We spoke to boredomresearch about how they are employing mathematical modelling and real-time animation in developing Afterglow.

What has been your experience of working on art & science projects or working with scientists previously?

For over ten years our work has been informed by principles of scientific modelling. We are greatly inspired by mechanisms and behaviours present in natural systems. By observing these mechanics we focus on capturing subtle and intriguing movements and patterns, aesthetically. Our primary interest is in the emergent properties of natural systems, expressed in real-time over extended durations, using technologies more usually associated with computer games.

Over time, the investigations and research findings of many different scientists has informed our projects. For example, British scientist Stephen Wolfram’s research, examining the rules in cellular automata, informed the artworks in our solo exhibition Theatre of Restless Automata (2005-6). The exhibition comprised of animated worlds, incorporating simple programming rules to create an infinite diversity of pattern, slowly grown, on virtual creatures and forms.

In developing more recent works, including Fragments of Lost Flight (2012-13) we consulted conservation scientists and a Lepidopterist gaining insights into both morphological traits and distribution patterns. An appreciation of the increased depth this gave us, as well as the scientist’s keen interest in our approach, fuelled our appetite to further develop arts and science interactions. Increasingly, we appreciate there appears a balance, between difference and similarity of concern, that leads to mutually fruitful discussion.

What were your expectations when you were first invited to be part of the project? Have your expectations changed at all during the development process?

We have been surprised by how naturally the collaboration has developed. We were expecting challenges and obstacles to hinder progress as we struggled to bridge a divide. Far from a divide we have found that superficial differences, of language and method, conceal fundamentally shared concerns of representation and depiction. Building on these common values we have instead found ourselves delving deep into some of the intricacies of what makes scientific models meaningful and how this relates to our own practice as artists. In doing so we have gained an appreciation of value, not only in respect to our own practice but also in respect to the freedom this approach has provided for the scientist to explore ideas outside the normal constraints of their discipline. We are excited by the scientist’s enthusiasm for our collaboration to make a valuable contribution to ongoing research in this area.

How are you choosing to respond to your scientific collaborator’s research? What methods are you using to make sense of their science?

Through our use of real-time animation, we can directly employ mathematical models describing infection, to explore spatial aspects of disease transmission dynamics. Although this at first seems simple and direct, it has forced us to challenge and extend our understanding of landscape. We have had to consider how an artistic depiction of an imagined place can relate to a generalised scientific model, both of which exploit their disconnection from the real to provide enhanced value. For this reason it may transpire that notions of ‘generalisable results’ in science and ‘unique expressions’ central to artistic practice both relate to the same concern.

In response to the scientist’s research we aim to take advantage of this shared concern, by combining a specific expression of a fictional landscape, with actual mathematical models developed to explore epidemiology. This response employs a landscape populated with bioluminescent forms, choreographed by the underlying transmission scenario. The patterns these describe create a synthetic visual spectacle, allowing us to see the intimate relationship, between infection transmission and environment.

Brought into focus is the spatial complexities and temporal patterns in relation to landscape. This relates closely to current themes in epidemiology that aim to understand the connection between the landscape and infection transmission. Our emphasis on form and motion creates a fresh and exciting perspective on this scientific research.

How did you first approach responding to the brief with Dr Brock? And how have you found the process of working with the scientist so far?

Our first meeting with the scientist revealed a shared interest in exploring the mechanics of the natural world. Early discussions looked to expose the differences of our respective world views. Although it was clear that we each had our own language, arising from distinctly different practices, fundamental similarities allowed us to move rapidly to the fuzzy boundaries of our disciplines in search of a meaningful point of engagement. This led us to consider problematic aspects of epidemiology that could be address creatively from a visual arts perspective. The intimate interaction between infection scenario and the landscape became central, with the universal language of landscape relaying complex disease transmission dynamics.

We recognised that to form an expression of malaria epidemiology, strongly underpinned by meaningful scientific representations, would require a deep understanding of each others respective disciplines. This process rapidly developed, raising interesting questions at every turn, as we increasingly began to appreciate that the differences between our approaches were as subtle as they were insightful. So far, we have developed a strong sense of how these subtle differences, between art and science, can be exploited to create compelling expressions relating strongly to real world phenomena.

What has been the most interesting science fact you’ve discovered so far?

Considering how little we knew about malaria and epidemiology before this collaboration, it is difficult to pick out one single fact as most interesting. We have gained a detailed appreciation of the principle and structure of some of the mathematical models. There was something about the way these complex models were often reduced to two dimensional graphs, that lead us to question, how they relate to the insights the research hopes to gain.

From this we formed an appreciation of the importance of generalisable results but were surprised by the level of abstraction required to achieve this. We have come to consider this as, in a way, poetic with the absence of specifics providing enhanced value. This notion of ‘poetic’ provides an interface through which we can reveal the shapes and forms emerging from the intricacies of the model, evoking an appreciation of the otherwise invisible form of an infection scenario. One fact however, that the minority of people receive the vast majority of bites, did confirm long held suspicions, from holidays past, that mosquitoes are not preoccupied with values of fairness.

December 2013