Two cultures, one song

Artist-in-residence schemes create a fertile breeding ground for fresh ideas, as scientists and engineers share their knowledge and insights with those in the humanities. Hannah Fearn discovers how the collaborations pay off

October 28, 2010

Credit: Charles Fox
A healthy score as composer-in-residence at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, John Browne works to connect music and medicine

In the past year, composer John Browne has seen more of the hospital ward than the orchestra pit. This is not due to ill health: he is one of a growing number of visual artists, musicians, writers and photographers taking up the post of "artist in residence" within universities.

Browne is halfway through a two-year residency at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery at King's College London, where he is working on a project to connect medicine and care with music.

From writing for the college choir to working with paediatric nurses, the project has been a varied one. Browne has coached nurses in the use of music and lyrics to aid their work with children.

"We have explored the idea of using song as an extra tool in clinical situations, where a nurse needs to engage a child, soothe them or quell their anxiety," he says. "I'm working as part of a community of care. I'm seeing how nurses think about music, how it affects them and how they deal with it."

The residency is funded by a £10,000 grant from the PRS for Music Foundation, which promotes new music across the UK, and the composer-in-residence scheme aims to explore the value of song in unexpected spaces.

Although Browne's suitability for the role is obvious - he has already taken part in an ambitious project in Rwanda using music therapy to aid the recovery of genocide survivors - he states that he is learning just as much from working with the nurses as they are from him.

"What I'm getting out of it is an opportunity to explore musical language in a way that communicates with people as clearly and as directly as possible," he explains. "It makes me think about the different contexts in which I can work, and the practical uses that are more meaningful."

The partnership is just one of many in a flourishing arts scene within higher education. The Leverhulme Trust, the primary funding body for artist-in-residence projects, allocated 16 awards in 2009. By June 2010, a further 12 artists had received funding.

Anne Dean, assistant director of the trust, says interdisciplinarity is the philosophy behind the awards. "Lord Leverhulme, our founder, was keen to blur the boundaries between disciplines and to encourage collaborative working wherever possible. Over the years, the trustees have considered how best to address this wish, and the artists-in-residence scheme seems to fit the bill."

The fellowships vary enormously, bringing together the most unlikely of partners - visual artists with engineers, poets with biologists, actors with psychologists. In straitened times, the exercise could be dismissed as expensive navel-gazing. Critics question the value of bringing together such disparate disciplines.

But Colin Bain, professor of chemistry and director (science) of the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University, believes it is more important than ever for artists and academics to work together on the big issues of the day.

The institute welcomes academics and practitioners from across the world in a variety of disciplines, including the visual and performing arts, to work together at what one Fellow describes as "an intellectual feast".

"There are many questions today that are so multidimensional that they can't be solved by people from a single discipline," Bain says. "Almost any problem can be viewed from many perspectives. If talking to people who see your problem from a different perspective changes the nature of that problem, it ends up being a reciprocal learning experience."

Bain welcomes the growth of artistic residencies as evidence that other universities across the UK understand the value of bringing different types of thinker together.

"Artists get ideas from talking to academics; academics see how their ideas are reflected in the art and it causes them to think again."

Such partnerships are fertile breeding grounds for ideas, but those who speak the lingo of the academy can be deaf to external voices. Artists taking up residencies can find it difficult to fit in.

"I don't understand the language they use," says Victoria Ferrand Scott, a sculptor who has just begun a year-long residency at the University of Leeds. "But I'm taking the opportunity to say I don't understand, and by trying to explain ourselves to each other I hope we will find new directions."

Ferrand Scott specialises in concrete forms and will work within the institution's School of Civil Engineering. Phil Purnell, reader in civil engineering materials and director of the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure at Leeds, believes his staff can teach her a great deal about the use of concrete in sculpture.

"We have more or less ready-made solutions for all her problems - how do you make concrete light? How do you make it stronger? These are things we have addressed in our research. If we can show her new ways of making concrete forms, that's going to open up new doors for her."

Purnell sees the artist-in-residence scheme as an opportunity to challenge some common assumptions about civil engineers.

"We are seen as philistines," he says. "Engineers live far too much in a bubble where they exclude the arts and humanities."

It is hoped that the residency at Leeds will lead to new art that helps shake off concrete's undeserved bad name. Despite its connection to 1960s brutalist architecture, both artist and academic are believers in the material's merits. It is a common understanding of the uses of concrete that binds the project together.

With the artist's help, academics at Leeds hope they will also be able to develop a new type of concrete that will prove useful for sculptors. Ferrand Scott will provide a final piece at the end of the year, a sculpture that will reflect what she has learned.

"It can start to move us away from this instinctive reaction to concrete that people have," she says. "I haven't got a picture in my mind as to what we're going to end up making. We'll start off in a playful way and I hope it will take us somewhere we haven't even imagined."

Photographer Bill Bevan, meanwhile, will spend the next year encouraging archaeologists to embrace their artistic side. Also funded by the Leverhulme Trust, he will spend time in the department of archaeology at the University of Sheffield.

He aims to bring a new aesthetic quality to the discipline. "What archaeologists are trying to do is create some sort of order out of a massive subject - the history of human society. That's a massive thing to look at, so they focus on specific things they want to investigate."

Photographers, he explains, do a very similar thing. "If you look at a street scene over a wide scope, it's often quite chaotic. What photographers have to do is create some sort of order out of that by focusing on one particular scene.

"They use the frame to choose which bit they're going to look at, which is very similar to archaeologists using a trench that defines the bits of the past they are looking at."

A former archaeologist, Mr Bevan aims with his photography to capture archaeological work, such as a dig, as a "snapshot" in time. He will teach the academics to have an artist's eye, which he hopes will influence the way they photograph their findings and think about images as documentary evidence.

"I'm trying to get archaeologists to look at that more visual side. I will be encouraging them to think a bit more artistically about how they can represent what they do through photography," he says.

Because of the diversity of art and academic study, it is impossible to pin down a single outcome or benefit of all artist-in-residence schemes. But those who fund the projects say that each one can provide a breakthrough for academic understanding.

Browne says he feels valued by staff at King's: "I'm there to enrich the life of the school. I'm focused on its well-being. I would say that in a time of redundancies, doing something that is genuinely healing - participating in the arts - has a role."

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