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Wendy McGowan-Griffin reviews Laboratory Life at Lighthouse, Brighton / 6 March 2011

photo of three men in white lab coats standing near a table with computer screens and a large round sculptural object in a room lit with red light

SpaceBaby, London Fieldworks, 2006

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“Laboratory life”, is a collaboration between artists and scientists, culminating in an exhibition, talks by lead artists and an open forum, all held at Lighthouse during Brighton Science Week. In the days leading up to the exhibition artists and scientists facilitated public workshops, allowing the public to explore some of the concepts and processes used, and help create some of the final works. The involvement of the public enhanced an intended amateurism, that incorporated both a sense of wonder (anything seems possible) and a natural fear (is it safe for the unqualified to tamper with such powerful knowledge/natural forces).

The title of the exhibition 'Laboratory Life' was taken from a book, by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, about an anthropological study of a scientific laboratory. The exhibition space is divided up into areas of individual experimentation, led by the artists and supported by their scientist partners. These areas display both the results and the means of the investigations that had taken place. In addition, substance also emerged from both the objects and equipment selected about the workings of the human mind, articulated through the direction and the focus of this strange activity.

The public, on the whole divorced is from scientific workplaces, where, nevertheless, they are aware that life and death discoveries are made. Inevitably perhaps, the ‘public imagination’ supposes that laboratories are places which accommodate something akin to fertile madness, delirious desires driven to reach beyond the known, where ‘nutty professors’ and ‘Dr Frankensteins’ alike have free reign.

The project as a whole succeeded in opening up a dialogue with the public, allowing them the opportunity to identify with such wild desires and relate them to their everyday lives. 'Tattoo Traits' led by Adam Zaretsky, played with the idea of creating hybrid life by breaking down a mass of cellular material (the ‘new media’) from a range of sources and attempting to inject it into living cells. These ‘clumsy’ attempts investigated ideas about chance in evolution, and, through the use of non-scientific equipment (a tattoo gun), the accidents of fate in conception, both of ideas and of forms. Indeed the tattooed kidney beans lay rather foetus-like, branded with their potential heritage. 'The Shroud of Shecan' a mono-printed cloth, displaying dried stains of the “new media” reminded one of the traditional examination of the morning bridal sheets and the course of hopes of successful genetical inheritance.

This legitimacy and danger of amateurism was further expounded in 'The Garden Shed Lab' as artist Kira O’Reilly and her collaborators brought together exploratory devices from the kitchen and garden shed and materials found in supermarkets. The structure of the shed once again became a further “workplace” of secret hopes and desires and an escape from everyday realities – (what dreams can we create with/from what we have got). The group attempted to re-create tissue the culture experiments of pioneer, Thomas Strangeways, who harvested cells from sausage-meat, using chick embryos.

Once again the methods used, ran counter to the ‘objectifying eye of scrutiny’, where ‘sensing’ and ‘touch’ became more ambivalent encounters with what their processes brought forth. Thus it underlined the everyday hocus-pocus of domestic cookery, raising plant and animal life that we all experience but somehow honoured the miracles that we no longer notice. In doing so they re-initiated that powerful excitement in getting near something important but unknown, gained through ‘messing about’, or from a period of quietude.

This sentient approach evoked in the exhibition stimulated a sense that there is a scientist in all of us and examined the elitism and the responsibility in both arts and science that eludes most people. Arts/science debates have also hitherto seemed to emerge as an attempted divorce between knowledge and sentience. These debates between arts and science, public and professional were beautifully articulated in a video authored by Bruce Gilchrist and his project team, called “Public Misunderstanding of Science”.

The team filmed blindfolded members of the public who were asked to make automatic drawings whilst listening to a scientific discourse on synthetic biology. What emerged from the resulting animated film, were child-like imaginings, calm and sometimes troubled attempts to make sense of what is practically nonsensical to the general public, thereby illustrating the gulf between scientists and the general public and between mind and hand.

A further two projects/installations also attempted to reproduce and reframe experimental procedures using domestic objects and materials. These included “Infective Textiles” by Anna Dimitriu and her team, which used cultured microbes to dye and ‘infect’ fabric which was then made into a garment and embroidered with thread impregnated with natural antibiotics.

The Quest for Drosophila Titanus, led by Andy Gracie documented a process of attempted hybridisation of fruit flies so that they could exist on Saturn’s moon, Titan by exposing them to its conditions. By overlapping the boundaries between art and science there appeared to be much that was shared in the supposed fields of opposition.

Most artists expressed a profound sense of ‘responsibility’ for their processes, and their creations. Alongside their laissez-faire curiosity they were confronted with ethical decisions, whether in producing a breeding colony of fruit flies, in the destruction of chick embryos, or in potentially endangering the general public through a possible release of microbes.

In addition, they expounded the notion that discovery occurs as much in random acts and in imagination as in strictly controlled processes and therefore belongs to us all. The artists had the confidence to trust their own tried and tested ‘instinctual methodology’ allowing their senses to drive them forward in their quest for knowledge. They presented themselves as very much part of both subject matter and process.