Tag Archive for: Photography + Film

Looking and Healing: Artists and their Doctors

Looking and Healing: Artists and their Doctors, Lecture Seminar, Centre for Humanities and Health, King’s College London (May 2012)


Artists and doctors share highly developed observational skills and a fundamental love for humankind.  This lecture explores some historically revealing relationships between these different practitioners, and the intellectual, social and professional complexes in which these relationships sit.  Representational, technological and ethical epistemologies can be traced in the performed intimacies of such self-reflexive clinical arenas.  Examples from both physiological and psychiatric medicine are explored, in pairings from Goya and Arrieta through Munch and Jakobsen as well as Duchamp and Dumouchel and beyond. Painting, engraving, photography and sculpture from approximately 1750 to 1990 are addressed.

An earlier version of this lecture was given at the 2006 British Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Norwich, at the invitation of Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, then President of the British Society for the History of Science. Professor Jordanova is a leading authority on scientific portraiture, and is principal investigator for the medical portraiture strand of Kings’ Centre for Humanities and Health. We had first worked together in 2002, when as Development Manager of the Royal Society, I invited her to become involved in the Society’s portraiture collection.

It is not the only subject on which she has invited my thoughts vis à vis medical humanities. In 2005, Professor Jordanova was Director of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.  It is a vital centre for the development of interdisciplinary practice, and her directorship was a particularly dynamic period for CRASSH. Notably, she convened a fantastic workshop in December 2005 which arguably refocused CRASSH for the next decade: The Future of Interdisciplinarity.

She also invited me to speak at an exploratory closed workshop on Humanities and Medicine in Cambridge Undergraduate Education in October that same year. My contribution to the day concerned the visual arts in relation to medical practice and was entitled Looking and Healing: The Arts in Medicine.  It is linked to Artists and their Doctors by more than just the title.

What was at issue in October 2005 is still at issue today: the overlaps between medicine and the humanities and the contributions each make — and could make — to the effective practice of the other.  The two crucial issues are, I feel: the importance for medicine and medics of understanding the highly charged representational issues in medical imagery, from abstraction and realism to diagrams and data visualisation; and the field of ethics to which a truly self-reflexive medical practice could productively contribute as well as adhere to.

This is the précis of The Arts in Medicine that I handed out after my presentation:

Medical students and arts students alike need to be aware of the long historical working relationship between the two practices in the development of anatomical understanding as a legacy;

Imaging practices have gone far beyond the optical in medicine, and medical practitioners (as well as artists and the lay public) need training to parse the origins and effects of data-produced images which carry hidden within their ’visualisation’ a long complex history of representation with vested interests;

Not all those medically trained practice exclusively in medicine: investing in this deeper structure to shared intellectual territory, one which gives rise to new methodologies and not just new data, is one which could bear fruit for both medical and arts & humanities teaching;

The exploration, exposition, practice and development of the whole fundamental way in which we look at — or approach — each other as human beings is at the core of any medical activity, and emotional and intellectual instruments for accommodating it within the self and for parsing it in relation to daily practice are crucial to learning medicine: this is practicing ethics, not just ethics-as-law;

It is also true that physicians thus trained and engaged could make major contributions in turn to ethics on a much wider plane than medical ethics and legislation alone, extending to fundamental philosophical questions and the understanding of humanity — physicians could and should contribute to the humanities.


Interestingly, I heard this last note echoed five years later by the senior medical practitioner and former editor of the British Medical Journal, Dr Richard Smith, at the London School of Economics event, Valuing the Humanities. It is the intimacy of the doctor-patient relationship, and its existential power, which has potential in the field of ethics.  This is one of the conclusions of my lecture, Artists and their Doctors:


Looking at life, and looking at one another, is a very complex process socially, psychically, ethically. The eyes with which both artists and physicians survey the body acknowledges ‘the human’ in the form before it and the call to mercy and to transcendence which we make in standing before each other every day before even speaking a word. Attention is paid without judgement, and yet the attention itself issues from the fundamental human encounter of one person with another.

