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Science and Art; Building a Dialogue of Trust / 31 May 2015

So at this juncture, when I am re-establishing my practice, I thought it pertinent to take a moment to reflect on my interest in genetics and some of the projects that have occurred over the last few years.  One thing in particular I wanted to re-visit was a proposed project called Resonant Frequency, in which DAO was a key partner.  

This was a project which was developed during 2008 in partnership with ITHACA and Science Oxford and although was unsuccessful in achieving funding, it inspired debate and created a dialogue between Deaf and disabled artists and Scientists. The central question at that time was how could we foster trust and understanding that goes beyond the stereotypes that abound on both sides of the fence?

So have things changed and have we made great scientific and artistic leaps in the field of collaboration?  The short answer I feel is probably no. I still passionately believe the artist has a fundamental role in illuminating understanding about issues relating to medical ethics and science. Although collaborations between artists, scientists and ethicists are reasonably common, I feel the disabled artist has a particularly profound role to play. 

I believe this because disabled people are rarely engaged in discussion relating to medical ethics. Or if we are, we seem to occupy the space that is our medical condition. So how can the disabled artist bring into the spotlight the value of experiential knowledge in relation to medical ethics? And perhaps crucially, how do we go back to that central question of fostering trust and understanding between disabled artists and scientists. Perhaps by using creative practice as a methodology for developing a shared dialogue that can be used to probe, question, cross-pollinate and inspire. At the heart of developing that language I believe must be quality practice.

I am not implying that only the disabled artist has value in contributing to the arts and science arena. There are other artists who are creating interesting and inspiring work, in particular I was impressed by a recent commission at Chatsworth House by Jacob van der Beugel. An entire ceramic room is being created using textured, handmade ceramic panels.

Using samples from the Duke and Duchess, their son Lord Burlington and his wife Lady Burlington, the panels are embedded with a depiction of the Devonshire family's DNA. This is an interesting and creative take on the traditional portrait.

The quality of this installation is exquisite and it fulfils my interest in valuing the role of craft, decoration and architecture to explore issues of hereditary and identity.  This work is also said to “play with ideas around ancestry and inheritance as past and future members of the family are linked to the wider pool of humanity”. 

However, would there be an additional dimension to this work, the process, or the final product, if the artist had a different understanding of genetics? And that understanding in fact threatens the future of others with a similar genetic predisposition?

One of the reasons I feel there has not been dramatic progress in bringing together disabled artists and scientists could in fact be related to the lack of a platform to fully examine quality. Is there an unsaid prejudice amongst commissioners that disabled artists working in this field cannot stand up to robust scrutiny and consequently there is a fear on both fronts to fully commit to risk taking and innovative commissions with genuine collaboration as an integral part of the process?

So we are back at this central question again. How do we create a space where we can trust in a frank and robust dialogue, not only around challenging issues such as genetic screening but also relating to assessing the quality of the artistic practice?

Through the process of writing this blog I am hoping to create a space where all opinions can be shared. 

With that in mind I would like to pose two questions:  Do you feel the disabled artist does offer a unique insight into creating work that explores the field of medical ethics? Do we need to be braver about how we critique our work, and be prepared to seek out new collaborations that challenge our thinking to ensure we are always raising our game?


Alan Hopwood

2 June 2015

As an artist who has become disabled in my 40's I cannot truly comment on the impact, personally or through social prejudice that genetic differences have. Although with both physical and mental health issues, I have experienced a wide variety of attitudes from medical professionals, and any method of spotlighting such attitudes and failings must be a good thing in the long run.

As I believe art (as opposed to simply making pretty pictures)draws deeply from the individual artists beliefs and emotions, then it follows that any such concerns become part of their work. The difficulty when focussing upon this as an open dialogue I suppose is the distance between the artists' experience and the audiences own life experience. Avoiding our own stereotypes as artists can be tricky to avoid, and dictating a message through art rather than engaging in a debate can be even harder to avoid. I suppose I would have so say from a personal and artistic view, a true exploration of a personal subject, will over time, and through a body of work, communicate such intentions. The real difficulty seems to be getting it seen.

Great article