Tyndall National Institute’s artist-in-residence Angela Gilmour discusses how she came to realise that science is just as creative as the arts.
Culture Night began as a small-scale cultural event in Dublin in 2006. Now, a decade on, people up and down the country can join in and celebrate creativity and the arts, and engage with national cultural institutions for free one evening a year. Galleries, museums, tourist hotbeds, theatres, workshops and exhibition halls open their doors to the public, grasping a marvellous opportunity to welcome new audiences.
Tyndall National Institute is not the typical setting you might imagine for a Culture Night outing. Forming part of the extended University College Cork campus, this research centre is named after John Tyndall, the Irishman who famously found an answer to why the sky is blue. While internationally recognised as a site of scientific prowess, it’s not exactly listed in any cultural guides – which is a shame, really.
Yet on Culture Night 2015, Tyndall joined in the festivities for the first time with interactive tours of the lab facilites and a host of workshops in electronics and photonics. A full house of more than 250 people visited the research centre for this art-meets-science moment, which also included an exhibition from Angela Gilmour, an accomplished engineer and artist.
Engineer to artist
A physics graduate with a master’s in quality management, Gilmour began working at Babcock Technology Centre in Scotland in 1991, researching non-destructive testing techniques for the oil, gas and shipping industry. She later took on engineering roles at NEC Semiconductors, before moving to Ireland to work for Analog Devices.
“Observing and analysing data and looking for patterns or anomalies was an important part of my job, especially when problem-solving,” she told me, via email. “This part of my work as an engineer was probably the most enjoyable for me and is the subject that has overlapped into my art practice.”
Gilmour spent many years in the semiconductor industry but, when the opportunity arose, she decided to take the plunge and opt for what she describes as a “dramatic” career change, starting with a return to education – this time in fine art.
On securing her degree, Gilmour took up a position as artist-in-residence at Tyndall and the Irish Photonic Integration Centre (IPIC), working with the public engagement and outreach group. Here, she works alongside the researchers, forging a symbiotic relationship between art and science.
The role of artist-in-residence entails communicating with the public to encourage an interest in science through art exhibitions and open days at the institute, while also engaging with the researchers by visiting their labs or appearing as a guest speaker at technical conferences, presenting talks on art and science.
“These interactions have led to discussions on the links between the two cultures,” explained Gilmour. “Many researchers feel intimidated by ‘art talk’ but are also aware that artists and the public are intimidated by ‘techno talk’. Art throughout history has been a tool to communicate ideas and points of view to the public. An artist on-site helps to break down the barriers between the two.”
Having worked professionally as both an artist and engineer, Gilmour has the advantage of seeing things from both perspectives. And, noting the similarities between the two, she believes the term ‘creative sciences’ should be as broadly used as ‘creative arts’.
“Sometimes, the scientists and engineers can be so involved in their work they no longer see how mesmerising it is. Having discussions with an artist refreshes the way they view their research. It gives the researchers the opportunity to convey how creative they are,” she said.
For Gilmour, the relationship is mutually beneficial. “[The researchers] inspire my art practice, as well as providing me with insight into what they do,” she said. “It was a great privilege to have access to what is normally a very secure and closed environment. They have also supplied me with new and unusual raw materials to create art.”
Intersections between art and science
Gilmour believes she has always been both an artist and an engineer at heart. At school, she was the only pupil in her year doing both art and science subjects at higher level, and the decision to take up the latter for further study was driven as much by career opportunities as it was by her interest. Even then, she continued to do art courses when she could, including night classes at Glasgow School of Art.
Despite living this double life, Gilmour did not quite see the convergence of these disciplines in the past.
“I would never have mixed the two,” she said. “I had always seen them as separated until I went to Crawford College of Art, where some of the lecturers encouraged me to blend them both.”
The result inspired her final-year thesis, Intersections between Art and Science – Creating a Third Culture?, which brought Gilmour into contact with many institutes that have been working with artists for years. Now, she sees clearly how the two overlap in a multitude of ways.
“I believe the two cross over, especially as a tool for observing and analysing. The sciences and the arts are asking the same questions: who and what are we. I have found that when the two work together, each can inspire the other to look at issues from a different perspective and can stimulate creativity.”
Full STEAM ahead
Pattern Recognition, the Culture Night exhibition at Tyndall, turned out to be Gilmour’s favourite project to date.
“It was amazing to see my artwork against the backdrop of the equipment and fabrication processes that inspired the work,” she said. “The glass atrium wall separating the fabrication area and the listed buildings holding them is truly a unique environment to show artwork.”
The event marked the first time there had ever been an art exhibition inside Tyndall’s hallowed scientific walls and was a terrific success for both the institute and for Gilmour, who received feedback and enquiries from the public. “The visual beauty inside technology intrigued many; others were interested in the crossover between art and science,” she said.
— The Sum of All Parts (@sumofallparts_) May 2, 2016
Next for Gilmour is The Sum of All Parts, a solo exhibition that will tour Cork. Funded by Science Foundation Ireland, this project forms part of an initiative to promote STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) and even the support has crossed disciplines, as Gilmour has received backing from Tyndall, IPIC and Cork County Libraries, as well as the National Sculptural Factory and Cork Printmakers, to create the artwork.
The Sum of All Parts will comprise science-influenced art installations that consist of deconstructed instrumentation, reduced to their basic components and transformed to reveal their hidden architecture and complex creativity. The instruments used for the exhibition will be selected from a variety of time periods, and will in particular link with physics, maths and technology – the areas of STEM typically disconnected from the general public.
Gilmour also has an upcoming show in the US as part of A Fresh Field of Life, a selected group exhibition of science-inspired work hosted by MDI Biological Laboratory within Acadia National Park, Maine. The exhibition, which runs concurrent with the centennial celebration of Acadia National Park, aims to tell the story of art and science coming together in the 19th century, and how art and science connect our knowledge in the 21st century.
“The piece that I will be exhibiting, Transgenic Life Forms, is a book of printed drawings based on genetically-modified organisms,” Gilmour revealed. “The artwork is inspired by both the drawings of biologist Ernst Haeckel (who, over a hundred years ago, recorded in detail the structure of the life forms that he discovered) and the developments in genetics in the 21st century.”
For her thesis, Gilmour explored how art merges with many scientific disciplines, though some prove more inspiring than others. “I found, visually and because it directly affects us as humans, that many artists are interested in biology, especially with the advances in genetics,” she said.
“My interest lies with science that decodes and formalises nature. Initially, I worked in the area of bio-art inspired by genetic coding but, recently, I have gone back to my roots, becoming interested again in the physics of nature, especially how we analyse our surroundings.”
The Sum of All Parts will be travelling to Cobh from 12 to 29 July then split between Skibbereen, Bantry and Clonakilty during mid-August, forming an art trail between the three Cork county libraries. The full exhibition will then be shown at the Cork County Library headquarters in Cork city for the beginning of science week (14 November to 2 December 2016). For further information on planned and coming exhibitions, check out angelagilmour.com or follow the artist on Facebook and Twitter.