In The Eye of The Storm


It was a “given” within the world of education when I was still being ground through its mill in the 1970’s and early 80s that the arts were sexy, colourful, vivacious whilst science was dowdy, grey and nerdy. Scientists for their part, it was supposed, regarded artists as flakey, flighty and lacking true mettle. That was then. Now geneticists and physicists like Steve Jones, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking are media stars, the publishing world has been astonished by the boom in popular science literature, the Science Museum employs resident artists, actors and poets and on Start the Week Melvyn Bragg devotes hours of air time to discourse on science related topics. Science it seems has had a makeover and the Arts are finding the pull irresistible.

And I too have been caught in the current. For four tough years I struggled with scientific matter and tried to form it into a play. I began by simply asking, having given birth twice, why? What is really going on here? The sort of question, interestingly enough, which is at the basis too of all scientific enquiry. My search propelled me into the world of IVF. I went to clinics, talked to doctors, people who’d tried it and failed, tried it and succeeded, saw a superovulating woman having her eggs removed and then watched one cluster of pre-embryonic cells being selected over the rest for implantation. Then I asked myself how to write a play from all this. In sub-Frankenstein vein? Father scientist in opposition to mother nature? The traditional urge of the creative artist has tended, when confronted with the meddlings of science, to interpret them as threatening, monstrous, ultimately destructive. I finally emerged against this grain with “Doctor Y” about a woman who employs the tools of medical science to triumph over her own potential death and subsequent infertility. It is an exploration of the great taboo, eugenics. “Fascinating” said the radio producer who put it on the air. Fruitful stuff. Other playwrights have also tapped into this rich source. Tom Stoppard attempted to fuse quantum mechanics with theatre in “Hapgood” and then took on chaos theory in “Arcadia”. He describes his scientific knowledge as “low level” although he was especially pleased when “Arcadia” was reviewed favourably from a scientific perspective by an American science journal. Michael Frayn’s new play “Copenhagen” extrapolates on a meeting between the German physicist Heisenberg with his Danish counterpart Neils Bohr. The play parallels the theoretical impossibility ever to know exactly what goes on inside the atom with the equally elusive territory of what goes on inside people’s heads. Paul Godfrey struggled to bring space into the limited confines of the National Theatre with “The Blue Ball” only too aware that in our culture we live in a pre-Copernican universe thinking that the moon waxes and wanes as if it weren’t there all the time. The playwright’s struggle, it emerges from wider inspection, is to fuse scientific concepts and discourse about material matter with our emotional concerns and interactions. And what about the next stage? Is there a playwright who has truly collaborated with a scientist rather than used scientific material to feed their work? Is such a thing possible?

And so into the “Eye of the Storm” which is to say to a conference organised by Arts Catalyst, an organisation specifically founded to enable collaborations between artists and scientists. Unfazed by the deep levels of mistrust and scepticism she has encountered from all sides along the way, Nicola Triscott, the organisations’s founder, has cross-fertilised such projects as “Navigators in the Playground of Possibility”, a workshop with Louder Than Words which enabled experimental theatre practitioners to explore theories in cosmology and chaos; one man shows performed by Ken Campbell who pondered the future of space exploration and Jack Klaff whose spoof lecture attacked reductionist science; and “Talking of the Sex of Angels” which married Nikky Smedley’s dance company with the Theoretical Physics Group from Imperial College. “It’s interesting to send someone from outside science into a closed science area. They can bring such a different perspective to those who are steeped in it. Most people imagine that there’s an area of science which those involved in agree about developing. This isn’t the case. And artists are very good at tuning into areas of conflict.” Hence the subtitle of the conference, “artists in the maelstrom of science”.

Chris Smith opened the two-day series of debates and lectures by harking back to pre-industrial times when “science and arts together were civilising forces”. The government, disturbed by the fact that British creativity is not being effectively enough exploited (since world war two over 40% of all products manufactured in Japan have come from ideas originating in the UK), is dedicating £200 million of lottery money to promoting the development of art/science/industry partnerships and project development. The aim is to engender “good businesses, good careers and good products.”, in short turning our creative talent be it science or arts based into profitable enterprise. Commercial reductionism will thus make partners of us all. Or will it? If Chris Smith had been able to stay for the ensuing discussions he would have found that the “civilising forces” do have one major thing in common: they are propelled by drives and forms not necessarily conducive to material profit or even inhabiting the temporal domain.

