In a small corner of China recently, passers-by were shown bricks made of mushrooms, coloured poop and a bizarre way to save the dolphin. What was going on?
“There’s no difference in my mind, between an artist and a scientist. We’re all after the truth.”
Luke O’Neill, director of Trinity College Dublin’s Biomedical Science Institute, said that in a short promotional video for The Science Gallery last year.
It’s an ethos that seems to run through Science Gallery International, a non-profit leading the creation of a university-linked network dedicated to public engagement with science and art – a model first pioneered by the Science Gallery at Trinity.
Currently it has a foothold in Dublin, London, Melbourne, Bengaluru, Venice and Detroit, with the weird and wonderful showcased across events such as Humans Need not Apply and Trauma in the recent past, with the ominously-named Spare Parts destined for the UK soon.
Claiming to be ”at the vanguard of the STEM-to-STEAM movement”, the network is driven by both art and the grouping of science, technology, engineering and maths, which means its various presentations are, to say the least, enigmatic.
For example, Andrea Bandelli, executive director of Science Gallery International, recently took his organisation’s expertise on tour.
At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions (Summer Davos) at the end of June, Bandelli and his team put on five extremely eye-catching exhibits in the vast halls of Dalian in Northern China.
“It was fantastic!” he told Siliconrepublic.com after he returned to his Dublin base. “Around 1,800 people from 90 countries got to see our show.”
Summer Davos is a major event, with senior leadership figures from public and private sectors descending on Dalian to look at the future of innovation.
This year, they all got an eyeful.
Circumventive Organs, by Agatha Haines, imagines which parts of various animals could be used in combination with human tissue to solve common health problems.
“If it is possible to replicate human organs, then why not invent new ones? Is this what the future of designer biology might look like?” asked Haines.
E.Chromi: The Scatalog, by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King, looks at foecal diagnostics, with a solution ingested by humans then colouring poop to let us know if we’re ill.
“The Scatalog suggests a very possible future in which synthetic biology can enhance our basic bodily functions to improve and possibly extend our lives,” said the duo.
Another brick in the wall
Mycotecture Brick Wall, by Philip Ross, saw living fungus converted into brickwork. As it is natural, durable, strong and can be machined, Ross suggests this points “toward an alternate future in which humans could live in greater harmony with the biological world”.
Pig 05049 was a project by Christien Meindertsma that, in book form, traces where every element of a pig ends up in our consumer-led world.
The pig in question, named 05049, was shipped in parts throughout the world after its death. Among some of the more unexpected final destinations were ammunition, photo paper, heart valves, brakes and even chewing gum.
Odd? Yes. But nothing like the most eye-catching installation of all.
A bit weird…
I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin, by Ai Hasegawa, was the weirdest of the weird. It looked at a future of bioengineering that could see humans give birth to their own food supply, or even save endangered species.
“There are no boundaries to science,” said Bandelli. “Artworks let us consider the impossible and consider what might be probable”.
“Potentially, one day, a woman could give birth to a dolphin,” he said, explaining Science Gallery International’s role at Summer Davos was to promote thought, provoke conversation.
Cross-species reproduction was, naturally, one of the more provocative topics during the three-day event.
“How do we plan for something we don’t know? The radical changes in our society mean that young people need new kinds of skills, many of which are not fully understood or codified,” said Bandelli.
“The new fluencies we need include emotional intelligence, intercultural sensitivity, creativity, problem formulation and resilience.”
Noting figureheads such as Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in attendance, Bandelli argued that it’s projects such as this – such as poop bricks, such as pig books and even such as engineering a heart with the strength of a lion for human use – that are what science is all about.
“People there had the opportunity to talk about the challenges with the fourth industrial revolution. Looking at materials science, biological science, how these are going to revolutionise the world.”
Change the landscape
Having his organisation attending events such as Summer Davos, presenting the ideas they are presenting, means Science Gallery International “is being part of the conversations that are changing the landscape”, said Bandelli.
“For us it is a lot of learning. Being at this stage means being part of these conversations that are shaping the landscape.”
Industry professionals engaged, state officials asked questions, with the conversation often turning towards training and education.
Many companies want to embrace artificial intelligence, for example, but few can get the required staff coming through various countries’ education systems.
“Schools are very hard to change, it’s very slow,” he said. “You need to act on the fringe of the school and university systems.”
Bandelli feels events such as this put his organisation on that very fringe, in a position of influence. It’s not just art, and it’s not just science.
Imagine all the people
“The dolphin had a lot of good reactions,” he said. “It’s so imaginative. It’s the kind of installation that makes people think in different ways. Very powerful.”
But what’s the value of thinking about dolphins delivered by humans? According to Bandelli: discomfort.
“First of all it makes people experience what it means to feel uncomfortable about the future. That is the main topic of conversation. Where are the values embedded into technology?
“People tend to shy away from that. They think technology is neutral, but there are values. So we need to feel uncomfortable.
“This is a catalyst for conversations. The people who engage or view this, then, start to think and exchange ideas.”