Slow-Time – the Synthesis Commission – playing with scale and time in the microscopic world

the installation of paper salt crystals ‘growing’ up the staircase at the Pontio Arts Centre

The Pontio Arts Centre in Bangor North Wales offer a brilliant opportunity for pairs of artists and scientists to work together under their ‘Synthesis’ commissioning programme, and in 2019 I was lucky enough to be a recipient of this commission.

It turns out that an old friend who was a lecturer at the Chemistry Department, thought of each other as an ideal team and submitted a proposal. Despite our very different disciplines we have great interest and respect in each others, and most importantly, share an experimental spirit, a sense of creative enquiry and curiosity

So, we set out on a journey to find a subject area to explore. Dr Vera Fitzsimmons-Thoss was doing some research with one of PhD students on the crystallisation of salt, and this was a great starting point. We met first at her home, then lab to look at all sorts of interesting forms that salt may take, discussed variations in chemical composition, geometrical formations and the effect of salt on other materials, or indeed, other materials on salt.

I was immediately stimulated by the fantastic shapes of the crystals, especially where Vera had been experimenting with growing salt crystals on other things including pieces of metal which of course are corroded heavily by salt.

We started to form a plan and collected different types of salt – atlantic sea salt, pink himalayan rock salt, and the home-grown Halen Môn Anglesey Sea Salt, striking up a conversation with them and involving them in both our research and then later, public sharing of our work. Meanwhile I experimented with how we could transform the scale and timespans into something that we could invite audiences to participate in, playing with he vista geometries and started to experiment with paper folding as a way of making salt crystal shapes. I also signed myself up to use the Pontio innovation centre or ‘fablab’ to attempt to scan salt crystals, using their hi-tech facilities. I got some intriguing visual results, just not ones that really looked like the subject matter! We think that was to do with the reflectivity and tiny scale of the object and the limitations of a handheld 3D scanner and human operator. It was a fascinating process nonetheless.

Back in the chemistry lab, I was working alongside Vera and her white-coated research students , I too in a lab coat and safety glasses (not so different from my workshop!) but tinkering with technology to allow me to capture images of salt crystals as they slowly emerges from a briny solution. What might be painstaking photographed with a whole rig of equipment and take place slowly over many hours or days became time-lapse films of salt crystals growing before your eyes. These were projected on the large white wall of the studio theatre at Pontio, dramatically dominating the dark space.

We were also lucky enough to work with the school of engineering and use their electron-scanning microscope which allowed us to look at increasing magnifications at different salt samples. I took images from these and printed them very large onto acetate film so that they were translucent. These were suspended in the studio theatre and backlit with theatre lights so they hovered and glowed in mid-air.

The work with the engineering school also yielded an innovation first and collaboration crown, when Simon and I successfully 3D scanned and printed a salt crystal from the electron-scanning microscope, something, the printing output was not something they had yet attempted in the school.

All of this work was brought together for a sharing event at the Arts Centre some months later, where as well as taking over the theatre space as an exhibition area, including some of our lab equipment, filming rig and the fablab experiments, we set up a making area in the stairwell and platform outside and invited people to help us make paper salt crystals and attach them to the walls of the building. Over the course of the day these accumulated or ‘crystallised’ up the stairwell and created a good sense of curiosity and fun.

the studio theatre space at Pontio, with dramatic imagery and time-lapse projection generated from our research

Throughout the day we inhabited the theatre space and hosted visitors with a number of discussions around the subject we had chosen, including the nature of working in such an interdisciplinary way.

This was part of an import realisation for me at this stage in my art career as I start to really work out what makes me tick – that I naturally inhabit the space where art and science meet. I originally trained in Physics and Environmental Science so I am very comfortable with the language and practice of science, also finding it endlessly fascinating and rich. Certain scientific ideas, in particular Quantum Mechanics inform the way I investigate things as an artist and with this project I recognised that I have always worked in the intriguing space where science and art meet in mutual creativity.

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