RMIT talk at the Port Phillip Bay Symposium

After working with scientist and researchers at RMIT University during my Art & Science residency in Sydney this year I was honoured to be asked to be a speaker for the RMIT symposium on the state of the bay.

The Importance of Art & Science Collaboration
in this Day & Age
By Carolyn Cardinet
Thursday 14 Dec 2017 11.30-11.45
RMIT - Port Phillip Bay Symposium

‘What happens when these 2 tribes meet’
was the title of an article written on the matter in 2011

Well first we say hello, then both parties are nervous as one has never met someone else interested in their own passion, in their own field of research but somehow after a few meetings one starts to understand that artists and scientists are very similar. Similar you may not think but similar we are. Both tribes are making/creating/voicing hypothesis in their own field. Hypothesis that may or may not have an answer as yet but never the less an answer will eventually come. I have to say that hypothesis in art may seem to take less time, energy and certainly less money to get a result still some of my work took 2 years to create. The fact is that 7 years ago I decided to work with plastics. What a strange idea for an artist you may think. But an idea never the less!  An idea that was the result of seeing the abundance of abandoned consumerist matter, washed up plastics in our own Port Phillip Bay on a beach I had been walking on for the last 20 years and suddenly noticed a major change on what I could see in the sand, gone were the stones, seashells, driftwood and even bits of polished glass called sea glass…at that specific moment I didn’t have to think what I would have to glean! What was presented to me that day was a piece of black plastic, a lid, then a second lid and then a third. I quickly retraced my steps to collect several lids or objects no larger then 5-6cm in diameter laid on the beach. This was definitely unusual finds even perhaps treasures and little did I know then. Little did I know that from the 7 types of plastics first created we have successfully nowadays increased the number of this miracle material to a mere 43000! How can we possibly recycle such a huge variety of plastics? And black being the worst plastic to be recycled, as the scanners used in recycling plants cannot recognize the colour black as being plastic.
An illustration of the sheer magnitude of the problem is that as much as 51 trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than stars in our galaxy – litter the seas today!

Each year, more than eight million metric tonnes of plastic end up in oceans, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism to the cost of at least $8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems. According to estimates, by 2050, oceans will have more plastic than fish if present trends continues and 99% of earth’s seabirds will have ingested plastic.

Why-Why-Why was a question I apparently asked often when I was a child. Artists (like scientists) have an inquisitive mind they are starving for knowledge always wanting to understand and know more about the world that surrounds them. They dig, look and research until they know and when they know they voice it. They express what they see and have seen but instead of using figures or written papers, the artists use their own creativity. Artist interprets and transcribes what they have uncovered with different means on a canvas, on a piece of paper, with a photograph, a sculpture, a film or a sculptural assemblage to ensure a message is passed on far and wide. Artists voice it to the world in making the invisible to the passer-by, visible. You will tell me that scientists do the same they dig and dig research and research until they find an answer, a result to their question is found and I would have to agree with you there but the only thing is that when we talk about microbes to the general public it doesn’t really make any sense…well it doesn’t until it is visually shown and explained to them not with scientific words or numbers but in a another language a visual language. And what visually more powerful is there then a tram filled with thousands of non-recyclable coffee cups, thanks to Craig Reucassel with his War on Waste series, which, by the way, have you seen the 4th episode 'Turning the Tide' just released on Abc Iview on demand. This is another episode worth seeing if you haven’t already. This series approached is done with Research and with Exposing to the world VISUALLY and it is making a difference.
When I approached Professor Mark Osborn about wanting to know more about underwater plastic eating microbes, which somehow at the time I thought some bacterial species had been found. Facebook is not so reliable after all. On the other side of the table Mark was intrigued I would even say chuffed why an artist was even remotely interested in his research on underwater plastic eating bacteria. The meeting went well I even made most of what Marc was saying in his scientific language. I still came out perplexed if he would follow up…well… you well know by now that Marc did put me in contact with 2 people first under the supervision of Slobodanka Stojkovic PhD postdoctoral fellow and then Phd student Taylor Gundry rwho was at the time researching on underwater plastic eating bacteria in rivers at Dight Falls in the Yarra River and sea waters, in Port Phillip under the Westgate bridge in Melbourne.
This led to a couple more meetings including a day in front of a microscope, last time I did this was probably in year 8 or 9 in France at school. However this time, it was a giant microscope, a scanning electron microscope. A microscope that could show the extremely minute and translates into a visible image on a computer screen. That of course was a revelation in itself for the artist in me. A whole new world was now available on a screen, inspiration at your fingertips.
We then talked on how I could represent this research I wanted it to be my own interpretation of course but at the same time, I didn’t want to misrepresent the actual research and development of this project. Ideas flew in and out of the room showing a different approach to art-making. I needed to use found plastics as this is the point of my own art practice to share the beauty that waste is and how waste is actually a wonderful resource. I learned about bacteria, diatoms, ciliates and algae, their shape, what they do, how they adhere to a surface and how they survive under the gooey film you find the bacterial colonies under after a few days even under water. I had a chance to discover a world that is usually only reserved to the selected few and indeed an unknown and fascinating world that is worth sharing with everyone on this planet.
Just like Artist, Scientists bring the invisible to the surface. We as artists are extremely resourceful we bring it to view with a new dialogue a new way of looking and researching. I gave a brief talk at the symposium for the VIVID 2017 in Sydney on bringing together the fine arts with science and business programs together. Too many time artists are brought in on a project at the last minute. We are not there for bringing a new product to life we are here now to help each other and to collaborate, feeding from each other expertise and looking creatively at possibilities. Artist as scientists likes to learn and understand what others cannot see and the scientist likes to bring their result and new discovery to the attention of the public. Sometimes, as you may well know, research takes times and artists can be there to record, present and interpret the developmental journey or final stage of a scientific research.
I myself having had a very brief look into the world of microbes and of science I can only see that increasing the dialogue and the collaborations between the fields of art and science would not only increase the visibility of science but would also increase its veracity.
I would like to acknowledge the vision and persistence of one amazing women Sherryl Ryan of Culture at Work whom focus is on creating opportunities for artists to collaborate with scientists.