This is not just about bedside manner, or about medical legislation, or about inspiration, but about the way in which we approach each other as human beings. There are, inherent in the portraits I have been showing you, realities about the human condition – about a face-to-face that is both detached and full of love, about the different ways in which we keep each other as best we can from death and from the fear of death.




Further Links: King’s College London Centre for Humanities and Health; British Association for the Advancement of Science; British Society for the History of Science; CRASSH; LSE Valuing The Humanities

[Image References: Photographic Self Portrait in Dr Jacobsen’s Nerve Clinic, by Edvard Munch (Copenhagen 1908); Photographic Self Portrait, painting the portrait of Dr Jacobsen, by Edvard Munch (Copenhagen 1909); Portrait of Dr Jacobsen, by Edvard Munch (1909)]

Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime

Painting by Numbers: Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime in Late Twentieth Century Astrophysics, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (May 2006)


Very large data sets are ‘collections’ too: in an increasingly digital world, we need to understand their materiality as continuous with other forms of material culture.  We need to understand how they are generated, how they are analysed, how they produce knowledge, and what this means in epistemological terms.

Shortly after the completion of my NESTA residency at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, I was invited to present my research findings at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Under the direction of Professor Lorraine Daston, the ‘History of Scientific Observation’ project had just got underway, and I chose to make a contribution to this project with an extensive paper about numerical databases in recent astrophysical research.  In particular, the paper concerns the coming into being, use and impact of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine which for thirty years had been at the heart of data generation in UK astronomy.

This pivotal instrument was designed by Ed Kibblewhite on the cusp of the 1970s and operated by Mike Irwin at the Institute of Astronomy until 2005, when it was finally decommissioned.  The photograph you see above, taken by IoA Graphics Officer Amanda Smith, shows it leaving the building that was constructed to house it.

The main function of the APM was to scan very high quality all-sky survey photographic plates of the near universe and turn the numerical data generated into coherent, searchable databases. Its use precedes the wide use in telescopes of particle detecting CCDs (charge couple devices) which deliver a constant stream of numerical data. As such, it was the machine that produced an entire algorithmic lexicon for understanding the universe.

Here is an abstract of the paper, which I am currently preparing for publication:

What does “observation” mean in a digital age and how is this related to its origins in eras when visual culture was more physically tangible? Beginning with the material culture of astronomical photography and extending into current computational astrophysics, this paper traces the intertwined evolutions of data and image in astronomical practice. I will argue that, far from there existing a philosophical or methodological split between those practitioners who use images and those who use logics as ’observational’ tools, in astronomy image and logic are synonymous, collapsed into each other.

I will explore this phenomenon in part through its origin in traditional observational practices of technical and computational data extraction from photographs of the sky over a hundred year period, showing how this ’tribal memory’ affects not only contemporary astronomers’ relationship with avalanches of post-digital data, but also in turn culturally informs the production of present-day images synthesized from the accumulated data itself. The paper pays close attention particularly to the 1970s, a period in which overlap between the material culture of ’sky survey’ photographs, the design of automatic measuring devices and the rapid evolution of computer power — all functioning at the very limit of their capacities — created a nexus of image-data systems which enshrined the mobile equivalence between the two.

This evolving relationship from image to data and back again to image via scanners, computers and display technologies is a very important one for science in general and for culture at large in the last 40 years. In astronomy, the build-up of large data sets in what has been a supremely visual science of light extends the very notion of what the adjective ‘visual’ means and thus it is a good test case to examine these cultural changes.

Starting with an overview of recent historical, sociological and art historical attention paid to late 20th century astrophysics, I show different approaches to the visual culture of astronomy and to notions of aesthetics. I conclusion, I propose a mathematical sublime at the core of the production of photo-illusory visualisations of the universe produced for public consumption, and suggest that the feature missing from a clear understanding of all image-making in contemporary science is the still undeveloped context of a logic of aesthetics.


This project is one of several outcomes of my NESTA residency at the IoA: another was the assistant curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

It was to be the first of several visits to the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science as a guest researcher. On that occasion in 2006 it was fantastic to be able to compare notes across astronomical image and data with photo historian Dr Kelley Wilder (now running the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University) and historian of 19th century physics and astronomy, Dr Charlotte Bigg (now a senior researcher at the Centre Alexandre Koyré in Paris), both of whom were at the MPIWG at that time.

