By Alexandra Carr

As an artist, an invaluable skill is being able to see an idea from multiple perspectives, which, if you’ve really probed the concept, leads to the audience seeing these different perspectives, and perhaps some unintentional ones. As part of my perspective-shifting practice, I often find myself in discussion with the odd cosmologist or chemist, attempting to burrow my mind into theirs and learn by osmosis. One such instance, was a meeting with Professor Tom McLeish, who I have since, many times, lost track of time with, immersed in conversation about Feynman diagrams, creativity in science and the Eureka moment. While Tom was showing me around the upper level of the maze that is the soft matter physics department at Durham University, he introduced me to a number of his colleagues. Names often become a blur when my artistic mind is scanning my environment for visual gold, but, little did I know that one of these chance meetings would lead me to an entirely new project and a rare chance to explore truly collaborative methodologies like never before. Tom had introduced me to Dr Margarita Staykova.

After a few short meetings and an exchange of ideas, it seemed there could be middle ground worth exploring.  We were right.

As a multimedia artist whose practice has been described as ‘the will to reverse entropy’, I am naturally quite ambitious. Scaling the research of Material Imagination to a practical level, in order to see the unseen, in an artistic context, is a tantalising task. I enjoy challenging convention and jolting the audience into disbelief. My practice focuses on natural phenomena and utilises these phenomena to make comment on natural systems, so the opportunity to use living materials as media and collaboratively develop biological smart materials, was something that was impossible to refuse.

I’m no stranger to interdisciplinary, collaborative work within scientific disciplines, but it became apparent to me that this project was likely to take interdisciplinarity to a new level. This project would allow me to be a part of the collaborative development of new research and help to direct the exploration of potential applications. I’d often been invited to see a lab or the results from a period of research, but trespassing into each other’s field had always ended there. I was used to each party bringing their talents to the table and the exchange taking place on the boundary between the two. Being invited into the lab to conduct research with a scientist was a first. Margarita doesn’t seem content to leave it there though. ‘I’ll teach you the tools and you research’ Margarita tells me, the idea being that an artist would ask questions and explore in the lab with a more instinctive desire compared to the results-driven approach of a scientist. Similarly my scientific counterpart isn’t scared of immersing herself in my practice, becoming the artist as willingly as I am to don the white coat.

Artwork created by Alexandra for the Material Imagination site.

On the lead up to Material Imagination, myself and Margarita have had many discussions about the creative process, collaborative methodologies and some tentative ideas to explore during the project. The subject that we keep coming back to however, is ‘the unknown’.  As an artist one becomes used to this abstract unknown space where ideas reside, waiting to be discovered and brought into being. Being an artist is as much an act of faith as it is a dogged undertaking of practical and technical application. Having worked at the intersection of art and science, I am fully aware of the necessity for a creative approach in order to arrive at the solutions scientists do. It is time that we bravely meet in the cloud of unknowing and sit with it comfortably, to allow a new way of thinking and working to develop. I see Material Imagination as the potential for an instinctive, more human way of following our curiosity, leading the intersection of art and science into a space where a third discipline, a discipline capable of evolving, may flourish; a space where the sentence ‘I don’t know’ is highly prized.