Artists and scientists get together on the Jurassic Coast

This is the article I wrote for the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Why is it so difficult for artists and scientists to talk to one another?  This separation between the arts and the sciences is formalised in our education system, and has insidious effects on our lives.  Few journalists have a science background so that coverage of science in the media is scant and trivialising and frequently incorrect.  Many people, including politicians, have little knowledge of the important scientific issues of our times, whereas these need to be understood and debated widely.  Both scientists and those working in the arts have roles to play here.    Those working in the arts should produce work that reflects current issues and stimulates discussion.  Science is at the heart of many of these issues, the foremost of these being global climate change.  Scientists should think about how their work relates to the needs of society.  They should learn from depictions of their work in literature and the graphic arts and get out and discuss their work more widely.  So, I was very excited to learn about a new cross-cultural arts/science programme based locally on the Jurassic Coast.

Exploratory Laboratory is a programme of events designed to encourage collaboration between artists and scientists with the Dorset/East Devon Jurassic Coast as its focus.  Exploratory Laboratory is organised by Big Picture, a collaboration of visual arts organisations and professionals in Dorset (see for more information).  The programme runs for 30 months between 2010 and 2012, consisting of an exhibition, an arts/earth sciences symposium, commissions and a learning programme.  The first event, the exhibition, was at the Bridport Arts Centre and Sturminster Newton Exchange recently and provided an interesting insight in to the aims of the project.

The exhibition consisted of displays and demonstrations of science being carried out to describe the Jurassic Coast and measure how it changes, and a series of works by artists inspired by science.  In the main, the art did not relate to the Jurassic Coast, which is a pity, but this may be remedied as the programme proceeds and new art works are displayed along this Coast.

Let’s look at some of the work in the exhibition.  The “science” part described the Jurassic Coast as a “linear laboratory” for the earth sciences.  The cliffs here are made of rocks formed between 250 million and 65 million years ago. During that time land masses have moved and the environment has changed giving rise to the very varied geology we see today with its influence on the landscape, wildlife and towns and villages.  The unique exposure of rocks provides evidence of mass extinction events, past climate change and the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.   

The Jurassic Coast is one of the most studied geological sites in the world and from the beginning of geology to the present day it has generated high quality science as well as providing important training opportunities for students and professional geologists.  Study of the coast from the early fossil discoveries onwards contributed to important debates in geology influencing theories about geological change and theories of evolution.  The unique nature of the Jurassic Coast lead to its designation as a World Heritage site in 2001. 

Although the coast has been carefully mapped by the British Geological Survey, recent techniques based on lasers, GPS and radar may provide new insights in to the detailed shape of hills and cliffs and how they change over time.  A display showed how these techniques will be used by scientists from Bournemouth University to monitor effects of coastal and climate change.  To provide the human dimension, there is also the Coastal Change Pathfinder Project aimed at helping communities adapt to the effects of coastal and climate change on the landscape.

The “art” part of the exhibition showed how science can inspire artists.   For example “Outbreath (facts and fictions)” by Mat Chivers is a representation of the artist’s own exhalation.  Chivers worked with scientists at Bristol University who took high speed photographs of his breath which he then used to create a three dimensional representation that would have been impossible without the use of the scientific techniques. 

Several of the artists, however, explored more sinister science-influenced themes.  Aaron Koblin takes data from the Federal Aviation Authority in the US and provides a visual display, “Flight Patterns”, charting the paths of all the aircraft flying through US airspace in one day.  The display shows the country waking up, moving around and going to sleep, and underscores the profligate use of fossil fuels with attendant effects on global climate.  Alex Hartley’s photographic installation “Nymark (Undiscovered Island)” describes an island he discovered in the High Arctic.  The island has been revealed in the last five years by a retreating glacier and Hartley works with a group of artists, scientists and educators to provide cultural responses to climate change.

The most disturbing exhibit, however, was “Experimental Proving Grounds of Coast and Sea” by Neal White, with the Office of Experiments.  This micro exhibition draws on an archive of research conducted in to secret and intelligence spaces in the UK.  It highlights the large scale Biological Warfare field trials conducted by Porton Down between 1963 and 1968 in Lyme Bay.  Repeated spraying from a ship of two types of live bacteria occurred during this time.  The bacterial clouds were carried on shore by the prevailing winds and sampled up to 50 miles from the source. The bacteria potentially reached residents of Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire and Wiltshire and the trials remained secret until 1997.  These are shocking revelations and make it more difficult for people to believe that science has immense potential for good.

This conjunction of work by artists and scientists in the same exhibition space makes a good start to Exploratory Laboratory but what should we now expect from this project?  I look forward to seeing new artworks along the coast by artists collaborating with scientists using new techniques to map the coast.  I would also hope that their art will reflect the great current scientific issues and, in the context of the Jurassic Coast, that should include climate change.  I would also hope to see more current science on the Jurassic Coast. The exhibition relied rather heavily on past scientific triumphs and this is currently a weakness of the project.  I would also hope that when more science is done, the work of the scientists will be influenced by the collaborations with the artists.  Perhaps they will take a less reductionist view of their work, seeing the human dimension; perhaps they will use their data to publicise the urgent need for action on climate change.  I hope that we shall see some of this emerging from Exploratory Laboratory.

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