Friday 24 June 2011

Interview with Elizabeth Murton

I am delighted to interview Elizabeth Murton, artist and curator of the forthcoming exhibition ‘A Theory of Everything’. This transdisciplinary exhibition brings together artists and scientists who work in different media and fields, ranging from sculpture, installation, photography, video and scientific research. Bringing science together with art is an opportunity to look for patterns and comparisons in a different context. Through this exploratory process the exhibition aims to set up conversations that lead into a discovery of the re-interpretation of what is possible.

Rules & Regs © Elizabeth Murton

Elizabeth’s practice explores installation, sculpture and drawing inspired by structures and methods of construction, specifically: textiles, weaving, architecture, psychology and theoretical physics. Her interests are in the physical world, both human-made and otherwise and how we form our understanding of our surroundings.

Since graduating from Textiles (Visual Arts) at Goldsmiths, Elizabeth has probed the notion of process through exploring the capabilities and visual qualities of different materials. Elizabeth Murton’s structure ‘Module’ was selected for a Crafts Council commission for their annual show in Somerset House in 2009. Cited by Emma Chrichton-Miller in the Financial Times How To Spend It magazine (Nov 2009) as a ‘striking, sculptural woven piece…’

Other commissions and exhibitions include ‘Can’ at South Hill Park, Berkshire; ‘Work and Play’ at The Maltings, Farnham, Surrey; ‘Orbis Opifex’ at the Crypt at Euston; ‘2012 Prototype’ at Islington Car Free Day and Deptford X in 2010.

June 2011 >>

CP: Can you tell us more about the forthcoming exhibition ‘The Theory of Everything’? 

EM: I have been interested in the idea of ‘A Theory of Everything’ for a long time. Imagining that everything is linked in some way, and that there is some inherent order in the world opens up interesting questions and debates. When we see chaos, is it in fact chaos, or that we are limited by our perception and can not see the bigger picture? 

‘A Theory of Everything’ is what string theory is often called. As stated in the press release, it ‘is a concept in theoretical physics bringing together the micro and macro: small scale theories like quantum science which describes the world at the size of atoms and electrons, and large scale theories such as general relativity, which describe things at the scale of planets and galaxies. This theory concerns all forces and matter and their influences on the patterns and behaviours we see surrounding us.’ 

String theory describes the world as if made from vibrating strings on a micro or quantum level. It needs at least 10 dimensions to work - both scale and space wise difficult for us to comprehend. It is thought the 11th dimension is a layer that wraps around or indeed spreads out from the other like a membrane or ‘brane’. Strings and membranes are great ways to visualise these abstract concepts of dimensions, 
particles and forces we can’t see. I think this appealed to my textile-art back ground. The ideas of construction in textiles are obvious metaphors, but also provide physicality and comparisons to these concepts. The exhibition is not focused on textile metaphors, but rather how we search for patterns and the limits of our perception. How we structure and attempt to understand the world through grids, theories, science, models and other structures and patterns and of course the chaos we see as well.

CP: In the press release it states: ‘The theory of everything implies all things are linked in some way and one expression of this could be found in patterns.’ What patterns and comparisons can be found between the artists and scientists ideas? And how accessible will the exhibition be to the viewer?

EM: Patterns in their simplest form are something repeated and in regular order. Whether this be line, mark making, sound, or form. In the exhibition, the work relates to the aspect of science that is attempting to apply, find and form patterns (and order) in our environment and the possible synthesis of this with visual and audio art. We do not know if the patterns we do see are present or it is just our interpretation. Some pieces look at how we understand information in psychology theories, perception, physics, and biology. Approaching the theory of everything from possible patterns and order in the environment and our ability to perceive them are vital parts of the equation. 

The audio pieces in the exhibition both respond to the sound in the gallery space, but in different ways. Daniel Jones’ piece concerns how bacteria communicate through sharing packets of DNA called plasmids. This leads to complex evolutionary patterns in their behaviour. ‘Horizontal Transmission’ is setup so that the bacteria respond to gallery noise which they then mimic back to the gallery. The behaviour they use to share DNA, is used to respond and repeat noise. 

This mimicking occurs in Hugh Metcalf’s installation as it picks up ambient sound, applies rules and plays it back into the space. The process of the copying involves rules that evolve within set limits. This creates seemingly chaotic soundscapes. Like human perception, there are a set of rules applied, but here the rules do not lead to a product that encourages (human) understanding. 

Rules of perception are expressed in Ed John’s research from his PhD. He is studying and developing vision for robots. This is difficult as we don’t understand how we see. The rules he places are different from human perception processes, and divide up visual information for robots to analyse which creates images we don’t necessarily understand. We do not know how our brain processes vision, therefore we can not replicate the patterns we see in visual information for robots to use. 

