Thursday, 31 October 2013

Science as Muse: Synthesis at Manchester Science Festival 2013

Guest post by Louise Mackenzie, winner of the graduate art competition at the Synthesis Exhibition
“at first only mimesis was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints. There is no special way works of art have to be.”

Arthur C Danto, After The End of Art, 1997

The emptiness left by post-modernism influenced my work strongly at art school.  I was troubled by the lack of muse, the sense of nothingness within which contemporary art had to function.  It seemed to me that either I was left to create in the gaps between what already exists in the world, through appropriation or repetition, or that I could push out into the space beyond the known, through mutation and innovation.  I chose to reach beyond and my method was collaboration.  By teaming up with specialist skills and knowledge from other disciplines, it was possible to come up with novel forms of expression: for example the use of micro-algae as an oxygen producer to highlight our symbiotic relationship with the planet and hint at our abuse of it.

Louise Mackenzie, Life Support, 2013 (image Chris Foster)
The latter part of Danto’s quote is well suited to the Synthesis exhibition at Manchester Science Festival.  Showcasing work across the art-science genre, it represents an eclectic field.  Works on paper, canvas and ceramic stood alongside installations and sculptures.  Amidst new graduates (myself included) were the works of established artists such as Ivan Smith, Jo Berry, Lizz Tuckerman, the fast-paced, visceral video work of Gina Czarnecki and the serene yet startling glass micro-biology work of Luke Jerram.
Tracie Shaylor, Evolution and Atrophy, 2011 (image John Lynch)
 I was particularly drawn to the work of Tracie Shaylor and Eddy Dreadnought.  Both were eerie renditions of semi-human objects, conjuring thoughts of futures unknown  (Shaylor) and futures past (Dreadnought).  Dreadnought’s work had a garbological, post-human quality.  In pale skin tones and bone coloured hues, objects of unknown origin, strangely familiar (part of a discarded child’s scooter, a row of plastic hooks) were presented, slab-like on a matt black surface, under the surgical glare of a large lamp.  The precision and formula of the arrangement giving the appearance of archaeological finds, geometric equations and anatomical parts, all at the same time.  Shaylor’s work in contrast felt more physical.  In a dingy half-light, held within cages reminiscent of the work of Mona Hatoum, stand jars of pickled specimens.  On closer inspection the objects are dismembered male genitalia.  There is a sense of preservation and, set against the grimy brick walls of the gallery space, also one of dysfunction.  Alongside are perfect, shining aluminium discs; preserved upon them distorted images that, despite the material, have an organic quality.  The spherical shimmering surfaces convey something foetal and at the same time alien that, when combined with the caged specimens, give the unsettling feeling of a future world beyond our comprehension.

Eddy Dreadnought, Embryology of Thought, 2013 (image John Lynch)
It is the desire to push beyond what exists in the world that I think is the most important element of the Synthesis exhibition.  It inspires us to think of what is possible, if not yet realised.  With science as its muse, art has the potential to do more than imitate or illustrate, offering us insights into multiple futures.  Some that may, with the continued collaboration of art and science, become realities.

Synthesis runs until 10 November at Victoria Warehouse, Manchester

Louise Mackenzie

Monday, 28 October 2013

Bright Club
Guest post by Natasha Bray

…And there I was, heart pounding, palms sweating, trembling with nerves; yet apparently ready to go up on stage armed with a microphone with the combined goal of informing and entertaining. As a neuroscience PhD student, I can recite the usual signs of the ‘fight or flight’ response, but until that evening in Nexus Arts Café I had to test out another ‘f’ – ‘funny’…

As the audience chuckled at how the world’s first brain imaging experiment involved the scientist calling the test subject’s wife a ‘loose lady’, I silently wished that every lab meeting were this enjoyable. I told anecdotes about the temperamental experiments I had done, compared the brain’s blood flow to a banker’s bonus and, somewhat less scientifically, encouraged the use of compression socks for prolonged concentration.

Before I knew it, there was a round of applause and I’d survived! Coming off stage felt euphoric and the buzz remained for the rest of the evening as I listened to the fascinating, hilarious remaining sets of a crystal chemist, a nuclear bin man/PhD student and the only comic book historian I have (to this day) ever encountered.

As a researcher, especially in a university setting, it is all too easy to become trapped in the academic bubble and assume that everyone either a) already knows what you do, or b) couldn’t care less. On rare occasions you may even think that some horrid people c) know what you do, yet still aren’t that interested. Bright Club, however, aims to change all that.

