November 16, 2011
November 16, 2011
Science and art are often considered opposites – so what happens when top practitioners in each field collaborate? The results, finds Stuart Jeffries, can be seismic.
Yes, Leonardo da Vinci was both artist and inventor. True, Brian Cox was in that band before he gave it all up for the Large Hadron Collider. But in general, art and science seem to eye each other uncomprehendingly. Medical research charity the Wellcome Trust has long tried to make artists and scientists work fruitfully together by funding collaborations. Can the divide ever be breached? I talked to four scientists and four artists who have worked together to find out.
The artist and the geneticist
Just before 9/11, Marc Quinn did a portrait of Sir John Sulston, one of the genetic scientists who decoded the human genome. “At the moment this divisive attack happened, John’s work and this portrait were suggesting that we are all connected – in fact that everything living is connected to everything else,” Quinn says.
It was a radical departure for portraiture. Certainly few sitters contribute, as Sulston did, a sample of DNA from his sperm. That sample was cut into segments and treated so they could be replicated in bacteria. The bacteria was spread on agar jelly and placed under glass, forming a portrait about A4 size. “Some say it’s an abstract portrait, but I say it’s the most realistic portrait in the National Portrait Gallery,” says Quinn. “It carries the instructions that led to John and shows his ancestry back to the beginning of the universe.”
“Well, yes,” says Sulston, “but DNA gives the instructions for making a baby, not an adult. There’s a lot more to me than DNA.”
A decade after their collaboration, Quinn and Sulston are meeting in the artist’s east London studio. Did the collaboration change each man’s attitudes towards the other’s discipline? “I still think science is looking for answers and art is looking for questions,” says Quinn.
“Science simply means finding out about stuff, but in that process science is the greatest driver of culture,” says Sulston. “When you do something like decode the human genome, it changes your whole perspective. In terms of genetic manipulation we’re not just looking for answers but modifying what’s there.”
That is very much the focus of Quinn’s recent work. Last year, his White Cube show featured a sculpture called Catman, depicting Dennis Avner, who has been tattooed to look like a cat, and another of Allanah Starr, a transsexual woman who, according to the blurb, “has changed her body into the idealisation of femininity even though she also has a penis”. Quinn says: “They’re about the fantasy of being someone else – you can be a man or a woman, anything. We’ve always had those fantasies and now science is making them possible.”
Quinn says Sulston’s portrait was important to his later work. He shows us his painting of a human iris in the studio. “I’ve made a lot of work since, to do with eyes and fingerprints, because we are controlled so much more by scans of abstract data about ourselves.” As for Sulston, since he finished working on the human genome, he has become concerned with ethical questions to do with the application of his work to police DNA databases and civil liberties.
The collaboration came about when Quinn was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, with the support of the Wellcome Trust, to do Sulston’s portrait. “John did all the work,” says Quinn. The artist, at least, decided on the portrait’s frame. “People can see themselves in the reflective surround, which highlights that we’re all connected – one of the great messages of the Human Genome Project.
“Because it’s true, isn’t it, that our DNA is 90% the same as bananas’?” asks Quinn. “Well, no, actually it’s more like 50%,” clarifies Sulston, who won the Nobel prize in 2002. “Our DNA is about 90% the same as other mammals.” Our material connection with everything else, not just our world but in the universe, clearly appeals to Quinn: no wonder that his Iris painting from 2009 is subtitled We Share Our Chemistry with the Stars.
In Quinn’s most famous work, Self (1991), he made a sculpture from a cast of his head filled with nine pints of his own deep-frozen blood. It is carefully maintained in a refrigeration unit, reminding us of the fragility of existence. Every five years since 1991, he has replaced what he calls a “frozen moment” on life support, with a new transfusion of his own blood. He calls it an ongoing project, while the portrait of Sulston is suspended in time for ever; once the Nobel laureate dies, there is something of him preserved in this picture, a code from which, perhaps, he could be cloned.
The poet and the speech scientist
“I once overheard someone say, ‘Its mother was a crab,’” says Valerie Hazan, professor of speech sciences at University College London. “Can you think of a situation in which that would be used? I often ask my students this.”
