I heard more spontaneous conversations today about science than I have ever heard in any exhibition anywhere.
‘Why are those rings rolling uphill?’
‘Why is that water burning?’
‘What will happen when the balloon fills?’
I was not at a science exhibition, but at the Turner Contemporary Gallery’s new show, Risk. The piece I was looking at was called The Way Things Go (German: Der Lauf der Dinge), a film made in 1987 by the Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss.
This film, made in a warehouse, is a sort of mash-up between Blue Peter and Heath Robinson and Wallace and Gromit. It is a continuous stream of actions, each one triggering the next in the chain. Bin bags swing until they stroke tyres to roll; delicately poised and weighted cardboard rings progress up a slope; balloons fill and drop onto levers. Some triggers exploit physical processes – the conservation of energy – while others are chemical: burning, explosion, melting. The whole thing is 30 minutes of cartoonish, breath-holding, audacious inventiveness.
I went with my own children. We joined the video, which was shown on a loop, about 10 minutes in. We watched it to the end, then we watched the first tem minutes to join up to when we started. Then we watched it all the way to the end again. After we’d been round the rest of the show, we came and watched it again. Nor were my children unusual in their attentiveness to the feat which, let’s face it, is not paced like contemporary media. It is slow, and there is no commentary, no music: no sound at all except the drips and clops and fizzings. There was a whole crown of them around the screen and they couldn’t hold their questions back. Some, I’m afraid, were being shushed. The parents were coming back as best they could with fragments of physics and chemistry; the children were filling in with knowledge and hypothesis.
However, despite the science chat the show, and this piece in particular, did not purport to be science; it was art. Moreover, I had the feeling that its success pointed to a very profound asymmetry between science and art in public. When we see science on display – at science museums and expos – there are heaps of explanations: panels to tell us the principles we see on display. Often, we read the panel, then press the button to see the theory demonstrated for us in some clever model. Art is different. Art in galleries is presented with very little explanation. It’s a high risk strategy, with the risk that the audience will write it off with the cliché, ‘my 5-year-old could have made that’. But when it works, it works brilliantly. The audience must do the work of figuring out why it matters; what research underpins it. The audience meets the art in a raw and mostly unmediated encounter. They are not told the answers, but left to figure them out for themselves; indeed, they are left to figure out the questions. In science galleries, by contrast, the encounter is highly mediated; the process or direct results of science are not shown; and the learning outcomes are predetermined. You can either take them, or leave them and proceed straight to the giftshop.
Of course there is always trickery behind the scenes. If you look closely at Fischli and Weiss’s film, there are some cuts, just as there are in science. The results always take a little cleaning up. But somehow seeing that work done in an artistic context changed the way I felt about it.
What I saw at The Way Things Go was, ironically, the best example of science communication I have ever seen – in the specific sense that it got its audience asking questions. I can’t think of any better outcome for a show, whether science or art.
Postscript: You can watch a bit of The Way Things Go on Youtube; better yet, see it in its entirety, and the rest of the exhibition, in Margate.