In preparation sessions, the Bright Club organisers teach all the acts how to go about writing gags, as well as how to look like they know what they’re doing on stage. For many (myself included) it’s the first time they’ve held a microphone outside a dodgy karaoke bar. But after drafting, redrafting and a few practice run-throughs, it’s time to experiment with stand-up. Bright Club is the perfect haven for all kinds of researchers to frame their research with comedy to let the audience know why a research topic is worth their interest…and their laughs.

Natasha Bray has just submitted her PhD thesis about brain stuff and will be taking to the stage for a second time at the ‘Monster’ Bright Club on 31st October at Gorilla.

Click for more information and tickets for Bright Club Manchester at Manchester Science Festival or visit the Bright Club Manchester Facebook page.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Ice, Art & Urban Farming

Guest Post: Caroline Ward - filmmaker and visual artist
I was thrilled to attend the Festival launch this year. Since I moved to Manchester in 2010, I've volunteered my skills to the festival by editing short content for the citizen science projects, last year for Turing's Sunflowers and this year for Hooked.
I also love going to events at the festival - particularly as my interests in art, architecture, and urban farming - never fail to be excited. At the launch I was captivated by the approach of David Garcia, one of the architects in the Ice Lab exhibition - with a structure made of snow - the idea was to use materials from the immediate environment which could then, merge back into the environment. It reminded me of Robert Smithson’s sculpture Spiral Jetty. The exhibition is fascinating and covered in a previous post. My inner kid also liked the Star Wars style structures that feature in so many of the ice labs.

There's so much going on at the festival, here’s my own navigation through the programme. As an art, film and urban naturalist, my top picks are:

A special mention goes to the Great White Silence - its one of my favourite films and fully restored to its original glory by the BFI (where I used to work many moons ago). It's the poignant story of Captain Scott’s race to the South Pole yet reveals wonderful moments like penguins captured on film for the first time in this environment. And finally - to Chasing Ice - a brilliant film that just goes to show the value of picking up a camera (well several cameras) and persisting against ice and snow to show the world just what damage we are doing to the planet – I can’t think of a better way to show climate change in action.
PS my track for the HookedPlaylist is: Violin Phase by Steve Reich (see video)

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Ice Lab: Architecture in extreme environments

Guest post: Frances Keating, Conservator, MOSI

When you think of Antarctica, you are most likely to envisage one of the many images we routinely associate with the planet’s most remote and mysterious continent; possibly amazing landscapes of seemingly endless snow and ice, night skies glowing green with auroras, landmarks such as Mount Erebus or the flag at the south pole, or maybe you first think of the Antarctic wildlife, seals and cute looking penguins….

The interesting thing about the new ‘Ice Lab’ exhibition is that the angle is completely different from any of these familiar images. The focus is on a largely untold story of Antarctic architecture past, present and future, the lifestyle of the people who have to live on Antarctic research bases, and the science that these people undertake.

Having had the privilege to go to Antarctica, the exhibition resonates particularly vividly for me, for it explains the reality of a harsh and challenging environment instead of reinforcing any misconceptions of a snowy idyll, where ‘storms’ sound about as ferocious as the scene inside a shaken snow-dome. It explains the difficulty all the international Antarctic Research programmes experience trying to provide adequate structures to house scientists and base crew; buildings that somehow need to withstand winds of up to 200mph and remain stable under the weight of large quantities of snow without collapsing. As well as surviving the extreme elements, modern Antarctic dwellings also need to have far greater longevity than earlier constructions and are now being designed to incorporate the latest energy-generating technology to enable sustainability and self-sufficiency. The potential to move a whole research base from location to location is also now a reality. For many decades the most flexible living accommodation in Antarctica has been the very basic shelter provided by disused shipping containers which are relatively easy to hook onto vehicles and drag across the snow, which seems positively primitive in comparison to the new wave of space-age looking mobile bases.

Halley VI
The exhibition also contains objects that explain how base communities interact, particularly at times of celebration such as ‘Midwinter’ (the day which falls at the midpoint of the winter season when there is 24 hours of darkness). In Antarctica, the separation from family and friends puts far greater emphasis on occasions and everyone pulls together to try and make these times extra special. I find it fascinating to think that objects such as menu cards from festive dinners in the 1950s and 60s so closely resemble what would be found on an Antarctic base today. The necessity to handcraft these small tokens and gestures stands as evidence that Antarctica remains a place where resources are minimal. Only supplies that have a justifiable degree of usefulness will ever make the long, expensive, and logistically challenging journey, therefore making it impossible for anyone to indulge in a plethora of materialistic possessions during their stay. This is possibly the aspect of being in Antarctica that affected me the most personally- the realisation that we actually need very little to survive. I learnt that human beings are incredibly resilient and we have the ability to adapt, and accept and harmonise with the environment around us. Antarctica is a truly unique and magical place and Ice Lab aims to offer a tangible impression of what it is really like to be there.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Is breathing bad for you?

