When people hear that I am both interested in design AND research I often get a lot of puzzled looks. In everyday thinking design has become this crazy, random activity; messy and impossible to tame. Research on the other hand is white, clean and highly tamed. Every step measured and prescribed. One person can impossibly do and like both. The truth – as always – is blurrier than that.
What combines both design and science is the sense of curiosity and the will to explore. Both scientists and artists will often tell you that they start a project with a question and look for ways in which they try to find answers. And even though the in which these insights are generated are different, who is to say that one is better than the other – more creative, more insightful? Scientists as well as designers need to be creative to come up with solutions, to find the right questions to ask and to move on when the research seems to be ‘stuck’: Artists and designers on the other hand may go through uncountable repetitions with the vigour of a lab series, noting the different outcomes, changing their behavior to enhance the outcome.
The often quoted STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics is currently turned into STEAM as art takes its rightful place in the explorative cannon. Science and art move together closer (again one might argue) and are both more and more seen as both a creative as well as rigorous process. This is by far not as far-fetched as it seems on first glance. One of my all time favorite craft projects is the hyperbolic crochet reef which has been grown with the help of participants all over the world. The ‘corals’ mimic the beauty of the natural shapes, while doing something extraordinary: exist as a flat and three-dimensional shape at the same time. If you read through the description of what a hyperbolic plane is, it might make you lose the will to live. But there is one way of increasing stitches in crochet when going in the round, and you can touch it, feel it, experience it.
One of the most interesting projects I have come across recently was Anna Dumitriu’s exhibition “The romantic disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis” at Watermans in London. I am still sad that I have been unable to attend the workshop and felt lungs with (killed) TB bacteria. I am quite sure that the repetitive motion of felting would have helped to get an understanding of how the bacteria intrude the body. Much better than any textbook or illustration could ever do.
This is in my experience the great power of arts & craft projects that deal with complex scientific issues: it can be a communicator. It can trigger interest in complex topics, which most people do not have when looking at a blackboard. It might show the beauty of insight and patterns to new spectators. I believe once you have seen the beauty in something, you lose your anxiety of it. It might allow you to approach subjects that had been closed to you earlier. It might be a starting point for something entirely new.
I have been lucky enough to talk about this with Nicki Merrall, a knit designer whose cable pattern based on chance has been published in ‘The Knitter’, Issue 68 . But I met her at Nottingham Trent University, where she took her Masters degree, while I knitted my way through the BA. She describes the work on her final collection as a “transition” from her former work as a biochemist to a knit designer:
“Evolution of Form: A Hi-tech Approach to Craft” is my favourite project so far. The final pieces are far better than anything I could have imagined when I started my MA. This project pushed me to try many new things: machine knit rather than hand knit; form rather than colour and texture; synthetic yarn rather than natural fibre and making installations rather than garments. And in the process I underwent a transition from “scientist” to “artist”.
Have you come across people who are surprised by your choice of inspiration?
No, but many people from an “arts” background are surprised that a scientist would choose to work as an artist or designer. They don’t see that scientific work requires creativity and imagination; without these you only think of the obvious and may not be able to take advantage of serendipity.
Is there a mathematical problem / occurrence you would like to work with in future?
I think that knit could be used to understand the way in which things grow. That would be interesting!
Do you feel that your work might help others to see the beauty in logical and natural structures?
A lot of people do see the beauty in logical and natural structures, but they may not understand why, just as they don’t necessarily understand why they like certain man-made objects. So my work might help people understand why some structures are beautiful.
How do you think generally about arts and crafts as communicators?
The aim of scientific research is to advance our understanding about how things work. Therefore scientists communicate knowledge and understanding based on observable or measurable facts. Scientific papers are written for other scientists, rather than the public. Most people learn about scientific advances through mass media, but media is edited to argue a particular point of view, often by incorrect use of statistical analysis or ignoring some facts. And some journalists do not understand the science themselves, so might inadvertently create misunderstandings. Also people struggle with science because they do not understand the terminology and find it confusing when different scientists interpret the same facts differently.
Whilst art can be used to communicate factual information, art can also be used to communicate abstract or conceptual ideas. However, this often requires an explanation in addition to the actual installation. And, even though art is displayed for the public, the explanations are often written using language that is only understood by other artists. If people don’t understand visual symbolism or the way language is used by artists then the ideas to be communicated are lost.
In contrast, when I design and make knitted items I work from inspiration. I’m trying to make something aesthetically pleasing that is also functional. I usually write about the inspiration and design process because it helps people connect with me as a designer, and appreciate the skills required for and the technicalities of that craft. So, I’m communicating about craft rather than using craft to communicate. If I try to communicate about something else, then I’m using craft to create art and therefore using art to communicate an idea.
So, I guess the main thing about communication, regardless of field, is to understand your subject and write for your audience!
Thank you very, very much,Nicki, for your time and your insights!