Aspriation for Respiration – Belljar (SAMS_001)

Belljar is the second work in the Width of Air series, which interrogates the act of data collection and measurement in the context of climate change and environmental damage. Like Snowglobe, the first work in the series, Belljar was realised as part of my work in collective Stereotropic Anecdota, alongside Tom O’Dea.

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Like Snowglobe (MSMS_001), Belljar has a “scientific name”, Shanghai Air Monitorin Station_001 (SAMS_001). For the purposes of the Width of Air concept, it is important that each piece appears on first impressions to be a valid scientific experiment in the public realm. As such, the installations and the work around them exist under the umbrella of research carried out by the Stereotropic Anecdota Department of Environment.

Belljar is a site specific work, a response to the Shanghainese modes of coping with severe environmental damage in the form of air pollution. The piece is a bonsai tree living inside a bell jar, placed outside on a main road in Shanghai. Inside the bell jar, an air quality sensor measures the air pollution, relaying the information live online to the Department of Environment website and to a display alongside the miniature tree.

When I arrived in Shanghai I immediately had a strong physical response to the air pollution – I found it hard to walk outside, I was continuously deeply coughing, I felt exhausted, my eyes were sore. I quickly donned a mask, as many other Shanghainese residents do, and sought respite in buildings with air purifiers. I, like so many others, was creating safe microenvironments within which to exist as a coping mechanism for the city’s extreme pollution.

The pollution is a consequence of high usage of motor vehicles in the city, overlaid on China’s baseline pollution from factories and power stations. These activities have brought the country great wealth, but at a cost. Each year loses 6.5% of its GDP to air pollution related health problems in the workforce, and that’s without even considering the longer term problems associated with children’s development in highly polluted environments. The air pollution is a product of aspiration – for economic growth and for personal wealth in the case of car ownership. The creation of microenvironments is a product of the aspiration for respiration.

There’s a socio-political element to this – the pollution creates a common problem, but one that only the well-off can afford to avoid. And with the health and developmental impacts of air pollution, it is likely to increase inequality in a country where the top one percent of households holds one-third of total assets. Yet, Under the Dome, a documentary by journalist Chai Jing that explores the impacts of this pollution, was censored in China just 3 days after its release in what one colleague dubbed “the largest act of censorship in the history of humanity”.

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Stereotropic Anecdota has responded to this dark irony by creating Belljar. The bell jar’s use as a piece of scientific equipment to create discrete atmospheres where small animals would suffocate is captured in the piece, with echoes of Sylvia Plath’s tormented cry for help. The bonsai’s tranquility is highlighted and juxtaposed against the micro-environments we each create in seeking purer air, but the tree is separated from the viewer – evoking a fragility and otherworldliness.

At first glance, it seems to be another valid scientific experiment. The piece is etched with its name and the message “Do Not Touch” in English and Chinese. And just below, the live digital display which tells us not the air quality index – Shanghai’s ever present measurement – but instead the air purity. But who is this purity for? Who can enter the bell jar?

What is the point of measuring the air inside the bell jar if no one can experience it?

Belljar (SAMS_001) is a work by Stereotropic Anecdota (Kat F Austen and Tom O’Dea) at PCI NYU Shanghai and NYU Shanghai Gallery. With thanks to Christian Grewell and studio assistants Shelby Firebaugh and Dylan Crow.

 

 

 

Mixing disciplines is clear necessity, but do we need art?

Alfred Nobel was a man of many talents – poetry, science, languages; and no formal education. And as I mentioned in my last post, he would have struggled to qualify for the Lindau meeting where every year winners of his prize gather together.

There are changes afoot with respect to how we determine authority and legitimacy, as I also mentioned in my last post. There is also an accompanying trend when it comes to expertise and specialisation, and it takes two forms: interdisciplinarity and cross disciplinary migration.

As Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith told me earlier this week, “I’ve always felt that you should change your area of research every 12-15 years because you stagnate in a certain area after a while. Not always, but you need to move on. And if you move into another area you can bring new insights into that area.”

That such changes can be successful is attested to not only by Smith’s career. There are numerous other examples; this month journalist Shane Snow launched his book Smartcuts, in which he argues that some of the world’s most successful people – such as the most popular US Presidents – rise up in one discipline, and then hop over to an equivalent height in a completely new field.

64th Lindau NobelLaureate Meeting Lindau, Copyright: DAAD/Nicole Maskus-Trippel
Rolf Zinkernagel at Lindau 2014. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Nicole Maskus-Trippel*

But aside from discipline hopping, there’s also a good deal of collaboration. Rolf Zinkernagel was a surgeon working with vet Peter C Doherty when they discovered how the immune system recognises foreign cells, which led to their 1996 Nobel Prize. According to Zinkernagel, it was important that they came from different fields looking at life, and that they were working with no preconcieved ideas. A similar attitude is taken by the younger scientists at Lindau. Over dinner I spoke to a fascinating psychiatrist who was also working on model brain cell systems to study bipolar disorder and ADD. She told me that in her lab it was of utmost necessity that she work with psychologists, neurologists, imaging specialists, and a bioinformatician, in order to understand the wealth of varied data they’re accruing about the workings of the brain.