Could a stroll down Oxford Road be bad for your health? Find out with the Barometer Podcast team on the 29th October at Manchester Museum during a LIVE podcast recording. Doors open at 1830 for a 1900 start. The event is free to attend. More details are available here and you can guarantee your seat here. Podcast team member, Will Morgan explains some of the science behind air pollution and why it is bad for our health.

Air pollution has been a major issue in Greater Manchester since the Industrial Revolution, with the smoke emanating from the many factories leading to smog settling over the city. The author Johanna Schonpenhauer remarked in 1830 that Manchester was:
“Dark and smoky from the coal vapours, it resembles a huge forge or workshop.”

Several of Lowry’s paintings depicted the smoke and haze coming from factories in Salford. As industrialisation and motor vehicles spread across the globe, so did the issue of air pollution. Just this week, Sydney has been blanketed by dense smoke from bush fires, while a city in Northern China is suffering with air pollution levels that are 40 times the safe limit recommended by the World Health Organisation. These are very visible examples of air pollution but often the problem is what we don’t see. Even relatively low levels of air pollution can be harmful to our health, especially if we are exposed for long periods.
  Manchester Museum’s spider crab helps me make some pollution measurements on Oxford Road.
Breathing in the fumes from cars, factories and anything else that involves burning fuel can have serious short and long-term implications for our health. Air pollution has been linked to both causing and aggravating heart and lung diseases. Globally, these are the leading causes of death and air pollution makes them worse. The World Health Organisation recently declared that air pollution is a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths. During and after major air pollution events, the number of people suffering heart attacks and respiratory problems increases.

The most dangerous type of air pollution is from tiny particles that are suspended in the air, known as aerosols or particulate matter. These are estimated to have contributed to around 3.2 million deaths in 2010. A recent report by the European Environment Agency concluded that around 90% of people living in European cities are exposed to levels of air pollution that are damaging to our health. Closer to home, it is estimated that nearly 29,000 deaths each year in the UK occur due to particulate matter pollution. Across Greater Manchester, between 1 in 17 and 1 in 19 adult deaths are attributable to particulate matter pollution.
Efforts to improve the situation have been mixed, as air pollution is a complex conundrum for both scientists and policy makers. If you want to hear more about this important issue, then I recommend joining us next Tuesday at our live podcast: Is breathing bad for you? 7pm at the Manchester Museum. See you there.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Guest post from Liz West, artist exhibiting at the Synthesis exhibition.
the curator of Synthesis ,Tracie Shaylor had visited and seen recent work at Bury Light Night and immediately wanted me in the show. The in-depth colour theory that I employ in all my light works ties in neatly with the exhibition being part of Manchester Science Festival.
I am most excited by site-specific work. If I was to be part of this exhibition I
wanted my ideas to be responsive to the space. With that in mind last Thursday I was given a tour of the ground floor exhibition space at Manchester's Victoria Warehouse. I had been keen to get into the space for some time and didn't want to waste this opportunity.
Upon entering the exhibition space I was blown away by the possibilities for new work, my mind started racing. Tracie had ear-marked two particular spaces for my work, upon inspection they are not the easiest to work with, but these are the spaces I am excited by the most. I like a challenge.
One of the spaces was in front of a vast window looking on to the main road past the Warehouse. A light-work would defiantly attract passers-by and act as an advertisement for the show. I aim to rework the recent commission I made for Macclesfield's Barnaby Festival by stacking the light boxes on top of each other instead of presenting them side-by-side. Configured this way it would lend itself to the space and illuminate the nearby white walls.
The second space is within the main exhibition hall. A set of blue railings guard a drop down to the floor below; this was the space I had to respond to! In this site-specific installation conceived specially for Synthesis, I will systematically arrange numerous multicoloured fluorescent stick-lights. The title of work is taken from Josef Albers text ‘Interaction of Colour’, where it is explained that a direct mixture of projected light demonstrates an additive mixture where the sum of all colours in light is white. I am super excited about it and as with most of my installations, you have to see them in the flesh to fully appreciate.

I can't wait to install these works and perhaps see you at the preview on Thursday evening?
Find out more about the preview event here and the Synthesis exhibition here. The Synthesis exhibition is at the Victoria Warehouse hotel from Friday 25 Oct - Sun 10 Nov.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Portraits of Emotions 
Guest blog post by artist Paul Digby, who will be exhibiting at the Synthesis exhibition at Victoria Warehouse.

