A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE: Art Council art-science Residency, Zoology Dept, TCD, 2003-2005

 

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Having been granted an Irish Arts Council Residency award in June 2004, I returned to Trinity College late Sept to Dec 2004 to work further with staff and students to create a new body of work.

 

Background to my Art Council Residency in the Zoology Dept, Trinity College Dublin

While not supporting specific art science projects, the Irish Arts Council through residencies and projects allows artists an uninterrupted period in which to research ideas for a new body of work.

In my case, with a joint application from myself and Dr Paula Murphy of Trinity’s Zoology department, I was very fortunate to receive an unusual Arts Council residency award to undertake an art project in the Zoology Department for 3 months, September – December 2004.

My main reason for working in the Zoology Department is a strong interest in biology, in particular genetics, from my previous career in research biology.

Genetics is a complex area, which has rapidly outstripped public understanding and challenged ethical thinking. Having worked in biological research for many years before attending Art College, ideas and questions about science drive the content of my art projects. It was during my art studies I felt the importance of gaining first hand knowledge from scientists rather than relying on popular (and often sensationalist) media.

During my MA at the National College of Art and Design in 2001, I instigated a residency in Prof. Mark Lawler’s hematology lab at St Jame’s Hospital, Dublin.

prior to the art residency (2003)

My initial contact with Trinity’s Zoology Department was a result of a generous invitation from developmental geneticist Dr. Paula Murphy’s to join her 4th year developmental biology tutorial class in 2003.

 

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At the end of my first developmental biology classes in 2003, with Dr. Paula Murphy and her class, I shared my MA Passion Survey and Embryo drawings as a thank-you for the Zoology department’s generosity.  I documented my activities and was sucessfully awarded a 3-month Arts Council Residency to return to the laboratories in 2004. My involvement continued during the BA Festival of Science in 2005.

 

I repeated the class again in 2004 whilst I was on an Arts Council 3-month Art Residency, not only because the material was complex, but because I feel it to be a rich source of balanced material for future ideas and work.

Dr. Murphy’s class involved zoology students interested in developmental biology examining recent topical genetic research papers. At the same time, students were presented with articles from newspapers covering the same research. They were expected to debate and think of the wider issues and broader societal misconceptions surrounding genetics. We looked at transgenic animals as tools for research, cloning and stem cell research etc.

Coming back in 2004, I also made it a priority to attend a 3rd year Developmental Biology course to get a good understanding of developmental biology.

While my work tended to evolve slowly (much as in scientific research), I was very aware of the opportunity to introduce staff and students to aspects of contemporary art practice. Believing that direct interaction provides for greater understanding than reading or talking about art, I designed a project in which I asked staff and final year students for an image that was important to their scientific interest or research, along with  a short description of why they chose this particular image.

Responses included photographs, drawings, and diagrams created or selected by the scientists and students (one adventurous staff member even had me create a temporary tattoo of their image on their back!). I called the project ‘A Different Language’

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Interestingly, while their comments alongside the images provided ideas about why the image was important to them, it also created a means to identify the person behind the science. In so doing, a visual, subjective and often very creative ‘conversation’ of the work undertaken by the Zoology Department at Trinity College Dublin evolved; personal snapshots of what makes up this truly fascinating department.

The work is still on display in the ground floor of the Zoology Department at TCD .

The project also introduced ideas for recognising the potential to communicate in new ways, creating an opportunity to those in science to value the ‘the poetic and the curious’ in their daily work.

 

One of the aims of this project was to exhibit the project outside of the Department, thereby connecting and engaging a wider audience to the work and people of the Zoology Department.

 

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Exhibiting ‘A Different Language’ near the Edmund Burke theatre during the 2005 BA Festival of Science

In fact, this project was on display in a public area in Trinity College Dublin during the British Association Festival of Science week, during early September 2005. Given the public media response to my work, with interviews both on RTE Radio 1 and in the Irish Times, and interest from ENFO and a science communication research group from Dublin City University, I find both the public and educators are fascinated with science but have limited avenues to approach science directly. TV documentary programmes perhaps offer the most effective means of translating science to general audiences but further interdisciplinary interaction between artists and scientists may create other valuable approaches.

 

Finally, a big thank you to Dr Paula Murphy and the staff and students in the Zoology Department for making me feel welcome, putting up with a lot of questions while willingly trying their hands at art-making.

 

Details of the project are outlined in article below

All artists are resident aliens

states Irish poet Eamon Grennan. This was a comment I recently came across and I thought a fitting start to explain my presence as an artist in the Zoology Department over the last few months.

You may be surprised to learn that there is a small but growing interest in science for some contemporary artists. Why is this? Well, from an artists’ perspective, it seems important to engage with science and technology, since science occupies a powerful role in how we understand ourselves and how we relate to our environment. Artists have often translated, reflected and questioned the new in society. In recent years amid a growing interest in interdisciplinary learning we can find artists that have sought to collaborate with scientists. Coincidentally, not so much in Ireland but overseas, the Wellcome Trust, and other international organisations, have in the last decade funded artists from all fields: visual artists, musicians, poets, actors and film makers, to engage with science. There appears to be a growing belief that artists can engage the public in science in a manner that is not currently available to scientists. Artists, as independent individuals or art groups, automatically use subjective means to grapple with new knowledge. Their personal, broader responses are something general audiences can more easily relate to, and are more engaging than the more ‘objective’ communication style employed by science.

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