CL4W scientists and Instruments of the Afterlife

The art work “Instruments of the Afterlife” was first performed at the V & A Museum in London, as part of its Digital Design Weekend on 26-27 September 2015. The art performance was the result of collaboration between scientists from the CL4W project, and art-duo, BurtonNitta

The CL4W project explores ways in which contaminated land can be brought back to life using plants to collect toxic metals, such as arsenic, and how these plants can then be processed by bacteria to form useful metal nanoparticles.

Instruments of the Afterlife drawingThe CL4W team – supported by the Creative Outreach for Resource Efficiency project – was interested in ways in which they could engage others in their work, using innovative and inspirational methods. They decided to explore working with the artists to find new ways of communication and to reach new audiences.

Public Engagement Lead for the CL4W project, Dr Louise Horsfall from the University of Edinburgh led the project, supported by Dr Phil Longhurst from Cranfield University. Together, they worked closely with the artists on behalf of the multi-disciplinary project group.

“The inspiration for working with BurtonNitta came about when we attended a mini science fair at Loughborough University,” Dr Longhurst explained. “As part of the engagement with school children, BurtonNitta displayed an art piece called an Algae Mask. What struck me about this was the response of the children to the art. This was reinforced when their teacher reported that they found this one of the most memorable aspects of the day.

Instruments of the Afterlife performance at V & A in sculpture gallery“This experience really drew me to the conclusion that impact is about getting that connection and that you can get the facts correct once the interest is there.”

From this inspiring event, Louise and Phil decided to explore whether the CL4W team could work with the art duo, as a way of gaining new audiences for their scientific work.

Louise added: “We wanted two things from working with the artists – something that would help communicate all aspects of the project within the group itself as well as something that would engage a wider audience.”

The pair met BurtonNitta, to discuss their ideas and to develop a brief, which was kept deliberately broad, to allow the artists space for their own interpretation.

Phil said: “Neither of us wanted to define the product – we wanted to define the experience for the audience – not how it was achieved.”

BurtonNitta visited each university within the CL4W group (Edinburgh, Cranfield, Warwick, Newcastle and Birmingham) interviewing the biologists, scientists and engineers, taking photographs of them at work and filming them.

Instruments of the Afterlife diagramThey then produced diagrams and artwork that communicated what the project was about, showing the relationships between the engineering processes and the synthetic biology as well as the desired results – cleaning land that is currently contaminated and gaining valuable materials from the process. These were checked with the scientists to make sure that they had captured their work effectively.

BurtonNitta commented: “We enjoyed the challenge of the complexity of the CL4W research and the scale that the research encompassed – from nano to planetary! It was the convergence of science and technology that sparked our imaginations. This led us to consider the ways in which the research may change our world and us, in the near and far

From meeting with the scientists, BurtonNitta then developed a piece called “Instruments of the Afterlife”, that would engage with a wider public. This involved a performance, artefacts, music, and a story that would provoke an audience response that was first aired at the V & A.

View photo gallery of Instruments of the Afterlife

Instruments of the Afterlife people in galleryPhil commented: “At the V & A we reached different audiences that we don’t normally talk to – we never speak to artists, or people from the creative industries – yet the UK is so good at producing these! While watching the performance, it really struck me, there can be the potential for an ongoing, contemporary connection between science and art that can be very powerful – it can have a real influence.”

So what was it like for scientists to work with creative artists?

Louise admitted: “I loved working with the artists! Although synthetic biology is an incredibly creative field – coming up with alternative solutions to problems – it was very exciting to work with BurtonNitta to express what we’re doing.”

Phil added: “It was excellent – they were really easy to talk to and were genuinely enthusiastic about our work. They immersed themselves in the discussion and the ideas and created a new story from it. When I heard the title, “Instruments of the Afterlife”- I thought it was fantastic and terrifying in equal measure! But brilliant as well – we asked for a surprise and we got what we asked for! It felt exciting and risky – which is what Creative Outreach for Resource Efficiency (CORE) is all about.”

And what was it like for the artists to work with scientists from a range of disciplines?

Instruments of the afterlife performance outside V & ABurtonNitta explained: “We consider the CL4W work to offer interesting disruptions to current and past systems to shape our future lives. With multiple areas of science (plant science, synthetic biology, circular economy and nanotechnology) working together we have been inspired by the team’s approach to glimpse a possible future trend where the interactions of disciplines aim to help us all be better citizens both socially and environmentally. “

The success of “Instruments of the Afterlife” means that the scientists and artists are looking for new venues for the performance. They are also looking to develop the collaboration even further.

Read Professor Jacqui Glass’s blog

Lessons learned

Louise: “I did find it difficult to express myself in terms that are not used outside of my own field. But BurtonNitta were very good at listening and checking back with us.”

Phil: “We were right to give the artists an open brief – the result they achieved was far beyond our expectations. They far exceeded my level of ambition.”

BurtonNitta: “It was invaluable to have the scientists at the event to talk to the audience and create a very human connection with the research. ”

All Photographs by Nick Rawle (NickRPhotography), courtesy of Loughborough University/EPSRC.

Images courtesy BurtonNitta