Hazan’s point is that hearers often work imaginatively to supply a context to a discombobulating utterance, to annex incomprehensible or uncanny speech into the more soothing realm of the understood. But there’s another point, too: “Certain utterances stick in your mind: a contorted use of language not planned in any way is often most memorable…”
November 16, 2011
You wouldn’t think it by looking at the long line of Shakespeare biographies on the library shelves, but everything we know for sure about the life of the world’s most revered playwright would fit comfortably on a few pages.
Yes, we know that a man named Will Shakespeare was born in the Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. We know that someone of pretty much the same name married and had children there (the baptismal register says Shaxpere, the marriage bond Shagspere), that he went to London, was an actor. We know that some of the most wonderful plays ever written were published under this man’s name–though we also know so little about his education, experiences and influences that an entire literary industry exists to prove that Shaxpere-Shagspere did not write, could not have written, them. We know that our Shakespeare gave evidence in a single obscure court case, signed a couple of documents, went home to Stratford, made a will and died in 1616.
And that’s just about it.
In one sense, this is not especially surprising. We know as much about Shakespeare as we know about most of his contemporaries–Ben Jonson, for instance, remains such a cipher that we can’t be sure where he was born, to whom, or even exactly when. “The documentation for William Shakespeare is exactly what you would expect of a person of his position at that time,” says David Thomas of Britain’s National Archives. “It seems like a dearth only because we are so intensely interested in him.”
To make matters worse, what does survive tends to be either evidence of dubious quality or material of the driest sort imaginable: fragments from legal records, mostly. The former category includes most of what we think we know about Shakespeare’s character; yet, with the exception of a couple of friends from the theatrical world who made brief mention of him around the time he died, most of the anecdotes that appear in Shakespeare biographies were not collected until decades, and sometimes centuries, after his death. John Aubrey, the noted antiquary and diarist, was among the first of these chroniclers, writing that the playwright’s father was a butcher, and that Shakespeare himself was “a handsome, well shap’t man: very good company, and of a very redie and pleasant smoothe Witt.” He was followed a few years later by the Reverend Richard Davies, who in the 1680s first wrote down the famous anecdote about Shakespeare’s leaving Stratford for London after being caught poaching deer on the lands of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote Park. Yet the sources of both men’s information remain obscure, and Aubrey, in particular, is known for writing down any bit of gossip that came to him.
There is not the least shred of evidence that anybody, in the early years of the Shakespeare cult, bothered to travel to Warwickshire to interview those in Stratford who had known the playwright, even though Shakespeare’s daughter Judith did not die until 1662 and his granddaughter was still alive in 1670. The information that we do have lacks credibility, and some of it appears to be untrue; the most recent research suggests that Shakespeare’s father was a wool merchant, not a butcher. He was wealthy enough to have been accused of usury–the loan of money at interest, forbidden to Christians–in 1570.
Absent firsthand information about Shakespeare’s life, the only real hope of finding out much more about him lies in making meticulous searches through the surviving records of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England. The British National Archives contains tons of ancient public records, ranging from tax records to writs, but this material is written in cramped, jargon-ridden and abbreviated dog Latin that cannot be deciphered without lengthy training. Only a very few scholars have been willing to devote years of their lives to the potentially fruitless pursuit of Shakespeare’s name through this endless word-mine, and the lack of firm information about Shakespeare’s life has had important consequences, not least for those who attempt to write it. As Bill Bryson puts it:
With so little to go on in the way of hard facts, students of Shakespeare’s life are left with essentially three possibilities: to pick minutely over…hundreds of thousands of records, without indexes or cross references, each potentially involving any of 200,000 citizens, [in which] Shakespeare’s name, if it appears at all, might be spelled in 80 different ways, or blotted or abbreviated beyond recognition…to speculate…or to persuade themselves that they know more than they actually do. Even the most careful biographers sometimes take a supposition–that Shakespeare was Catholic or happily married or fond of the countryside or kindly disposed towards animals–and convert it within a page or two to something like a certainty. The urge to switch from the subjunctive to the indicative is… always a powerful one.
