Nicola Triscott / Experimental ruins to laboratory life: Artistic practices in the discourse between science and society

| Kategoria: Teksty

The Arts Catalyst is an independent arts commissioning organisation based in the UK that specialises in the intersections between art, science, technology and society. The Arts Catalyst’s research and commissioning interests are rooted in critically engaging, through artists’ practice, the fast-changing discoveries, practices and spatial dynamics of contemporary science and advanced technology, and in exploring how we can engage people from diverse disciplines and backgrounds in discussing and generating new ideas and alternative perspectives on science and culture. Our projects present highly varied practices of research, production, collaboration, participation, and exhibition.

It is our view that scientific knowledge is not adequately culturally appropriated, and that many of the new discoveries and developments of science remain accessible and meaningful only to a small group of specialists within academia and society. There are structural and technological issues, as well as factors relating to specialized language and forms of information, that contribute to this.

Sheila Jasanoff has written about the problem for democracy in an advanced technoscientific society. In her book ‘Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States’ (2005): “Knowledge has become the primary wealth of nations … state policies are geared more and more towards nurturing and exploiting knowledge, with scientific knowledge and technical expertise commanding the highest premiums” (1). In this knowledge economy, she argues, some of the fundamental assumptions of liberal democracy are no longer completely valid. These assumptions include that the government understands what its citizens want, that the elected government understands the critical factors affecting societal change, and that the electorate itself also understands these factors. Jasanoff believes these assumptions break down in the case of today’s advanced scientific-technological societies.

Modern democracies are dependent on expertise and we are particularly dependent on experts when it comes to science. „Contemporary democracies depend for their robustness, not to say their very survival, on the wisdom of strangers,” says Jasanoff, but „the wisdom of the experts we count on is not simply a matter of superior knowledge. Experts operate within tacit frameworks of delegation which underwrite their legitimacy and whose principles we all need to understand.” (2)

In a 2006 article, Jasanoff wrote on the issue of transparency in science, in which she claimed: “the threats to openness in science stem not so much from pressure by dictatorial regimes as from the increasing embeddedness of science in society. The growth of national economies, the comparative military advantages of states, the market shares of companies, the health and safety of populations and the environment, and, increasingly, the vitality of universities and the personal fortunes of scientists all depend on producing useful scientific knowledge. Science can no longer afford to be disinterested; it serves too many purposes and too many masters to claim or to seek detachment.” (3)

Langdon Winner developed a developed an analysis of the political character of technology, contending that the physical arrangements of industrial production, warfare, communications, etc., have not only transformed the exercise of power and the experience of citizenship but they have also introduced ‘inherently political technologies’ which are, by their very nature, centralized or decentralized, egalitarian or inegalitarian, repressive or liberating. (4)

One way then to look at emerging technologies is to consider the extent to which they lock people into certain systems or, conversely, enable users to adapt them to fit their own purposes, resources, knowledge and culture. There are highly centralized and controlled technologies, which include genetically modified (GM) crops, centralized nuclear power and most space systems, which offer very little, if any, flexibility for how they are used, and require their environments to be structured in a particular way.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are examples of participatory technology that provide an open platform for new sorts of use, such as micro-renewable energy, intermediate technologies for agriculture and the Linux operating system, technologies that place control for usage and further development in the hands of the user. As such, an initial demand we might make of any emerging technology is whether it is locking us into one system, or providing further scope for openness. We should also consider whether it has been developed for the benefit of humanity, or merely to serve disclosed or undisclosed financial interests. Winner felt the best way to design a more human technology or science is at the earliest stages of the design process. (5)

The Arts Catalyst has commissioned several projects over the last two decades that engage with or critique some of the centralised systems, particularly nuclear energy. One of the most important artists to engage critically and directly with this subject was James Acord (1944-2011), the self-styled “nuclear sculptor”, whom Arts Catalyst worked with, championed and supported for many years.