I have also more recently been a guest researcher again at the MPIWG in March of 2012, developing an exhibition project and giving the Institute Colloquium on 21 March 2012 — about the very different subject of natural history museums.


Further Links:   Institute of Astronomy University of Cambridge; History of Scientific Observation, MPIWG; Dr Kelley Wilder; Dr Charlotte Bigg

[Image References: the decommissioning of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine (Amanda Smith, 2005); black and white photo of the prototype automatic plate measuring machine by Ed Kibblewhite]

Full Solar Spectrum

You are Here: The Design of Information

You Are Here: The Design of Information, Curatorial Advisor, Design Museum, London (2005)


Curatorial Advisor to Lead Curator James Peto concerning overall exhibition structure and science content on this important exhibition looking at information design and graphics; curation of the Cosmos section of the exhibition relating to the history of astrophysics and the development of the universe.

This wonderful and wide-ranging exhibition, curated by James Peto, included everything from street signs to geological maps, morse code, pie charts, timelines, timetables and teaching models.  The exhibition concentrated on areas of information which affect all of us: “information that helps us understand what we are, where we are and how we get from one place to another, literally and metaphorically.” The show set out to “explore the history and evolution of information design and consider the extent to which advances in knowledge and technology have affected the way that designers approach their fundamental task” (quotes from the exhibition introduction).

James consulted me for advice about the science fields he wished to explore with this interdisciplinary exhibition. These ranged from astronomy to anatomy, mathematics to meteorology.  The design of information of course involves the practice of science as well as science communication: without the use of the information design technique of the grid, for example, Mendeleyev would have had difficulty discerning the structure of the periodic table and predicting those elements which had not yet been discovered.

The exhibition was loosely structured on a scale from the cosmic to the microscopic, taking its cue from one of the most significant information designs of the 20th century: Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten, which was first produced as a film in 1968, and then published as a book in 1982 by Scientific American.

I curated the COSMOS section of You Are Here, which was the show’s ‘opener’.  It was an exciting way for me to build a bridge between a major cultural museum and hard-science aspects of astrophysics. Having spent the previous year at the Institute of Astronomy of the University of Cambridge as part of my NESTA Fellowship, I knew that the processes by which astrophysicists create the beautiful images of distant stars and galaxies is even more amazing than the images themselves.  It involves complex particle detectors mounted in space stations, huge databases of numerical information, algorithms to analyse those databases, and high-spec software to polish up the final product. There is a long and fascinating history to unravelling the messages starlight brings us, and it is a history of information design.

My COSMOS section included a range of objects from an 1880s Browning spectroscope (on loan from the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford) to one of the first photon counting devices sent up a hundred years later on the Hubble Space Telescope (on loan from Alec Boksenberg and the Institute of Astronomy).  Images included a photograph of the ‘Harvard Computers’ — an extraordinary group of women mathematicians who effected many of the photographic plate measurements, calculations and classifications of stars and their spectra at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries — and a magisterial diagram of the evolution of the cosmos from The Book of Dust (1989) by the artist Agnes Denes.

Below you will find three ‘photo-focused’ references from my COSMOS section of the exhibition.  The rest of the show, containing over 350 objects and images, was as rich and info-packed as the COSMOS section, but — sadly — there was no catalogue.


COSMOS:  Light, medium and message

Locating our world in the universe means decoding information conveyed to us by the laws of physics before we can formulate anything resembling a map. Light itself is both organising principle and transportation vehicle for data about the composition and history of the cosmos.

Light travels as packets of particles called photons in waves at a constant speed: these key facts help us unlock the mass of facts organised in light’s complex structure and behaviour. From this ultimate ‘medium’, astrophysicists can extract timelines of development from the big bang, the evolution of atomic elements, galactic maps, and more.


