28 February 2012

Engineering meets the arts - part III

Recap: Part I, Part II, Part II and a half

What's the difference between an artist and an engineer? Three weeks ago, I could have given you an answer. Now, I'm not so sure.

When we began this whole process, I imagined our engineers learning a few new skills, discovering some artistic urges and perhaps, if we were lucky, producing something they'd be happy to display at the end of it. But I never imagined the outpouring of creative energies we've seen in the last few weeks. However much it might have started out as a bit of fun, it's turned into something far more meaningful, for everyone involved.

Preconceptions have been shattered; boundaries have disintegrated... I mean it all without hyperbole. But what I'm wondering is whether those boundaries really existed in the first place. There are those who do art and there are those who do science - engineering, if you like. But the idea that the two are incompatible is, quite simply, bunkum.

Today I saw engineers and artists working side by side to complete some extraordinary pieces of art. And the only person wielding a tape measure was street artist Dan Petley. Tasked by his "students" to portray Steve Jobs disguised as Isambard Kingdom Brunel - to complete the left-hand side of their wall painting - the self-confessed "control freak" neatly divided up Jobs's image on a piece of paper and scaled it up on the wall with millimetre precision. Meanwhile, on the right hand side of the wall, four engineers were mapping out their design on a flipchart before transferring it onto the bricks. Same principle really, although if anything the engineers were less precise.

This was no picnic, by the way; after an epic effort to secure a University wall as our canvas, when it came to spray painting on it, the pressure to produce something of value may have seemed a little overwhelming. At 10am this morning, stress levels were running high as it became clear that the group's original plans were too ambitious, and the design had to be modified on the fly. It looked for a while as if the morning was going to be consumed by planning and debate. But with some clear direction from Dan, there was paint on the wall by 11am and doubts began to fade. By mid-afternoon, engineers were handling paint cans like pros.

Elsewhere in the University grounds, artist Richard Andersen had formed a partnership with engineer Liam Boyd and embarked on an experiment in the art of high dynamic range (HDR) photography. This was a masterclass for Liam, but also a learning curve for Richard - a chance to try out a technique he hadn't really explored previously. When the two returned at 4pm to show off their results, there were quite literally gasps of amazement. It's difficult to explain how seven shots of the engineering department stairwell can combine to produce one stunning image, but somehow they managed it. (I'll post the final images later, or you should be able to see them at the Discover exhibition in a few days' time).

One thing I liked about this particular partnership is that it represented perfectly the mutual respect that has been born during this project. One artist, one engineer, working in equal partnership to produce something beautiful. And this wasn't beauty snapped in a single frame; it was beauty engineered from a dirty old stair well, through hard work and some pretty sophisticated technical jiggery pokery.

Anyway, it's getting late and one post is not enough to explain everything that happened today. I haven't even touched on the animation, but I'll save that till the results have been uploaded to t'internet.

I guess the point I've been trying to make is that we shouldn't be so quick to draw lines between different disciplines. We can call ourselves artists or engineers, or science communicators for that matter, and we can inhabit those roles and believe that we own them. But we don't.

21 February 2012

Engineering meets the arts: part II and a half

So here are the photos I promised from the second session of the engineering/arts project. Thanks to the most excellent Richard Andersen at Lux Images. At this stage, the idea was to learn some skills and experiment rather than to capture a specific engineering concept...

"It's a chair, no it's a process"
"Where is the Gruffalo?"

"Modern times"

13 February 2012

Engineering meets the arts - part II

Day 2 of the EngD Art Challenge. My Day 1 post is here.

Many things about today were irregular. Engineers dressing up like woodland folk and pimps. Gaffa-taping dust sheets to outdoor walls of the university. Dashing out to the art shop to ask for "medium charcoals" as if I knew what I was talking about. All of the above qualify as irregular in my book; it's safe to say, this was not your average day in the office. And thank goodness.

Entering into a project like this, you're convinced that such irregularities will land you immediately in the sights of the Powers That Be, who will, surely, rise up against you, leaving all notions of "creativity" and "fun" to be washed out in the ensuing downpour of risk assessments and consent forms. Surely nobody walks into the University of Bristol with 30 cans of spray paint, knives (okay, they were craft knives) and a couple of suitcases stuffed with - among other things - dead animal parts, and expects to get away with it? Um, well, apparently they do.
 [click image to enlarge]

Today was the first of two hands-on days of art for our Bristol University engineers. And incredibly, it all materialised pretty much exactly as we'd envisaged from the outset. Possibly the biggest triumph was spray painting on 8ft-wide mdf boards out the back of the engineering workshop. We got a few odd looks from passers-by, but importantly nobody called the police, er... or the dean, on us. The only person who did bother us was another spray painter - evidently involved in painting something more engineer-y - who was keen to ask street artist Dan Petley's advice on dealing with his blocked nozzle. "What does he normally do when he has a blocked nozzle?", I wanted to know.