“Science has replaced religion” said one delegate member and anyone who has been to a talk given by Richard Dawkins or Steve Jones will surely attest to the respectful awe with which the words of these latter-day priests are received despite or is it almost because of the debunking image displayed especially by Jones. Dawkins himself also displays a dogmatic zeal which would be worthy of any mullah or bishop. In discussion once with Emmanuel Jacobovitz on one of Joan Bakewell’s ethics-in-the-modern-world programmes, the ex-chief Rabbi was foolhardy enough to invoke the phenomenon of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh. Dawkins raised himself to full sceptical stature and declaimed as if to the infidel the cosmic and universal absurdity of such a notion. I have also experienced the hushed silences in rooms where the faithful come to hear the word of the artist prophets: Tarantino at the National Film Theatre, Stephen Sondheim or Arthur Miller at the National Theatre. And who are even more iconised than the “hermits” like J.D. Salinger who withdraw from the world entirely.

This high-flown resonance emanating from art and science alike has its roots in more tangible points of connection. When Grahame Bulfield of the Roslin Institute which developed the sheep-clone Dolly, declared that “scientists do not see science as facts but as ‘unknown’. We need to discover what is out there. You almost don’t know what you’re going to do until you’ve done it.” all the artists in the room could nod in recognition. “We’re all dealing with the same thing. Who are we? Why are we here?” A moment of togetherness. Then Lewis Wolpert, development biologist, piped up. Scientific work, he maintained, evolves as scientists build upon a body of knowledge which leads to the next discovery. If one person doesn’t discover it, another will. The arts. however, are reliant on individual, unique expression. There would have been no work by Shakespeare without Shakespeare. This provoked hearty disagreement. “I am longing,” Wolpert threw up his arms in despair, “for some poet, some artist, some novelist to say something positive about science.” And I wonder about playwrights. Shakespeare is the only one mentioned throughout the entire conference. All of the other artists who present their work tend to be broadly visual or performance artists like Susan Derges who stretches the bounds of photographic technology as art form creating images of a river by immersing the photographic paper into the water or Stelarc who wires himself up, cyborg-like, to distant choreographers who manipulate his body into involuntary movement through the internet or Kitsou Dubois who explores dance movement in micro gravity which has deep relevance for astronauts or Jim Acord, the only private citizen in the world who has a licence to handle nuclear material and who has lived on the site of Hanford nuclear reservation for ten years. His “reliquaries”, sculptures containing uranium, cannot be moved or displayed because the US government will not grant him another licence to transport them and no gallery would have them even if he could. One delegate wondered what use it was producing artwork that could not be shown to the world. Jim maintained that the process of his studying and engaging with nuclear technology, of entering the community of the nuclear industry, of working to create stone sculptures able to store nuclear waste safely was worthwhile in itself. Art, indeed, for science and art’s sake.“ Admit you’re not really just a sculptor but a performance artist.” he was challenged. Actually, according to a grant-application category, Acord replied, he could only get some money if he classified himself as a “new genre”.

I leave the conference with a sense that artists can use science so easily as a host organism, feeding off it’s material in a parasitic way. Some of the work shared at the conference, however, illustrated something far more exciting: a symbiotic relationship where two fields meet to discover common ground and express it not illustratively but in a form which surpasses both. The point where art and science meet in this truly collaborative way is no less than the very cutting edge of human consciousness and expression. It is the place where new form and new content emerge. It is exciting and terrifying. It is only very tentatively and newly being explored. The edge of the “unknown”. And we so need to face up to that unknown. As the astrophysicist Roger Malina pointed out, “The world used to be meaning rich and data poor. Now it is data rich and meaning poor. We need human focussed observation to navigate us through.”

Published in the Guardian, March 7th, 1998