In his best-selling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari explains that electricity played no part in the global economy until the late 1700s, after which a series of inventions turned it into today’s universal helper:
‘We flick our fingers and [electricity] prints books and sews clothes, keeps our vegetables fresh and our ice cream frozen, cooks our dinners and executes our criminals, registers our thoughts and records our smiles, lights up our nights and entertains us with countless television shows.’
Just about everything we use runs on electricity and its attractions for scientists and industrialists are obvious. Yet ever since it was first discovered and put into use electricity has also stimulated the minds of some of the most creative thinkers from the worlds of literature, cinema and the visual arts.
Electricity: The spark of life explores the impact of electricity on the human imagination in three major artworks, each of which has been specially produced for the exhibition.
John Gerrard has engaged with historic books and instruments at Wellcome Collection in London—and with NASA’s Space Shuttle programme—to produce a cinema-scale simulation called X. laevis (Spacelab) 2017.
Bill Morrison has mined footage from the Electricity Council archive at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester to create a lyrical animated film called Electricity.
And in a piece called Flow Tekja has used real data provided by Electricity North West to visualise the millions of invisible interactions and connections across the regional electric power network.
Mirroring the workings of the National Grid, the electric network covering the whole country, these three moving image commissions function as the exhibition’s power stations and speak to the key concepts of generation, supply and consumption. Surrounding them are various scientific and industrial artifacts that reflect further on these concepts at all levels from the structure of the tiniest living cell to the workings of our solar system.
The domain of electricity extends across the whole of nature. And of course we too are electrical entities. The movement of charged particles within our bodies lies at the heart of all that we think and feel and do, be it running for a bus or falling in love.
Electricity is elemental. Electricity is everywhere. We are the body electric.
Electricity: The spark of life is at the Science and Industry Museum until 28 April 2019. Admission is free. Click here for more information.