Acord devoted fifteen years of his life to an embedded self-determined artist residency on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, USA. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is where the first reactors were built that produced the plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. This particular site is one of the most radioactively contaminated areas on Earth.

Acord’s dream was to make sculptural markers to warn future generations of radioactively poisoned land, and he spent many years brokering a dialogue between nuclear scientists, engineers, artists and environmentalists. His relentless and successful pursuit and acquisition of a nuclear license uncovered the assumptions of the nuclear regulatory systems. The paper trail, shown as an artwork, exposes the mechanisms of such complex regulatory systems and shows how regulations can be understood and used by the committed citizen. Similarly, Acord’s attempts to utilise a nuclear reactor in the cause of art highlighted the assumptions that exist about scientific expertise, against the acquired (and proven) expertise of the committed individual, and how scientific expertise is legitimised through institutions.

Acord’s work also exposed the process by which such scientific communities, particularly those involved in high-security technologies, can become extremely insular and the inherent dangers of this. Acord spoke of the phenomena of becoming ‘Hanfordised’: “when a person ceases to notice the thousands of tax dollars being poured down the drain and turns a blind eye to incompetence”. (6)

An Arts Catalyst project that is relevant to discuss here is ‘Dark Places’ (2010), a series of commissions exploring UK sites of scientific and advanced technology research, both hidden in Britain’s crowded manmade landscape, or unobtrusively sited in urban city streets. The only way most of the population get to know about the activities of these places is through the institutions’ own managed media relations. The Arts Catalyst became intrigued by these places and increasingly sensitized to identifying them.

Office of Experiments (Neal White & Steve Rowell), Overt Research Project (2009). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst. Photo: Steve Shrimpton.

Office of Experiments (Neal White & Steve Rowell), Overt Research Project (2009). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst. Photo: Steve Shrimpton.

Neal White’s Overt Research Project, which formed part of Dark Places, began in 2007. White’s notion of overt research sprang from his interest in how these sites of science and technology – particularly those with military connections – are secured and hidden within the landscape. Often, if you try to locate these sites, particularly outside the city, you find that the roads and road directions in their locality tend to direct you away from the sites themselves, and when you do encounter them, they display a lot of notices with messages such as ‘No Entry’ and ‘No Photography’ on their perimeter fences.

White is interested in how citizens can conduct field research into these places. His concept of ‘overt research’ is set out as an alternative to covert research. It is an open and transparent form of research. So if a citizen researcher wishes to investigate a particular site or organisation, overt research methods dictate that they contact the institution directly in the first instance and ask them for information. They ask if they can visit the site, and ask also if it is possible to take a group of researchers with them. Very frequently, the first answer to a request to visit is ‘no’ (or the institution directs the researcher to a controlled, highly infrequent, “public” tour). So then the researcher will inform the institution that they will turn up anyway, when they will be coming, and their intention to research such aspects of the site as its geography, ecology and history, as well looking into the activities that take place there.

White began this overt research project with his collaborator Steve Rowell, an artist with the US-based Center for Land Use Interpretation. The culminating exhibition, Dark Places, featured – among other curated artworks – outputs from White and Rowell’s research. Collaboratively, as The Office of Experiments, they presented their Dark Places database, a publicly accessible (via a kiosk in the gallery or online) database with research from a number of sites in the South of England that White and Rowell personally investigated. One of the aims of the Overt Research Project is to grow a citizen research community. People are recruited to take part in ‘critical excursions’ and workshops to teach them the techniques of overt research, and they are then enabled to contribute their research to the database. To date, The Arts Catalyst has organized bus tours (critical excursions) to sites in South East England and the West of England, and a walking tour in North London. Some of the sites visited on these excursions include former military research laboratories, now commercial, such as Porton Down and the International School for Security and Explosives Education (ISSEE), and military sites including Aldermaston and Burghfield nuclear weapons facilities.

