Guest Post: Andrew Prescott – The Values of Memory

The AHRC’s ‘Digital Transformations’ theme is exploring ways in which engagement with digital technologies can transform research in the arts and humanities, enabling researchers to investigate new problems and (we hope) to change the nature of scholarly discourse. The theme also seeks to develop a distinctive arts and humanities perspective on issues posed by the increasing ‘datafication’ of society, such as privacy, identity and security. As theme leader fellow, I have the perfect job, since my role is to liaise with and visit many of the various exciting projects that the AHRC has been funding under this theme, so that I can develop a sense of the overarching lessons and messages which are emerging from their work.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to an inspiring event in the Cultural Quarter of Leicester, the launch of an AHRC-funded project called ‘Affective Digital Histories: Re-creating De-industrialised Places’ which seeks to gather memories about the period from 1970 when many traditional manufacturing industries disappeared from Britain’s towns and cities. The decline of British manufacturing is well known, but the personal stories of the individuals affected are often unrecorded and forgotten. The Affective Digital Histories project seeks to recover and preserve the hidden and untold stories of people who lived and work in former industrial buildings at two locations in the East Midlands: the St George’s area of Leicester, which was formerly the hub of the city’s shoe and textile trade but now forms Leicester’s Cultural Quarter, and Glossop, a mill town in north Derbyshire. The enthusiasm and energy of the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Ming Lim, and her team were infectious, and the way in which the project is a joint enterprise with community organisations such as the Phoenix Theatre is particularly fascinating.

There is a risk that the rebranding of areas like St George’s in Leicester as a ‘cultural quarter’ can increase the sense of alienation among people who worked and lived there, and who may feel that the area now has little to offer or interest them. The ‘Affective Histories’ project is exploring how digital technology can help local populations continue to feel engaged with areas affected by deindustrialisation. The sharing of memories is at the heart of this endeavour and the project will demonstrate how a digital environment enables such memories to be recorded and used on a scale which was hitherto unimaginable. This also enables the community to become fully engaged with research into a neglected but important part of national history. The ‘Affective Histories’ project is building up an online archive of memories, photographs and stories of Glossop and Saint George’s. In January, the project will place booths in the huge Highcross Shopping Centre which will offer the tens of thousands of local people who visit Highcross the opportunity to record their memories of these areas, creating a huge memory digital store of the St George’s area with an emphasis of the type of everyday memory and reminiscence which is often difficult to find in a conventional archive. It is unusual for arts and humanities research to take place in a shopping centre, but those who contribute their memories will help in preserving for future scholars insights into the profound changes which overtook Britain from the 1970s.

The project has produced two apps which are available for iPhone and iPad users from the App store and for Android users from Google Play, The first app is called ‘Sounds of the Cultural Culture’. Among the biggest changes which have take place in British cities over the past fifty years are environmental changes, including changes in the sound of everyday life. In particular, industrial noises which dominated life in British cities for nearly two hundred years have disappeared. The ‘Sounds of the Cultural Quarter’ app enables users to hear both past and present sounds associated with different places in the cultural quarter, and to recapture something of that lost industrial soundscape. The second app is called ‘Hidden Stories’ and presents five specially commissioned stories describing memories of life in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter. Users of the app can use the stories to follow a trail around the quarter, uncovering hidden histories associated with places such as the old Imperial Typewriter factory or Rowley’s Sock Factory.

The eye-catching aspect of apps such as these is naturally the digital wizardry of the local technology company, Cuttlefish, and in this way the project itself feds directly into the digital economy of the Cultural Quarter. But what struck me was that much of the creative excitement around the ‘Hidden Histories’ app derived from the commissioning of local writers to produce stories for the app. This is a reminder that cultural regeneration depends as much on the encouragement and promotion of creative talent as on technology. The ‘Hidden Histories’ app is attractively and robustly realised, but what makes the app compelling is the high quality of the writing it presents. This writing depends on the engagement of each of the writers with different memories of the area, which they supplemented by using the Special Collections of the University of Leicester and the City Archive, thereby achieving what one of the contributors calls a ‘deep mapping’ of the memory landscapes of this part of Leicester. This is a reminder that, in a digital economy, creative content – in such forms as novels, poetry, archives, drawings and sound – is a fundamental asset. Moreover, much of this creative content is rooted in and draws its values from memory.

