Co-Lab: Science Meets Street Art

Science and art don’t seem to have much in common at first glance. I once knew a girl who double majored in physics and philosophy and she was pretty much equivalent to Stephen Hawking in my book. With the spread of popular science (such as I Fucking Love Science on Facebook), science has become more accessible in our own lives but locally in Canberra, there have been few opportunities to take it out of its intellectual bubble. Co-Lab: Science Meets Street Art on 19 September, organised by ANU student Lee Constable, has been one such attempt, melding the work of street artists and ANU science PhD students at Westside, New Acton.

Arriving at Westside on Saturday afternoon, house music is pumping and there is a steady stream of people walking past to see the newly painted fence, now covered with five large science-themed artworks. One of them was completed by Kurt Laurenson, also known as Stylized Impact, who teamed with science student Larissa Huston as she wrote her PhD on condensed matter physics, focusing on how light and electrons interact with the crystal structure of materials. Larissa admits that she did not see her science work as an artwork and Kurt responds to this by crediting Lee, who he says “paired us up really well… my style is abstract so to do all this colour and light has been perfect.” The resulting image is an abstract piece displaying broad rainbow streaks on a flat black background. Brighter shades are used to highlight brush movement and to add elements of light to the colourful mural. Larissa says it has been an “interesting adventure to communicate my work out to the public in a very accessible medium such as art, so people can actually look at it and appreciate it… I think subjects such as condensed matter physics are very difficult to communicate in visual form.”

Communicating science to the public is partly the reason why Lee, who is finishing a Masters of Science Communication Outreach, conceived of the event. “A lot of the emerging youth culture in Canberra is to do with art and [specifically] public art… By focusing on young emerging scientists, who honestly don’t get very many opportunities to celebrate their work, and focusing on street art, as an emerging medium for communicating with people, this has [helped] engage people who may not normally engage with science.” Lee, whose undergraduate study at ANU involved both Science and Arts, saw an opportunity to use street art to communicate ideas with other young people because it “brings it into a public space that they’re familiar with and it gives them a sense that they are connected to science”.

Brad East, who goes by Beast or @artbybeast on Instagram, worked on Saturday without his PhD student, Lyle Roberts, present but speaks easily about the project, called ‘Using Lasers to Move Space Junk’. “Lyle Roberts’ work uses certain amounts of lasers and laser intensity to change the orbit and altitude of different space debris.” The accompanying information provided at the event describes it as “a similar concept to the death star, except far less sinister”.

Having experimented with graffiti since the age of 12, Brad mentions that his mother hates what he does unless it’s legal “in which case, she’ll love it”. For Brad, if you remove the illegality aspect of street art, there only remains someone’s artistic expression, which he says is exactly the same as science; “someone being able to express their understanding and their knowing and put[ting] that into a more practical aspect.” I asked if creating this artwork has helped him see more similarities between science and street art, and he agrees that they are very similar “in the way that it is so hard to understand and a lot of people don’t quite get what is going on… this [event] allows both of those things to be brought in to show the benefits of both [science and art]”.

Brad says that for him personally, his involvement in Co-Lab comes down to “the validity of the fact that what I’m doing is relevant and important and needs to be in this changing landscape that we are in. Obviously science is not easy to grasp for everyone else and that’s exactly the same with graffiti… for me to be able to explain my side by having the graffiti aspect as well as having some kind of internal context with science allows us to explain both our ends and bring it into something socially acceptable. For a lot of people science is acceptable but it’s not accessible [because] it’s just too far to grasp and I guess that’s the same with graffiti.”

Brad’s work, which he says began “with throwing paint at the wall for four hours yesterday”, involves a lot of fine detail and illustrates Earth in space surrounded by satellites and debris. His art focuses on process-driven work because it allows for a more organic flow to his pieces and therefore can be manipulated to benefit and compliment how the materials behave. The artwork is filled with drips of running paint, which he says he uses to bring out the texture of his materials and process so the viewers can “see the brush contacting the wall from start to finish”. Brad says he had several people come up to him and ask if the running paint was a comment on climate change. “[That] goes down to the fact that again art is so highly subjective and draws different assertions depending on the viewer and context.”

“The thing with graffiti and street art,” Brad says, “is that you have to capture someone’s attention in two seconds, and if you can do that, if you can get someone looking at your stuff and really paying attention to it then you can put in as much detail as you want… when you’re doing street art, someone is literally walking past it compared to people who go to a gallery with the mindset that they are going to have to think about something.” I ask if the principle of street art is to integrate art with everyday life and Brad is enthusiastic, saying that street art or “public art” as he prefers to call it, is there so that everyone can understand it whereas an exhibit in a gallery is “very much not for everyone”.

Considering that a lot of street art happens in secret and is often regarded as either unlawful or as part of an underground youth culture, public events such as Co-Lab are helping to advertise the changing conception of street art in Canberra and promote the integration of our artistic community into our business and work worlds. At Westside, New Acton, whilst previously there was a blank fence protecting portable toilets, there is now a growing community art space that has significant meaning for both the artistic and scientific communities. The event has brought hundreds of people to view the space at Westside, a space that also hosts youth events, and has contributed to the growing legitimisation of quality street art in Canberra. Everyone I speak to has raved about the creativity and success of the event, with Brad supplementing his statements by saying “the less unknown ground between all parties involved in art – from artist to mentor to audience – the more chance the piece is likely to be acknowledged and hopefully understood”.

Co-Lab artworks were created by Beast, Houl, byrd, Stylized Impact and Smalls, based on the Science PhD theses of Lyle Roberts, Catherine Ross, Thomas Brereton, Larissa Huston and Jason Whitfield.

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