CULTURE AT WORK is an Artist-led Australian Research Institute, an art science creative hub with a mission and vision to connect art and science through artists and scientists to inspire future generations of creative thinkers through collaborations, studio residencies, exhibitions, public talks and public programs. CULTURE AT WORK is a ground breaking artist led initiative with a research committee of artists, scientists and educators. CULTURE AT WORK supports artists and researchers to innovate across disciplines and in experimental projects through studio residency programs. Located in the City of Sydney CULTURE AT WORK also curates exhibitions and public talks by artists and scientists and provides creative workshop programs for parents and children to work together linking art and science.

My work that ensued from this collaboration was a representational journey or timeline of what happens when plastic is submerged in water?

I will try to explain the exhibit to you now as it was displayed:
as you entered a long room in total darkness, 6 golden jewels are hanging from the ceiling, curated in a single row and at eye level. Each internally lit under a top layer presenting the researched topic.
The gold was for the gold coating machine used before putting the slides into the scanning electron microscope and after bacteria was kept in a desiccator
The shape of each sculpture was like the sketches scientist to amply the area of their research on paper
The led light inside the cone like shape was to represent the scanning electron microscope
The bacteria were made of found single-use packaging such as glad wrap, bubble wrap, foam beads, foam beans, packaging straps
The top of the sculpture is from polypropylene sheeting which is the type of plastic that was inserted in a river such as take-away food container
The 6 sculptures are the timeline of the chosen 6 days non-consecutive days of this particular experiment that extended to a total period of 3 months
I collaborated with a South African artist Sarah Joy to record, with her own water soundscape an audio with a text I wrote about a bacterium journey hanging onto a submerged piece of plastic over 3 months. This was the piece that ‘sealed the deal’ as we say this made the visual readable. This 5mn audio was played on a loop during the exhibition. This artwork was finally resolved.

This work was exhibited at the end of my residency in their gallery and led me to give the talk during Vivid 17 in Sydney as I mentioned before. This same work, is currently one of the finalist works at the Burrinja Climate Change Art Prize which is on show till 6th February next year. If you are going in the vicinity of the Dandenongs, please do visit the well worthy exhibition at the Burrinja Art Centre.

And today, I am grateful to have been asked to give this talk and wish for other artists in the world to experience such experiments in the field of science.

To finish I will add that this whole process was simply made possible thanks to the Sydney based residency which I was a recipient of last year which gave me a certain credibility in being able to approach RMIT university. If I hadn’t been the recipient of this residency I do not think, I would have had the courage, to approach a scientist, regarding a potential artwork, about underwater plastic eating bacteria.

So let us make these collaborations easier and readily available for the benefit of these 2 tribes.

To view more about Carolyn's work during her residency click the link below


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