‘Eleutherobin, Coralline Swansong’ © Anna Cocciadiferro

Anna Cocciadiferro’s piece is based on the chemical structure of coral which is synthesized to be used for medical purposes. It was found that this coral, eleutherobia, produces a chemical which is much gentler for the patient and a stronger drug. The copying of the chemical structure and reusing is a process of repetition from one area of science to another. If there is an underlying link between everything, the fact that something in the ocean can affect and cure an animal on land, and that bacteria can share DNA, like a conversation, demonstrates our ability to find cross-overs between separate things. 

It may be tempting to say these links a coincidental but perhaps it is because, if the big bang is the start of the universe, everything began with the same building blocks. The study of cosmology- the universe, looks back into time to gain an understanding. Our universe is currently growing, so as you look back it is smaller and smaller, until it is just particles. The piece inspired by quantum particle behaviour, ‘Quantum Communication Through a Spin Chain’ uses ink drawings to represent a trace of the electron spin. The surface itself is not regular or consistent and folds, overlaps and changes directions randomly- much like the unpredictability of the quantum world. Balint Bolygo’s piece, ‘Animechanics’ again uses a strip of material (film), but on a much smaller scale. The film physically moves and is gradually marked by the movement of gravity affecting a pendulum. The circular mark making is similar in both pieces, but represents two different scaled parts of string theory: gravity in the theory of relativity and quantum science. And in these pieces the scale is reversed- macro science representation being much smaller the micro science! 

The mark making on a moving or continuous surface with Metcalf, Bolygo and myself using this form brings us to the idea of ‘branes’ I spoke about in the first answer. M-theory is an extension of string theory, some people theorise that the 11th dimension either wraps around the other 10, or rolls out from it, to infinity. On the rolled paper, tape or film the mark making represents particle ‘spin’, the force of gravity and sound. These bursts of activity have created pattern on these surfaces. Like non linear (chaotic) bursts of action. These could be used equally to show non-linear representations of the growth of bacteria populations or the birth of a star. Bursts of energy and events that change the outcome and development of things. 

Brain Collage © Paula Salischiker’s

There is a tactility in the exhibition which contrasts with the abstract concepts and computer/ audio works. The materials showing through the exhibition are from a muted palette. The burst of colour mostly come from Liliana Sanchez’s ‘Soup’ and are reflected subtly in Caroline Lambard’s installation and Paula Salischker’s brains collages. I hope the colour carries you through and draws you on through the space, as the texture brings it back to the materiality in our scale of existence. The green ‘Soup’ represents an excess, a chaos which could be a comment on our society today and it’s use of resources.

And, in comparison to cosmology, it goes back to when everything was just a big soup of things. With the big bang at the beginning of the universe and the beginning of life on earth, it is suggestive of the time when things were not differentiated and had developed the diversity of functioning live forms and structures that surround us today.

CP: An article written by Ken Arnold about Science and art: Symbiosis or just good friends? Seems highly relevant. Would you say that science and art have a symbiotic relationship? How has the coupling of art-science proven mutually beneficial within this exhibition? And have you faced any curatorial challenges in bringing together a transdisciplinary exhibition?

For me, science and art are about exploring; seeking understanding of the world around us and expressing possibilities (or sometimes ruling them out). I think ‘science’ and ‘art’ are just massive topics, and difficult to define. To summarise two massive topics to allow discussion, you could say, does science: testable knowledge; and art: created for thought and/ or emotion/ expression; have a relationship? Yes. They both seek - the difference is science strives to be testable. Interesting both the science topics I have been looking at in my own practice are difficult to test, on the fore front of our knowledge. Theoretical physics relies somewhat on computer programmes testing theories. Perhaps this lack of visual and physical representation in everyday live is what attracted me: visualizing the invisible. Perhaps this is one way in which these types of collaborations are mutually beneficial. 

Soupa © Liliana Sanchez

Speaking briefly to Ed Johns this morning, he is arranging his research for presentation, I brought up some interesting projects and colour experiments for him. Provoking thought for him as well as me through our discussions.
I have found this exhibition really enjoyable to curate. I think because it is something I am interested in anyway. It was not a challenge to find pieces that portray elements of us understanding and searching for patterns. In future it would be a great project to perhaps focus on these different elements for an exhibition like quantum science or gravity. In contrast the breadth of possibility has been the fun of this show as a theory of, well, everything!

