Every year at the Manchester Science Festival we commission new pieces of artwork. ‘Why?’ you might ask—after all, aren’t science and art two different disciplines? We believe that art and science have much in common—both disciplines ask big questions, both attract people who are inquisitive, both seek to inspire and provoke discussion about fascinating and relevant topics.
We have Charles Percy Snow, a great thinker of the 1950s, to blame for the idea that the two are mutually incompatible. Snow published an essay on the “two cultures”, the ideas in which we have struggled to demolish ever since. But many of the great Renaissance artworks that we celebrate are as much science as art – think of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man or references to Galileo’s research in the works of Shakespeare.
The questions of the divide—or not—and the limitless creative potential from combining art and science arises again today as we announce that for our Manchester Science Festival 2018 headline exhibition, Electricity, we are working with our sponsors Electricity North West to offer a £20,000 art commission which will feature in the exhibition. You can read more about the commission and how to apply here. The commissioned art work will aim to create debate about the proposed theme of how we stay “switched on” and we are particularly interested in receiving proposals for moving image and/or immersive art work.
Electricity is a vital, yet invisible, part of our lives, and this major exhibition will show how this force is fundamental to human life and has captivated inventors, scientists and artists alike for centuries. At a time when we are more reliant on electricity than ever before, the exhibition will ask us to contemplate our ongoing relationship with electricity, the environmental impact of our choices and imagine what the future might look like.
Artists and scientists both share a desire to question the world around them and that’s what we want to do with this commission. Their roles frequently overlap, giving us answers but also igniting curiosity about human existence. These collaborations challenge perceptions and increase the reach of both disciplines, often to new and under-represented audiences.
The Festival programme in 2017 reflected both our vision to be the most bold, creative and ambitious science festival in the UK, and our ambition to be internationally recognised for our creative exploration of science. As we always aim to, we put science at the heart of culture, with exciting collaborations between practitioners of both fields resulting in theatre, poetry, music and dance.
These collaborations included a world premiere, Richard Evans’ Sentinel. Richard blogged for us about how he created the show, using data visualisation from migrant journeys, viral outbreaks and environmental Sentinel satellites to form abstract light patterns that complemented the music. This was real science, communicated via sinewy synths, ethereal vocals and electro rhythms melding seamlessly with lasers and cutting-edge lighting.
We also worked with scientific poet Dan Simpson and poetic scientist Sam Illingworth on Experimental Words, a diverse display of rhyme, rhythm and reason, pairing some of Manchester’s finest spoken-word artists with leading scientists to compete in a science slam show. Sam lectures in science communication and is a great ambassador—we asked him to write us an official festival poem, which he did—namechecking everything from the Baby computer to the transit of Venus.
I think one of the most interesting and unusual events we programmed was Under Glass, which was at The Lowry in Salford. It was equal parts medical laboratory, museum exhibit and living art installation, an immersive experience that encouraged audiences to examine a series of human specimens within a collection of giant glass containers. From a shy ‘wallflower’ to a couple negotiating their space in a bed-like petri dish, this was a creative exploration of how we view our own and each other’s bodies.
Working with artists, scientists and cultural institutions throughout Greater Manchester, we are proud to produce thought-provoking and beautiful experiences that offer a new slant on science and the world around us. Keep your eye on the Manchester Science Festival website to make sure you stay up-to-date with the latest news on our Electricity commission—we’re excited to see the ideas that artists present to help interpret our beautiful exhibition.