Framing the science of our lives
A unique gallery that discusses burning issues of science and public health through contemporary art opens soon in London. Simon Tait reports
On September 21 a new £12m building opens, nestling in the King’s College London enclave in Guy’s Hospital near London Bridge. Its first exhibition tackles one of the least understood and most insidious of modern social ills: addiction.
Main image, Daniel Regan's Threshold from the Hooked exhibition
Science Gallery London is the first of its kind in the UK, a purpose-built gallery with no permanent collection that relies partly for its subject matter on a changing cohort of young advisers aged between 15 and 25 and the skills of curators to select the right art and artists to inspire debate and understanding. It's part of the King’s Cultural Strategy created in 2012 by Baroness Deborah Bull to break down barriers and make connections between culture and academia.
“The Science Gallery addresses the important questions of now and the future you need to look at from more than just one perspective” says Dr Daniel Glaser, the gallery’s director and a research neuroscientist by training. “We need university people and non-university people, young and old, artists and scientists, all sorts of different people, to be in a space where they can collide.”
The “Young Leaders” that form Glaser’s consultative panels include King’s students but also young people of all backgrounds drawn from the neighbouring boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. For four years before the new building’s advent, Glaser and his team ran a series of experimental seasons in pop-up locations across London, making new connections through over 100 community organisations, “trusted gatekeepers”, he calls them. “We work to a curatorial envelope set by young people”.
The young leaders are expected to be closely involved, and to identify their successors. Young Leader and King’s neuroscience student Bella Spencer believes the new gallery will draw in young people from south London and beyond.
“Science Gallery London will challenge us all to think about the big issues affecting our world” says one of the Young Leaders, neuroscience student Bella Spencer. “It will be a vibrant, interactive space where science isn’t hidden away in labs and art isn’t behind a velvet rope. King’s is making science and culture accessible to everyone, allowing young people the chance to interact with new discoveries and original thinking.”
Glaser also calls on “the Leonardos”, a brains trust that includes the broadcaster, Aleks Krotoski, the producer Amanda White, the stem cell scientist Fiona Watt, art gallerist Hannah Barry, the multi-media artist Bishi, the mathematician Marcus de Sautoy and the choreographer Wayne McGregor.
The Science Gallery is a transformation of Boland House, once a part of the Guy’s Hospital complex but latterly McDonald’s Restaurant. The new building, designed by LTS Architects (who provided the image) is part of the £30m Guy’s Hospital courtyard development, and the new – free – gallery has been designed to encourage inter-action. The ground floor is mostly a café and bar – “I was the first scientist in residence at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) and spent most of my time in the bar because that’s where people have the kind of conversations we're looking for” Glaser says. On the sub-ground level is an open span theatre with flexible seating that can double as a cinema and a lecture theatre. On the upper floors is the exhibition space, all in an open plan so that each element can be connected.
Rachel Maclean's Feed Me from the Hooked exhibition
“King’s Science Gallery London represents a new vision for the role of the university in the 21stcentury. It will take critical new research on urgent issues beyond the university walls and bring them to life through science and art. Science Gallery London will see new collaborations between artists and scientists challenge the status quo and capture the imagination of King’s local communities, students across the capital and visitors young and old.”
Hooked, the Science Gallery’s opening exhibition, examines addiction of every kind, including drugs – surprisingly the least worrying for the young consultants - gambling, sex and smart phones, through the work of established and emerging young artists, some of it new commissions. Based on deep King’s College research, it looks at why we become addicted, the new addictions presented by the digital world, how society feeds our vulnerability to addiction and ways of withdrawing from a harmful cycle.
The exhibition is curated by Hannah Redler-Hawes, a freelance curator who specialises in cross-overs between art and science. “We must challenge long-held beliefs and stereotypes to consider what addiction is and how it affects us all” she says. “Working with Science Gallery London to bring academic researchers and young people together to probe contemporary culture and social structures has been an amazing journey. This season casts a critical eye over the much-talked-about and complex topic of addiction."
The gallery will have three exhibitions each year, with the next three focussing on transplants and regenerative medicine, dark matter and anxiety. The mission is to “take critical new research on urgent issues beyond the university walls and bring them to life through science and art” explains Professor Edward Byrne, King’s principal. “Science Gallery London will see new collaborations between artists and scientists challenge the status quo and capture the imagination of King’s local communities, students across the capital and visitors young and old.”
“Science Gallery London will see new collaborations between artists and scientists challenge the status quo and capture the imagination of King’s local communities, students across the capital and visitors young and old.”
Although it is unique in this country, the Science Gallery is part of the Global Science Gallery Network which was launched in 2012 with the support of founding partner Google.org.
But the idea of using art to cut the mystique of science is not new, says Dr Glaser, going back at least to 1968 when the ICA exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity which examined the then new interaction of art with computer science. More recently, “sci-art” has been pioneered by artists such as Susan Aldworth, whose Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition last year, Realisationinvolved etchings made from slices of brain devised to raise awareness of the need for neuro-pathological research into incurable diseases such as Parkinson’s.
“It is increasingly understood in this country that universities have to do more than research and teaching” Glaser says. “They have a duty to address bigger questions for society, and what Science Gallery is doing is allowing porosity, permeability, into the boundaries of the university.
“The need for scholarship, serious thought, critical thinking, never been greater. The need for different ideas and a place where they are exposed to and engaged with rigorous thinking about the problems of tomorrow is absolutely critical.”