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From the Enlightenment to Test Bed for the Future: Edinburgh International Science Festival

Edinburgh International Science Festival
23rd March to 7th April 2013
Event website: http://www.sciencefestival.co.uk.

Reviewed by Elizabeth R. Straughan and Philip J. Nicholson
University of Glasgow
School of Geographical and Earth Sciences

Marking its 25th anniversary, the Edinburgh International Science Festival has become one of the largest of its kind in Europe with exhibitions, performances, lectures, debates and workshops catering for all ages. Over the course of three weeks, over 200 events take place at 38 different venues across the city. The key theme takes the form of a question: that is, what will life be like over the next 25 years?

Given Edinburgh’s role as a key node in the European Enlightenment, the festival is able to draw on a complex geography, as well as history. Some of the sites, such as the National Museum of Scotland (NMS), have become synonymous with a celebration of Scotland’s intellectual contributions; others, such as the Banshee Labyrinth, are more ‘liminal’ spaces, offering a counterbalance to reason and critical thinking with a tradition of superstition. At its heart a machine for the public communication of science, the festival nevertheless places substantial emphasis upon the rapprochement between the arts and the sciences, and the manner in which these fields of activity can produce new imaginaries.

What might be considered the centrepiece of the festival’s art and science offerings can be found in the Grand Gallery of the NMS. Titled the Museum of Science and Art in the 19th century, the NMS has once again embraced art and science to house the largest spectacle of the festival, the balloon sculpture Pisces (2013). The work of New York-based artist Jason Hackenwerth, Pisces is site-specific, constructed as part of a residency that commenced on 23th March, and, thus, positioning the Grand Gallery as artist’s studio as well as exhibition space. Unveiled on Friday the 29th March, and hoisted to hang from the ceilings rounded arches, the green, blue and yellow hues of Pisces now spiral and curve through the space of the Gallery, mirroring the Romanesque Revival architecture that curves around it. Pisces, so named in reference to the flight of Aphrodite and her son Eros, in the form of entwined fish, from the monster Typhon, is a balloon sculpture that also exhibits mathematician Jacob Bernoulli’s Spira mirabilis. Spiralling through the Grand Gallery, Pisces flows as a lament to the dynamic motion of the universe, the geometry of sea and plant life, and the double helix. Constructed through repetitive actions that saw Hackenwerth and his team weave, knit and tie balloons together, Pisces demonstrates the potentiality of the balloon as an everyday object that enables a complex assemblage of latex and air, a creative partnership between the material and the elemental that employs more than a formal language.

In conjunction with the start of Hackenwerth’s residency, the 23rd and 24th March saw Chaos and Contingency (2013) take centre stage within the Grand Gallery. A performance by the Janis Claxton Dance Company, and comprised of nine dancers from Scotland and China, Chaos and Contingency was choreographed to reflect emergent mathematical patterns. Accompanied by music composed by Philip Pinsky, this mathematical grounding saw the performers reiterate the curvature of form presented by Pisces and echoed in the Gallery’s architecture. The formal qualities of both Pisces and Chaos and Contingency could be seen simultaneously from the many vantage points offered by the tiers of balconies that circumnavigate the space. In both pieces, the curve unfolded through sculpture and dance to envelope the Grand Gallery.

Spilling out of such authoritative spaces, the festival has moved onto the street in the form of performances, such as those conducted by the busking bikes with their scientific demonstrations, as well as a photography exhibition in St Andrews Square. Built as part of New Town in the 1780s at the east end of George Street, this site became one of the city’s most fashionable and desirable residential areas during the 18th century. In the 19th century it became a center of commerce and power, such that in 1828 the square gained a statue of Scottish advocate and politician Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. It is around this monument that the Patterns in Nature currently spirals. Installed on the 31st of January, and curated by Nicola Coutts, Patterns in Nature pre-empted the festival with a photography collection that emphasises the geometric repetition of individual bodies, behaviours and aesthetics. The exhibit includes images from the Glasgow Museums Collection, NASA, National Geographic Stock and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Enticing the audience to take a walk and come upon, meander round and turn to face the images on display, Coutts has produced a layout that plays with perspective. The exhibit enables the photographic works to be viewed from various angles and distances such that an abstraction of the photographic subjects in enabled. Using both macro and wide angle shots to capture microscopic images of coccolithophores and snowflakes, before spanning out to tiled mosaic floors and beyond to include river systems and the sprawling veined limbs of desert tributaries, these images work across scales and forms, matter and elements, the living and non-living.

On the margins of these grandiose sites lies the Banshee Labyrinth whose reputation for ghostly hauntings highlights a tradition of superstition that stands in opposition to Enlightenment thought, epitomised in its very name. For in Scottish Gaelic Mythology a banshee is an omen of death. Indeed, the site has a gruesome history, for the underground vaults built in 1788 were used to store bodies sold on as cadavers to Edinburgh University for staff and students’ medical experiments. Today, the Banshee Labyrinth’s dark interior décor lightened with neon electric blues, siren reds and lurid greens, has been handed over to both the tourist and hospitality industries as a site for ghost tours. Here, The Edinburgh Skeptics, an independent society started in 2009 for the promotion of science, reason and critical thinking, held a series of informal lectures on the 3rd and 4th April as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival under the title Skeptics in the Pub. A society that works to present the centrality of science in everyday life, The Edinburgh Skeptics have in the past attempted to break down a separation of the arts and sciences, inserting themselves into the August Arts festival. Having now taken their place within the Edinburgh Science Festival 2013, speakers dwelt on the possibility and ethics of memory erasure as well as the dark characteristics of whales and dolphins. 

The Edinburgh International Science Festival is, its organisers purport, centred on science and society through acknowledgement of the manner which the former is woven seamlessly through the latter. The crafting of the festival has drawn upon diverse sites whose geographies and history encompass prominent spaces of power and knowledge, and the everyday and the mundane, as well as spaces of tradition and superstition located in the city’s underbelly. Seeking to consider the possibilities of life and living over the next 25 years, the festival has attended to art as the warp to science’s weave, to ponder new forms, emergent ethics and various comings together that signal the world itself as an experimental site.

Last Updated 3rd May 2013

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