by Jon Cronshaw
Science outreach and installation art might seem worlds apart. But a daring collaboration between artists Becs Andrews and Dave Lynch and chemical physicists from the University of Leeds aims to demonstrate scientific concepts to a wider audience.
Recently shown at the Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds, Phase Revival is a fascinating art installation brings together the worlds of art, music and hard science. A sharp beam of light is projected through a series of swinging pendulums, each of them swinging at a different rate. The result is a beautifully hypnotic projection that morphs and oscillates along with an abstract musical soundtrack.
Artist Becs Andrews explained how the concept for Phase Revival was formed. She said: “My husband’s a biologist, and a while back we started talking about the idea that it would be interesting to make some art work based on some of the scientific research he’s doing and how you could use theatre to communicate ideas in science in a more interesting way than a lot of science outreach.
“I was taught science so badly at school that I would have never considered it as a career, and having seen how rewarding it has been for my husband’s career, I wondered why I never saw it like that – it’s because of the way it was communicated.”
The piece represents an ‘optical harmonica’. Dr Mike Nix, a scientist who worked on the project, explained: “The optical harmonica is an artistic representation of how our science works. A harmonica’s notes are derived from harmonics. Harmonics are sound frequencies, but in our case we’ve turned the waveforms into something visual. It’s an optical harmonica because it comprises lenses. You see light being shone through those lenses, but the lenses are swinging back and forth – it replicates the way we see atoms in our lab.”
Mike specialises in ultrafast processes in photochemistry, especially the interplay between electronic states and vibrational motion. He said: “We were awarded £1,000 from the Royal Society of Chemistry to do a little bit of science outreach. This means taking science outside of the lab, outside of the university, and try to communicate ideas to people who maybe haven’t done much science recently.
“Traditionally, science outreach would take the form of a public lecture where you’d try and make it exciting, interesting and engaging for people. We decided to take a different approach in that we chose to produce a piece of art. The installation is design in such a way that it tells you something about science.”
Becs has spent much of her artistic life working on set and stage designs and believes that Phase Revival addresses a key issue in both the visual arts and science – that of communicating ideas. She said: “Some of the things I’ve seen in theatre or art galleries just don’t seem to have the same ‘wow’ factor that good science can give you. Artists have all this energy for communication – but what many of them are actually saying isn’t very important.
“These ideas in science are things that people need to know about – it’s about telling people about this stuff in an entertaining way where they are learning about something but don’t actually feel like they learning about something.
“Art is more open to discussion, and it’s much easier than science to get involved with. Science is like a closed door thing for the experts, whereas art is something that people feel like they can have a go at.”
Mike agreed, saying: “It doesn’t set out to teach you anything, or explain anything. It’s more art that is inspired by science, to show that science can be beautiful, but also to show that science can be exciting and interesting.”
Becs explained the work could appeal to a wide range of audiences. “Phase Revival seems to grab different audiences on different levels. For scientists, it’s a manifestation of what they already know. For people that know a bit, it tells them a bit more, and for people who don’t know anything about the science it’s like an open door into finding out more about it. And if people aren’t interested in science at all, they can just enjoy it as a work of art,” she said.
She added that Phase Revival’s reach could go far beyond an art gallery setting, saying: “Where is the audience for this? I think it’s in lots of different places. Could the audience be art galleries, schools, science museums, universities, theatres – I don’t see why the audience can’t be in all of those places, the more different audiences that experience it, the better. “
Phase Revival was an inspiration and challenging experience for all involved. Mike said: “It’s been inspiring, it’s been interesting, we’ve learnt an awful lot about different ways of doing things – different ways of solving problems.”
Phase Revival was created by Andrews&Lynch with support from the Royal Society of Chemistry and DARE. Produced in collaboration with Jon Hughes, Dr Mike Nix and Prof Benjamin Whitaker, School of Chemistry, University of Leeds.