FREYJA DEAN INTERVIEW 04/02/2014
At what point in your education did you start to consider the possible relationship between art and science, or have you always happily transcended that boundary?
Both of my parents are artists and have always painted natural forms and landscapes and I took that in growing up and did it myself. I did my foundation at City College and I wanted to focus on animals, plants, anatomical illustrations and so on. I also wanted to learn traditional painting and drawing skills which they were quite dismissive of at the time. There was a lot of encouragement for drawing with your left hand and various body parts that weren’t hands at all! When I finished my foundation I had to choose between going to Camberwell to do illustration or Scientific and Natural History illustration at Blackpool and the Fylde College. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I would go nowhere if I did the latter. But my attitude was: once I’ve got the skills and know how these things work, once I’ve had that rigour and caught up on the biology and natural history that I missed in my education, then I could play with it. I wanted to get to grips with all the subjects that I was interested in, which I felt would give integrity to my designs. The research, dissections, and physical training in painting and drawing techniques gave me a huge boost of confidence when it came to my design work.
It is often said that art looks for questions and science looks for answers. What do you feel were the benefits of studying these two disciplines alongside each other?
As much as I think that it’s incredibly important that the two disciplines come together and integrate, the fact of the matter is that they both require completely different training. With both science and art you really have to put the hours into your chosen subject. If you want to become world class at making art, the physical process needs repetition and perseverance to the point where it becomes muscle memory and intuition and this, I feel, is essential to the creative process. Science is an analytical and rational skill and needs the appropriate training to hone those skills. The problems arise when the education system makes the mistake of assuming that someone interested in art can’t do science and vice versa. Amazing things happen when the two worlds come together. On the MA in Science & Art at UAL, what was brilliant for me was that I got to work with people who had spent their lives studying very particular mechanisms and processes, and I had the benefit of being inspired to create work that was, I believe, relevant and of interest to us all.
During your project research, what was it that interested you in the research of the Future of Humanity institute Oxford, and what did you produce as a result?
Throughout my work, I’ve been fascinated in identity and how we integrate in the world, especially when everything is changing so much in technology and medicine. I read a book called An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, in which Mark Stevenson, the author, talks to Nick Bostrom at the Future of Humanity Institute. I learned that there are some amazing developments being made in what we can change about ourselves such as extending our life expectancies and retinal implants that can change how you see by app. When the scientists discuss these developments it sounds very religious. It’s all about transcending humanity to reach a state beyond the human. It got me thinking- was that something that people want to do? I started looking into modifications people would like to have, like flying, seeing for miles and living forever. One thing I found interesting was that people don’t want to change aspects of themselves they consider integral to their identity. Someone might want to change how they look or function, but they don’t want to change their sense of humour or kindness. Another aspect I found important is that so much of the technology is based on the natural world. There are many animals we admire for their faculties such as eagle eye-sight or gazelle like speed, we see these capabilities and want them to become integral to our own lives. This research led me to a project called Idolls where I created animal amalgams, physical embodiments of how people would like to recreate themselves. The other aspect of the technology explored by the Future of humanity institute is that it doesn’t look like technology- it’s all integrated. It will be functionally embedded as a part of us. I wanted to create a world made out of what we want to be, and I wanted to find out what may one day be possible.
You have currently been working for the Royal College of Surgeons. Can you tell us some more about the MARTYN project?
The MARTYN project stands for Modelled Anatomical Replica for Training Young Neurosurgeons, led and developed by Martyn Cooke. There’s a big problem with training surgeons because not enough people donate their bodies to science. Not enough people donate their organs, but even less donate their bodies to science. Martyn wondered if we could make models of bodies rather than having to wait for them. He wanted to make models with specific pathologies that you could then have a class of twenty working on. Another benefit of these models is they are not as precious as the real thing, so you can really play around with them, and get to grips with the materials and tools you would be using in the operating room. The next project the MARTYN will be used for will be to make child pathologies. The anatomy of a child is obviously very different to that of an adult and as with any kind of surgery, the physical practice and familiarity with the surrounding anatomy is crucial. The point is, like with art, in surgery your skills have to become muscle memory, and if you don’t have the chance to physically practice over and over, there’s not enough theory in the world that can compensate for that. How has your work at the Royal College of Surgeons influenced your own creative practice? During my degree I did an internship at the RCS because I was illustrating pathological specimens. We had surgeons telling us what they wanted to see in the specimens and it made me realise that if you’re representing something, you really have to have a lot of respect for it and you have to research it. The fact is, these were dead people we were working from, they gave this part of themselves to help others and there’s no way that you can take that lightly. I think that affected how I work a lot. On the BA I also studied ecosystem illustrations, which, in a way, is similar to pathological medical illustrations in that you have to research the separate component parts and everything within the image has to fit together and describe what’s going on. It may not be what you’d actually see but it has to explain the system at work. This has really influenced my own work, I think if you want to explain something, tell a story, or you want someone to understand something, you have to know it and understand it fully yourself. If you don’t know what you’re illustrating you can’t bend the rules but if you know the mechanisms you can change them in appropriate ways. It’s the same with anatomy- if you want to put wings on something, you’ve got to know how they fit. All of those things made me realise the real importance of research, even in art. It’s a respect thing- if you want to create something new in the world, you have to understand what’s already there. That’s what was brilliant about talking to the scientists. I would ask, “what if you put this and that together…” and they were able to offer advice, but if you don’t know, you can’t play. And to innovate, I think you need a lot of knowledge but a lot of play too.