There was a time when the Royal Institution regularly welcomed artists through its doors. Samuel Taylor Coleridge found chemistry lectures a magnificent way to "improve my stock of metaphors", while RI scientists flocked to hear John Constable's series of lectures on landscape painting.
This spirit of mutual curiosity was at least partially rekindled this weekend when geneticists, roboticists and astrophysicists met up with sculptors, choreographers and installation artists for a two-day art/science conference: - Artists in the Maelstrom of Science.
Battle lines were drawn from the opening reception. "Artists are being left behind," admonished Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and patron of Arts Catalyst, the conference organisers). "Where once we turned to novelists to help us understand the great fundamental truths, now we've left that role to scientists. It's not good enough for artists to look at the world and say 'Agh! I don't understand'. It's our job to understand." Mutters of disgruntlement rumbled round the library as Adams scuffled out of the fray.
Future art/science collaborators might take as their role model Dolly the cloned sheep. Dolly stepped delicately over the two-culture divide this week, to claim her place in the London art world, with one gallery displaying a jumper knitted from Dolly-wool and another a pottyful of Dolly-droppings. delegates meanwhile got to hear from Grahame Bulfield, Dolly's co- creator from the Roslin Institute.
Australian artist Stelarc looked on enviously. Believing the human body to be obsolete, he dreams of tinkering with his own genetic structure. "Because I couldn't dabble in genetic engineering I have to work with prosthetics," he admitted sadly, displaying his electronic third hand which operates by muscle stimulation from his real arm. Inspired by the photo of the mouse sporting a human ear on its back, Stelarc is now planning to make himself a third ear, constructed by stretching his skin over an ear-shaped plastic scaffold. "The ear won't hear, but I will be able to make it talk electronically," he lets out a hyena squeal of hilarity, "so it could whisper sweet nothings into the other ear."
's star discovery, however, was American sculptor Jim Acord, who started grinding up Art Deco Fiesta-ware pottery to liberate the uranium in the orange glaze and somehow managed to end up with 12 nuclear fuel rods from a power station. To much US governmental distress, Acord did his homework, passed his chief radiation safety officers exams, and now lives with his fuel rods on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Unfortunately, although he can make his sculptures, safety regulations prevent him taking them anywhere.
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