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.

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