My trajectory towards becoming an artist has not been a straight one. My artistic intentions were thwarted by my headmaster at 6th form, and so rather than going on to do an art foundation course at Northwich Art School, I ended up going to university to study biochemistry. I’ve always (to be honest) borne a bit of a grudge about it. But on Saturday, some good friends from university asked me a very liberating question: do you really regret it?
I realized that the answer is probably no, when taken in the round. I do regret not going to art college, because I’d have loved it, and I’d now be using what I’d learnt. But at university, I’d quickly changed from biochemistry to experimental psychology, and I enjoyed the complexities and politics of a subject that was art, but dressed up as science (or perhaps it was the other way around). I’d also enjoyed going out into the real – fabulously complex - social world to find out how it worked. I’d also managed to combine it with some art, because I went out for the first three years with a fine art degree student at Newport Art School, affording opportunity for vicarious artistic learning and adventures hitching backwards and forwards from Oxford.
25 years later, I find myself back on the alwys-intended- artistic track. I’m finding it a rich and varied way with which to explore the world. But the intervening years have left traces on how I approach things. In particular, in my interest in blurring the distinction between arts (or artists) and science (or scientists). And also in my interest (and 20-year career) in participation, in bringing different ‘stakeholders’ together – from as wider variety of backgrounds and interests as possible - to work on/resolve something, have had an effect too.
I was delighted then, when I went to see the Eames show (“The World of Charles and Ray Eames”, on til 14th February) at the Barbican this week, which showcases their ground breaking use of art, photography, design, science, play, humour, performance, participation and collaboration to explore ideas and their application. They ‘moved fluidly between the mass-production of objects for everyday use and the transmission of ideas in anticipation of the global information age’. And to think I’d always thought of them as ‘just’ designers. Chairs, mostly. (Sorry everyone who already knew this!). See here for Creativereview's excellent guide to ten highlights of the show.
My highlights were the films and slide shows, which are absolutely beautiful, making use of multiple screens (often triptych) that explore a subject from different angles, ideas and scales. My 'undercover' photos (photography is not allowed - why??) do not do justice to them at all.
And they liked using marbles (who doesn’t?) to explore too. Including their probability machine that used marbles to demonstrate a normal distribution curve. And this musical tower down which marbles run to create a tune. Apparently, the first task of new people in their office was the re-setting the tower to play a new tune. [Lisa Hudson and I are currently making something not dissimilar, using marbles and slate to create giant outdoor singing marble runs: see the constructal bit of my website for more on this].
The thing that really took my breath away was their Information Machines, These use videos, soundtrack, stills and words to “transmit a great deal of information in a very short time”. This is accelerated learning in the mid 50s! One of them, ‘Think’, explores how the most complex problems are solved using the same methods we use every day, comparing things like weather modeling, computers, scientific explorations to the planning of a dinner party. OK, so it is being planned by a middle aged woman wearing pearls, but it is very tongue in cheek. Rather than being patronizing, it uses a compelling mix of humour, images and words to go through the stages of the idea (the dinner party), the elements (the guests) translating into a model (names, dinner table seating), manipulating data and effects (moving people around) and so on. Sheer genius!
At £45, the catalogue is not an affordable momento, nor their videos, at more than £20. But I found some clips here that presumably you can play if you have internet connection that can manage it…
For me, art and science are not opposite ends of the spectrum. They are two different ways of exploring, experiencing and (sometimes) understanding the world. On Duke University’s ‘Art of the MOOC’ course that I did recently, they said that “the non-utility of art is a form of resistance to the logic of making sense”. I like that. It’s a bit like a poster that did the rounds on facebook recently that said “Earth without art is eh?”. Eames created the eh? and answered it with art and science in ways that still shape how we do both.