Cabot Institute blog

Find out more about us at www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Hollow: Bristol researchers engage with artists on 10,000 samples of wood

Artist Katie Paterson invited the public to explore a collection of 10,000 samples of wood from almost every country in the world. Commissioned by the University of Bristol, Hollow will be a new permanent public artwork imagined by Katie in collaboration with scientists and researchers.  Situations.org met with Cabot Institute researcher Jon Bridle to ask some questions about working with artists, his thoughts on the project, the evolution of species and the future of the planet.
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Hollow exhibition. L-r Katie Paterson and Jon Bridle. Image credit Situations.org

What’s your role at University of Bristol and why is it exciting?


I’m an Evolutionary Biologist, conducting research into how quickly populations can evolve to cope with changes in their environment, and so potentially avoid extinction. Such understanding is crucial for predicting how rapid climate change and habitat loss will affect the species and the ecosystems that we depend on for all human economies. Understanding these evolutionary processes also helps us to understand why one species splits into two, and so why life proliferates into so many diverse and beautiful forms.

What’s really exciting at the moment is that biologists suddenly have the tools to explore the genomic basis of these evolutionary responses. This revolution in genetic techniques could become as significant in transforming our understanding as when astronomers started to use the telescope in 16th Century Europe.

Tell us a little about commissioning a public artwork for the new Life Sciences building at University of Bristol…


The University of Bristol has demonstrated a huge commitment to Life Sciences through its investment in a building where we can do internationally leading research. This reflects how crucial the study of life is to addressing many of the acute challenges that face humanity this century, such as food security, biodiversity loss, and climate change.

Commissioning a public artwork to explore some of these themes is an exciting way to celebrate this, and to allow us to connect in new and previously unimagined ways with some of the beauty, complexity and depth of the natural world. It’s also absolutely fantastic for us as scientists, and for the wider community, to be able to engage with the work of an artist like Katie Paterson.
Jon Bridle at Hollow exhibition. Image credit Situations.org

Katie Paterson’s work often involves long and complex collaborations with researchers in different fields. What does it mean to put artists and scientists in the same room?


I think it’s very useful for both sides. The way I think about the world has certainly been shaped by art that has inspired me throughout my life. Sparks do fly but they’re usually very creative ones!

To me, scientists and artists share a huge amount in that they both have to always be prepared to revise their thinking, to see the unexpected, and to reexamine the familiar. Both cultures depend on curiosity, on confronting uncomfortable complexities, and on escaping any prejudices about how we might like things to be. Most of the artists I’ve known – and most of the historical ones I enjoy – have been fascinated by science, and the same applies to the scientists I know in relation to art.

The only resistance can come from the fear of looking foolish – or of asking naive questions – but that’s the whole point: science progresses by asking simple questions, and being wrong in clever ways that increase our understanding of the world. If you’re worried about being wrong, or being made to feel humble, the last thing you should be is a scientist! I find beauty when the world suddenly becomes more intricate – maybe even stranger – that I’d previously imagined. Both good art and good science takes me to these places. Incidentally, I also think the same is true of good comedy.

For Katie Paterson’s Open Studio, the public are invited to handle some of the extraordinary collection of tree samples and hear stories about each one. What do you hope people might take away from a close encounter with the collection?


Well, I’m sure the public will get inspiration from it in ways I can’t imagine, so all I can talk about is my response to the Open Studio. To me, it’s really helped me engage with the way that all life is connected at a profound level. This is both in terms of all life sharing a common (and in terms of trees, fairly recent) group of ancestors, with all these pieces of wood representing the living tips – or twigs – of this deeply rooted family tree.

In another sense all life is connected physically in that individuals and species come together and interact in ecosystems in real time. In trees, these interactions with pollinators, parasites, other plants, birds, fungi, bacteria and with each other (through sharing pollen, or through sharing space, or air) are clearly visible because they often bear their scars in their leaves and in the bark, and of course in their wood, which was once the living, growing part of the tree.

This physical relationship of the tree with the world around it is recorded even in the cut pieces of wood that now seem rather remote, and rudely removed from the forests where they once grew. Each piece of wood once had gallons of water being pulled through it that entered the soil from ancient rivers, powered by long-disappeared parts of our sun. It’s fun to think about this as we sit around a wooden table drinking coffee. For visitors to the studio, I hope the stories about human relationships with trees will help to unfold these broader truths about how all life is connected, and how we are all part of the biodiversity that the collection is testament to.
Hollow exhibition - wood samples from around the world. Image credit Situations.org

Rethinking our relationship to the natural environment seems increasingly significant for both artists and scientists. What are the key challenges ahead?

Yes – rethinking our relationship with nature is hugely important, especially when many governments seem to be sidestepping these profound challenges for fear of compromising short-term economic growth. This is why public engagement with things like the COP21 talks in Paris, and public awareness of the difference we can make by choosing how we consume are so important.

The challenges are enormous. There’s good evidence that we’ve lost 50% of the world’s biodiversity (and about half of the world’s forests) in the past 40 years, at precisely the time when overconsumption and climate change make that biodiversity increasingly important for the planet’s resilience. However, there is still time to tackle these issues. Unfortunately, the terrifying scale of the loss of this true wealth of our planet is not appreciated by most people, and is certainly not high up on the political agenda, perhaps because those most affected by it are the world’s poor and powerless, as well as our future unborn generations.

The difficult thing is how to accept these difficult truths without feeling powerless and overwhelmed. We need to start living on this planet as if we intend to stay here. And we need to ask ourselves whether overconsumption of the world’s resources, with all the profound consequences it entails, is really making us happy.

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This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Situations. View the original blog on their website.

The Open Studio ran from 4 - 6 December 2015.

Jon Bridle is based in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol.  The Hollow art project also involved other Bristol researchers including Heather Whitney, Gary Foster and undergraduates during the open studio.

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