The four drawings on display are from a series of ten portrait drawings of people from the Chapeltown area of Leeds. I worked from photographic images made in an open studio in early 2012 where people were asked to express an emotion of there own choice. The idea for this grew out of Charles Darwin's Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals, where in this book Darwin uses photographs by the mid nineteenth century French Doctor/Photographer Duchenne de Boulogne of an "Old man". 

The old man was a homeless person he worked with who reportedly had no nerve endings in his face and was able to have electrodes attached to emulate specific emotions.

I initially asked people to express specific emotions but soon adapted to people's desires to express emotions of there own choices. As the project progressed I felt more confident to ask specific individuals if they would pose and I selected people from the community I knew to ask.

Another artistic reference is George Seurat and particularly his drawing style. Although Seurat used Conte Crayon and I have used Graphite, I adapted his process. This involved repeating a circular movement and pattern to gradually build to a solid tone. I also used cross hatching, a similar technique for building layered tone. For four of the ten series I used paint and oil bar on paper and canvas. Seurat lived in Paris around the same time as Duchenne but I am unsure to whether they knew one another.

Other references involve contemporary psychology. During the project I was influenced by Bruce Hood's The Self Illusion, which seemed to link in to the concept of portraiture. Another idea that transfers well from psychology to art is stimuli and response. For example the art work is the artist's response to a stimuli and the viewer's stimuli for a response.

The project involved delivering a workshop to Chapelallerton Primary School in Chapeltown to sixty Year One children. They learnt how to draw portraits using cross hatching and graphite on a paper with a grain.

This project was supported by the University of Leeds School of Medicine who mid way through the project showed the work in progress in the Charles Thackrah Building. The full series was shown in the Union105 gallery in Chapeltown Leeds and the ESA show space in London. I also gave a lecture to Leeds Metropolitan University students, another supporting organisation. The project was funded by Arts Council England.

Paul is a contemporary visual artist with sixteen tears experience and has shown work in including the Manchester Contemporary, the Cornerhouse and the Saatchi gallery. He has collaborated on projects with in the Thackray Museum, Rampton Hospital and High Royds Hospital. Paul has work in the Wellcome Trust and Private Collections. He sits on the Steering Group for the Yorkshire and Humber Contemporary Visual Arts Network and teaches for the WEA.

Four of the series of drawings will be on display in the Synthesis exhibition and Paul will give a talk on the project, on Saturday 25th October at 4:00 both in the Victoria Warehouse Hotel.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Research: The Big Picture
Guest Post: Dee-Ann Johnson, The University of Manchester

What connects wishing trees in folklore, the inside of a living chrysalis, and 5000 years of weather?  The third annual Images of Research Competition that’s what! 

  As part of the Manchester Science Festival, we challenged  scientists and engineers at The University of Manchester to tell their research story using beautiful images and inspiring descriptions. We asked them to show why research is essential and important to everyone.  

Open to researchers in all subjects, the entries came with intriguing titles including:

·      Your eely ancestor
·      The fire empowerment
·      More than skin deep
·      Standing proud
·      Scientific research: A real bed of roses

The competition presents just a taste of the diversity and breadth of the research being conducted at the University. But whether the subject matter is poverty, locomotion, climate change, health or masculinity, we are sure of one thing – there is something of interest for everyone.

Our researchers are passionate about their work and the benefits their research can bring. 

  But now we turn the competition over to you

Cast your vote online now and help us decide which image has captured your imagination, raised your curiosity, or got you thinking about the research in a different way.

The competition runs from 7 October to 4 November 2013. The winner will be announced on 5 November 2013.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

#Hooked: Unlocking the Secret Science of Song

Hello festival peeps, not long to go now! I'm Erinma and last year I had a blast working on the fab citizen science experiment, Turing's Sunflowers. Now I'm back doing a residency at MOSI working with the Festival team to bring a new mass experiment to life. This time it's all about music and unlocking the secret science of song.

Back in May I went to the University of Amsterdam to meet with music cognition scientists, Dr John Ashley Burgoyne and Professor Henkjan Honing who have devised a fantastic experiment that needs your help.

Ashley and Henkjan are interested in musical memory - songs that we remember and can recall to mind just by thinking about them. The way they want to explore that is by looking at musical 'hooks' and what it is musically that makes a tune stick in our minds.