© Edward John

CP: In the lead up to the exhibition you have held a series of ‘Tea Party Discussions’ on and around the topic and managed a continuous blog promoting the active exchange of dialogue and debate. Within this show there seems to be a re-thinking of the exhibition as the manifestation of the final ‘event’ to something more process orientated. Through your curating how have you tried to extend the exhibition format and make it more interactive?

My practice is process lead and I like to leave the construction and the materials exposed. Perhaps it is the same here. I have left all the ‘nuts and bolts’; the thinking and discussion. My work is often about potential, representing possible for movement and change. I hope this exhibition opens this up too, and does not tell people what is what, but allows them the space to think. This links to your previous question, as it is about other ways to engage the viewer.

The thought possibilities and the scope of the project emerged especially with the tea parties. The two different discussion groups added completely new dimensions to the debate. The rolling discussions provided a longer period of development and further engaged with the ideas around the show. Extending the exhibition format to have a larger time element where it has existed, not just when it is physically on display, seemed a natural form for it to take. The ideas literally encompass space and time, and even with this long development time, we have barely even scratched the surface!

The blog seemed like another natural extension of the project in time. With curating and researching lots of thoughts and links come up, it seems a shame not to offer these elements, especially as it is about discovery and process. A blog is a great communication tool. (The Tea Parties will be available to listen to in the exhibition).

Not to Scale © Elizabeth Murton

CP: For this show you have collaborated with psychologist Kaidy Stautz to create a sculpture inspired by Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of Personality (1970). You have also collaborated with physicist Bobby Antonio to create a wall piece inspired by his research into 'quantum communication in a spin chain'. Can you tell us more about these two works?

With the psychology inspired piece, 'Not to Scale,' it was interesting working through the ideas and trying not being too didactic about the theory as it already has a visual form. Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of personality (1982, 2000) can be represented within a circumplex, with orthogonal lines each representing the spectrum of a trait, for example impulsivity to self-control, or extraversion to introversion. An individual’s placement within the circumplex would be dependent on the interaction between separate traits. The theory has a biological basis, linking the traits anxiety and impulsivity to the reactivity of underlying brain systems.

As Kaidy began explaining how to interpret the diagram it became more mysterious. How you relate to the piece also depends on the experimental definitions and values you ascribe it. So the boundaries of the theory vary again. I studied psychology and I am interested in understanding humanity, personality and how we work. I am not sure it is as linear as we would like it to be. 

Layers of paper, printing and mark making create the piece. The neatness of the circular 'factor space' of the theory, is repeated, and sometimes marked with the linear spectrum aspects of the theory, but not enough to ascertain how you fit into it. It is like looking in on it, but being outside of the theory. The printed brains are exhibited separately from the circles. The shape of the brain is concentrated on areas that correspond with the behaviours in Gray's theory, but they are not linked or identified in the space. 

Not to Scale © Elizabeth Murton

The other piece is large new installation. It is a three dimensional drawing where the surface comes away from the wall, spinning out in new directions. It is inspired by Bobby Antonio's research which looks at 'Quantum Communication Through a Spin Chain'. The 'Theory of Everything' is trying to unite quantum physics, which relates to the world at a very small scale and is unpredictable, and macro physics like general relativity, which relates to things like planets, and is measurable and predictable.

The idea of the 'spinning' has immediate visual connections, spinning tops, dancing, movement. The particles are in a chain. Each individual particle has a spin. The movement of the particles which make the spin however is a mysterious internal property which we do not have any analogies for our world. Bobby describes his research below;

'...I look at things such as electrons interacting through this mysterious 'spin' property, and I see if I can use this interaction to transfer information through the chain - in fact there doesn't have to be any 'movement' in the chain at all (at least not in the way we would normally think of movement), and the changes in the chain that I look at are purely internal changes - changes in what 'direction' the spin points in.

Installation Shot © Elizabeth Murton

The ink is the trace of the movement but how it was made remains a mystery. This separation of source and effect is found in quantum science and therefore it is a representation of our interaction with this quantum world. The paper's form and shape, also imply that the space where the spin is is different from our ideas of space in our world. Some of the drawings are obscured, referencing the unpredictability not only of the electrons, but also of the quantum world they exist within. 

This idea of unpredictable movement is captured in this new installation. The ink 'spin' drawings appear on paper which itself looks as though it is moving. The ink is the trace of the movement, not the source which is, apparently, very quantum. The paper's form and shape, also imply the space where the spin is, is different from our ideas of space in our world. Some of the drawings are obscured, referencing the unpredictability not only of the electrons, but also the quantum world they exist within.

Detail of Indevelopment, 2008 © Elizabeth Murton

CP: Within your own practice you explore methods of construction, specifically: “textiles, weaving, architecture, psychology and theoretical physics.” How does theory help you to explore the capabilities of materials?

