Site Sessions #1: Art, Science & The Truth

UPDATE: Here’s the audio! Part 1 and Part 2. Apologies for the audio quality on Part 1 and various pops and scuffs. The podium mic wasn’t connected to the mixer. The second half is easier to hear as we’re at the table, but I still couldn’t get all the ringing & artefacts out, try as I might. We lost the beginning of Part 1 and the end of Part 2, (but it’s -1 minute of material.)


Photo by Site Gallery

My first event in my capacity as Digital Curator for the Site Gallery took place on Thursday 26th April at the Upper Chapel, a lovely church venue in the centre of Sheffield.

The theme was Art, Science & The Truth.

I invited three panellists I had worked with before on different things, but who had never met or worked with one another. They were:

Katharine Vega, artist and educator from Brighton.
Dr Sean Power, philosopher from Trinity College, Dublin.
Simon Ings, author and culture editor at New Scientist.

Needless to say, I like and respect all three very much, and having the opportunity to bring them together like this was massively exciting for me!

The whole thing was a joy for me, in fact. I’ve put on numerous events in the past, but almost always by calling in favours and relying on a lot of unpaid people to give up a lot of free time. This time there was loads of fantastic enthusiastic volunteers on hand from Site (I counted about 6 behind the bar at one point in the break!), and the production from Robyn, Kirsty, Tony and the rest of the team was superb and made everything go smoothly – from promotion in the weeks leading up to it, to booking us a wonderful meal afterwards and generally making everyone feel looked-after and valued.

The evening started with short talks from each speaker, introducing their work and their approach to the subject matter. Initially it looked like they had very different takes on the idea of truth in relation to art and science, but we discovered some interesting overlaps over the course of the evening.

I recorded audio from the event too, so rather than type type type out everything they said here, I’ll supply a link to the audio file on this post, when it’s ready.

It was a sophisticated and passionate discussion, all the talks came completely from the heart and everyone was open to disagreement from others, which felt to me particularly important. It was also very much not a skeptic or pro-science method event, which was deliberate. There are plenty of events for skeptics. Very few for questioners from both sides. It doesn’t have to be a ‘with us or against us’ situation.

Audio to follow but  in the meantime, here are some notes I made on the night to give you a feel for it:

Sean and I had already discussed his talk so I took few notes and just listened. But he talked about the different kinds of truth. Science likes a ‘justified true belief’, whereas other kinds of belief are more like trust. Trust is interesting because it’s something you do when you don’t have evidence. You may choose whether or not you trust something is the case. It’s an action you do freely. Sean is interested in an ethical question here: if you know something, do you have an ethical duty to share it? Religious people may feel compelled to share their intelligence, as it’s so life-changing.

* Fiction is about building a symphonic structure
* Imagination is about moving someone, not about ‘weird ideas’.
* Fiction brings a truth that makes you feel.
Science provides a system or method that gets you close to a very small, local truth.
* Replicability problem: a major issue in contemporary science practice. Governments don’t want to repeat experiments.
* Bolsheviks: all the sciences should connect and simplify, ultimately turning into a sort of science Marxism.
* The world is irrational. This fact ultimately drove Stalin mad.
* Blue sky research is important – we can’t make plans for science.
* Markets carry ideologies.
* People overwhelmingly use reason to defend their gut feelings, that’s reason’s main, unrecognised role.


Katharine talked about somatic experience and showed some examples of her work. She also did a guided meditation where we focussed on sensation in our bodies while listening to her voice!
* One of her works involved reaching through a screen and holding a heartbeat.
* She is interested in the truth in one’s own experience, the spaces within yourself.
* She has been collecting dreams. What are the powers we have, within our own perception?
* Jung: creativity comes from the unconscious.
* She has created VR experiences that develop the body into beautiful natural forms: bodies connected to nature.
* Hijacking experiments from neuroscience! (I feel this is an important & interesting role for art; to insert the feeling and meaning back into science practice)
* Not all truth comes in words. She spoke of the knowledge in images, instagram etc.
* Physical boundaries and thresholds interest her.
* Interaction as a truth, creator & created. Science can and must evolve through our art.
* There is a bigger context – a world intuition and science share.
* Technology can return you to a reality.

IMG_4401 IMG_4400The discussion
My notes from this probably make even less sense out of context, but here are a few highlights.

  • I raised the question of power in interdisciplinary projects. There was some resistance from the audience to my suggestion that the arts are on the back foot, however Laura, Artistic Director at Site, pointed out that the AHRC supplies 98M to artists around the UK every year, while the equivalent science research council (EPSRC) dishes out around 2.8Bn for science projects.
  • A lot of it came back to money, in fact. Who has the money, wants to hold onto the money, controls the consensus truths.
  • Quite a few of the audience comments started, “A word that hasn’t come up yet is–”. I might try and discourage too much of this in future, as it can have a way of derailing the discussion and can come across as an effort to score a point on the speakers. There are 180 thousand words in the English language; in 2 hours it’s important to keep things focussed as possible.
  • Kate talked of finding creativity in projects beyond the ‘arts’, mentioning the Real Junk Food Project. She also focussed on humans caring for each other as a driving priority, a far more meaningful idea of progress.
  • The point was raised that there are in fact many cultures, even within a small space, scenario or group of people, but we are encouraged to think of ‘culture’ as a single thing.

Anyway my notes become incomprehensible at that point, but there was LOADS more which I didn’t write down, so stand by for the audio file.

Also I’ll be posting more info soon about our next Site Sessions – which will take place somewhere in Sheffield on the evening of Thursday, May 25th.

The event was supported by the City of Ideas.

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