Posted by Professor Jacqui Glass on 01 October 2015
I 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.
Engage, challenge and inspire
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?
The power of art
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.
About creative outreach resource efficiency (CORE)
Based at Loughborough University, CORE (funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) supports exciting and imaginative outreach projects that encourage academics to “get out of the lab”, provoke public debate and deliver world-class engagement on their resource efficiency projects. It supports the delivery of a vibrant and creative outreach programme to maximise public and user engagement in resource efficiency.
CL4W is an innovative research project involving science teams from the Universities of Warwick, Birmingham, Cranfield, Edinburgh and Newcastle and is also funded by EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council). Substantial amounts of land across the UK and overseas is contaminated as a result of industrial activity in the past. Almost two thirds of the contaminated land in England and Wales contains metals and metalloids, with arsenic and nickel accounting for about 40 per cent of this.
The CL4W team are investigating how plants can collect toxic metals from contaminated land, which can then be harvested and fed to bacteria, which in turn can be used to create metal nano-particles from the plant material. The aim is to make land decontamination financially viable, and provide manufacturing industries with new materials gained from the process, without the need for mining and smelting.