The Lab: Creativity and Culture

Graham Farmelo is intrigued by an account of the explosion in ideas when art meets science

December 16, 2010

Is it time to rethink the concept of a laboratory? Most people are familiar with the idea of a haven where experts - especially scientists and technologists - do practical research and development. But why can't it be a place where anyone with a bright idea can drop in, and a place where scientists and artists can work with each other and the public, outside the comfort zones of all of them?

David Edwards, a biomedical engineer at Harvard University, has championed ideas such as this over the past few years. In The Lab, he briefly outlines his vision for "artscience laboratories" and describes, with the zeal of a prophet, how it has fared when applied in Paris, Boston and elsewhere.

These new laboratories seek to foster interdisciplinary collaboration, rapid prototyping, exhibition or demonstration, and translation of ideas into products or processes of some benefit to society.

When I first heard about his plans for Le Laboratoire in Paris and, later, the Ideas Translation Laboratory at Harvard, I was sceptical. This is idealism gone mad, I thought, scoffing that these experiments would be over within a year.

I was wrong. His art-science laboratories and several related projects run by other equally talented cultural entrepreneurs have proved their value and durability.

Edwards explains that he envisaged a network of these laboratories as a new kind of "ideas funnel". In the academic world, peer review and commercial imperatives help to hone ideas from their inception. In art-science laboratories, however, the funnel works differently. "Art and design ideas would move from education on the one side to social and cultural change on the other," Edwards writes, "with public dialogue taking place in between, through cultural exhibition instead of academic publication."

He colourfully describes art-science labs as "small, young, and connected to institutions by the tethers of dreams". For him, it is crucial that these organisations are driven by idealism, and that although they should not be too large, their ambitions should always be grand. In order for the new laboratories to be financially viable, they must - at least in their early stages - flourish under the wing of institutions with deep pockets.

So far as I can see, Edwards makes no serious attempt here to make a business case for art-science labs or to give a disinterested assessment of their rate of success in nurturing ideas. We do, however, hear something of his attempts to woo funders, and he gives an amusing account of an innovation workshop given by Le Laboratoire at the invitation of the bank BNP Paribas. "This isn't innovation," one banker protested. "Anybody could have done this. My little boy for instance."

But the art-science laboratories have confounded the philistines and won support through several outstanding successes. Edwards describes several of them here, less critically than one may like but with the forgivable pride of a doting godfather.

One of his favourite products, it appears, is Le Whif - in one form, a means of ingesting chocolate in the form of vapour, sprayed from a lipstick-shaped inhaler ("enjoy chocolate without the calories", an advertisement says). Developed by Edwards in collaboration with the Michelin-starred chef Thierry Marx and others, the idea had a troubled inception, but now appears to be a commercial success.

Edwards is not, however, in this game to make money: he is at his most engaging when writing about projects that are altruistic or created simply with the intention of producing an affecting work of art. One of the best such examples is his group's work with the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta to develop her interest in the concept of fear in collaboration with Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji. The result was displayed at Le Laboratoire last year, a compelling interactive piece that explored the meaning of terror and its origins in the unconscious mind.

The Lab features many other examples, although several of them are described so repetitiously and in such laudatory terms that the reader can scarcely avoid longing for a little more balance. It would have been more convincing if he had cut some of the arcane philosophising ("learning in an artscience lab...happens best when it is beside the point") and thrown in a handful of grit, in the form of more candid discussion of the challenges he faced. It is also surprising that he does not explore here how his laboratories could benefit from social networking web technology, which would help widen access at minimal marginal cost.

There is no doubt, however, that he offers a vivid sense of what he is trying to achieve and conveys it with winning enthusiasm. He is generous, too, about other ventures that share some of his aims, such as the Science Gallery in Dublin, an initiative of Trinity College Dublin whose mission is "to ignite creativity and discovery where science and art collide".

Led brilliantly by Michael John Gorman, the Science Gallery is a refreshingly upbeat public venue, with a strong focus on collaborative art-science projects that encourage audience participation (it also has the best cafe of any science centre in the world).

Edwards also mentions the Wellcome Collection, a suite of well-appointed facilities near London's Euston Station and funded by the Wellcome Trust. The exceptionally creative science historian Ken Arnold and his team have made this one of the most exciting venues in the country, presenting a string of intelligent, thought-provoking and often risky events and exhibitions on topics in medical science.

The success of these initiatives, together with the ones Edwards has fostered, suggests that we may be at the beginning of an exciting new age of art-science centres. Perhaps these will eventually outnumber the many conventional science centres, many of them tired, struggling, and in urgent need of injections of creative energy.

Some museums of science could, it seems to me, also learn from the thinking of Edwards and his colleagues, and especially from the way they involve their audiences and give them an important role in knowledge creation.

I expect it may not be long before the fustier of these museums evolve into a new type of public institution, fleeter of foot, with a more generous spirit and a much wider cultural remit.

My guess is that the vision set out in The Lab is less likely to alter the traditional understanding of the concept of a laboratory than it is to change the way we think about museums and science centres. For the foreseeable future, the laboratory is likely to be understood as a place where professionals do experiments, but I believe that increasingly museums will be influenced by the needs and wants of their visitors. I may well be wrong, but either way, The Lab has done much to shake up ideas about the science-public nexus.

Although I ended the book inspired, I was also puzzled. Edwards has an enviable talent for bringing people together to develop inchoate ideas (his website www.davidideas.com is well worth visiting). It is rather a shame, then, that he did not collaborate with some editors, artists and wordsmiths who could have helped him take this rather poorly organised book and turn it into one that does justice to his vision.

If he had done that, The Lab would have been a much more effective work, and would have demonstrated the value of practising what one preaches.

THE AUTHOR

Self-confessed ocean-lover and Gordon McKay professor of the practice of biomedical engineering at Harvard University, David Edwards divides his time between his home in Paris with his wife and three sons, and the boat he has lived on for the past three years of his tenure in Boston. Since childhood, Edwards has embraced a "nutty" sleeping pattern, waking in the early hours to write fiction as "an exercise for my imagination" and as a "way of understanding that vague land where reality merges with dreams".

Edwards graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Michigan Technological University and pursued a PhD in the same subject at the Illinois Institute of Technology before taking up a four-year lectureship at the Technion in Israel. He is a three-time recipient of the Ebert Prize of the American Pharmaceutical Association and has several other national and international awards, including the Jerusalem Fund's Theodor Herzl Award and the Melvin Calvin Medal of Distinction. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2001.

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

The Lab: Creativity and Culture

By David Edwards

Harvard University Press

224pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780674057197

Published 10 December 2010

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