In this exhibition my main material has been paper and ink. It wasn't a conscious decision from the start, but both pieces naturally evolved onto paper. It really has been a pleasure working with such simple and elegant materials. Paper is inexpensive, not precious, but part of everyday. As my materials often are.

The theory provides limits, within which I can then use to structure the ideas and ascribe them onto materials. The materials I often like to push and pull them away from their natural purpose. With the quantum piece it is a subtle change of use of lining paper, which is repeated and becomes dramatic. 

Spinbang © Elizabeth Murton

The paper on the large quantum piece took some manipulating, coercing it into curves and waves. This goes against it's straight fibres and limited elasticity of the paper, as quantum science seems to avoid being understood and predictable! It is however a fabric of sorts, and I believe it starts to take on much more of that element of movement and flow in the installation. Much like the tape in Balint's and Hugh's work, and the fabric in Anna's. 

Can © Elizabeth Murton

The psychology piece 'Not to Scale' I dreamt about after I had finished. The holes somehow make it spongy and absorbent, allow you to look through, but the layers of tracing obscure it again. The construction is delicate and temporary. The printed circles and the stencils are both in the piece, showing both how the work was made, and what is left over once something is designed and made, thought through and rationalised. Here the left over excess of paper is still in the space for all to see.

CP: Can you tell us more about the upcoming Salon Event: (Science & Art Discussion, 6th July 2011) that features the guest speaker Dr David S Berman, Reader in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary College?

This will be a very interesting event. The salon event will explore the idea of a theory of everything, a concept in theoretical physics, and the relationships that develop between art and science. Each speaker will give a brief introduction to their specialist areas followed by open discussion. It will be a unique opportunity to question the experts and present your own views.

Speakers will be Dr David S Berman, Reader in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary College, recent collaborations have included the Cartier award winning project with artist Jordan Wolfson at the 2009 London Frieze Art Fair and he is now working with Turner prize winning sculptor Grenville Davey;. Dr Berman will present an introduction to the notion of unification in fundamental physics leading up to a description of the peak of our current understanding of nature, which goes by the name of M- theory.

Adrian Holme, a Biologist and Lecturer in Visual theory, Camberwell College of Art & Design, and UCA, Maidstone, and convenor of the Research Cluster in Art, Science and Culture. In his talk, Adrian will consider aspects of the relationship between art and science - initially a unified enterprise during the early European Renaissance. Do art and science really form the distinct ‘two cultures’ described by CP Snow in 1959? What role does art and imagination (and Romanticism) have in relation to science and culture?

Bobby Antonio, PhD student researching quantum computation at University College London. His talk will present a brief overview of quantum physics, an extremely important and successful yet counter-intuitive theory. The talk will aim to give a short introduction for those not familiar with quantum  physics, highlighting the reasons why many people, including Einstein, found the concepts hard to accept, and why it has had such a profound effect on disciplines outside science, such as philosophy and art.

Salon places will be limited, so early booking is advisable.

Further details on exhibition website. 

To book please email

Engine ChatChat

CP: You are an integral member of Core Gallery and part of the DIY Educate management team, in which you run the group Art Crit ‘Engine ChatChat. Can you tell us more about the developments that have been made through this educational engagement? And how has Core Gallery’s ethos has helped you gain autonomy? 

EM: It is about engagement, discussion and critical context. Core Gallery has a great atmosphere as it is surrounded by people (literally as our studios surround the gallery) who are committed artists.

Engine ChatChat sprang from my need for discussion and sharing of ideas. You might propose that the tea party debates are in fact a spin off of this, but the item on the agenda is not someone’s practice but a theory in science. As the artist Helen Pynor said, who was at a Tea Party Debate said, art can provide science with critical discourse. After all, science is just one methodology for understanding.

Core Gallery is a great space for curatorial and artistic experimentation. Being in a place with a great, supportive gallery team- Rosalind Davis, Gillian Best Powell, Charlie Norwood, to name but a few, means you can take risks and... learn. This is so important. The over gentrification of these areas means that it will drive this type of space out. The team and great ideas at Core rely on the being Deptford; the affordability and artist run spaces in general allow us to push, take risks and create artistic capital. If we can’t afford the space. We will go else where. I think this is an issue London needs to address.

CP:Do you have any forthcoming projects / news to divulge?

: All new ideas are top secret for now, one thing I will guarantee is more science-art collaborations. I have more ideas for quantum derived pieces too. More Engine and more Tea Party discussions!

CP: Thank you so much Elizabeth

Thank you, great questions.

NB: Please note, I am not a scientist and whilst I try to be accurate I might have got a thing or two down inaccurately here!!

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