What's the idea?
Just hearing a few bars of a song, people will suddenly recall that tune to mind. The hook is the most noticeable part of a tune. It sticks in your mind and is the key to understanding why musical memories last a lifetime. The hook makes music memorable or catchy. And, songwriters, DJs and musicians know exactly how to use the hook to get everyone singing along or up on the dance floor.
Whilst visiting my family in Copenhagen I told my DJ brother, Thomas, all about #Hooked and he invited me along to Karriere bar to show me exactly how he uses hooks to get people on the dancefloor every Friday night.
Quite apart from having a great night out - it got me thinking about the wisdom of the non-science experts, DJs, musician, songwriters, music geeks and many more and making sure we include their perspectives to add a new dimension to understanding how music can play with our emotions, memories and quite literally move us.
There will be lots of personal and global stories we can tell, from the songs our parents gave us to this years top ten wedding songs to the songs that changed the world. Indeed much of human history is shared through songs.
Why does it matter?

“The past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity. . .” — Neurologist, Oliver Sacks 

One of the things that I found quite astonishing is how personalised playlists of music are used in some care homes to help improve the quality of life of people with fading memories, including dementia. This phenomenon, where people are literally awakened from a stupor, and begin to dance and sing, has to be seen to be believed. So, whilst the experiment is going to be a lot of fun, it might also provide insights into long term memory and even failing memory, which could contribute to future Alzheimer's disease research.
What's the theory?

There are lots of theories about what makes music catchy (a danceable rhythm, a change in pitch etc) but little scientific evidence. By doing an experiment, designed as a game, we can test out these theories and see, for example, whether they apply to hooks in different genres of music. The game will be launched in early 2014 but in true citizen science style we want to get the public involved by kickstarting a debate on what makes music catchy.
A previous experiment analysed what makes music catchy by observing 1100 people singing along to songs out loud in pubs and clubs and concluded that the catchiest song of all time was 'we are the champions' by Queen. The scientists, musicologist Dr. Alison Pawley and psychologist Dr. Daniel Mullensiefen concluded there are four traits that make a song catchy: 1) Long and detailed musical phrases; 2) a number of pitches in the hook; 3) and male voices that are 4) high pitched. Read more about their findings here.

Mullensiefen said, “Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology, from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers that can add effects to make a song more catchy.
“We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, maths and cognitive psychology can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song. We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune.”

Mullensiefen said, “Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology, from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers that can add effects to make a song more catchy.
“We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, maths and cognitive psychology can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song. We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune.”

Mullensiefen said, “Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology, from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers that can add effects to make a song more catchy.
“We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, maths and cognitive psychology can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song. We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune.”

Mullensiefen said, “Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology, from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers that can add effects to make a song more catchy.
“We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, maths and cognitive psychology can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song. We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune.”

A related phenomenon, earworms or involuntary musical imagery, where catchy tunes get stuck in the head and uncontrollably repeat over and over, have been studied in the earwormery project by the music, brain and mind group at Goldsmith's University. They have been researching what musical features earworms have in common and what people who experience earworms might have in common. Finally they've also been looking at what purpose earworms might serve and how earworms might be cured.

Dr Lauren Stewart, from the music, brain and mind group said:
--> "What is interesting to us is the fact that this musical imagery comes to the brain without planned effort. It is as if comes from nowhere..."
The earwormery team discovered there are specific triggers for earworms - stress, sights, sounds or smells in the environment. And, just hearing a song can also trigger an earworm.

With #Hooked we aim to look at hooks in hundreds of thousands of songs using a name-that-tune game that asks players to recognise the song and then identify which bit in the song is the most catchy. But, as i said before, we need your help!
Imagine listening to a catchy tune, whats the part where you start singing out loud or start humming along? That's the hook... we want you to share your catchiest tunes and to tell us what you think makes it catchy.

Get involved
Taking part is easy, just complete this simple survey to crowdsource the playlist for the game and kickstart a debate on what makes music catchy.

Join us for the festival launch of #Hooked to debate what makes music catchy, from hooks, to earworms and hit songs with Ashley Burgoyne, Lauren Stewart and Daniel Mullensiefen. Then dance to your catchiest tunes at our silent disco.

MOSI's presenters, James and Darren, will also feature in Captain #Hooked, a daily festival show and featuring a very special guest to get the kids dancing on the 30th of October.

Meantime, tweet your catchiest tune (name & artist) to #hookedplaylist or upload a short video showing us your catchiest bit in the tune you've picked - tag your videos with hookedplaylist so we can find and share them.

Hooked is a MOSI initiative in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, the University of Manchester and supported by the Wellcome Trust.