Breaking barriers between science and art

31 May 2019 - By: Caroline Wood

Breaking barriers between science and art

By Caroline Wood

“I’ll never forget going to some lectures at the London Science Museum when I was 11 and being absolutely blown away to meet an actual real scientist!” says Duncan Cameron, who at the time would hardly have dreamt that one day he would be not only a scientist, but a professor studying symbioses between plants and microorganisms. Or that he himself would be the one inspiring others with science—but using means very different to the traditional lecture!
Breaking Barriers
Duncan performing ‘Gaiamycota’ at the 2016 Festival of the Mind in Sheffield. Photo:Anthony Bennett

Having initially struggled as an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield, Duncan never forgot the importance of using wonder to draw people to science. It was during a lecture on parasitic plants that he became “completely obsessed” by this underground world of subterfuge and found his true calling. Throughout his academic journey, he became increasingly interested in communicating science through art, recognising the limitations of ‘default’ public engagement. “Traditional science communication assumes that because we know more than the general public it’s up to us to just tell them amazing facts,” he says. “I wanted to do something more equitable where instead we create a space for dialogue, inviting people to think about something and then ask about the underlying science.”

His first foray into the arts came from his research collaborator Mike Brockhurst. Together they worked with French artist Laurence Payot in 2014, using people as ‘living sculptures’ to represent biological symbioses. This formed part of Festival of the Mind, a local biannual festival of science and culture. When the festival returned in 2016, Duncan then worked with sculptor Anthony Bennet to create ‘Gaiamycota’, a digital installation, video, music composition, and performance artwork that imagined whether microbes could restore a world whose soils had been completely ravaged by humanity. “What really excited me about these projects was that we were using art in a highly conceptual way, rather than making a literal representation of science, which wouldn’t have been nearly as intellectually stimulating,” Duncan says.

Last year proved just as eventful, culminating in two high-profile art–science collaborations for the 2018 festival. Entitled ‘The Sound of Science’, this extravaganza-style show combining electronic music with live demonstrations simultaneously enthralled audiences whilst delivering a powerful message about climate change and sustainability. “Using music is a great way to give people the information they need to make better decisions and allows the message to reach a wider audience than that in the room,” says Duncan. The exhibit ‘Refugerminate’, meanwhile, was born as part of a collaborative research project between Duncan and colleagues at Sheffield with refugees from the Syrian conflict, seeking to develop an artificial soil to grow food in refugee camps. This inspired a series of hydroponic sculptures, growing crops and ornamentals in vessels shaped as the everyday items often most missed, including footballs and teddy bears. Poignant and moving, it captured the importance of soil health in areas whose food supplies are disrupted by conflict.

Although rewarding, Duncan recognises that ambitious art–science projects require time and persistence, but he still encourages academics to step out of their comfort zone.

“I don’t have any formal arts training and most of my partnerships came about through just talking to people and networking,” he says. “As for funding, I always include public engagement as part of the wider aspect of grant applications.”

He adds that for those who dare to challenge themselves, the satisfaction can be immense: “It’s given me some of the best moments of my life and pushes me intellectually, which helps me appreciate my research even more.” With ‘The Sound of Science’ selected for the 2019 Cheltenham Science Festival and ‘Refugerminate’ invited to feature at the prestigious Brooklyn Usagi gallery, it seems certain that Duncan has many more exciting moments to come. A fitting journey for the

11-year-old captivated by his first scientist in a museum, and one that has no doubt inspired many others to a life in science since.

Category: Science Communication
Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members. Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops.