Insight Radical: when art meets science

The stereotype of an artist does not usually seem in line with that of the nerdy or nutty scientist.

The art world is not often regarded as being similar to the scientific community. The stereotype of an artist does not usually seem in line with that of the nerdy or nutty scientist. However, a residency that took place in the science laboratories of the Free Radical Centre at Melbourne University debunks many of the preconceptions. The artists’ studios and the scientists’ laboratories share many similarities where the unique investigation of quite focused and specific ideas is explored in finite detail.

Throughout 2012, six artists took part in a residency program, Insight Radical, which saw each of them spend time with a group of scientists all working on and developing research around free radicals. The scientists worked with the artists, giving demonstrations of their experiments and discussing the ‘real world’ impact of their research.

Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons. The laws of chemistry dictate that electrons prefer to be paired. Free radicals are therefore disharmonious molecules. In their quest to find another electron, they are very reactive and will seek to ‘steal’ an electron from a surrounding molecule. By doing this they will satisfy their own desire for paired electrons but will cause damage to the other molecule. If that other molecule is DNA or proteins in the body this can lead to disease, or if it’s in materials such as paint and plastics it can lead to failure of the material. Perhaps more importantly, the other molecule will become a free radical with fresh desire continuing the cycle of destruction.

Although free radicals are somewhat known outside of science, the uninitiated artists soon discovered the significant impact free radicals have on fundamental human processes and the absolute requirement for balance in our world. Paradoxically, free radicals are essential for life but eventually cause ageing and our inevitable demise. Parallels can be drawn with artists’ materials such as paints and plastics which require free radicals to polymerise or cure, but are nonetheless degraded by them over time.

Each artist involved in the program – Tony Lloyd, Steve Lopes, Anna Madeleine, Natalie O’Connor, Peter Sharp and Ruth Waller – was asked to make a body of work responding to their time in the laboratories that will be exhibited in a touring exhibition beginning in London later this year. And each artist has a distinctly different driving force behind their practice.

Steve Lopes, whose paintings are concerned with the human element, paints figuratively; while Ruth Waller and Peter Sharp have both focused their practice on more abstract qualities of painting, albeit quite differently from one another. Tony Lloyd brings to the mix something of a landscape perspective with his paintings of sci-fi, Utopian worlds. Every artist saw something different during their time in the science laboratories and it was these unique perspectives that fed into the creative output.

We can’t see free radicals, yet they are everywhere, in the air, our bodies and the materials around us. We can, however, observe the consequences of their actions. They cause the deterioration of plastics, fading of paint, degradation of works of art and ageing related illnesses, and can contribute to heart attacks, stroke and cancers. Natalie O’Connor said finding out these facts during the residency had a dramatic impact on her practice in a number of ways. In particular, she was struck by “how an infinitely small world of molecules make up our world and each one of these, no matter how small, has its own identity and behaviour”. But it was the “dialogue about colours and permanence between science and art”, O’Connor explained, that fuelled her artistic output for this residency.

O’Connor has created a suite of light box paintings to explore fluorescents in terms of their colour but also their level of permanence. “With this project, I have used colours that deliberately will open a dialogue about degradation and the life of colours, pigments and dyes,” O’Connor said. “One part of the work deals directly with fluorescent colours and we know they have a short lifetime. The fluorescent red colour that I used directly related to the investigations and experiments we did in the lab residency and the discussions with scientists about the possibilities of colours that artists might use in the future.”

The notion of experimentation and innovation rang true for many of the artists, as they began to realise that the developments in science are all about controlled chance. Anna Madeleine, who has created “a series of short animations and a triptych of portraits made with 3D printed elements”, said she had “started thinking about the idea of experimentation – both in a scientific and artistic sense – and the way that failure is often just as important, if not more so, than success to a process of investigation or creation.”

Madeleine was struck by the links, or similarities, between artists and scientists. It was this commonality that she explored in her works. “I have engaged with the new technology of 3D printing as a way to further represent the links between science and art. I have also used new found materials which relate to objects I saw in the chemistry labs, or materials such as pill packets that relate to science and chemistry in some way. Making the pill packet portraits has been a whole new experience – of outsourcing, working on an unfamiliar scale of tiny objects making up a whole, and of using a sort of a mathematical system to create the pixilated images.”

Insight Radical is a unique project that has brought together seemingly disparate worlds and what the residency has highlighted is two-fold. Firstly, the importance of science for art and artists with the development of new technology and improving the archival elements of their chosen material; and secondly, that the artist and the scientist hold similar values in looking at and exploring the world. From within their respective studios and laboratories, these professionals investigate ideas in finite ways most of us won’t ever comprehend.

Insight Radical
July–August 2013
Griffin Gallery, London

Insight Radical, 2013, ARTIST PROFILE Issue 23, pp. 120-124

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