But as Angela Michel* of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory told me, interdisciplinary collaboration is pretty much a necessity when you’re working on complex problems – such as their project on the structure and geography of the human gut microbiome. The organisation was designed in the 70s, and run nowadays, to promote conversation and collaboration.

Research in Germany Press Tour 2014

The awesome architecture of EMBL. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Volker Lannert*

Of course, most of these examples, barring Snow’s Smartcuts, relate to interdisciplinarity within science. What about outside? There are some efforts at EMBL, where artists and humanities experts, such as Martin Kemp, have visited and given seminars. Other examples have been thin on the ground this week, though just like Nobel, quite a few Laureates seem to have artistic flair aside from scientific excellence – mostly in the form of musical talents: taken Smith’s piano playing, or Thomas Sudhof’s conviction that he owes his powers of concentration to bassoon playing. Of course, there’s evidence that playing music can make beneficial changes in the brain, possibly because it helps us to live with uncertainty.

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Then there’s Australia’s Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, whose skills as a vintner supplied libation to the attendees of the Monday International dinner (courtesy of his home country, see above).  Though he says that the Nobel is good for his wine-making, I have yet to discover whether his wine-making activities have augmented his cosmic research.

The question I’m left asking is, would these eminent scientists gain anything from interactions with artists? Was there anything that could have come out of their having, say, an artist in residence in their lab? As always, we come up against the tricky problem of pinpointing in a concrete fashion the effect that mixing together artists and scientists has on the scientists’ work. However, as I remember Prof Rob Kesseler saying, trained artists are better at spotting patterns and phenomena in visual data than scientists, a statement supported by a number of studies in neuroaesthetics, such as Robert Pepperell’s work on ambiguous images which shows that artists are better at noticing visual subtleties. Artistic skills, just as musical skills, may be beneficial to brain development, and transferrable to progressing areas of science.

*My sincere apologies for having an incomplete photo credit on first publishing this blog. The EMBL representative we met was in fact Angela Michel.

A call for a new language for interdisciplinarity

Why do we still need to fight for the idea of interdisciplinarity? I recently reported on the Wellcome Collection Hub and Reading Room renovation for CultureLab. These two new spaces mark a watershed for active interdisciplinary research and its dissemination into the wider community.

In my article, I juxapose this most contemporary enterprise with that of the Gaberbocchus Common Room, set up in 1957 by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson – a project that has been brought to public attention by an excellent exhibition at London-based gallery GV Art.

What is striking when you read the Common Room paraphinalia, is that the rhetoric its users applied to collaborations between disciplines is almost word-for-word the same as that which we use today in debates around the globe on the future of art and science collaborations. What’s also striking is that the misappropriated Two Cultures rhetoric, which often used as a justification of the division between the disciplines of science and arts (rather than the call to bridge the differences between science and literature as it was intended by CP Snow), is the one most commonly applied to these interdisciplinary endeavours. As I recently asked UCL Natural Sciences and BASc undergraduates and post-grads at my seminar on interdisciplinarity – the benefits of sharing knowledge from many disciplines on a common theme seem so obvious, it’s a wonder we have to so constantly justify it.

So why does a divisive paradigm persist? It’s something I have discussed widely and have come to the conclusion that it is perpetuated by 3 main factors:

1) Institutional structure
* physical boundaries get in the way of people meeting and exchanging knowledge* a lack of flexibility in demands on time, deliverables and top-down structures for courses and assessment hinder exploration of ideas

2) Funding models
* eligibility requirements can stymie good ideas
* bias towards institutions conferring legitimacy for applicants – in an era of portfolio careers, interdisciplinarity and start-ups this loses a lot of good people
* assessment criteria for the success of a project are usually outcome-oriented and fairly immediate. they often neglect value in information exchange, networking and longer-term delivery or inspiration

and most importantly:
3) An inadequate lexicon for interdisciplinary endeavours, and interdisciplinary researchers
By naming something we make it real to ourselves. But by naming we also tie something down into a generalisation that loses its uniqueness and nuance. Negotiating this problem is an issue in interdisciplinary research, for which there is no established language. It is time to develop a new language for interdisciplinarity – something that allows those practicing a multi-faceted approach to knowledge to name themselves and thus persist in the social consciousness. It’s something that Giles Lane recently had a stab at with his notion of Public Agent, but I think we maybe need to move beyond an amalgamation of existing words, to create a new description of people who seek to know the world in a multi- or interdisciplinary way – focussing on their way of knowing, not their means of production.

This perhaps would have helped the Themerson’s endeavour, and their own historical reputations too.

So, I’m going to kick off with a suggestion to get the conversation going. I think we need to keep familiar syllables to make a new word – but you can by all means disagree and go elsewhere with it.

How about: Netknower ?

OK, your turn.

 

Everything, all at once

Everything, all at once AKA The Multidisciplinary Manifesto

I recently had the marvellous opportunity to let loose and discuss the effect of multidisciplinarity on culture for TedX Albertopolis.You can read about my Multidisciplinary Manifesto on their blog, where I argue that emerging critical and intellectual engagement with open media is changing the way we think, act and interact with each other and the world around us.