Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Launch of the NewBiologist

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Early this year I began working on a project about the future of plant galls (plant tumours) - and I've written, edited and produced a magazine called "NewBiologist" which will be launched and shown tomorrow along with some prints from my series "Kensington Gall" - in a group show "Second Nature" at Espacio Gallery, which is at 159 Bethnal Green Road. The private view is at 6pm tomorrow. Come down if you are in London!

"Kensington Gall" is a story inspired by popular science journalism in NewScientist and creative non-fiction in the New Yorker, both of which I have been accidentally reading a lot of (because there are always new copies of it in the house thanks to George). I wrote a few other short articles, and spun these stories into a magazine I like to call the "NewBiologist". I've written all of the words and made all of the images in it, and I'd love to hear people's comments about the story. When I have more time to format it, I will release a digital copy as well, but in the meantime if you'd like to support it, please buy a copy of the magazine!

My main goal in the production of these images has been to produce something which has the unreal sheen of something computer-generated, have a high degree of photorealism, but be obviously handdrawn when observed close up. The entire image was digitally painted in Photoshop and is not a photograph.

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Plant pathogens such as the fungi Ustilago Maydis infect plants such as corn, by secreting enzymes which stimulate abnormal plant growth. The resultant “corn smut” tumours are considered an undesirable blight in the US, but in Mexico it is a coveted gourmet delicacy that is even sometimes intentionally cultivated, turning pathogen to cultigen.

What if plant tumours were to be intentionally bred and designed for ornamental purposes? In an exploration of long-form creative non-fiction style in popular science journalism today, Debbie Ding investigates these alternative plant futures.

Through the NewBiologist, Artist Debbie Ding interrogates the odd, secretive world of leisure gardeners who use synthetic biology to genetically engineer plant pathogens, which cause different plants to develop visually interesting tumours
- also known as ‘galls’

You can get a copy for £4 at Espacio Gallery or from me directly, or order it via the online cart at (£4 + Postage and Packing)

Espacio Gallery
Second Nature
May 22nd - June 3rd 2014

159 Bethnal Green Road
London E2 7DG
Preview Thursday May 22nd 6 - 9pm
Open daily 1-7pm including Weekends
Exhibition closes 5pm Tuesday June 3rd

Espacio Gallery and the Chelsea Fringe are pleased to present Second Nature, an exhibition that showcases exciting ideas from a group of national and international artists. Comprising works in a variety of media, the show provides a fresh look into some of the aspects related to the natural world.

Tania Beaumont
Jennfier Bennett
Kanwal Dhaliwal
Debbie Ding
Ahmed Faroqui
Leigh Glover
Laura Gompertz
Ewa Goral
Sally Grumbridge
Russell Hall
Kate Nagle
Nicki Rolls
Clare Skill
Kirsty Stutter
Sandie Sutton
Maria Vesterinen
Jessica Ward

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Sunday, 18 May 2014

RCA's Department of Environmental Media, 1974-1986

Patrick Keiller - Robinson in Space

Recently I stumbled across a book version of Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Space at the RCA Library, seemingly by coincidence, but later found out that it was probably at RCA Library because Keiller was previously a student at the Department of Environmental Media, which only existed from 1974-1986. From what little I can find out about it online, it was founded by Peter Kardia who seems to have been quite a visionary educator. Prior to setting up the Department of Environmental Media at RCA, he was known for his "locked room" experiments at Saint Martins College.

From Shadowboxing: "The Environmental Media department, which existed from 1971 to 1986, was set up for ‘students requiring extended or mixed media facilities and for those whose work includes proposals for redefinition of conventional fine art boundaries’ (Annual Prospectus 1976-77). An experiment in interdisciplinary practice, the course was not well aligned with other College departments, which were defined by more traditional subject areas, such as painting and sculpture. ‘[Environmental Media] students [were] expected to create for themselves the conditions, which [would] enable them to work self-sufficiently for limited periods, isolated from criticism’ (Annual Prospectus 1974-75). Students were able to work conceptually, and with emerging media such as video, as well as embracing the more conventional means of production, seemingly free to create their own terms."

It seemed interesting to find out the origin of the Department; and where better than to have traced it to a book with a section by Peter Kardia himself. In "From Floor to Sky: The Experience of the Art School Studio" (Hester Westley, Malcolm Le Grice), in a section "Art and Art Teaching" by Peter Kardia, he writes it began with the Stained Glass Department, which initially worked within the administrative framework of School of Interior Design, but it had begun to admit students with fine-art backgrounds, students who were interested with environment and the effects on an particular environment of illumination coming in from stained-glass windows, and different types of media and technology was also introduced. So "in 1970 a Department of Light Transmission and Projection was formed, including what had hitherto been the Stained Glass Department but also a new section named Environmental Media, for which elementary equipment that was listed as being obtained included tape recorder, video camera, stills camera, and sound synthesizer." The next year Stained Glass and Acrylics moved back to School of Ceramics, and Environmental Media moved to Sculpture.

Sadly I also read in this account that it was the appointment of a new rector Jocelyn Stevens. "It was not long after [Stevens'] appointment that he proposed the closure of the Department of Design Research and the Department of Environmental Media. When this became widely known, there were many objections and the matter was even raised by the MP Tam Dalyell in Parliament. The rector however, would not go back on his decision, and the Department was finally closed in 1986."