Bryson is, of course, quite right; most Shakespeare biographies are highly speculative. But this only makes it all the more remarkable that scholars of Shakespeare have chosen to pretty much ignore one of the very few new documents to emerge from the National Archives over the last century. It is an obscure legal paper, unearthed from a set of ancient sheets of vellum known as “sureties of the peace”, and it not only names Shakespeare but lists a number of his close associates. The document portrays the “gentle Shakespeare” that we met in high school English class as a dangerous thug; indeed, it has been plausibly suggested that it proves he was heavily involved in organized crime…
November 16, 2011
Gloria Steinem has been an outspoken figure on behalf of women’s rights and the pro-choice movement for half a century. Here, she talks about her opposition to cosmetic surgery and her ambivalence about President Obama
The last person to interview Gloria Steinem for the Observer was Martin Amis, in 1984. He waited for her at the offices of Ms, the magazine that she co-founded in 1972 – “Pleasant though I found it, I was also aware of my otherness, my testosterone, among all this female calm” – and then they headed out together to Suffolk County Community College, Long Island, where Gloria was, as ever, to address a group of students. To read this piece now is excruciatingly embarrassing, especially given Amis’s more recent conversion to what he likes to call the “gynocracy”.Feminism? From the male point of view, he said back then, the reparations look to be alarmingly steep. As for Steinem herself, she is “the least frightening” kind of feminist, being possessed of – prepare to be amazed! – both a sense of humour and good looks. She was, he wrote, relief slowly blooming, “nice, and friendly, and feminine… the long hair is expertly layered, the long fingers expertly manicured. Fifty this year, Ms Steinem is unashamedly glamorous.”
A quarter of a century later, and Steinem is still glamorous: wildly so. But the point is surely that this glamour derives, just as it always did, as much from her extraordinary career – in other words, from her brain – as from her appearance (Mart unaccountably failed to spot this). At 77, she remains tiny of waist and big of hair – and, yes, the nails are as smooth and as shiny as a credit card – but what strikes you most, at least at first, is how preoccupied she seems. She is so busy. It has taken me the best part of two years to bag this slot with her, and even now I’m here, I’m uncertain how much time, in the end, she will have to spare. Does she remember who I work for? I can’t tell. I have the impression that she believes I live in New York – and sure enough, when I eventually tell her that I’ve flown in from London, she looks first amazed, and then, quickly, solicitous. (She might be distracted, but Steinem is also famously nice.)
We are in her flat on the Upper East Side, a womb-like, slightly hippyish basement stuffed with velvet cushions and piled polemics (my going away present, plucked from one of these piles, will be a slim volume by her former Ms colleague, Robin Morgan, called Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right). It’s a swanky address but, as she points out, she bought it aeons ago, when even such lowly forms of life as political activists and freelance journalists could still afford a piece of Manhattan real estate. In one corner of the sitting room is her desk, lit by a single lamp; in the other, the desk of her assistant, Amy, who also sits beneath a neat halo of light. Here, two sunbeams in the troglodytic gloom, they drink Starbucks, fire off emails, write books, and generally plan the next stage of the revolution. Visitors like me, though welcomed with pomegranate juice and, when this is discovered to have run out, coconut water, are an unwelcome distraction from the main event, which is work. “I hope to live to 100,” she says. “There is so much to do.”
Her looks, though. Let’s get them out of the way first. She smiles. Before she joined the women’s movement, she was merely “a pretty girl” (not that she necessarily thought so: her famous aviator shades were, she says now, something to hide behind, and her streaked hair a tribute to Audrey Hepburn’s turn as Holly Golightly, Truman Capote’s country bumpkin-turned-cafe society girl – a character to whom she “totally” related). Afterwards, she was “suddenly beautiful”, and though the attention this brought was occasionally useful, mostly it was just a pain in the butt: the tiresome suggestions that she had only got on thanks to her appearance; the hurtful ire of that other great feminist, Betty Friedan, whose loathing of Steinem seemed mostly to be motivated by envy. In the early days of Ms, a local pornographer stuck a huge picture of a naked woman on his building. This woman had Steinem’s face and Steinem’s hair and, from a few blocks away, looked as though she was surrounded by floating pink salamis. Up close, however, the passerby would soon realise his mistake. “Pin the cock on the feminist,” said the poster. Steinem had to look at it every morning as she arrived at work.
And now? When she looks in the mirror, what does she see? “Well, I’m shocked. Sometimes, you’re passing a store, and you see this person in the window, and you think: who is that? Oh, it’s me. But I’ve also realised that ageing is a bit like what being pregnant must be like, by which I mean that your body knows how to do something that you don’t know how to do – and it’s quite interesting. Your body loses what it needs to support someone else, and it keeps what it needs to support you. That’s very smart. Just watching the process is somehow fascinating.”…
November 16, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.