Autocatalysis – Art in the Post

A scientist and two artists collaborate by mail for a new exhibition at the Royal Institution

The title of the new exhibition was the only really frightening thing at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on Halloween night. Autocatalysis, Cooperativity and Compression (ACC) is the daunting name of the current show in which science meets art at the RI. However, as the artists themselves explained at the opening on 31st October, there’s really nothing to be scared of.

Copyright Andor, Ardó, Culora 2011

The ACC project is a three-way collaboration between Daniel Andor, Zsuzsanna Ardó and Tom Culora who met as fellows at Harvard in 2001 and promised to one-day work together. Andor is a physicist and musician whose research into the biological basis of auditory perception provided one of the inspirations for the project. Ardó and Culora are both accomplished visual artists. Between them they have created a set of about 100 balsa wood panels, each no bigger than the screen of an iPhone, incorporating varied colours, textures and materials, fragments of photographs, sketches and even scraps of postage and packaging. A handful of these panels are on display in the RI exhibition.

When first entering the atrium gallery, one is drawn to the large poster-prints around the walls that magnify the detail of each work. These reproductions dominate the room, almost making it possible to miss the original panels that are dwarfed next to them and which merit the real attention.

It would be trivial to suggest that the tiny works would make very visually pleasing smart phone background images, though such a possibility does come to mind. It certainly wouldn’t do justice to the three-dimensional quality of the panels, particularly those that incorporate encaustic wax, which lifts them off the surface of the wood. There are subtle sketches based on figures in Andor’s scientific research papers that only reveal themselves on very close inspection. But however appealing each panel seems, the story of their creation is at least equally intriguing.

As if playing a game of correspondence chess, the artists swapped their panels by post in three rounds, adding their own contribution each time. No one knew what he or she was going to receive or what the previous contributer had intended to convey. This method was also necessary simply because Andor, Ardó and Culora were working from New York, London and Rhode Island respectively. Practicalities were discussed by Skype, making this a truly modern collaboration. Simple rules were agreed; the dates of transmission and the size of the panels. No other restrictions were imposed.

Copyright Andor, Ardó, Culora 2011

In the discussion at the exhibition opening night, facilitated by writer and philosopher of science Stephen Webster, the theme of trust between the three artists arose several times. According to Tom Culora the ‘foundation of the project was based in science’ and ‘like science, collaboration needs trust‘. The friendship between the three contributors, dating back to their Harvard days, must have made their first artistic collaboration a little easier.

Zsuzanna Ardó, who often incorporated aspects of her photography into the panels, spoke of how she felt that ‘art and science are both fundamentally the same’ in that they both try ‘to make sense of the world and communicate it’. The trio style themselves as a ‘trans-cultural exchange organisation’ and the mixture of their approaches, artistic media and backgrounds does seem to generate an output that is more than the sum of its parts.

So what of the daunting exhibition title? Autocatalysis, cooperativity and compression represent three biological processes that are to a large extent found in the way the trio worked together. Autocatalysis is a phenomenon in which the products of a chemical reaction act as catalysts to accelerate the reaction itself, a sort of positive feedback loop. Combined with the clear cooperativity of the artists and, perhaps, the compression of concepts and materials into each of the small panels, the title seems to mainly convey something of the creative method behind the project rather describing what might be necessarily be found in the works themselves.

It is perhaps a shame that more descriptive information about the fascinating process of correspondence-art is not presented beside the exhibition. The panels are striking, variously detailed and visually appealing. Hearing from the artists themselves how they went about creating them brought the exhibition to life in a way that is understandably difficult to do with a passive display alone. It would arguably enhance future exhibitions of the work to incorporate some direct personal statements or even video from the team. That way the art could speak for itself and avoid any unwanted frights on the night.

The Autocatalysis, Cooperativity and Compression exhibition at the Royal Institution in London is free and runs until 2 December 2011.

With thanks to Daniel Andor for permission to reproduce the images.

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