By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
San Diego Art Institute (SDAI) unveils its latest show, “Illumination: 21st Century Interactions with Art + Science + Technology,” on Saturday, Feb. 8. The show uses art to translate the research done at local institutions, giving visitors a chance to make new discoveries and find new perspectives. Sixteen regional artists were paired with scientists and technologists at seven local research institutions: La Jolla
Institute of Immunology, Qualcomm Institute/CalIT2, Salk Institute, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, The Scripps Research Institute, and UCSD. The artists then interpreted and humanized the research into their installations.
“One of the outcomes of this has been that the artists are saying, ‘You have no idea about the incredible research that’s going on in this region.’ It’s like a peek behind the curtain and getting a glimpse of the future. It can be eccentric, it can be breathtaking, it can be awesome,” said SDAI Executive Director Jacqueline Silverman. “One of the neat discoveries has been this unifying element between artists and scientists, that in their worlds, they’re all solution-seekers.”
The themes of the show are broken down further into global health (Alzheimer’s, cancer, brain research), climate change and technology.
The exhibition is curated by Chi Essary. She found the 16 artists, then paired them with scientists doing research that matched their interests.
Brain researcher and artist connect
Essary placed Sheena Rae Dowling with Dr. Oliver George of the Addiction Research Laboratory at UCSD (at the time, he was with Scripps).
Dr. George showed her scans of the brain that were normal, functioning brains versus ones that were in withdrawal. The healthy brains looked like “cascading rainbows” with multiple functions at once. However, the brains in withdrawal had hard patterns of red and yellow, showing they had limited functions.
“The way he explained it to me is that when the body is going into withdrawal, your whole nervous system is in shock, and your brain is sending a signal to your body, that it needs more of whatever substance it is that the person is dependent on. And it is sending that signal so strongly that it overpowers more and more normal life functions such as sleeping and eating [and] communicating with other human beings,” Dawson explained.
He was able to show how withdrawal is more than just the physical symptoms.
“I’ve had my own… struggles with addiction and so when he showed me the visual, scientific, hard evidence of it happening in a brain, I felt incredibly validated that these struggles that I had were genuine and real. And it wasn’t like this lack of will, or moral standing or strength that kept me from from breaking the cycle, but it was actually a disorder within my own brain,” Dawson said.
In response to Dr. George’s research, Dawson wove fiber-optic cables through mesh to resemble neurons. When functioning normally, the cables fade through the rainbow. However, it is attached to a button that makes the entire thing turn red if a visitor touches it. It was important to make it so the viewer, not the brain, is in charge of whether the brain is in normal or abnormal function.
People she has seen interact with it press the button repeatedly to see the cause and effect of the installation, which she sees as a connection to compulsive disorders because people have the impulse to do something over and over again.
There are many San Diegans who will never get the chance to meet Dr. George but can begin to understand some of his findings on the brain if they visit SDAI.
LA artist on surveillance
After connecting local artists to researchers for original work, Silverman said Essary began seeking out existing pieces from a diverse range of artists whose work already delved into topics of science and tech. From that process, Young Joon Kwak, a Los Angeles-based trans artist, submitted three pieces that deal with the intersections of gender and technology.
In recent years, technology has woven so seamlessly into modern life, it has become easy to ignore the snags in that approach. Kwak brings some of the dangers of technology into new contexts in their pieces that examine surveillance — and how it is a threat to marginalized communities. They incorporate mirrors that both highlight that people are being watched and affirm personal identity.
In the wake of the South Carolina bathroom bill, they made “Surveillance Mirror Vaginas,” which deals with how the bill treats the surveillance of genitals as being the “ultimate proof of identity in order to use a public bathroom.”
That piece will be installed underneath the “Shiny Palimpsest,” a piece made with LED rope that wraps and twists over itself into seven personal pronouns.
“All of my work has to do with how bodies are objectified and policed and exploited,” said Kwak. “It’s implicit that our bodies are somehow a threat.”
Changes at SDAI
SDAI had a similar exhibition in 2017, which was also curated by Essary. It focused solely on scientists without an emphasis on technology.
A year ago, SDAI formed a partnership with Qualcomm Institute that makes the institute’s work more visible to everyone in Balboa Park and incorporates technology in the visitor experience to make it more meaningful.
“Since I joined the Art Institute two years ago, we have really steered the organization in a new direction,” Silverman said. “We’ve gone from being a member and experimental center into a really major, regional contemporary art center where we’re focused on cultural equity, and ecstatic about quality and bringing in artists from the region.”
Silverman is also aiming to make SDAI a bridge between Mesa College’s STEM program and UCSD, which is also a partner of the Qualcomm Institute. Since Mesa’s program is a feeder to UCSD, she brings the two-year college students to SDAI so they can form relationships with students at UCSD, making the transition to the other school easier. The effort to help the junior college students is a matter of social justice for SDAI.
In a separate effort to make the local research and contemporary art accessible to more people, SDAI has instituted free admission for the duration of the Illumination show. The works of the 26 artists will be on display at SDAI, located inside Balboa Park, until May 3.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.