Archive for May 9, 2009

Space Experiments

Posted in Art, Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 9, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve been disconnected from the blogosphere for a few days,  as one of the consequences of a very interesting trip  to Berlin from which I’ve just returned.

When I received an invitation a few months ago to give a lecture on cosmology at the Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Space Experiments), I first thought that the “space experiment” concerned would be the forthcoming Planck mission, which is now firmly scheduled for launch on the afternoon of 14th May 2009. However, the institute I visited  is in fact part of the Universität der Künste Berlin (Arts University of Berlin) . It’s a new project run by Olafur Eliasson, a famous artist and a Professor at the University and I was one of a series of guests invited to talk to the students about various aspects of space and time. Olafur was one of the people behind the Experiment Marathon in Reykjavik which was almost exactly a year ago, and he’d decided to invite me to his new institute here and now as a result of my contribution there and then.

I was quite apprehensive about doing this because I’m really extremely ignorant about art, and didn’t want to appear too much of a philistine. I therefore decided to prepare a talk that was focussed strongly on the science but with just one or two references to works of art.  It turned out that the artist Matthew Ritchie was also around and keen to participate so we decided to do a joint presentation.

The eminent art historian Caroline Jones from MIT also sat in, contributing to the discussion and adding her own insights along the way

Matthew spoke first about how art can draw ideas and inspiration from scientific thought and argued that this was especially relevant today when science is so full of strange and wonderful concepts. Along the way he demonstrated an unexpectedly deep understanding of subjects such as thermodynamics, relativity and quantum theory.

I then took over and talked about cosmology, trying to focus on the interplay between theory and observation in order to convey some sort of idea of how the process of science actually works in this field.  I was particularly keen to get across the idea that we haven’t made scientific progress in cosmology by merely looking and recording. We have had needed to build theoretical frameworks to help us interpret what we see and to plan new observations.

Although we’d only discussed things for a few minutes before the event, as it turned out the two talks dovetailed rather nicely, I think.

When I was finished, Matthew finished by showing some of his own works which are complex, multi-faceted, multi-media creations evocations of and responses to ideas often, but not exclusively, arising from theoretical physics. The photograph above shows one of his installations. I haven’t seen his work up close, but it struck me as astonishingly inventive but at the same time possessing a great unity about it. His works are extremely diverse but they all seem to have a very distinctive signature all of his own.

After the talks and lots of discussion we adjourned for a nice dinner in a local bistro with some of the students who carried on asking about various bits of physics, such as the possible existence of  closed timelike curves. I was delighted by the intensity of their curiosity, which went far beyond that displayed by most physics students!

These days there seem to be quite a lot of initiatives aimed at promoting a dialogue between art and science although most of them don’t seem to be very successful. Science and art are obviously quite different types of activity. Each is also surrounded by a discursive penumbra of metaphors and simplifications that attempts to articulate what is going on inside the field to those outside. Not all artists try to explain their work in this way and neither do all scientists. Often the result is that the arts-science dialogue is simply a coming together of relatively superficial interpretations that does not really bring the core domains any closer. What is particularly impressive about Matthew Ritchie is that he does seem to have deeper insights into science than many artists and he responds to those insights in a way that is highly original.

The other thing that struck me after taking part in this event was the difference between art as a process and the products of that process in terms of “works of art”. Similar  processes are involved in making art as are needed in science, such as those involving problem-solving about how to implement an idea in a painting, sculpture or an equation. What differs is that works of art are, to a greater or lesser extent, consumable by the general public while those of science are not.

 The invitation to do this talk also gave me the chance to take a trip down the Unter den Linden of my memory. I’ve actually been to Berlin twice before. Once, about 25 years ago when I was a student, and then again in the early 90s when I attended a conference in Potsdam.

This time I stayed in a charming but rather antiquated hotel in the Prenzlauer Berg area of the city. Before 1989 this was in East Berlin, on the “wrong” side of the Berlin Wall. It had, however, escaped the total devastation that rained down on most of the rest of Berlin during the later stages of the war and it managed to retain much of its interesting architecture. After reunification it became a rather bohemian area and many artists set up studios there, which is presumably part of the reason my hosts had located there. Prenzlauer Berg had also been a major centre for Berlin’s sizeable  beer-making industry. One of the larger breweries has now been transformed into an exciting arts centre called the Kulturbrauerei and the Institut fur Raümexperimente is itself also housed in buildings that were once part of a brewery.  In fact, the whole area was built in the 19th century, itself a kind of space experiment, and still incorporates many features arising from its origins as an innovative piece of urban planning.

When I first came to the cityof Berlin in 1985 I stayed in the West – with its ostentatiously exuberant and uninhibited nightlife, West Berlin was an amazing place to visit in those days. I did, however, have a pass to travel to the East for a day. I remember walking through Checkpoint Charlie, on Friedrichstrasse, after passing through Potsdammerplatz south of the  Brandenburg Gate and looking eastwards across the strip of waste ground that had been levelled to create a killing zone for  escapees coming in the other direction. The transition from affluent and colourful West Berlin to the dreary drabness of the East was like swtiching channels to find a black-and-white movie on view. It was also frightening because everywhere you looked there were guns pointed at you, especially on the return leg from East to West. I also remember thinking how much the shoddy and unimaginative postwar architecture of East Berlin reminded me of Wolverhampton.

The drastic social and political experiment that lay behind the Berlin Wall was ultimately a failure, but its legacy will only slowly vanish. There are still signs of it even today, almost twenty years after the Wall fell in a metaphorical sense.

This time I reversed my previous path, starting out in the East and walking to the West. This time both sides were in glorious colour. In fact, it was a lovely spring morning and there were tourists everywhere.

Very little of the wall now remains. When I came in the 90s, just  a few years after the momentous events of 1989, much of it was still intact although there was a big gap in the central section. The killing zone was a strip of rubble-strewn ground which it was possible to walk over without any real hindrance.  Hitler’s bunker was located there too, although its position wasn’t advertised for fear of it becoming some kind of grisly  shrine.

At that time path of the wall through the city was easy to follow by eye as it was marked by the tall cranes involved in massive construction projects aimed at removing the scar that the wall had carved across the face of the city.

Returning now to the same location, I found new buildings covering almost all of the old cold war stuff but, in between the offices and administrative buildings, there is also a sombre and very moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Checkpoint Charlie has gone too, of course, but its site is also marked by a museum. Elsewhere in the city only one or two pieces of the wall remain, the biggest one in Bernauer Strasse, not far from my hotel.

It was fascinating to see the how the city slowly is renewing itself. There is still a huge amount of building going on but it’s a wonderful city to move around and it’s very green. The wide boulevards give a tremendous sense of space which contrasts enormously with the creeping claustrophobia of London.

Back from Berlin on Friday lunchtime I had time to pop into the RAS meeting and dine again at the RAS Club before returning on the late train back to Cardiff, bringing closure to a little space-like curve of my own. 

A short trip, but  fascinating and very enjoyable.

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