The Museum knows better than many that there's more to the relationship between science and art than simple documentation. At a recent workshop held in the Museum's Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) we were able to share with like-minded participants just how many similarities there are between the practices and techniques of scientists and artists.
Earlier this month Gemma Anderson and William Latham - who both studied at the nearby Royal College of Art and took frequent inspiration from the Museum while there - teamed up with entomologist Gavin Broad to host the Big Draw workshop: Experimenting with observational drawing and algorithm in response to natural form.
Specimens from our collection including puffer fish, shells, corals, minerals and plants, specially chosen for their interesting form and structure (or morphology), were provided for inspiration.
Participants were then invited to participate in artistic techniques including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 'Delicate Empiricism’ (the effort to understand something's meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience), as well as Latham's 'FormSynth' and Anderson's 'Isomorphogenesis' (generative methods inspired by the natural world that evolve using an algorithm), and asked to apply those techniques to the specimens before them.
The workshop group - an interesting mix of mathematicians, psychiatrists, RCA students, Museum scientists and the editor of New Scientist - observed, wrote, drew from observation and drew from memory. They were then asked to imagine expanding the specimen into component parts.
I asked them to randomly select a drawing 'rule' from a hat and then use that rule to draw form change. The 'rule' was intended to act like a genetic mutation would in nature. It was therefore important that the form change was approached in a connected series, like the incremental process of evolution. Throughout, they continually referred back to the specimen and included observational details intermittently.
After the group had evolved a number of primitives, they were asked to think about marrying the forms, to maintain the general characteristics of each adult and to make one or more progeny.
Working generatively like this is something that humans, especially through the act of drawing, can still do better than computers.
The workshop, and the techniques taught, sparked some interesting discussion amongst participants, Anderson said:
It was suggested that different types of drawing systems, like different species, vary in form and elements, and if artistic elements were seen as being like the building blocks of life, then the artistic processes of the workshop were actually quite similar to the nature of the processes that the scientists at the Museum investigate.
Some of the specimens: shells (left) and corals (right).
Some of the drawings.
And some of the Big Draw participants at work.