Full Solar Spectrum

Solar spectrum showing the absorption lines which mark the presence of individual atomic elements in the sun’s composition. NOAO/AURA  1984  (National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/National Science Foundation/Tucson Arizona)

Getting the information out of something often involves breaking it down into component parts. Light is no exception: the prism in a spectroscope bends visible light to show an orderly rainbow of colours. Without the spectrum colour-coding would not exist.

In 1814, Joseph Fraunhofer detailed dark lines appearing apparently at random in the sun’s spectrum. The startling accuracy of his diagram gave birth to astrophysics: others later proved the lines to be markers — a map — showing the various atomic elements of which the sun is composed. Spectroscopy techniques now extend far beyond the limited lightwaves visible to the eye.


Southern Sky Survey showing Orion and its immediate region. UK Schmidt Telescope Unit of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh for the UK Science and Engineering Research Council and European Space Observatory, 1985 -1999  [The full ESO/SERC Southern Sky Survey in several wavelengths contains 1,956 fields]  Thanks to Dr Mike Irwin, Director: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit, Institute of Astronomy/Cambridge.

Taking pictures of the sky through telescopes began with photography itself and originally was limited to plates of particularly ‘interesting objects.’ This evolved into the All Sky Survey: the whole visible sky is divided into a vast image-grid. Astronomers measured and analysed varying intensities of the recorded light and distances between stars.

By the 1980s scanners were systematically used to extract information from these pictures. Each plate generates hundreds of thousands of digits of raw numerical data. Long before a ‘pretty picture’ of a new astronomical discovery appears in a newspaper, an elaborate processing of data received from space missions has occurred.


The “Harvard Computers” including Annie Jump Cannon, and the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, Edward Charles Pickering, 1912  (Harvard University/Cambridge Massachusetts)

In the early 20th Century, many of the photographic plate measurements, calculations and classifications of stars and their spectra were done by an extraordinary group of women mathematicians known as the “Harvard Computers” decades before the computer as we know it was even conceived.

The patterns they saw emerging from the sea of information they were hired to handle have become fundamental to the mathematics of data mining in current astrophysics. The work of these ‘information designers’ 100 years ago contributes structurally to how we model the evolution of the cosmos today.



You Are Here: The Design of Information was reviewed by the Guardian, EYE Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. (Press Release from the Design Museum.)

Further Links:  Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames; Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge; Agnes Denes

[Image References: Periodic Tables of the Elements; Solar Spectrum, NOAO/AURA; Orion, ESO/SERC Southern Sky Survey; Harvard Computers, Harvard University; views of You Are Here by Rose English and by Jonathan Hares, one of the exhibition’s designers

NESTA Fellowship

Fellow, National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (2004 to 2007)


Three year Senior Fellowship awarded by closed nomination for research exploring observational practice across scientific disciplines — astronomy, particle physics, spectroscopy, ophthalmology — and identifying potential methodological alignments between these practices and artistic practices.

The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts was set up through an endowment from the UK National Lottery in 1998, and has been through several ideological and corporate incarnations.  In the beginning under Jeremy Newton, and through the time that I was a Fellow, it was clearly focused on nurturing UK creativity across the arts, sciences, design and technology — its brand was ‘creative investor’.

The complex application procedure began with a closed nomination: my name had been put forward to them by a senior advisor, which meant that I received a call from NESTA inviting me to apply for a Fellowship. Following that, there were two sets of interviews at NESTA, a formal written application with a research plan and budget for three years’ work, letters from three referees, and an external evaluation interview — with Jim Al-Kahlili.

My main activities included a residency period of over a year at the Institute of Astronomy of Cambridge University.  This was both formative and productive, and led to my curating the COSMOS section of James Peto’s exhibition You Are Here: The Design of Information at the Design Museum.  I was also able to formulate a brief history of plate-measuring and scanning machines in astrophysics — Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime — which became a contribution to the History of Scientific Observation project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Of course, the overarching common interest between astronomers and artists is light: and I learned how much more to light there is than the visible spectrum, as well as the co-extensiveness of light with all other matter by dint of its particulate nature. The fact that it is possible to ascertain the elementary makeup of matter by measuring its radiation — often light itself — is profoundly exciting. Spectroscopy is one of the techniques I explored during this period.

