||Artists are natural researchers. We are constantly in the process of investigation and enquiry using a multitude of media. We acquire an extraordinary understanding of materials thanks to systematic experimentation with them leaning beyond boundaries and uncovering truths at every stage. Jewellery artists are responsible for the direct implementation of this knowledge, engaging in their practice all manner of organic and inorganic materials, listening to them and constructing with them three-dimensional artefacts with awesome results. It is the same unbelievable logic that enables engineers to build impossible distances into the sky whilst allowing concrete to move.
How different are we to scientists or engineers?
Over the last two years I have had the privilege to work with artist Kalsang Shoba in the Laser Processing Research Centre at the The University of Manchester, School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering. Our main objective has been to explore creative ways of using lasers, understanding something about the way they work and report back to the world of art practice and contemporary jewellery. This publication offers a glimpse into that journey and accompanies the exhibition at The Museum of Manchester. It aims to unfold the multiplicity of an emergent, hybrid practice that has demanded a new language mutually understood by the cultures of art and design and of engineering and science.
Perhaps what is unusual about this exhibition is the angle of insight it gives the viewer about life in an engineering research laboratory. Whilst engineers are looking for new methods of improved manufacturer for clients such as Rolls Royce and the nuclear industry, scientists seek to understand the phenomena involved, largely unaware that an artist is working amongst them, observing their behaviour and their language but, more importantly, seeing with fascination the experiments, the visual and factual material emerging from their research. From centres like this one, the jewellery and silversmithing industries have been fed from laser welding, cutting and marking, rapid protyping, laser forming, and now direct manufacturing of three dimensional form by laser sintering of metal powders.
My own research pivots around the use of laser on titanium. Heat from the applied laser beam causes an oxide layer to grow on the surface of metal, which, depending on the thickness, appear as different colours to the eye. The colour can be controlled by using different laser parameters such as the speed, power and pulse density of the beam. To render the technology more invisible and to narrow the distance between it and the more intuitive aspects of my work, drawings are sometimes converted to bitmaps for a less calculated, more 'painterly aesthetic.
What started as an investigation into laser processing for the creative industries has become more a mission to charter this relatively unknown territory, crystallising the astounding visual and anecdotal in uences encountered on the way, all of them treasured gems that I hope will offer a positive contribution to the current art/science debate. For this reason I have also prof led the work of some engineers and scientists working in the LPRC. Dr Amin Abolvand, an applied physicist, observes the formation of metallic nanoparticles embedded in various media. Mechanical engineer Dr Andrew Pinkerton creates three-dimensional parts by fusing metal powders with a laser beam, offering a glimpse into the development of direct manufacturing. The influence of Dr Marc Schmidt and Dr Philip Crouse is less clear but perhaps more appropriately, exists below the visible surface.
After renegotiating historical preconceptions on both sides, a curious state of equilibrium has settled itself quite naturally. It was clear that I had much to learn from this aerospatial environment, particularly with my lifelong curiosity in titanium, but how to persuade this deeply formuleic culture that they stand to gain as much from art and design one?
How different is a drawing from a formula, a sketchbook from a lab book? Is there a need for an equation to explain the theory of creativity? This journey does not set out to establish superiority of one expression over another, but calls for collaboration from both angles in order that our vision is more complete. The work presented here is a set of dual nationality passports aiming to attract the attention of both disciplines or better still, to encourage a new one to rise.
I am indebited to Dr Andrew Gale and Professor Lin Li for their invaluable support and continued interest in this project. Perhaps we can already see a spot of green light ahead on the substrate of a new culture...