ATTEMPTS to modify the world’s extreme weather show how creativity is more than just hot air at the Science Festival, writes Susan Mansfield
Among the daredevil feats which have been undertaken over the years, in the name of art, chasing tornadoes across the plains of the American Midwest must deserve a mention. Swedish artists Mats Bigert and Lars Bergström spent three weeks in the company of Canadian storm chaser Mark Robinson, a tornado diverter fixed to the back of their car. Why? They wanted to see if it worked, of course.
“It’s exciting and dangerous and I can highly recommend it,” says Bigert. “These thunderstorms are extreme events, so you need to have someone who knows what they’re doing. With modern radar and internet connections you map them quite well. Having said that, last summer two or three experienced storm chasers were killed by a tornado.”
The Tornado Diverter is now in Edinburgh, where Bigert and Bergström’s exhibition, The Weather War, will form part of the newly expanded art strand at Edinburgh International Science Festival. This year sees the festival moving to a new hub at Summerhall, and growing its contemporary art programme with a series of curated exhibitions and a “sci-art trail”.
Bigert and Bergström have been making work about climate change for nearly 20 years, and when they discovered the tornado chaser, the invention of a Russian scientist who had no funding to develop and test his machine, they decided to help out. In art terms, the machine was also a powerful metaphor for humanity’s attempts to defend against increasingly severe weather systems.
“This whole scenario is something we’re going to see more of in the future,” says Bigert, who describes their work as “land art performance”. “As artists, we’re using these ideas as artistic fuel. We want to raise these questions and discuss these phenomena.
“The theory is that a farmer could have four of these machines around his house, and they would protect him from tornadoes, but maybe his neighbour in the next farm couldn’t afford the machines and would get hit. When it comes to modifying the weather, those with economic means will always have the advantage. If you divert an approaching hurricane so it doesn’t hit Florida, it might hit somewhere in Mexico instead, and who would be responsible for that?”
Making the “film essay” The Weather War saw them not only chasing tornadoes but visiting Italy where winemakers use machines to attempt to divert hailstorms from their crops, and Bangladesh, where the citizens of one of the poorest (and most frequently flooded) countries in the world are attempting to muster flood defences.
As the weather becomes more extreme, so mankind becomes more determined to control it. “We were filming in Nebraska at the same time as an enormous tornado was hitting a town in Missouri,” says Bigert. “It was an EF5 tornado, the strongest weather phenomenon you can find in nature. We drove around afterwards and looked after the wreckage – that was kind of scary.”
Does the machine work? “It’s been here for two months and there have been no tornadoes so it must be working,” says a cheerful Paul Robertson, curator at Summerhall. With a science background himself, he was more than happy to be involved in creating exhibitions to accompany the Science Festival in the buildings which once housed Edinburgh University’s Veterinary School.
“The really important thing about Summerhall is that, from the beginning, we see culture as wider than just the art world, we are interested in politics, history and science. For us science and art go hand in hand as part of culture.” He says that the artists in the show are inspired by a wide range of subject matter from climate change to astrophysics to human biology, but that each was chosen on the strength of their work.
The deputy director of the Science Festival, Amanda Tyndall, was instrumental in driving the emphasis on art-science collaboration as part of expanding the festival’s adult programme and reaching new audiences. “When it comes down to it, I really believe there is a creativity inherent in science, both artists and scientists are interested in the idea of exploring the world around us, the human condition, there is a shared thread that brings the two together,” she says.
Helen Storey, who started out as a fashion designer to the A list, has worked in the collaborative world between art and science for more than a decade. Sitting somewhere between sculptures and garments, her art works are specifically created with the aim of “giving people a new way in to some of the complexities of science”.
Her Dress of Glass and Flame, which will be exhibited at Summerhall, aims to capture something of the “alchemical process of glass-making”. “It’s about trying to join the dots, helping people to see the science which is in their everyday lives when they might not realise it is there. Clothing is a currency they are open to and enjoy. If you can use that to share and arrive at less complex ways of understanding the world of science, that makes all of us better.”
• The Edinburgh International Science Festival is in various venues throughout the city from 5-20 April, www.sciencefestival.co.uk. Helen Storey will take part in an event Anatomy of an Artist: The Chemistry of Collaboration at Summerhall on 4 April.
EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS
An important young Welsh artist with an interest in energy. Her work for the Science Festival includes recent sculptures, such as Brain Wave, below, inspired by biological electricity as well as her earlier installation, Biosmos, a mesmeric light and sound show composed from hundreds of moving particles emitting light.
A major sculptural intervention explores what a black hole is and does. Curator Paul Robertson says: “He’s the only artist I know to be working with glitter. We had to get 25kg of the stuff. It’s a stunning piece, not only aesthetically beautiful but scientifically very valid as well.”
Tim Vincent Smith
Can a machine make art? This was the starting point for a series of investigations into harmonographs, which combine simple harmonic motions of varying frequency to create images. As his work continued, Smith found himself facing more complex questions about men, machines and art.
Inspired by a visit to a glass foundry in Venice, Helen Storey’s Dress of Glass and Flame, right, aims to capture the process of glass-making. A living flame – safely encased in pyrex – probes the mysterious relationship of glass and fire, while looking stunning in the process.