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.


Melanie K said...

Very interesting!

Richard Craig said...

I'm so gutted I missed it, it looks like a great day!
I think the centre is thinking about putting on another day for those of us who missed out :)