Memory, as scholars such as Pierre Nora have shown us, animates many different aspects of the arts and humanities, from studies of classical civilisation through to contemporary history. The lifeblood of much of the arts and humanities consists of cultural memory. What is striking about the ‘Affective Histories’ project is the way in which it draws on memory to directly assist in the economic regeneration of this area of Leicester. Perhaps memories are among the most important assets that places such as Leicester and Glossop possess.

For much of my lifetime (I am a child of Harold Wilson’s white-hot revolution of technology), computing and digital technologies have been presented in Britain as an escape route from industrialisation – a means of replacing a dirty and physically demanding form of economic activity with cleaner, more modern and knowledge-based activities. I have suggested elsewhere that, from a historical point of view, the lines of continuity between the industrial and digital revolutions may be stronger than is often allowed. At the heart of the ‘Affective Histories’ project is the idea that memories of older industrial ways of life may feed in many different ways into regeneration. For example, archival materials and storytelling may provide raw material for some of the creative firms springing up in places like St George’s. Regeneration may also be fostered by encouraging the local population to share their memories, thereby promoting connectivity and creativity. Memories of small-scale industrial activity may also encourage the establishment of ‘pop-up’ activities linking new technologies with education and older tradition, such as the New Incunable Print Shop, developed with the artist collective Juneau Projects where visitors can make 3D-printed woodblocks based on their own drawings, and use them to create original prints and artworks. An activity like the New Incunable Print Shop uses new fabrication techniques to reimagine the older industrial and craft traditions of Leicester’s cultural quarter, creating an triangulation between memory, new forms of economic activity and regeneration.

It is easy to assume that, in the globalised world fostered by the internet, regional traditions will fade away and become irrelevant. Yet the ‘Affective Histories’ project suggests that local memory and identity may assume new and distinctive roles in a digital economy. The arts and humanities have an important role in fostering the digital world as a place of memory. The way in which the ‘Affective Histories’ project harks back to the days of hosiery, shoes, tanning and typewriters, and uses these memories to invigorate the cultural life of Leicester’s cultural quarter, is striking. But Leicester is not a unique case. In Sheffield, the cultural quarter similarly looks back to the traditions of the ‘small mesters’ of the cutlery and metalwork trades there. Another project recently launched in the East Midlands was a pair of GPS-enabled shoes designed by the artist Dominic Wilcox with Stamp Shoes and Becky Stewart. The shoes use GPS to guide the wearer home using a sequence of LED lights on the toes. These shoes were commissioned by Northamptonshire County Council as part of the Global Footprint project, and again echo the long-standing shoemaking traditions of Northampton. I was fascinated to hear Gareth Neal talk in the recent Make:Shift conference organised by the Crafts Council about the Bodging Milano project which sought to revisit the ancient furniture making methods associated with the bodgers. In another AHRC project, the University of the West of England, which undertakes cutting-edge work on the 3D printing of ceramics, is working with Burleigh Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, the last remaining company to produce ceramic tableware decorated using the traditional printed underglaze tissue method, in order to find a means of restating this method of ceramic decoration in a digital environment.

These old traditions of small mesters and bodgers, of underglazing and hosiery, still have a great deal to contribute to the way in which we think about new economic activities, and arts and humanities researchers can help us reconnect with the memories of these traditions.

Guest Post: Ariane Koek – Art and Science Conversations

The 21st century is being heralded as the era when arts and science interactions finally come of age. That’s according to José Carlos Arna the Director of Etopia – the visionary art and technology centre which opened two years ago in Zaragosa, Spain, in the midst of the economic crisis.

It is being forecast that the influence of arts/science interactions mixed with technology on culture will be as significant as the technology and arts movement was in the 70s as exemplified by the extraordinary E.A.T project held at Bell Laboratories in the USA. This highly influential project fostered collaborations between such artists as Robert Rauchensberg and dancer Lucinda Childs with engineers like Billy Kluver and Manfred Schroeder. Its influence in performing and visual arts has been felt ever since.