Before the Arts Catalyst visits a site on one of these critical excursions, White informs participants what the risks are in citizen research, and provides information about the regulations around a site, and information on what their rights are, what they are legally allowed to do and forbidden from doing. From time to time, we have had an encounter with the police, but it has always been a polite, friendly encounter, as we have been open and informed the site that the group will be arriving. This is a project that continues to evolve, led by White.

White’s other piece in the Dark Places exhibition was an archive of information collected by the independent researcher Mike Kenner. Kenner has been researching the historical and contemporary activities of Porton Down, which was the UK’s most important biological weapons research laboratory. Today, Porton Down is a commercial laboratory undertaking biotechnology research with medical applications. Kenner is a private individual who has done an enormous amount of work gathering information about the history and practices of Porton Down, which have been controversial in the past. His archive is so significant that sometimes, if the media contact Porton Down with questions, Porton Down itself will direct them to Kenner for information about its history. Kenner gave White his archives to place in the exhibition, so that people could sit and look through them.

Another artwork in the exhibition was a video installation, Voodoo Park, by Victoria Halford and Steve Beard, made from their research into the site and activities of the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) in Buxton. The Health and Safety Laboratories are situated in a large rural site in Derbyshire. Initially, HSL was set up to carry out large-scale tests related to mining hazards. HSL’s activities involve working with clients in industry and the public sector to advise on reducing and controlling hazards, and reducing health risks. It undertakes practical investigations in the event of incidents that cause fatalities and serious injuries, as well as large property damage. Part of that work involves calculating the human cost of accidents and disasters. HSL has facilities to replicate train crashes and industrial accidents on a significantly large scale. Halford and Beard’s work draws attention to the value we place on human life in the age of industrial technology.

A group of artists with whom Arts Catalyst has worked over several years and a number of projects is the US arts group Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). CAE spent a number of years between 1993 and 2005 addressing and sharing the processes and politics of biotechnology – one of the least publicly understood technologies of our time. Their ‘participatory theatre’ aims to involve people in the routine processes of biotechnology, to let them see and use them, and realise that they can understand biotechnology if they wish to and to participate in the discourse around it.

One key area in which CAE aims to stir debate is the appropriation of food production systems by major corporations, specifically by the promotion and distribution of genetically modified (GM) food systems. In their performative action Free Range Grain, CAE constructed a portable, public lab to test food products not labelled as containing genetically modified organisations (GMOs) to see if they really were free from GMO contaminant. They had finished the initiative in Europe and were about to launch it in the US when the FBI confiscated the equipment.

CAE’s performance GenTerra, which the Arts Catalyst organised at the Natural History Museum in London, looked at transgenic organisms and the industry around transgenics. Members of CAE assumed the guise of the technicians and representatives of a biotechnology corporation. They talked visitors through the pros and cons of transgenic technologies and then allowed individuals to grow and, if they wished, take home their own transgenic bacteria. Such performances are CAE’s attempt to bring science out of the laboratory, to frame it within an art setting, and to place an act of decision-making into the hands of a member of the public.

A further technique for opening up science to a wider public is to enable artists and creative people to acquire the tools, techniques and knowledge of advanced scientific technologies. Arts Catalyst has organized a number of Biotech Art workshops in partnership with Oron Catts, director of SymbioticA (the Centre for Biological Arts at the University of Western Australia), one in London in 2005, another in Bangalore, India, in 2008, and a workshop in 2011 in London on synthetic biology, art and design. Synthetic Biology is an emerging technology. It’s the application of engineering principles to biological systems, in order to design and produce new biological forms, systems and processes. It is interesting to see – as Langdon Winner suggested – whether it is possible to intervene in the development of a new technology at an early stage. This was a collaborative project with University College London and Edinburgh University.

It is one of Arts Catalyst’s principles that we need to be in dialogue with institutions of science, not just standing outside and critiquing. Often, scientists and the institutions of science are interested in a creative exchange, as well as the notion of engaging with artists to promote a wider public understanding of science, and we can use these interests to enable access and collaboration.