Researchers at the IoA and also at the Cavendish Laboratory across the Madingley Road were generous with their time, and I received both formal and informal mentoring from Dr Robin Catchpole and Dr Jon Zwart.  The Institute’s Librarian, Mark Hurn, shared his history of astronomy knowledge and more, and I attended conferences and classes as an observer. Professors Craig McKay and Alexander Boksenberg, alongside Dr Mike Irwin, were especially helpful in illuminating the links — both theoretical and technological — between photons and data sets, via detectors and photomultipliers.

Understanding how data is collected is one thing; grasping how it is analysed is another.  The evolution of mathematical understanding from probability and statistics to computed algorithms is also a move from human to computer calculations.  I was lucky enough to have Professor Marcus du Sautoy as a maths mentor during my Fellowship, and my comprehension of mathematical concepts has been greatly increased.  Sadly, the ability to actually apply any of these concepts to sets of numbers, or express them mathematically rather than in words, is still lacking.

I became captivated by the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine, an instrument which Mike Irwin had spent most of his career cajoling into creating vast accurate numerical representations of the near universe.  The APM, now decommissioned, existed to scan All-Sky-Survey photographs in the interregnum before all astronomical data came routinely from particle detectors.  It is essentially the history of this unique machine — designed in the 1970s by Ed Kibblewhite — that I outlined in Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime.

Not all those astrophysical particle detectors are out in the sky on satellite telescopes, either. Several are deep underground, where the mantle of the earth protects them from interference.  One such instrument is the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, which I visited in the framework of my NESTA Fellowship in March of 2006. It was a complex period for SNO; they were in the middle of a major building programme above ground, and were planning a second phase of experiments for the huge instrument, SNO+ — a phase that was at that time not assured of funding. It is one of the most important astrophysics instruments ever created, and I was very honoured to be so well received at such a critical moment.



The perfect little model you see here is of the heavy-water Cherenkov detector that is the core of the facility. The real thing is so big it requires a cavity in the rock the size of a ten story building, and it is installed two kilometers below the surface.  They carefully prepared me for the trip down the mineshaft and into the observatory; I was so excited that I hardly noticed the fear. It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever willingly done.

I was also given a tour of the new research building being constructed to replace the series of sheds and portacabins that had housed the project’s researchers from the beginning. I was able to return in some small way the knowledge exchange by advising Director of Operations Dr Fraser Duncan with a list of the material culture items that it would be advisable to preserve and exhibit in the new building’s ‘trophy case’ once the move was complete.  It is so often the case in these moves that things get thrown out that in 30 years’ time would be vital clues to an historian — or indeed to a later astrophysicist. The smallest thing on my list was a mousetrap, and the largest was the iconic silver workshop formed from an old railway car: Shed P31. The history of physics is littered with sheds and their mousetraps, and it’s a history that remains to be told.



Some of the most important and productive areas of creativity are those which overlap between NESTA’s areas of arts, sciences and technology. This can be the case in the practice of individuals as well as in the practice of teams. Though the research and projects that I effected during the Fellowship were mainly self-directed, they intersected with a range of team-based institutions.

A big plus to being a NESTA Fellow for me was the opportunity to meet and exchange with colleagues working in science fields that were new to me. The Science Crucible Laboratories organised by Nicola Turner and later by Alan Morton — whom I had first met whilst working at the Science Museum — are a case in point. Groups of early-career researchers and those interested in interdisciplinary work and science communication were awarded for a year-long period that included regular meetings and mentoring.

On some of those occasions, other NESTA awardees were invited to be part of weekend retreats.  I spoke to the 2005 Crucible Meeting at Dartington College of Arts, alongside Mark Miodownik of the Materials Library, on the subject of Creativity. Among many other things I spoke about, I outlined the friendship that sprang up in 1950s Berkeley between the great American composer Harry Partch and the physicist Lauriston C Marshall, then Director of High Voltage Engineering at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory:

These two different men saw something in each other that was about the fundamentals of waves and resonance. Larry learned to play Harry’s instruments and was one of the few who understood the mathematical underpinnings of his ‘just intonation’ and the physics behind his music theory. In 1950 they applied jointly and successfully for a Guggenheim grant to develop an electronic organ. In a short two years a great body of work was produced by this pair, ranging from musical compositions to early software and even shared MSc students: William Max Muller’s successful thesis was entitled “A Cathode Ray Tube Harmonic Generator for Musical Tone Production” — Glass and Gas!


