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.

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