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A Question of Science: In Conversation with Hannah Redler, speaker at TED X Albertopolis

‘Albertopolis’ according to the OED is:

'An informal name for: the area of South Kensington in London that is home to various cultural and educational institutions- including the Natural History Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Royal College of Music.'

This archaic term has now been revived as the title for of the first TEDx event ever held at the Royal Albert Hall.

Art and Science have often been considered as divided disciplines however, just as the geographical alignment of the institutions referred to by the original use of ‘Albertopolis’ brings the two together, TEDxAlbertopolis will be an afternoon of inspiring, thought-provoking and entertaining talks exploring how art and science coexist fit together in the modern world- inspired by the intentions of The Great Exhibition of 1851.

Joining the esteemed panel of speakers, including Professor Dame Sally Davies—the Chief Medical Officer for England and David Braben FREng—computer game designer and co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, will be Hannah Redler.

Hannah is a curator of cross-discipline projects between photography, contemporary art, design, science and technology and specialising in media art. She is currently Head of Media Space and Arts Programme at the Science Museum, London. For this one day symposium she will be exploring the arts and sciences as parallel and equal forms of cultural practice and research.

Here she talks to Francesca Goodwin about why the UKs biggest science museum has an arts programme and what the disciplines can learn from each other.

Francesca Goodwin : When did the arts programme at the museum begin?

Hannah Redler: The Science Museum Contemporary Art programme began in the mid-1990s, ratified by the Arts Policy (1996) which commits the Museum to working with contemporary artists with every major capital project. But this has just been one part of an expansive programme of working with art, photography and artists going back to the very beginnings of the Science Museum Group. We have an historical art collection of over 8000 works, including paintings prints, drawings and ephemera and of course we also hold the National Photography Collection at the National Media Museum Bradford.

FG: What is the primary aim of bringing art into the museum?

HR: Art has been commissioned and collected for different reasons at different times. The contemporary art programme was set up in the 1990s to provide a platform for artists raising questions about science and society and to offer our visitors alternative perspectives on science. Contemporary science communication has, if you like, embraced uncertainty within science. Artists offer subjective voices and are experts at challenging received ideas which makes for a refreshing counterpoint against the Science Museum’s neutral voice of authority. Artists don't need to be neutral and they don't need to be authoritative, although they often are. Also I think art often reveals truths that can’t be revealed in other ways.

FG: Is there an element of an anxiety in the wake of globalization that one medium is not enough, that we must express the totality of the world in terms of science and culture? HR: Perhaps, although I wouldn't call that anxiety I would call it being civilized.

FG: Through the work of media companies such as Factum Arte, facsimiles are, being produced of historic works of art threatened by time. This is obviously an example of science preserving and (in some cases) altering the function of art. Do you think that science itself becomes an artifact once it has been superseded by new technology and, that its blending with art is an attempt to extend its longevity? How far does the intervention change the original function of the objects?

HR: Yes of course the purpose and meaning of scientific apparatus and objects changes as their functionality decreases, but I don't think art can do anything to increase their longevity in relation to the original intentions for their function. I would say though that often artists’ enquiries into the past functions of objects and/or their potential intentions, expand our understanding of those particular objects and their impact, as well as encouraging the more philosophical, aesthetic and ethical questions.

FG: Likewise, in the ‘Challenge of Materials’ gallery, I am reminded of the arte povera movement and the work of Gilberto Zorio who is currently showing at Blain Southern Gallery. Zorio is interested in the physical nature of matter itself and how the uncertainty of material experimentation can fuse with concrete memory. In this sense one could say that the exhibits are art in themselves. Why then is the intervention of ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’ employed and, has this blending created any problems for visitors in terms of what is fact and what is an art object?

HR: As Duchamp taught us intentions count for a lot in judging whether or not something is an artwork. While several of the pieces collected as narrative objects for the ‘Challenge of Materials’ gallery are artworks (objects by Kyoko Kumai being an example) I think it's up to visitors to decide how they want to read objects that make no claim for being what you call capital ‘A’ art. The Museum decided to include contemporary art in ‘Challenge’ as a way of playing with assumed knowledge. A temporary artwork commissioned for the gallery by Jordan Baseman was called ‘Some people believe’. Baseman was interested in the emotional side of materials, and created a website and alternative label trail, that explored belief systems placed upon materials in folklore, fairytales, religion and superstition. Baseman’s labels were the same size and font as some of the exhibition materials but with surprisingly different content. I visited that exhibition before I worked for the Science Museum and was excited and inspired by it.

FG: The museum’s newest and most art focussed venture is ‘Media Space’ which, showcases the photography collection from Bradford’s National Media Museum. Where did the decision to dedicate a space to media and photography come from?

HR: The National Photography Collection is as old as the Science Museum itself and was held at the South Kensington site until 1983 when the National Media Museum (originally the National Museum for Photography, Film & Television) launched. Bringing a suite of dedicated photography and art galleries back into the London site seems like a natural homecoming. The fact that we have, in the intervening years, ramped up our work with contemporary art makes it equally natural to continue our work in both areas together. It's really exciting.

FG: Photography itself is a medium that is in danger of aesthetically imploding due to the rise of instagram, which makes the everyday and ubiquitous into a work of art. How do you foresee balancing the tradition of photography as prints on the wall with its uncertain future within an age of digital overload? Is this why the second show ‘Revelations: Experiments in Photography’ incorporated contemporary responses to the archive?

