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Information Experience Design Explores Science and Art in Grizedale Forest

Dark matter and data-processing algorithms will come together through artistic practice in the woods this month. If a Tree Falls in the Forest is a collaborative art and science investigation between the Royal College of Art Information Experience Design (IED) programme and the Cosmoparticle Initiative at University College London (UCL), supported by the Royal Society and Institute of Physics. The outcomes will be presented through a public exhibition and workshops taking place from 12 October to 4 November at Grizedale Sculpture, in Grizedale Forest.

The artworks in the exhibition were developed through a collaborative process between MA IED students and graduates, and early-career scientists from the Cosmoparticle Initiative. By transforming selected cosmological research data into exploratory two-dimensional, three-dimensional and time-based artworks, the exhibition communicates otherwise inaccessible, abstract and intangible concepts of modern cosmology to a broad public audience.

The project is led by IED PhD candidate and lecturer Michaela French, IED Visiting Lecturer Dr Helga Schmid, and Professor Andrew Pontzen who is deputy director of the UCL Cosmoparticle Initiative, which brings together researchers in astrophysics, cosmology and high energy physics.

Discussing the motivations behind the project, Michaela French commented: ‘At their core, art and science are part of the same search for understanding. It is this idea we hope to communicate through our collaboration. If a Tree Falls in the Forest also serves as a test site for interdisciplinary collaboration, through which we can observe, analyse and evaluate the possibilities, challenges and benefits of interdisciplinary practice-based research.’

Situated in the physical environment of the forest, the exhibition leads the audience from the tangible reality of the physical world, outward into the conceptual space of contemporary cosmology. It considers ecological ideas of interconnectivity and balance, placing each viewer at the centre of an infinitely complex living system.

‘Grizedale is a working forest, and this year also celebrates its fiftieth anniversary as the UK’s oldest forest sculpture park,’ Michaela explained. ‘It is a World Heritage and Dark Skies site renowned for some of England’s finest stargazing opportunities. These artistic, scientific and cultural credentials offer an extraordinary and apposite location for our collaboration. Anchoring the collaborative process and the resulting artworks in the complex system of Grizedale Forest has enabled our dialogue to expand naturally in a domain that cannot be wholly defined by either art or science.’

Research for the exhibition included a trip to Grizedale Forest as well as an intensive weekend spent in Epping Forest, where artist and cosmologist pairs led practice-based workshops to test and communicate their developing ideas. These activities helped break down preconceived ideas and disciplinary boundaries so that shared goals and new modes of thinking could be established.

Discussing the project, Head of IED, Dr Kevin Walker commented: ‘If a Tree Falls in the Forest exemplifies the core aim of the IED programme at the RCA: designing experiences to communicate information, through installations or interventions that engage all senses, modes and media. The collaboration between scientists, researchers, artists and designers demonstrates the cross-disciplinary modes of working supported and encouraged by the programme, and the dynamic outcomes that emerge when art and design methodologies and approaches are combined with traditional STEM expertise.’ 

Kevin also contributed his own artwork to the exhibition, a detailed astronomical drawing titled Spacetime Exploration no.1.

Find out more about Information Experience Design and how to apply.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest is open at Grizedale Visitor’s Centre Project Space from 12 Oct – 4 Nov 2018, with public workshops running throughout the week 22–28 Oct. The project is supported by Grizedale Forest Sculpture and by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society Public Engagement Grant schemes. Further information is available at 

The IED artists and UCL researchers taking part in the project are:
Franziska Pilling (IED graduate) & Arthur Loureiro (UCL); Daniele Giannetti (IED graduate) & Nicolas Angelides (UCL); Olivia Sullivan (IED graduate) & Constance Mahony (UCL); and Ed Cornish (IED student) & Krishna Naidoo (UCL) 

Grizedale Sculpture/Arts Curator is Hazel Stone. The project is being documented by Richard Millington (Independent filmmaker & BBC science producer), and Kumi Oda (IED student).