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A Nervous Encounter: scientists and artists in collaboration

6th – 20th October 2012

Arts at the Old Fire Station, Oxford



A nervous encounter, in reality

This project began as a lab visit by the inaugural MA Art and Science class from Central Saint Martins (CSM), College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London. The Basal Ganglia lab at the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit (ANU) at the University of Oxford, shared some insight into the work of a biomedical scientist; from brain research being undertaken in the group, to what equipment is used, to how an investigation might be designed and the passion and patience involved.

This was an exciting, challenging, exhausting, thrilling day. Talking with people from other disciplines is usually at least some of those things. Changing the language you use to communicate your message, others being intrigued by what you might find quite ordinary, or finding common ground. Going back to your work space (office or lab or studio) with a new perspective.


Slide boxesHow did A Nervous Encounter come about then?

While initially just a class visit to the ANU, it soon became obvious that this was an exciting opportunity: for dialogue, engagement, and likely some intriguing artworks.

Artists were invited to submit proposals for continued collaboration, based on elements of the lab visit they wanted to further explore, and more interactions in the lab were arranged between individuals.


The conceptual framework

The conceptual framework was exploratory and deliberately loose, to allow and encourage creative freedom. Fewer limitations upon ideas seemed the right way to go.

This type of cooperation and collaboration across diverse disciplines can be unfamiliar. It was hoped that the relaxed structure would enable mutual exploration.

Of course, this was challenging to the artists as well as the scientists; all of us continued to develop our thoughts around communication, interpretation and relevance. This organic process is part of the learning around engagement with different communities.

There were ten artists contributing to A Nervous Encounter, exploring ideas developing from their initial introduction to a brain research lab. They used media from printmaking and photography to video and sound installations. More about the artists can be found on the People page.


Slide boxesWhat about the science?

Most of the scientists involved in A Nervous Encounter were part of a lab group carrying out research into part of the brain called the basal ganglia. This is a network of structures that are integral to movement, particularly initiation and control.

Some researchers are investigating how different populations of neurons within this network are communicating with each other (using electrical and chemical signals) when functioning normally. There are other projects using models of disease, to further understand what occurs when there is dysfunction, such as in movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

More about the research can be found on the MRC ANU website, in the Bolam and Magill groups. More about the scientists can be found on the People page.


The product

A Nervous Encounter was inherently interactive for the artists and scientists involved, but it’s important to share this journey and the outcomes.

We were delighted to present our work at Arts at the Old Fire Station, Oxford from 6th-20th October 2012.

The collaboration was documented here, and the catalogue that accompanied the show includes further material describing the dialogue and discourse that took place towards artwork production.