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Art + research = new ways of seeing

Swati Aggarwal and Ashley Middleton.
Swati Aggarwal and Ashley Middleton are from two completely different worlds but have found a creative and exciting way to create art from research. Photo: Kennet Ruona.

A handful of selected artists have paired up with researchers from the European Spallation Source (ESS) and the results are unexpected meetings, different thoughts and new challenges. Both for the artists and the researchers. The results will help ESS to communicate complex research and the impact it may have on the region and the world.

ESS is being built in northeast Lund and this unique materials research facility is similar to a giant microscope in which neutrons are used to analyse samples at the atomic and molecular levels.

The world's most powerful neutron source will help researchers study different types of material, from plastics and proteins to medicines and batteries in order to understand their structure and function.

In a creative collaboration, the seven selected artists who are matched with researchers from ESS will think about questions relating to the present and the future.

From different planets

Ashley Middleton, an artist from New York now living in Berlin, has collaborated for a while with Swati Aggarwal, who is from a town in north India and conducts research in the area of structural biology. It is a field of science that examines the physical structure of macromolecules at an atomic scale. Macromolecules are an important element in how our genetic heritage is transmitted and in our understanding of our immune system.

Swati Aggarwal uses instruments at one of the ESS labs to extract proteins from animals, bacteria and plants into a solution. The protein molecules in the solution are too small to be visible under a microscope and are therefore converted into crystals. Only then can scientists understand the most basic biological functions of living organisms and design more effective drugs.

Ashley Middleton expresses herself in many art forms with the help of philosophy and science to understand the body's relationship to nature. Through photography, sculpture and installations, she illustrates how behaviour and environment are affected by digital media.

Nature has so much beauty in itself, so how am I to carve out my role as an artist?

"Swati and I are from different planets, but have been able to merge our worlds in the process of producing new artwork", says Ashley Middleton.

Their focal point, both via Zoom and in Swati Aggarwal's lab, has been the beautiful crystals. And their collaboration has far exceeded expectations, although they have different paths for moving forward. Swati Aggarwal wants to see results in a certain direction and Ashley Middleton usually has all options open, but both are flexible in what can be created in an artistic form. Together, they have taken detours that have led to new, sometimes unexpected, paths forward.

Swati Aggarwal has previously been involved in research communication and would like to help reduce the gap between society and the research world by using an educational approach to explain research that is difficult to understand. With the help of art, she believes it is easier to show what ESS is all about and how the facility will affect our future.

"We want to explain to the public in a very simple way. It is society's money that we use at this facility and the public has the right to know how their tax money will be employed in future to perform research in the environmental field and the pharma sector", she says.

Swati Aggarwal and Ashley Middleton
Can art inspire research to ask new questions? The answer is yes, if you ask Swati Aggarwal and Ashley Middleton. Photo: Kennet Ruona.

Make the invisible visible

When Swati Aggarwal works in a lab, atoms and molecules organise themselves into structures when they become crystals. Ashley Middleton has sat down and tried to understand how Swati Aggarwal works and she too has seen the beauty in the crystal structures.

"Nature has so much beauty in itself, so how am I to carve out my role as an artist?"

Through podcasts, YouTube and books, she has tried to learn a language so that she communicates with her research colleague in order to go beyond illustrating research data to find her own interpretation.

Ashley Middleton wants to point out all the small details involved in the process of discovering these nanostructures. Maybe it's by creating 3D artwork of a human-sized crystal that we can touch, so that we understand how our surroundings are full of nanoparticles we cannot see. Perhaps sound can add another dimension. 

"The pandemic has made me think a lot about how we affect each other. How are we linked at both the micro and macro levels – to each other and our environment – and how we can be more mindful and caring through different avenues of awareness."

Can art inspire research to ask new questions?

"I get inspired by art and then I bring art into my research", says Swati Aggarwal, who likes to relax by line drawing or painting with watercolours or acrylic.

A painting of a bouquet of proteins or the pattern on the roof of Lund Cathedral helps her to see and explain her research, both to herself and others.

"When my research is not going so well or when my research results do not turn out the way I want, then I paint. It helps me to be more open in my research."

Ashley Middleton hopes and believes that art can inspire critical thinking which can lead to different modes of creation and different interpretations of matter. That nothing is impossible.

"The scientific and artistic processes are similar in that they are both largely about observation. The difference is that science grows through determinacy and art grows through indeterminacy." 

Inter Arts Center (IAC) and ESS are hosting seven artists who exchange ideas with ESS researchers and engineers. The candidates are hand picked based on interest and background. The artists' residence is a collaboration with Wisdome Innovation.

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In March, the art of Ashley Middleton and Swati Aggarwal, along with the works of the other pairings, will be exhibited to the public at IAC in Malmö.