The larva, the test tubes, and the trombone – art-science collaboration at the V & A

Professor Jacqui Glass of Loughborough University tells the story of an extraordinary collaboration between EPSRC-funded research teams and artists.

Instruments of the Afterlife at the V & AI would never have dreamt a year ago, that in twelve months’ time,  I would be walking behind four performers, dressed in grey boiler-suits and playing what looked like a trombone, a geometric backpack and a fat white larva, through a famous museum!  However, this was my experience when science and art came together as part of the Digital Design Weekend at the V&A Museum in London.

I first met design duo Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta, (Burton Nitta), last year, when they brought one of their art-science collaborations Algae Opera to a mini science fair at Loughborough. Our project, Creative Outreach for Resource Efficiency (CORE) is funded by EPSRC to engage, challenge and inspire. We had organised the fair so that research teams could pilot engagement ideas with a class of local schoolchildren.

One of the projects we are working with is Cleaning Land for Wealth (CL4W). This 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.

The science fair was a great success – not least because the CL4W team was inspired to embark on a new collaboration with the artists. The result – Instruments of the Afterlife depicts a future where energy needs and planetary consumption are balanced, creating self-sustaining systems with little environmental impact. But what exactly was it?

Well… imagine the courtyard of the V&A Museum – a large, open-air space filled with visitors relaxing in the sun. Our four performers paraded into this restful and cultured space, and played deep resonant notes from a trombone-like instrument that resounded around the brick-lined garden. Faces quickly turned to find out what was going on. Interspersed with loud proclamations, and culminating in a physical reconstruction of the science, the performance had hundreds of people transfixed.  Visitors followed the performers back inside, to the Sculpture Gallery, and stayed to listen to talks by the artists and research teams, and ask questions. We were given a very special chance to discuss research with the public, who might never otherwise engage with a scientific project in this way.

So, I can now say, hand on heart, that I am a convert to the power of art to engage people in science. It’s not that I didn’t believe in the notion of public engagement – it’s just that I hadn’t really witnessed its extraordinary effect first-hand.