However there is nothing intrinsically new in arts and science interactions. Artists throughout millennia have nourished their curiosity and creativity with the ideas of science and natural philosophy.  What is new in the 21st century is the intense cultural focus on arts/science interactions – partly driven by economics as the arts gets to grips with funding cuts; partly driven by a solution focused society in an era of global challenges, including climate change and political uncertainty; partly driven by the promise of certainty which science holds now for the public.  Innovation is seen as the key to tackling these issues, and new ways of looking which combine the worlds of emotions and feelings (arts) with the worlds of method and reason (science) are seen as the pathway to innovations which will provide the solutions to these global challenges.

The UK has a great cultural tradition of arts/science interactions –  for example the Wellcome Collection and Arts Catalyst, which under the directorship of Nicola Tiscott and curatorship of Rob La Frenais, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.  This organisation has led the way in showing imaginative cultural engagement in the the arts and science – most recently shown by Agnes Meyer Brandis’s Moon Goose project. Equally, visionaries such as ex dancer Scott de Lahunta have pioneered the engagement of science with dance, bringing neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to the work of choreographer Wayne MacGregor and his Random Dance Company. Many of Wayne’s early interactions with scientists were in fact supported in 2003 by what was then called the AHRB, leading to the establishment of Wayne’s work to where it is today right at the cutting edge of arts/ science/ technology which it combines with a seamless ease and aesthetic which blurs any boundaries.

This is the cultural context in which I was approached to collaborate with the AHRC Cultural Value Project and AHRC Science in Culture theme. Our joint mission was to work together to create a one day series of conversations between artists and scientists to lay open for investigation some of the values of cross-fertilisation of artistic and scientific practices happening today.

Together, we curated 4 conversations between 4 different already collaborating pairs of artists and scientists, and these were the focus of the day. These conversations were held in front of a specialized and invited audience across the fields of arts and science, who commented, engaged and responded to what was being said. All these views were to feed into the AHRC Cultural Value as well as Science in Culture theme. The aim was to put forward different perspectives on arts/science interactions, uncovering their different permutations, possibilities and differences.

I was asked to be involved because in 2010 I was hired by CERN – The European Organisation for Nuclear Research – the world’s largest particle physics laboratory outside Geneva to be their first Head of International Arts. This is to my knowledge the first time a major international science laboratory has created a post specifically for a cultural specialist, with the remit to put arts and science on the same level as each other and not as a straight forward communications tool. The post was as a result of a 3 month feasibility study into creating an arts programme which I carried out at the laboratory at my own initiative as part of my Clore Fellowship in 2009. The laboratory embraced the feasibility study, and out of it was born the Arts@CERN programme which I created, fundraise for, and direct since April 2010.

One of the four conversations which we curated for the one day workshop featured an artist/scientist combination from the CERN Visiting Artist programme – the lightest touch strand of the Arts@CERN programme which just provides one day curated encounters rather than the intense 3 month curated deep time experiences of the flagship Collide@CERN residency programme.  Nevertheless the one day encounters have impact, leading to many artists either developing projects from these one day encounters, like Mark Baldwin, artistic director of Rambert Dance Company whose new piece The Strange Charm of Mother Nature was inspired by his visit to CERN, and fashion designer Iris Van Herpen’s Spring/Summer 2015 fashion collection featured on the Catwalks of Paris this year. And curation really is the key here – a feature which is often left out of any analysis of arts/science interactions and yet it is something which people like Scott deLahunta do so well and yet so invisibly.

CERN physicist Dr Bilge Demirkoz and Visiting Artist Goshka Mocuga demonstrated so well in an open ended and frank conversation that mutual respect and fascination leads to a continued engagement. They were first introduced in 2012, when Goshka was preparing work for Documenta 13. Bilge’s words about dark matter featured in that exhibition. Since then, Goshka has been commissioned by the Centre d’Art Contemporain to make a CERN inspired work, and continuing her conversations with Bilge is leading to a work in the show which takes into account, amongst other things international politics, relations and the role of science engaging with the unknown.  For Bilge, the experience is opening her up to a different way of seeing the world and engaging with it, through feeling, rather than exclusively intellect. Both say they feel as if this dialogue is only beginning, but what this pair show is the basis of the Arts@CERN programme as a whole – fundamental research for artists at a laboratory famous for fundamental research for scientists.