It is fascinating to consider that alterations to, and the closure of a university department should even warrant a discussion in Parliament; education after all should be a priority. Why did Stevens want to close Design Research and Environmental Media? Was it really just because they were too politicised? How, and why? And what was it allowed to happen, even without knowing the details I question why someone should reject a way of learning and teaching or close a new and possible mode of inquiry? I should like to research and understand why this was so.

In the context of the current situation at RCA, I think we should not be complacent to think that even our department is immune to change - and immune to suddenly not existing. Seeing the situation with the large increases in intakes for the other design programmes which have caused such pressures on space and facilities for students and staff, and the introduction of seemingly commercially oriented courses which seems to be pandering to commercial interests - I worry sometimes that the direction may have been lost - I'd assume that the goal of a school like Royal College of Art would be to produce leaders who will make challenging work or experimental work. And I had specifically decided to come to RCA to study at Design Interactions precisely because I didn't want to study in a place where ideas would be dictated by money and politics... (ie. I didn't want to study in Singapore...)

As Cheo Chai Hiang puts rather eloquently in a recent article:

"Having lived and worked overseas for more than 30 years, I take it almost as a given that an artist requires freedom in order to engage in radical research and experimentation, especially when finding new ways of challenging established modes of visual arts practice. Since returning to Singapore in 2003, I have seen the cultural, social and political pressures that are exerted by the government to ensure that individuals conform to conservative and safe norms. Hence the artist is required to exercise extreme caution, which eventually stifles the will to think critically and creatively (...) Perhaps, in addition to Dr. Ellis’s question “Will the gifted blossom?” we should also be asking two further questions: Are current educational approaches really designed to nurture those destined to be our future arts practitioners? If so, how can we encourage these individuals to blossom in Singapore rather than elsewhere?..."

The Tableaux Vivants of Manchester Museum


On a recent day trip to Manchester, I visited the Manchester Museum, the museum of the University of Manchester. It happened to be directly opposite the building I was in - right opposite Kilburn Building (blocky, red-bricked Computer Science building) and University Place (building which looks like a big tin can). I was unexpectedly ejected from a campus eatery at 2.30pm, and by this point I required a little break from the non-stop RUINS THEORISING going on, and how fortuitious to have a museum right there...

The ground floor has a temporary gallery space which currently has an exhibition called "From the War of Nature", which uses tableaux vivants to tell various stories of different animal communities fighting for survival in nature. This temporary show has no scientific labels and the stories were painted in broad and rather general strokes, which seemed odd to me even if the taxidermy was beautiful. I actually almost stopped at this point, but fortunately I decided I might as well continue on to the second floor...



Things looked a lot more exciting upstairs, which began with some local archaeology of Manchester, including a collection of roman artefacts...





It was followed by what appears to be a rather comprehensive Ancient Egyptian collection, one of the most comprehensive in the UK - with apparently around 16000 objects in their Egyptology collection, including objects from prehistoric Egypt (c. 10,000 BC) to the Byzantine era (up to around AD 600).

I suppose one thing that endeared me to this museum was the presence of these screens everywhere, which featured actual interviews with people working with the artefacts, and some screens featuring young visitors' reflections on the artefacts, drawing a connection between the artefacts and our daily life. This made the temporary exhibition downstairs make more sense - since I understood that the museum was designed to be as accessible as possible and more of an educational experience, a kind of space which wouldn't really portray Natural History and Science as something technical and complex, but instead as something to inspire the imagination.




Next up was the most curious hall ever - more tableaux vivants which seemed almost like art installations, based on very broad issues and themes such as EXPERIENCE.... PEACE.... etc.

On the sides, they were flanked with thoughtful quotations by people working at University of Manchester who were deeply involved in researching those areas. For example, in a section about British Wildlife, they had an interview from a guy who worked in a wildlife protection group, and they had him telling a beatific story about how he went camping once and woke up alone in the middle of the English countryside and watched a bird flapping off into the sunrise in a sort of reverie, feeling the interconnectedness of life and the simple beauty of nature. I have to admit that this kind of naive earnestness in the video presentations veered rather dangerously on the romantic and trite - but in the end I still feel the intentions and sentiments behind it all were generally good.









An installation of cranes???


Floating stuffed dodos and eggs???




















Blaschka Glass Models!


Horned Murex










It says here that Manchester Museum has over 22000 type specimens. Also, to put things into perspective, Manchester Museum apparently has around 4 million specimens. Natural History Museum in London has over 28 million specimens. Still, these are collections that have involved the life's work of so many different individuals over the years.






Silk-button Spangle Galls!!!
Need I explain how excited I am to see a plant gall section?


Fire Salamander in the vivarium, just arrived! (living animal section)

There are too many photos so I will end here for now. With such a vast collection including a section dedicated to "Museumology" and "collections", where I saw a section on Egyptian fakes and its no surprise that later when I checked it up, I found out that Mark Dion's "Bureau for the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and Its Legacy" was actually put together from Manchester Museum's vast collections - which, as with any huge collection, is bound to be full of eccentricities and overlooked corners full of strange items, unusable models, fakes, and other items.