGH: Lecture 1/

15.11.16

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Part of the gallery’s mission is to educate the public and to encourage young students to pursue the sciences. In order to accomplish this, Science Gallery Dublin holds weekly events and lectures in its auditorium on the second floor. One such lecture that I attended was a part of the series called ‘The End is Nigh’ which optimistically examined the various ways humanity can come to an end.  Think climate change, artificial intelligence, and of course, cosmic catastrophe. For one hour, four highly entertaining individuals discussed the possibilities of our world ending by asteroids, comets, and rogue black holes in a format not unlike FDR’s fireside chats: ‘My friends, I wish to tell you about scientific doomsday. Let me explain this to you in layman’s terms, help you to understand my position on this issue, and put you at ease all at the same time’.  One solution was to build a gravity tractor; another to move to Mars. All remained hopeful that in the future, innovative technology and creative minds would bring new ideas to the table. But nevertheless, all agreed that at some point, if nothing else ended the human race, the sun would die out. Until then, carpe diem…seize the day.

/VIOLENCE AFTER DARK/

18.11.2016 with exhibition from 14.10.16-22.01-17

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A friend from home decided to come visit, and one of the events we went to was a nighttime extravaganza; Science Gallery’s latest exhibition, ‘Design and Violence’, was accompanied by live music, special performances, some craft workshops, and drinks. This exhibition is unique because it is a coproduction with MOMA in New York. The exhibit aims to show how violence can become a part of our everyday fabric. For instance, a bench sat in the middle of the floor, and were it not for stunted spikes along the surface, would have made a lovely place to rest. This deterrence (against unwanted people sleeping on benches) is, the exhibit implied, a type of violence just as much as an AK-47. Many of the objects took the traditional view that violence is oppressive and harmful, but some of the pieces in the museum revealed another side of violence: a symbol for resilience and resistance. All of the items not only dealt with science and design, but with politics, history, race, and of course, ethics. One case showed a 3D printed gun, describing how the pattern was readily available for download from any computer. A box just large enough to fit an average body inside stood as a symbol for white torture, torture that doesn’t leave a physical record of its presence. Such techniques, a sign revealed, were authorised by US justice officials. Everyone who wished was allowed to sit in solitary confinement inside the box. Few did. There was, however, a long queue for The Weight of Water (2016), a virtual reality installation designed by Elaine Hoey. Upon stepping into a steel cage, I placed headphones and googles on and was immediately immersed in a space that combined reality with fantasy. It was nighttime and I was on a small boat, sitting huddled together with refugees as we made our way across the ocean. A fan placed by my legs helped create a sense of isolation with each frigid breeze. Suddenly massive steel structures rose around us, men with guns loomed ahead, and although this was not real, a sense of vulnerability became palpable. There were many other exhibits I enjoyed, some of which are listed below. As this exhibit is open until late January, I highly recommend popping your head in for some time and meandering about.

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Above: Repeal Jumper, 2016

  • Repeal jumper, The Repeal Project, 2016. A symbol of the current Repeal the 8th movement in Ireland. The 8th amendment was signed into law in 1983 following a referendum a month earlier. Article 40.3.3 affirms the ‘right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother’. This ambiguous legal clause has meant that abortion in Ireland is a criminal act. Many women have to fly to England and make the already tough journey away from home and alone. In 2016 the UN Council for Human Rights declared the Irish state was violating woman’s rights. Interestingly, the jumper itself has the ambiguous word ‘Repeal’ on it so only context sheds light on its meaning and cause. Insert Photo 6. Caption: Camden Bench, 2012.

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Above: Camden Bench, 2012

  • Camden Bench, 2012. Factory Furniture. This bench is placed outside of the exhibit, and is quite the eye-sore. Created from about two tonnes of concrete, this bench was designed to resist criminal behaviour with its ridged top and sloped surface. Drug dealing is made difficult with no place to hide contraband, and shallow recesses along the bench’s front and back allow people to store bags and legs temporarily for security. Cleaning is reduced with no flat surfaces. Finally, vehicles cannot easily get around this bench, which also acts as a form of protection. Here one can see how architecture is used to control how we experience a city or culture.
  • Eco bullets, Killing you Softly. Sako. On display were environmentally friendly bullets (the lead core of traditional bullets is swapped out for copper) ensuring that the bullets did not contaminate food chains and water supplies. The eco bullets originally shown by MOMA were designed by US military to kill people with which reveals the irony of weighing violence: violence against humans and violence against planet Earth. The bullets in this exhibit, however, are used for hunting in Ireland.
  • Do hit chair, 2000. Marijn van der Poll. Sold as a steel cube along with a sledgehammer, consumers of this product can create their own unique chair by breaking the object. Here violence is not only a release, but an expression of creativity. Without acts of violence, this steel cube would not become the useful everyday object of a chair.

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Above: Serpentine Ramp

  • Serpentine ramp, 1974. Temple Grandin. This slaughterhouse model is an attempt by animal rights activist and scientist Temple Grandin to create a more humane slaughterhouse. The circular design is used to quell fearful cattle by hiding workers from view, and mimicking the natural way cattle tend to walk in groups. The aim of the ramp has come under a lot of heat, for it raises questions of complicity and amelioration. Should an object ultimately used to kill cattle hide its purpose? Should design be used to ameliorate animal suffering? Does this design facilitate violence?

All in all, the exhibits at Science Gallery are thought provoking and its lectures deal with white-hot scientific issues and spark passionate debates. In times today when opinions and ideas are not always listened to, it’s refreshing that this space welcomes them.

One last plug for visiting: there is a wonderful café on the ground floor that serves great, inexpensive coffee. There’s nothing like discussing – over a warm cuppa — how art, science, and so many other disciplines can come together and change not just the world, but our perception of it. As a leading academic institution, it is clear that Trinity takes its role seriously in educating others by keeping this gallery free and open to the public. Education, especially one that combines multiple disciplines and urges people not only to engage with the material from different angles, but to question its subject matters most acutely is not only innovative, but necessary. And like so many binaries, usually constructed, science and art must bridge divisions in order to create true progress. After all, they’re both aspects of what make us who we are – and will forge how we see, understand, and exist in the uncertainties of the future.

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