Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford

Research Residency, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art (1996 to 1998)


The Laboratory at the Ruskin School has been at the forefront of articulating the research activities of artists and making the case for its value. The Lab involved me in a number of innovative projects in the late 1990s, and I produced an artists’ website entitled ‘Rain of Atoms’ about Democritus’s extraordinary — and eerily accurate — intuitions about the atomic structure of matter.

I believe the Lab was among the first institutions to commission artists’ websites, and certainly was the first art academy to do so.  Paul Bonaventura, who runs the Lab, paired me up with Peter Ride at Artec, and we spent several months to make what would now, a decade and more later, take a day or two to produce.  Sadly, it has gone the way of much early digital artwork, upgraded out of all existence.  This ephemerality is also time-honoured in time-based art, so I’m fairly sanguine about it. Later on, I used some of the same images for the logo of the Dennis Rosen Trust, and you can get a sense of Rain of Atoms from it.

It was quite abstract — literally a black screen with a little window through which hundreds of roundelles (spheroid images taken from across the history of science) fell like atomic rain; cosmic rays suddenly made visible as if the viewer were looking through an electron microscope magically constructed from the CDU’s cathode ray.  Quaint as it may sound, the website won Lycos’s ‘website of the week’ award in 1997 — that gives you an idea of how much faster things are moving now.

Other sites the the Lab commissioned were David Bickerstaff’s Ubiquity, and an early version of Jake Tilson’s The Cooker.

During this period, Antonia Payne (now at University of Wolverhampton) worked closely with Paul to forge links between artists, art schools, and humanities departments of universities. Antonia convened the pivotal conference Research and the Artist at the Ruskin in 1999, editing the volume of the same name. She devised a project called Inserts, commissioning artists to make bookworks for scholarly journals, and invited me to make a work. At the time, I was working on Atomism & Animism, a major collection interpretation project for the Science Museum, London.

As a long-standing member of the British Society for the History of Science, I thought it would be fun to contribute, as an artist, to the Society’s journal. The result, which you see above, was a translucent work about seeing celestial bodies (British Journal for the History of Science, Winter 1998, Vol 31, No 4).  This is from the introduction:

A Metaphysical Subject” is a double-sided, translucent collage juxtaposing diagrams by Wittgenstein and by Sacrobosco, a 13th century natural philosopher. The work was created for this unique moment between two total eclipses of the sun — in February of 1998, visible from the Caribbean, and in August of 1999, visible from Cornwall, England. Eclipses have been viewed — often literally — as moments to mark civilisation: “A Metaphysical Subject” reflects on the age old relationship between human self-consciousness and the knowledge of the heavens.

In 1996, the Ruskin School’s Joseph Beuys Lectures addressed the relationship between art and science, and I opened the proceedings with a presentation entitled ‘Paradigm and Diagram: How Artists Think Science.’

These days in the world of contemporary art a great deal of money is being poured into what is called ‘new technology.’ The adjective “wired” is indiscriminantly applied as a name to both exhibitions and magazines. We struggle to remember that tools are only a part of method, and not synonymous with it. There seems to be about works of art constructed in and through smooth ‘new technology’ a strange frisson of verity, as if the hardware made the work into hard fact, and as if artists working with new electronic technology were somehow more scientifically-minded than artists making work in what is now considered more traditional media. New technology must not make the error of donning the mantle of objectivity that science at its best has only recently managed to slough off. Since all true objectivity is both relative and ideal, can we not say that it is also entirely subjective, and hence embrace the powerful structure of subjectivity as a ripe field of information and understanding? I wish to differentiate between science and technology not to hierarchize them as we have mistakenly done with arts and crafts, and high art and popular culture, but rather to make the point that there is a difference between knowledge or understanding that is of things themselves, and knowledge of means to ends.

Since that time — over 15 years ago now — an entire field of self-reflexive artists’ practice interrogating new technologies has grown up.  But not everyone is listening, as there is still uneven understanding in several fields concerning the relationship between science and technology, and between intellectual innovations and technological ones.  The 1996 Beuys lectures were recorded by Audio Arts for audio cassette distribution, possibly among the last of those publications, as DAT and the mini-disc took over as ‘means to ends.’  They too are now historical.


Further Links: Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art; British Society for the History of Science; Audio Arts; Joseph Beuys Lectures; Research and the Artist Conference

[Image References: Newton, Prism Experiment Diagram (1665/1704) shown in my lecture Paradigm and Diagram; Martha Fleming, A Metaphysical Subject (British Journal for the History of Science, Winter 1998, Vol 31, No 4)]