HR: We're living in really interesting times, which is exactly why we should be interrogating our extraordinary Photography Collection, or rather collection of collections, it includes every genre photography, as thoroughly as we will be through the Media Space programme. You're quite right that ‘Revelations’ was conceived in response to the rising ubiquity of digital media in photographic practice. The curators, Ben Burbridge and Greg Hobson observe a growing swell of contemporary photographers increasingly looking back to early scientific experiments in wet photography, when people had to not only create images but the apparatus to make them with from scratch. They've made connections between this and the rise of digital photography.

FG: Is there a danger here that the art is being made into something illustrative and used as a marketing tool rather than standing as an autonomous entity?

HR: Until now I've never had the actually very desirable problem of the art being used as a marketing tool because it simply hasn't been our biggest story. Hopefully this will change with Media Space. Risks of being illustrative are higher for our gallery interventions programme, as we are taking artworks out of their natural habitats and placing them within science contexts, which not all of them were created to be seen within. ‘Media Space’ will engage with science and technology but from within arts discourses. So although it is working within the ‘frame’ of the Science Museum I'm hoping it might be more straightforward. It's really important that we work hard on the way we display works and on the interpretation with the artists and our visitors. This is informed by our sustained research into how our visitors actually read the works in our context. Our challenge is to communicate that an artwork is art, what it is about it that makes it art, how it corresponds with the science stories into which it's been placed, or why we’ve brought it here, as well as hopefully offering a sense of the artists’ wider practice, which often itself offers clues as to why a particular piece is a good ‘fit’ here.

FG: Although, the upcoming show in September ‘Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, feels more nostalgic- a traditional exposition of a museum’s archives… I am curious as to how this fits in with the science-art aesthetic and whether the programme is shaping into something a little too conglomerate?

HR: Media Space has an expanded and different, albeit aligned, set of objectives to the existing Science Museum contemporary arts programme. At its core is the desire to interrogate the National Photography Collection within contemporary concerns. We own the entire Tony Ray-Jones collection and he is cited as being one of the most influential British photographers of all time. But he is very much photographers’ photographer and less well-known amongst general audiences. Parr, one of the world's most famous British photographers has acknowledged that without Ray-Jones he wouldn't be the photographer he is today. It seemed like a really lovely opener to invite Parr as a mature practitioner to review one of his major influences and one of the key people who transformed British attitudes to the photographer and to photography.

FG: It could be alleged that the project that the photographs can no longer exist as an independent exhibition?

HR: I don’t think that ‘Only in England’ is necessarily being placed within a specifically scientific framework. Rather, it’s been placed within the framework of Media Space, which is a gallery for photography and art, that will also programme projects that engage with science and technology in its broader programme. But I wouldn't say that ‘Only in England’ does. It's very much about the collection and the archive as you suggest.

FG: This idea of media saturation is inherent in the ‘Universal Everything’ installation also showing in Media Space. It appears that it will have echoes of the ‘Listening Post’ installation already within the museum- in terms of putting some human touch back into the proliferation of digital data- could you explain a little more about the concept?

HR: ‘Universal Everything & You’ reflects Universal Everything’s interest in bringing warmth, emotion and humanity to digital forms, or in the words of founder and artistic director, Matt Pyke in ‘engaging in romantic explorations’ of computer code’. What links Universal Everything to Mark Hansen & Ben Rubin, the ‘Listening Post’ artists, is that they all understand code as a fundamental material of everyday life and therefore a valid, urgent even, material for art. We are all immersed in coded environments from the computer software running the programs we use to work with, to the digital visual effects in the films and television shows we watch. Code has a fundamental impact on the way we perceive and engage with the world around us, but not many people think of it as something man-made. Through work by artists like Universal Everything and Hansen & Rubin perhaps we may be encouraged to pause and consider the potential of coded environments to shape our experiences and emotions, and also that we may have some influence to bear on that. Visitors to ‘Universal Everything & You’ get to contribute to the work through a specially written app, which is great fun.

FG: Is there a theme here of repositioning science back into a more tangible context, do you think this is representative of the type of crisis in media that threatens photography?

HR: I do think that in a world where the majority of major scientific advances happen at the level of noughts and ones (and I mean through massive computational power in for example biomedical science as well as advances in digital technologies) artworks can often provide material moments that allows us to consider the wonder and awe of some of the developments as well as broader conceptual issues. I do not, however, think this is the job of the artwork, nor do I think it's related to any crisis of media that may ‘threaten’ photography.

FG: In light of the tensions discussed it is fitting that your talk for the forthcoming TEDxAlbertopolis event at the Albert Hall will focus on ‘arts and sciences as parallel and equal forms of cultural practice and research.’ Could you briefly outline how this will be reflected in future exhibitions at the museum?

HR: As you say our biggest next project is Media Space, which I think is unique in London as an experimental and inter-disciplinary programme that will draw both on our world-class National Photography Collection and the broader Science Museum Collections. Our plans are to bring together photographers, artists, curators, scientists and the creative industries to explore relationships between, and lesser-known histories of, photography, science, art and technology. Also watch out for some extraordinary projects in the Science Museum interventions programme which will include major new artworks for our Information Age Gallery and Climate Changing programmes, both in 2014.

FG: Thank you for your time, we look forward to hearing you speak at the TED event

HR: My pleasure, Media Space is open to the public from Saturday 21 September. Come see us and tell us what you think.



September 23, 2013 2pm - 7pm

Royal Albert Hall

Kensington Gore

London SW7 2AP

For further information and tickets see the TedxAlbertopolis website.