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Biomedicine in museums

Hybrids between science, visual art, poetry and theatre

By February 22, 2010No Comments

The Thackray Museum in Leeds is hosting an interesting meeting organised by artist Paul Digby on Saturday 20 March. Titled ‘Hybrid’ it gathers a group of interesting thinkers and practicioners on the interface between art and science:

Siân Ede (Arts Director at the UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and author of Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts) will talk about ‘Light echoes in art and science’:

A light echo is a phenomenon observed in astronomy and is produced when a sudden burst of light is reflected off a source, arriving at the viewer some time after the initial flash. Investigative approaches in art and science have little in common but co-exist in the same human context and may unwittingly reflect each other’s thought processes and imagery. In this talk I will venture to explore how far images in contemporary art and science reflect each other’s aesthetic and epistemological currencies.

The philosopher Mary Midgley will speak about ‘Science and poetry’:

Science and Poetry are not rival concerns competing for our attention. They are complementary aspects of our lives. The same imaginative faculties forge both of them, providing the basic structures round which they grow. In every age, scientists need to have a suitable guiding vision, a vision which is adapted both to new data and to changes in the background culture. Some of the visions which are still thought of as central to modern science – e.g atomism and mechanism – were actually forged in the seventeenth century and have become in some ways, unsuitable for the thinking which has since developed. We need to attend to these visions and keep them up to date.

Then James Peto (Senior Curator at the Wellcome Collection) will talk about ‘The culture of medicine: exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection’:

Since the Wellcome Collection opened two years ago, its exhibitions have covered such diverse subjects as the relationship between medicine and warfare; what we understand – or imagine – is happening in our brains and bodies while we sleep; how artists and scientists have grappled with the question of human identity; the history of our understanding of the anatomical and symbolic role of the human heart; the relationship between mental illness and the visual arts in Freud’s Vienna. Showing examples from exhibitions which have been shaped by artists and scientists in equal measure, James Peto will discuss how the Wellcome Collection approaches science as part of culture, rather than as something separate.

And finally Mike Vanden Heuvel (author of Performing Drama/Dramatizing Performance: Alternative Theater and the Dramatic Text) will give talk on ‘To Infinity, and Beyond!’ Can Theatre Play with Science?’

Given the recent appearance of a number of well-received plays with scientific themes, characters, and metaphors, it is no surprise that critical discourse is just beginning to assess the quality and accomplishments of science plays. A leading spokesperson for one critical approach is Carl Djerassi, an award-winning chemist who, after retiring from academia, has published a number of plays on science themes (Oxygen; An Immaculate Misconception). As well, Djerassi has become a respected polemicist for adjudicating which plays belong to the category of what he terms “science-in-theatre.” In my paper I explore some ramifications of Djerassi’s assumptions, focusing on how they position theatre and performance as a mirror held up to the nature that a given science proposes. I argue that such expectations have led a good deal of playwrights to pursue a strategy of “veracity” in their presentation of scientific themes (using Frayn’s Copenhagen as a readily-recognizable example). In contrast to these assumptions, I present the work of less-known playwrights and theatre devisers (such as Luca Ronconi) whose strategy is rather one of what I term “variety” – “theatre-in-science,” to reverse Djerassi’s formulation. In their work, theatre and performance are recognized, and celebrated, for their ability to warp the mirror of scientific veracity and to awaken imaginative responses that still honor complex scientific ideas (such as Ronconi’s Infinities, created in collaboration with the cosmologist John Barrow). In my conclusion, I interrogate the consequences of what I consider a too-heavy investment of science-in-theatre at the expense of theatre-in-science, considering how art/science collaborations are normally funded and for what purpose they usually come into being.

Limited number of seats — contact Paul Digby,, for more information.

(thanks to Lucy for the tip)

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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