IN AN art-science collaboration, it is important that the artist does not impose a view on the science. Nature has more imagination than we do, so it is best to let it speak for itself. Equally, if either party tries to impose too much – either by riding roughshod over the scientific content or by demanding needless technical accuracy – things can go wrong.
I work on string theory and M-theory, which aim to provide a unified, fundamental description of nature. I have collaborated with artists on a variety of projects, such as pencil sketches of higher-dimensional objects in M-theory and sound installations representing the hidden dimensions. The aim of each collaboration was to show that we must abandon our preconceived ideas about the world in order to really understand it.
Theoretical physics and art share a common element: they should provide a new way of seeing the world. Relativity and quantum mechanics are now as much a part of the cultural landscape as Shakespeare and Beethoven. It seems natural to me to communicate the exciting new ideas from string theory to the art world, and to a public seeking conceptual challenges.
A successful art-science work should be more than simply communicating scientific ideas in a mathematics-free version. It should impact on people in a direct way, with a sensory component that moves them. In my experience, the areas of science that best lend themselves to this kind of collaboration are the abstract and theoretical. In these disciplines, our views of reality are constantly challenged, just as they are by art.
David S. Berman is a reader in theoretical physics at Queen Mary, University of London. He collaborated in 2009 with artist Jordan Wolfson on the Cartier award-winning piece at the Frieze Art Fair in London, and curated Images in Physics at the University of Cambridge’s Clare Hall
Wolfson’s winning proposal was selected from over 450 applications by artists from all over the world. At Frieze Art Fair 2009, Wolfson presented a nomadic seminar on the subject of String Theory that took the form of a walking tour of Frieze Art Fair. Each tour, strictly limited to one person at a time, was guided by a theoretical physicist from Queen Mary University, London, who casually explained the concept of String Theory. The team of physicists was headed by Dr. David Berman, Reader in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary University, London, and expert in String and M-theory. Each tour was recorded and then transcribed to form the basis of an ever changing, ever growing script that was reenacted by two actors and directed by the artist in Regent’s Park the following day.
The Cartier Award is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading art awards. It allows an emerging artist from outside the UK to realise a major project at Frieze Art Fair as part of the critically acclaimed Frieze Projects programme. Neville Wakefield, curator of Frieze Projects, commented: ‘Jordan’s unique brand of poetic conceptualism ranges across the sciences and humanities to create what are at once delightful and perplexing forays into the narratives and myths that colour our times. Especially exciting is the opportunity to bring such complex and sometimes challenging work to the wider audience of Frieze.’