At the end of January, Karin Tybjerg and I visited Dublin’s Science Gallery for the closing event of their exhibition ‘Surface Tension: The Future of Water’. The exhibition is one of Science Gallery’s contributions to the EU funded StudioLab platform, which brings together institutions including Le Laboratoire (Paris), Royal College of Art (London), Ars Electronica (Linz) and MediaLab Prado (Madrid) to “pilot a series of projects at the interface between art and science”. Medical Museion is also a partner in StudioLab, and we went to Dublin in part to meet the team there and get some inspiration for our contribution to the synthetic biology theme of StudioLab – I’ll be writing more about this soon. But we were also keen to see Science Gallery itself, which has been making a big splash on the science museum scene and was recently awarded a cool $1 million from Google.org to develop a global network.
So what’s new about Science Gallery? Why is Google so keen? And why were us Museion-istas keen to leave our beautiful old building and attics full of mysterious objects for a glass-walled space with no collections at all? The clue is in the name – director Michael John Gorman and his team aim to merge science centre with art gallery, an idea whose appeal is reflected in the increasing popularity of arts projects that engage with (and are sometimes funded by) scientific research, the bringing of cultural events into museum spaces, and writings on the potential for creativity, innovation, and even profit in interdisciplinarity.
Yet it’s surprisingly difficult to pick apart the appeal of the ‘hybrid space’. Perhaps one element is that placing objects from the science centre and art gallery alongside each other points to what the other doesn’t do – contextualizing scientific facts in engagements with what they might mean or make us feel, and grounding artistic engagements with science in the toothed constraints of the technical. Setting aside for a moment the problems with this heuristic dichotomy, I think it’s essential to ask why it seems like a good thing. The argument I’ve just given implicitly assumes that straightforward didactic science communication is bad, and conversely that art that engages with science ought to communicate something about it. This reflects a broader shift from promoting public understanding of science, to encouraging public engagement with the process, context, and culture of scientific research. Indeed, Science Gallery describes itself as;
“a new type of venue where today’s white-hot scientific issues are thrashed out and you can have your say. A place where ideas meet and opinions collide”.
There’s been much written on the shift from understanding to engagement, and its Janus-faced backbone: is public engagement founded in democratic intentions to make science more responsive to public opinion, or in cynical attempts to simply make it appear so? There has been less written on what engagement looks like in practice, why it should be done, and how we know when people have ‘been engaged’. As I touched on in my recent post on participatory theatre piece The Body, there’s a danger with framing all hybrid activities in terms of public engagement; it can seem to demand that whatever you present is structured in a form that encourages debate; presenting the topic as an “issue” to be “thrashed out” – and this can be an unproductive, even crippling constraint for both more purely artistic or even didactic displays.
Science Gallery demonstrates an important sidestep from this dilemma; a topic can take the form of a debatable issue outside the form of display objects: in text, additional media, tour guide presentations, or associated events that take the exhibitions as a starting point for engaging audiences in experiences or dialogue about associated “white-hot issues” such as research ethics, funding, environmental impacts, changing conceptions of self and society, and so on. By having a thematic thread such as The Future of Water all players in an exhibition are free to address the topic as they choose. The collection of objects then provides a tinderbox for discussions, encounters, and events, their juxtaposition multiplying opportunities for exploring the meanings and motivations of their production.
So how did this play out in Surface Tension? Like many of Science Gallery’s exhibitions, it was founded on an open call for contributions, with curators selecting submissions from artists, scientists, designers, engineers, local groups, school or university projects, and so on. This open call process seems essential to generating Science Gallery’s impressive output, and also reflects its status as a university and community-focused institution. But there were also signs in the exhibition of the curatorial challenges an open call presents – reliance on the quality and range of submissions, selection under a number of perhaps conflicting criteria, and the question of coherence. The exhibition spanned mediums very effectively; from innovative design prototypes to a range of artworks engaging with scientific principles as a route to working with the materiality and aesthetics of water, or as a source of playful future possibilities and conceptual resonances. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, I found it a little fragmented. And whilst the rather didactic wall panels about water supply and global inequalities were thought-provoking, I think they would have been better placed as a single installation, to avoid the feeling of an imposed take-home message. For me, the strongest theme of the exhibition was rather the clash between attempts to technologically control water, and the deep ineffability of its quantity and form.
Another sticky thread in the current appeal of art/design/science hybrids is the promise of innovation; the idea that we can break through existing barriers in each domain by harnessing the skills, tools, and outlook of the others. Alongside Le Laboratoire in Paris and as part of the StudioLab framework, Science Gallery aims to ‘incubate’ new research and design, including projects displayed in their exhibitions. For instance, following Surface Tension a group of students have been working on a smartphone app to locate free drinking water around Dublin. I think here we find an echo of the question of who public engagement is for; what are we trying to incubate, and why? What messages about value (and even virtue) do we put forward in suggesting that creativity can be harnessed and monetised? Of course, one can provide spaces for artistic experimentation with no financial constraints, but I wonder how much the framing device of innovation and incubation subtly influences the directions this might take.
Hybrid spaces like Science Gallery demonstrate, in physical form, an underlying commitment to science, design, and art having potentially productive relationships. But of course this physical proximity doesn’t determine what is communicated about the nature of the relationship. One of the exciting things about Science Gallery is that the answer can be different each time – without naively suggesting that there’s no editorial line, the diverse submissions, changing events programmes, and open themes invite experimentation. Maintaining a balance between openness to experimentation, alongside critical, open reflection on goals that may themselves develop over time, is I think key to a genuinely hybrid practice. We’re looking forward to grappling with some of these issues further in our own StudioLab project, but in the meantime recommend you pay a visit to Science Gallery if you get the chance (and don’t forget to sample their award-winning cafe).