At the latter end of my Fellowship, I returned to questions of the visible light spectrum, and had a closer look at ophthalmology with a view to understanding the physiology behind phenomenological experiences of light. NESTA’s Alan Morton arranged for several Fellows to spend the day at the UCL/Wellcome Institute of Ophthalmology with Professor Fred Fitzke.  I was also mentored by optometrist Andrew Field.

I became interested in the possibility of the reuse and repurposing of ophthalmological examination instruments and astronomical observation instruments — both optical and particle detection. The great advantage to having a period of time on such a research Fellowship is that hunches and interests become focused into frameworks for study and, ultimately, long-term projects.  As I wrote in 2005:

One sphere is the finite laws of physics which govern light, another sphere is the finite physiology of seeing — receiving light — and a third intersecting sphere in this Venn diagram would be the manmade instruments which manipulate light. I believe that somewhere in the intersection of these three spheres is a core of consciousness, and I also believe that we need as many phenomenologists as we do neurologists to explore this issue. We need as many artists as we need physicists. We need historians and we need historiographers. In short, we need to forge whole new methodologies.

Looking Back Towards the Light: An Artist in the Observatory, lecture delivered University of Oxford, University of Copenhagen, University of Calgary (2005)



Further Links: NESTA; Institute of Astronomy; Sudbury Neutrino Observatory; UCL/Wellcome Institute of Ophthalmology

[Image References: Institute of Astronomy Coradi Plate Measuring Table, in the shadow of Isaac Newton; Model of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory instrument showing the disposition of photomultipliers; Shed P31 workshop from Sudbury Neutrino Observatory; NESTA Fellows away-day meeting in 2006 at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, with l-r the then Director Michael Harrison, Brian Duffy (legs only!), Allan McRobie, Tom Shakespeare, Jane Prophet, Lise Autogena and Alan Morton]

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)]

Introduction & Index

Introduction & Index, silkscreened translucent banners and artists’ bookwork (1994): Printed Matter (New York); Artexte@MACM (Montreal); Bath Public Library (UK); Ridington Room, University of British Columbia (Vancouver), C Magazine (Toronto)


A meditation on censorship and the power of print, and on the editorial apparatus as a constraining device with a complex subtext, this work was originally conceived as part of the project The Spirit and the Letter and the Evil Eye (with Lyne Lapointe, Bath, 1994).  As a limited edition set of banners, it was shown in multiple venues in Canada and the UK through 1994.  As an artists’ bookwork, it was published that year in C Magazine, with ‘Introduction’ being the first page of the magazine, and ‘Index’ the last page.

The ‘introduction’ at the beginning of a book and the ‘index’ at the end are conventions which help us navigate both the text and the ‘body’ of a book, and which define at one and the same time the spatial and the intellectual ‘lie of the land’ between the covers.  They are also redolent of sensory experiences of handling and manipulating the book itself: the ‘introduction’ is a physical way in – a threshold – and the ‘index’ that cuts through the book’s text by subject can also refer to the finger turning the pages.

As all knowledge is powerful, powers over it are carefully managed: Index is also the short-form title for the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books either censored or banned by the Catholic Church.  This list was active from 1559 to 1966, created as a direct result of the advent of the printing press, and the consequences of reading and circulating materials which appeared on it were at no time more draconian than during the Inquisition.

This was one of a series of works, large and small, that I made during this period using translucency in a two-dimensional format as a way of creating depth of field, relational structure and comparison between two discrete line images. Another example of these conceptual print projects is Metaphysical Subject, commissioned by the Laboratory at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art for the British Journal for the History of Science (1998).

What was particular about Introduction & Index was that it drew thoughts about book and print culture and convention together with the media of printing and publishing itself.  In a sense, the banners are as much bookworks as was the publication of the work in C Magazine, and both versions are spatial as well as graphic.