Citizen science is a popular idea at the moment, but currently most “citizen science” does not really use people’s own initiative and creative thinking. Largely, citizen science initiatives involve people’s computers’ spare capacity (for example, in the search for extraterrestrial life), or asking people to count sparrows. Our approach is more aligned with what has been titled “civic science” or “extreme citizen science”, which is the development of scientific and technological tools (ideally open source) specifically for use by individual citizens or groups of people for purposes such as monitoring the effects of environmental degradation or pollution, or land use change.

Arctic Perspective Initiative trip to Foxe Basin, Nunavut, Canada (2009). Photo: Arctic Perspective Initiative

Arctic Perspective Initiative trip to Foxe Basin, Nunavut, Canada (2009). Photo: Arctic Perspective Initiative

The Arctic Perspective Initiative, a multidisciplinary international project led by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman, aims to develop free and open source science and technology tools for citizens of the North. The project is working on developing aerial imaging, environmental monitoring and communication tools. The initiative utilizes a range of techniques to involve other experts and to disseminate information and awareness, including exhibitions, publications and events. Most important in guiding the project is the consultation and involvement of the people in the North. Currently, the main project is the development of a sensor network to enable indigenous people in Arctic Canada and Arctic Europe to monitor local environmental change.

In her book ‘Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts’ (2007), Caroline Levine argued that democracies need art, and particularly challenging art – art that they don’t like or understand – to ensure that they are acting as free societies. She coined the term ‘the logic of the avant-garde’, by which she refers to that tradition and tendency of artists to deliberately stand outside the mainstream, and to provoke and test standard ways of thinking and looking at the world. (7)

As Langdon Winner has said: „I regularly praise technologies that reflect reasonable practices of democracy, justice, ecological sustainability, and human dignity. Unfortunately, a great many of the technical devices and systems that surround us are designed, built and deployed in flagrant disregard of humane principles. To an astonishing degree, today’s technological society is based upon a collection of bad habits inherited from the past. A partial list of these habits includes the waste of material resources, the destruction of living species and ecosystems, pollution of the air, land and water, surveillance as a means of social control, and militarism as first response to disagreement and conflict.” (8)

To be against this trajectory of technological development does not mean to be anti-technology. It means rather that we need to work together to provide alternatives to the development of science and technology driven solely by the military and corporations. The human future of science requires an active societal dialogue, in which its direction, uses and discoveries are considered and interrogated from different cultural perspectives, not just those of scientists, politicians and decision makers, but those of artists, social progressives and citizens.

Nicola Triscott
Director, The Arts Catalyst (9)

On the basis of the presentation at ECOLOGIES conference at Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Full programme:

(1) Sheila Jasanoff, Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States (Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 4.
(2) Sheila Jasanoff quoted in Cornell University, Chronicle Online.
(3) Sheila Jasanoff, Transparency in Public Science: Purposes, Reasons, Limits in ‘Law and Contemporary Problems’ Vol. 69, 2006.
(4) Langdon Winner The Whale and the Reactor: A search for limits in an age of high-technology, (University of Chicago Press 1986)
(5) Langdon Winner (1986)
(6) James Acord, Talk at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), London, 2008, as part of the Nuclear Forum, organized by The Arts Catalyst in partnership with the RSA.
(7) Caroline Levine, Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007)
(8) Langdon Winner website,


Nicola Triscott is a cultural producer and writer, specialising in the intersections between art, science, technology and society. She is the founder and Director of The Arts Catalyst, one of the UK’s most distinctive arts organisations, distinguished by ambitious artists’ commissions that engage with science, including notable projects by Tomas Saraceno, Ashok Sukumaran, Aleksandra Mir, Otolith Group and Critical Art Ensemble. Nicola has curated numerous exhibitions and events, and lectures and publishes internationally. She has edited several books, including volumes on art and technology in the Arctic, art and space, and ecological art, and is a regular blogger at She is the co-founder and project director of Catalyst Rwanda, working with vulnerable young people and emerging artists in Rwanda.