Drawing Through the Knowledge Landscape

Niccolò Tempini
University of Exeter

For the first time the Northern Ireland Science Festival, (110 events across the region, 18–28th February, www.nisciencefestival.com), has appointed an artist in residence, Gemma Anderson. The choice is noteworthy. Her work is no mere illustration of science’s own tales and conquests. Instead, Anderson actively collaborates with scientists. She plays many roles: an artist, a morphologist, a researcher, and a teacher. Her appointment symbolizes the opportunity for arts and science to grow a common ground further.

In the show Drawn Investigations from Art and Science, at the Naughton Gallery in Belfast (18th February — 6th March), the artist role of her work is perhaps the immediately obvious one. Its testimony is a rich material production. Luscious etchings and watercolors of animal, vegetable and mineral shapes and details are hanging from the walls. Vitrines showcase specimens from the museum and the botanical garden, ordered according the experimental classification system she calls “Isomorphology.” But the exhibition gives also space to Gemma’s life as a researcher. A couple of shelves exhibit the publications she has co-authored with scientist collaborators. This is not a double life: uniting artistic and scientific work is the use of drawing as a technique for producing new knowledge.

Drawn Investigations from Art and Science, 18th February — 6th March at Naughton Gallery, Belfast

Driven by an interest in understanding form in all its manifestations, for years Anderson used drawing as the tool to work with and about science, and to communicate with the scientists that engaged in the conversations she went out to make. She entered scientific institutions of London like Imperial College and the Natural History Museum, to draw the scientific objects that she wanted to study. While her artistic work built upon these experiences, there has been mutual exchange. In perhaps the most evident example, the Isomorphology visual classification system has recently been embedded in ERICA, the software used by a group of botanists in Cornwall, led by Colin French, to log data about biodiversity as they survey the Cornish land.

the ERICA software after Isomorphology implementation

Drawing has got a particular intensity to it. Anderson argues that it is a slow process requiring focused observation and the selection of the most salient features. The form of the drawn emerges not only materially, on the paper, but in the understanding of the drawer. This is unlike what can be obtained through automated imaging technology. Drawing was an unmistakable part of scientific practice until the 19th century, when the advent of photography initiated its decline — a development that did not pass without questioning, as historians Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have demonstrated in their book Objectivity (Zone, 2007). In addition to the qualities of the process of drawing, the resultant object, the drawing that is left on the paper, is something that can be shared between collaborators, to drive a conversation and construct a common ground.

Isomorphology: Bilateral Symmetry

On the backdrop of her conversations with scientists, Anderson prolifically developed her colourful and imaginative artistic production. The show exhibits the series of etchings Isomorphology, a visual classification system of forms and symmetries that cut across the animal, vegetable and mineral morphologies, of which UCL philosopher Chiara Ambrosio has said that “runs parallel to scientific classification, and borrows some of its methods for the purpose of interrogating it.” The result is highly experimental, and as fallible and ingenuous as ideal experimental science is often portrayed to be. It is through the lenses of ingenuity and fallibility that we should look at Gemma’s experimental project Isomorphology, and see in the etchings the wonderment for the very complexity, richness and mystery of the natural world that the tales of scientific achievements also tell. This body of work promotes reflexivity within science, by taking wonderment, fallibility and ingenuity to a territory outside science’s most familiar one, as a way to help science see itself from the outside in, and renew these very commitments of its own beyond deep-seated conventions and disciplinary boundaries.

Isomorphogenesis n.5

After Isomorphology Anderson continued on two parallel streams. On the one hand she continued pushing the scientific and philosophical ambitions of her visual work. The Isomorphogenesis series of watercolors shifts the focus from the study of form as ‘object’ to forms as ‘process’. This is alike to shifting from picturing a cell to picturing the process of cell division. Attributing spatial and temporal boundaries to a process is an open philosophical challenge, which philosopher of Biology John Duprè, with whom Anderson collaborates, has long set on trying to solve. The problem is inherited from the most entrenched habits in observation that we might have: if you are used to thinking that the world is made of things, you will search for clear boundaries.

On the other hand, Anderson started running workshops about her drawing-based method for investigations into science. Aimed at both scientists, artists and the general public, this educational practice culminated in 2015 in the one year project of the Cornwall Morphology and Drawing Centre (CMADC). The CMADC archive is presented at the exhibition (but also available in full at www.cmadc.uk). In the workshops, Anderson shared the drawing methodology with participants, to promote a new way of seeing and constructing one’s knowledge of the natural world. CMADC marked a high point of Anderson’s reflexivity on her own practice. In bringing this process at the intersubjective level, shared among interested participants, she more powerfully made the point for a re-consideration of the artistic technique of drawing in scientific practice.

Militants of knowledge, hold up the pencil once again.

— — — — — — — — — — —

Gemma Anderson’s website www.gemma-anderson.co.uk
Isomorphology project www.isomorphology.com
CMADC archive www.cmadc.uk
all images courtesy of the artist