It was Julie Ault and Doug Ashford who invited us to display the banners at Printed Matter; Lesley Johnstone who invited us to display them at Artexte when it ran the bookshop for the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; Antonia Payne and Angela Kingston in Bath; and Scott Watson in Vancouver.  Marie Fraser, then Montréal Editor of C Magazine, curated Introduction & Index into the publication.



Further Links:  Printed Matter New York; Artexte; C Magazine

[Image References: all images are of Introduction & Index, by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (1994)]

Artforum, Vanguard, Fuse, Afterimage, Live, Body Politic

Until late 1984, I continued to publish in a wide range of art magazines and journals of cultural critique, having served on editorial boards of FUSE, The Body Politic, and Fireweed — magazines with international reach produced in Toronto.

The two issues of Artforum pictured above — April and May, 1981 — contained my reviews of the Gerry Schum retrospective organised by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1979/80) and of an exhibition by John Scott at Carmen Lamanna Gallery (1981). Gerry Schum’s pioneering ‘tv gallery’ in Dusseldorf ran from 1968 to 1973 — and even the retrospective I wrote about then is now so long ago that there has been another one since: at Kunsthalle Dusseldorf in 2003. In John Scott’s 1981 show of amazing drawings of the military-industrial complex as a science-fiction, there was a prescient drawing of a man overwhelmed by numbers, a drawing entitled ‘The Googleplex’.

I wrote a number of other reviews for Artforum in that period, about Colin Campbell, Robert Bowers, David Clarkson, Genevieve Cadieux, and others. But for any writer, the most important part of publishing is working with exciting editors: at Artforum I was edited by Ingrid Sischy and David Frankel. Good editors are your best friend.

And indeed some of them became close friends, like Martha Gever and Catherine Lord who taught me so much, and who were working at Afterimage in the 1980s. I published articles about Arnaud Maggs (January 1982), and Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé (November 1982) in Afterimage.

The article about Karl and Carole, entitled “The Production of Meaning,” also appeared in Open Letter and in issue 8 of BLOCK, which pioneered critical inquiry into the rapport between politics and aesthetics, and was edited by Lisa Tickner and others.

Canada had its own publications of distinction in this field, and some of them are still going strong. When I was on the editorial board of FUSE Magazine on the cusp of the 1980s, Karl and Carole were closely involved — as was Lisa Steele, Clive Robertson, and John Greyson. In fact, before it was FUSE, it was Centerfold, and that’s when I first published in it. I wrote about Videocabaret, anorexia, copyright infringement of artists’ videotapes, editing the television news, Toronto’s experimental film collective called The Funnel, the girl-band The Slits, and more.



Fully immersed in the political/aesthetic climate, I wrote about artists’ video and about performance for the feminist journal, Fireweed (‘Lisa Steele: Hearing Voices’ Summer 1980) and for the gay liberation newspaper The Body Politic. In fact, when I attended the landmark conference Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at the University of Champaign Urbana in 1983, I was not surprised to see as many gay rights colleagues as artists and art critics assembled. Thirty years later, there is now an MA in Aesthetics and Politics at CalArts.

I became involved in commissioning and editing cultural news for the Body Politic, and was mentored by some very brilliant people there — Rick Bebout, Tim McCaskill and others. Doug Durand and I published an extensive article about gender and performance for the BP, and with that article, the collective put video artist Colin Campbell on the cover (June 1980, see below).



In part because of my work with video distribution at Art Metropole, I was very interested in artists working in time-based media, and so I also came to be published in short-lived but influential journals like John Howell’s LIVE, Video Guide, and On TV.

The range of art publications, and the different registers within which each approached contemporary art, was much more varied in the 1980s — though the ease and economies of web-publishing over print-bind-and-deliver would have quickly won over most editors from that period.

In Canada, the two main publications were produced literally 3,500 miles from each other, in two different languages and pitched at very different kinds of reader.  They were: Vanguard, edited by Russell Keziere in Vancouver, and Parachute, edited by Chantal Pontbriand and France Morin in Montreal.  I wrote for both. Here is a cover for Parachute issue 14, featuring a 1976 performance by FUSE editor, Clive Robertson, entitled The Sculptured Politics of Joseph Beuys, in which Robertson grapples with the implications — for his own career — of Beuys’ fame.



