The fusion of two cultures

Art and science can work hand in glove, writes Sally Feldman

March 26, 2009

When Helen Storey, fashion designer and research fellow, rang Tony Ryan, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, it wasn't to discuss the cut of his suits. She was rather more interested in his familiarity with quantum entanglement.

"If", she wondered, "two atoms on opposite sides of the universe can influence each other, surely such a reaction could happen between a bottle and its contents, or a garment and its wearer."

She had heard Ryan on the radio, talking entertainingly about chemistry, and thought he might be responsive to her inquiry. The result of that conversation - during which, she explains, he won her confidence because he didn't laugh at the notion of "bottle consciousness" - was a collaboration that has now lasted six years.

Their first idea - a responsive bottle - is still in development, but its potential is clear. The bottle they have invented reacts to heat. When hot water is poured into it, it melts into a gel that has soil-like properties. A pepper-pot mechanism in the cap then releases a seed and rooting compound that drops into the cooling gel - and the result is basil.

Their next collaboration was a dissolving dress, made out of material that looks like clingfilm. The textile is heat-sealed, but as it "senses" water it wriggles and eventually disappears, eliminating the need for wasteful disposal.

With her students at the London College of Fashion, Storey created 15 outfits, with the centrepiece of the collection a stunning opera coat made from discarded textile remnants. The collection was shortlisted for the Design Museum's Brit Insurance Awards, and is on show there in a film directed by Nick Knight.

Storey and Ryan have now taken the idea of reactive clothes to a new level. Currently under development at Sheffield is a product that will turn human bodies into catalytic converters. It is designed to act on clothes that can disintegrate nitrous oxides when worn.

"Just eight people walking along a 1m line, with only 10 per cent of their outfits affected by the chemical, could purify the air 2m above and 1m around them. Which means that 200 people wearing treated clothing could clear Oxford Street," Storey explains.

Far-reaching ideas such as these are a kind of miracle - the collision of two unlike minds which, like the chemicals that form the basis of this work, react together to create something new. And yet, as Storey is quick to point out, collaborations between researchers in different disciplines are not only relatively rare, but the current climate in higher education works against them.

The panels for the research assessment exercise were narrowly subject-based, discouraging joint projects. Rivalry, counter-claims to intellectual property and the unequal status of different researchers within a group can also make collaboration a fraught and unrewarding option.

So one of the main aims of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) is to encourage fusion between science and the arts. Last year, it offered Storey and Ryan an 18-month, £150,000 grant not merely to extend their partnership, but also to run a pilot to show how their approach to interdisciplinary work might be transferable.

The result is Free Radicals, a group of scientists, designers, artists, architects, historians and philosophers from four universities: Sheffield, the University of Ulster, the University of Westminster and the London College of Fashion.

At the Free Radicals meeting I attended a couple of weeks ago, the discussion was alive with exchanges that could happen only among a collection of diverse minds with wholly different kinds of expertise. It was like witnessing a series of small explosions.

The group had agreed to work on projects connected with the environment, and one key theme emerged: water. Its first joint initiative will be a T-shirt amnesty.

It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one T-shirt, so by collecting unwanted or worn-out T-shirts, the group plans to draw attention to the enormous environmental cost of one simple fashion item.

At Westminster, Jeremy Till, the dean of architecture, has worked out that 2,700 litres of water would fill one telephone kiosk. So his students are going to work with my fashion students to build kiosks out of discarded T-shirts. Another idea was to build a boat out of T-shirts that would hold the same volume of water as was used to make them.

But just as important, we agreed, was the need to find new ways to recycle or dispose of the T-shirt mountain without further damaging the planet.

Someone from Ulster had decided to turn their collected T-shirts into growbags. A chemist from Sheffield pounced on the idea. All you needed to do, he said, was shred the T-shirts, spray glue on the pieces, and the water locked into the fabric would react to create a new material that could be harvested and used to grow seeds. Another scientist suggested that the T-shirts could be chemically treated and turned into fertiliser.

What is so inspiring about the Free Radicals group is its atmosphere of openness and sense of free inquiry, characteristics that should surely be the lifeblood of higher education, but seem rare.

Fifty years ago, C.P. Snow delivered his famous lament on the separation of the two cultures of science and the arts. Now, says Storey, we have reached the point of rapprochement.

"Now's the time for new models," she says. "Science and the arts are connected, have an impact on each other, need each other. You need vision as well as technology, and imagination fused with knowledge, to turn the seemingly far-fetched into reality."

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