So what we have at CERN now is a fundamental research laboratory in the widest possible cultural sense – not just in science and technology, but also in the arts too.  This is why I was so keen to collaborate with the AHRC to put together a one day symposium. Also what we do which is highly unusual for an arts programme at a science laboratory is to concentrate on the process of discovery and exploration – and not the end result or product/outcome. Thus seemingly counter intuitively as a result we get significant outcomes  – like the world tour of QUANTUM or Rambert Dance Company’s new piece which premiered this Autumn, The Strange Charm of Mother Nature.   Equally what we do at the lab is work with the arts not to illustrate or describe the science. Instead, the arts and science are put on the same level of mutual inspiration and exchange, with the ideas of science and the arts becoming mutual springboards for the imagination for both. This leads to a non-utilitarian process orientated approach which I feel is incredibly important  and needs to be reflected in any scoping of the arts, science and technology sector.

In our product and application driven age, we are becoming increasingly concerned with outcome, impact and societal use. As a result art is in danger of being reduced to becoming increasingly utilised as a tool and a means to an end, with artists becoming the catalysts and solutions for engineers and scientists. The emphasis is moving from the process of creation to exclusively focusing on the outcome/end, in a movement which I call art by design/application. There is nothing wrong with this per se. What is wrong however is the potential for art by design/application becoming seen as the be all and end all of artistic practice – the most fundable because it is outcome and quantitatively driven.  This is due to pressures of economics, quantitative evaluation and funding mechanisms, and it is in danger of   excluding  other ways of creating and making art/ arts, science and technology interactions, namely the more open ended approach like the one we do at CERN.  After all, the open ended approach in science and technology has led to cultural revolutions, like the invention of the worldwide web at CERN.

This belief in openness and the necessity for fundamental research in the arts, like in science, is reflected in the way I strategically created, structured and direct the CERN arts programme.  I say very clearly that there does not need to be an outcome as a result of the residency – this is because an artist exists to create and make and a work of art takes as long as it takes (and not just 3 months or the Collide @CERN residency). What is important is getting the conditions right so that s/he will create something and to trust both the artists and the process.  So far every single artist on the Collide@CERN residency programme has made something – some, like the sound sculptor Bill Fontana within the first 3 days of being there. Get the conditions right for the process to evolve, and new work will develop and create mutual inspirations between the artists and the scientists with mutual but different benefits. For the artist it is clearly the work. For the scientist it is exposure – contamination even – to the world of feelings, emotions and different connections which artists engage with as well as learning new ways of communication, thinking and being in their every day lives.

Thus in part of the conversations for the one day symposium, Visiting Artist Goshka Mocuga exchange thoughts and ideas with Dr Bilge Demirkoz. This is very much the beginning of a relationship which began in 2011 with Goshka’s first Visiting Artist curated experience when she was developing a new show for Documenta 13 in Kasel, Germany. Bilge’s reflections featured in her work and they have continued exchanging ideas ever since. This has an additional resonance because as a Turkish woman scientist, Bilge’s position will also be reflected in a renactment of one of Goshka’s previous works which is happening as part of a major new show at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva.

What is clear from observing them interact is the inspiration they get from each other and the quality of thinking between them. It is a creative collisions between different points of view which leads to further understanding as well as different ideas and approaches to practice. But it can’t be quantified, as such. Bilge can not say how it has changed her science. All she can say it has changed her ways of thinking and looking at the world.

So when we look at the 21st century as being heralded as one between the arts, science and technology, lets also include in this vision the necessity for fundamental creativity – creativity which does not have a defined application or outcome. Fundamental research in the arts is just as much as threat as it is in the science in our world and in this sense they are common allies.. As Peter Higgs said recently, he would have never been able to have had a career in science today, because he could not prove that the theory of the Higgs Boson he was creating existed – catch 22. Equally Tim Berners-Lee under today’s conditions might never have been able to carry out further investigation into his idea for how laboratories could communicate with each other. After all, his supervisor wrote a note which said ‘Vague but interesting.”

Yet it is through openness, the liminal cross over points, and interactions that paradigms can be shifted and changed. With a mixed creative economy, we crucially leave the door open to the unexpected, to the ineffable and creative change in all its manifestations.