In Vanguard, which ran from 1972 to 1989, I published mainly reviews — Robert Wiens, Brian Boigon, Les Levine, Spalding Gray, Joseph Beuys, Elizabeth MacKenzie, Patrick Jenkins, Rebecca Garrett, Tod Siler, Ian Carr-Harris, Lyn Blumenthal. In Parachute, I also reviewed — Joyce Wieland, John Massey, Glass’s Satyagraha — but I most enjoyed writing a full-length article about the relationship between experimental film and architecture: Filming Buildings Building Films (Parachute 25, Winter 1981) It concerned the films of Ross MacLaren and of John Porter, both of The Funnel. I feel it would have come as no surprise to them that I would shortly move from Toronto to Montreal, and that I would spend the following decade fully engrossed in the intersection between art and architecture.



Further Links: Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture; MA in Aesthetics and Politics Calarts; Afterimage; FUSEThe Funnel

[Image References: LIVE Magazine 6/7; Artforum April and May 1981; Karl Beveridge and Carol Condé, It’s Still Privileged Art (1976); Fuse Magazine Logo; covers from The Body Politic (1970s/1980s); Parachute 14; John Porter, Down On Me, filmframe from a much larger conceptual filmwork (1980)]

Art Metropole Video Distribution

Distribution Manager, Artists’ Videotapes, Art Metropole, Toronto (1979 to 1981)


Under the direction of Peggy Gale, Art Metropole was one of the first organisations in the world to curate, archive and distribute artists’ videotapes. This was a very exciting time for this medium, then only about a decade old, as video equipment itself moved from reel-to-reel to cassette, from PortaPak to Camcorder, and the battle for Betamax was lost to VHS.

I worked with Peggy and with General Idea — the founders of Art Metropole — to develop distribution networks and exhibitions of video by artists; co-authoring, compiling and helping to produce the first printed catalogue of AM’s video stable. This is still an amazing document, listing early works by some of the most exciting artists in the field — Ant Farm, General Idea itself, Lisa Steele, David Askevold, Colin Campbell, Bill Viola and more.

At the time, there were few curators in major museums who were up to speed with artists’ time-based work in performance and video. One of the few was — and still is — Barbara London, of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, who has continued to evolve and renew herself as a curator alongside the field itself.  Barbara bought a number of works by Canadian video artists and others from Art Metro while I was there.

In 1980, the Canadian representation at the Venice Biennale showcased video artists in an exhibition curated by Bruce Ferguson with co-ordination and support from Art Metropole. This project took me to Venice for the first time, and I accompanied General Idea to the Basel Art Fair that year as well. It was a crash-course in the art world, and a very different world it was then.

I was particularly interested in the way in which formal and technical aspects of video informed the way that artists used it.  It may be amusing now to hear that the advent of colour video — until the late 70s financially out of the reach of most artists — had a big effect on the kinds of tapes being made, but so it is. Invited to speak at the Nova Scotia College of Art, that was the subject of my presentation.

In 1981 the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, then run by Antonia Payne, invited me to curate a group of videos for a larger exhibition entitled Canada in Birmingham. I included work by Robert Hamon among others, and Ed Lam, my student at the Ontario College of Art and Design — where I was co-teaching the performance and video programme with Noel Harding.

During my time at Art Metro, I also sat on the Board of Trinity Square Video, an artist-run production and post-production centre in Toronto which was instrumental in the development of video art in North America.  Though the main distributor for artists’ videos in Canada is now VTape, Art Metro is to this day a significant hub for artists’ books and multiples.



Further Links: Art Metropole; Barbara London; Canadian Video Art; VTape

[Image References: all images are from videos which were distributed by Art Metropole during the period when I worked there:  Ant Farm: Media Burn (1975), Colin Campbell: Hollywood and Vine (1977), Lisa Steele: Birthday Suit, Scars and Defects (1974)]