Vice magazine, The Creators Project

Apr 7 2014

Creator Of Artificial Tornado Machine Makes Experimental Art With Physics
By Johnny Magdaleno — Apr 7 2014

It’s not impossible to feel like you’re surveying Natural History when browsing the works of Alistair McClymont. See, for example, a wind-tunnel like machine that’s designed to hold a single drop of water sustained in mid-air:

His entire catalogue is fascinating, without a doub. But it demands observation—is it experimental science, or art? Does he represent a new breed of lab-based artwork, or is science's natural spectacle simply á la mode?

McClymont responds with a dismissive shrug. To him, there’s little to no distinction between artistic practice and scientific methodology, with creativity catalyzing both—innovation leads to breakthroughs, while experimentation coalesces the results.

One of his most well known pieces is most indicative of the science-or-art debate around his work. Fully titled, The Limitations of Logic and the Absence of Absolute Certainty, it’s a far simpler machine than its name suggests. Incorporating fans, humidifiers, lights and scaffolding into a 10' by 8' construction, Limitations turns its immediate environment into a whirling channel of air and heat. In person, it’s an artificial tornado machine.

Right now, Limitations is on display at the Ars Electronica museum in Linz, Austria, where it’ll stay until this December. But as for McClymont’s next project, earlier this year he was chosen out of more than 60 highly-qualified applicants to be the Artquest Beam Time resident, placing him alongside practicing scientists at the Central Laser Facility in Oxfordshire, England. The media he’s uploaded to his blog show that he's already up to some next-level stuff.

We reached out for a brief q+a to ask exactly what he has planned for his residency, and instead got a glimpse into his mind. Below, our conversation with McClymont about science, art, and why he thinks it's dangerous to have results in mind at the start of either:

The Creators Project: What’s the end goal of this residency? What kind of art are you aiming to produce?

Alistair McClymont: [I proposed] that I didn't want to set out a specific plan or artwork that I would try and make. The most important thing was to spend time with scientists and see what excited them, to try and understand what they were doing and let that lead to an artistic outcome.

The ideal of having an end goal is a dangerous one, because it presupposes that you have a better idea as an artist than the experts who are working in that field. A place like the CLF has such incredible creative thinking, which I wanted to let lead the process.

As with previous projects, I would bring my method of working to the residency. I'm a conceptual artist who often makes physical things, so I would like to find an idea which is exciting for both the scientists, myself, and a greater audience, and share it. With previous work, this has often involved breaking a concept down into fundamentals that can be understood, and always trying to look for the beauty and sublime within the idea behind the work.

What does an artist do alongside scientists and engineers? And what are you doing that separates you from being simply, say, an engineer?

So far, I'm doing two things at the CLF: I'm being shown some pretty amazing equipment and experiments, [and] I’m trying to talk to people. My goal is to interpret and represent the beauty of the science here in some way. The perceived gulf between scientists and artists is completely false. In many ways, they are very similar kinds of people: we question the world around us, interpret, and present our results. The paradigms are normally quite different.

Your work is obviously fields away from being traditional. How do you rationalize it being art?

I think there's quite a traditional core to my work. It’s impossible to define art, beauty and the sublime, but at least talking about [it] can take an angle and some agreement. I am interested in the Sublime that relates to Reason and the feeling of awe when confronted by Nature (in the grand scientific sense). Scientists often talk of beauty when describing concepts or solutions, and I think this relates to that definition of the sublime, but there is an overlying idea contained within beauty and sublime that ties together the process of artists, scientists and a more general human perception.

This is what I'm seeking. Everyone has a feeling they might describe as sublime when seeing and comprehending something great - perhaps seeing and understanding the Milky Way on a dark night for the first time, for example. It is that moment of comprehension that I am after with my work: suddenly understanding that you're looking at huge distances and a pattern of billions of stars, rather than just a few twinkling lights.

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno

By Johnny Magdaleno