You can see the results of one of the spray painting workshops above - I was amazed at what was achieveable in just over an hour, with absolutely no prior experience. In the artwork on the left, the engineer/artist was making a statement about the clash between sustainability and dirty old unsustainability in materials research. The painting on the right was a more literal depiction of the engineer/artist's work - a machine he's working on. The results of the photography and animation sessions were similarly impressive, although not immediately available (I'll try to post some of the photos and films the engineers produced later). Illustrator Jonathan Farr led an absorbing workshop. The charcoal drawing below was one in a series that was used to create a beautifully simple and effective little animation of a car windscreen.

More than anything, today was a day for people to try things they'd never tried before. And if that included pinning on a tail and wielding a battle axe, then so be it. My last picture is from Richard Andersen's photography session. He's interested in the idea of narrative and performance in photography and is hoping to get the engineers to invent and act out a scene inspired by the applications of their research. But the engineers had to learn the art of performance first, so today's session was a bit like when your teacher used to get the dressing up box out at school. Shortly after this, participants were waving big sticks at each other and shouting naughty words. All in the name of art, of course.

I'm so glad to be working with some really great people on this project. People who don't even think about saying no when you suggest taking 30 cans of spray paint, knives and assorted animal parts into their university. Being able to give people these new experiences, without all the watering down, is a joy.

On the third day, we'll find out whether we can translate all these new experiences into new, more artistic perspectives on the engineers' research. And whether we'll continue to evade the Powers That Be in attempting to secure the use of an actual university wall for the purpose of street art... created by engineers.

1 February 2012

Engineering meets the arts - part I

I suffer from insomnia. It's something I deal with by drinking bucketfuls of chamomile tea and occasionally getting up past midnight to watch mind-numbing television, to try to switch my brain off. But last night my brain went into overdrive. It was gorging itself on ideas and information following the first session in a new project I've been helping to develop.

It's a wildly cross-disciplinary project that aims to share knowledge, skills and creative inspiration across the arts and engineering by bringing together local Bristol artists and University of Bristol research engineers. I'll be blogging about it over the next month - starting today and after each of three sessions until the results of the project go on display in early March. We'll be inviting our engineers to try out spray painting, animation and photography, and, supported by the artists, produce artwork that will be displayed at the Discover exhibition in Cabot Circus.

In last night's session, we got our artists and engineers together in the same room for the first time. It was fascinating to watch what unfolded - so fascinating, evidently, that my brain deemed it necessary to replay and dissect everything that happened until 1.30 in the morning. Illustrator Jonathan Farr told a darkly strange story about pigs' trotters and infanticide inspiring his latest animation (I'm sure some of these featured in my dreams), engineers owned up to being scared (not by the pigs' trotters or the infanticide but by the prospect of doing art) and more than a few eyes popped out at photographs of naked folks.

Two things particularly interested me though. One, that the artists and engineers initially had quite different views about what "art" might mean. The engineers perceived art to be a painting or film - a finished product - whereas for the artists, art was as much about the process as about the product. It will be interesting to see whether perceptions of art change over the course of the project and if we can overcome the fixation with the product to begin really enjoying the creative process.

The second thing I've been pondering is constraints. While we think of art as being free from boundaries (and engineering, by comparison, as being confined by rules and systems), I was interested to hear what our resident street artist had to say about them. If you're trying to convey a clear message through art - perhaps a political one, if we're talking street art - you're limited by what your audience can see and understand. There's a balance between being creative and allowing people to have their own interpretations, and producing something that gets its point across. I wonder how engineers will approach this balance in creating an artistic response to their own research, and which way the artists will be steering them.

More sleepless nights ahead, I feel, as this project progresses. The clash of art and engineering is proving intriguing and exciting. Next up: taster sessions in three different artforms with Dan Petley, Richard Andersen and Jonathan Farr.

And by the way if any project participants are reading this, I encourage you to:
  • Stay open-minded.
  • See it as a sharing of ideas and perspectives (that goes both ways), rather than a transfer of skills.
  • Have fun!
Thanks to Sarah Tauwhare for the photos.