Centre for Life mixes science and art perfectly

HELEN Schell put down her research books one day and set off to explore the universe.

Helen Schell

HELEN Schell put down her research books one day and set off to explore the universe.

She picked through a pile of 7,000 sunglasses lenses, painstakingly forming an installation that reacted to the light; and created strange, unworldly effects.

Little by little, she put together a piece of work that explored the idea of an 11th dimension, a concept suggested by the scientific theory of superstrings.

“Some people portray art and science as separate”, she said. “But they’ll always have aspects that overlap.”

Schell is the Centre for Life’s “maker in residence”; the holder of a new role which is designed to inspire visitors to the Newcastle venue, attract guest makers to events, and get collaborative workshops bubbling away.

Schell has devoted herself to sculpture as well as costume and scenery design, and also studied at Sunderland’s National Glass Centre. From her base at Newcastle’s NewBridge Project, she’s currently working on Smart Material costumes made from water soluble and dissolvable dishwasher tablet coatings which will be launched at the 2012 Newcastle ScienceFest.

However, one of her major passions is astrophysics and space. Her 11th Dimension artwork has been displayed at locations including Durham Cathedral and at St Michael’s Church in Byker, and tackles the idea of superstring theory. Superstring theory says that particles are made of strings, and that their properties are determined by how they oscillate. Superstring Theory also presents the idea that “compactified” dimensions exist beyond the four perceived by humans.

Schell said: “I did research. I always research all my projects. I think it’s quite an important thing when I’m making a work of art to research it first.

“I’ve been assured by scientists that certain aspects of it relate to the effects in the 11th dimension. It produces a lot of very bizarre visual effects.”

Schell is inspired by astrophysics and space as they are “unknown quantities that people speculate upon”, and has created projects such as a space/time workshop and her own “lunar laboratory”.

Art and space projects are not uncommon. London’s Arts Catalyst was given a contract in 2005 to put together a study on the “possible future cultural utilisation” of the International Space Station, while Carnegie Mellon artists, musicians, poets and engineers are currently planning to send an art shipment to the moon.

“A lot more artists are working with scientists now”, said Schell. “Scientists like artists coming on board because we can show things in a different way that complements the science.”

Closer to home, Schell believes her experience with a variety of different materials will help the Centre for Life inspire visitors to its new “make-it” interactive zone. The zone will be ready for half-term, and will feature “stations” dedicated to techniques such as construction, modelling and printing. During her five months in the role, Helen also plans to organise outreach events, as well as invite guest makers to the centre.

She said: “Each station will have certain materials and objects where visitors of all ages – but mainly primary school children – will be able to get involved in making, designing and experimenting.

“It will be quite a light, fun experience. It can involve dropping in for 10 minutes or a full-day workshop. It’s very much about getting people to make things.”


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