The species of Origin - Evolving a Contemporary Darwin Art Project for 2009

Lead Research Organisation: Landscape Institute
Department Name: Research Department


In 2009, a treasure chest lands on the beach of western culture - a chest that has been in the ocean for two centuries: namely the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the first publication of On The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection. Darwin's theory of evolution remains a landmark of western intellectual endeavour, yet was controversial and contested at the time. Although the context of controversy has changed within evolutionary thinking, contemporary science, religion and culture still actively engage with Darwinism, whether in the spirit of opposition, modification or refinement.

This proposal seeks to undertake exploratory research in order to achieve a set of qualitatively original and exemplary outputs (exhibitions, interventions, a website and set of related publications) around Darwin related themes, guided by set objectives and a rigorous academic process. Rather than repeat tried and tested formulae of art/science collaboration resulting in contemporary art commissioning, in this case improved forms of interdisciplinary collaboration and arts commissioning should arise if this speculative phase is successful.

Evolutionist thinking has permeated many disciplines from biology, botany, psychology, economics, neurology, philosophy and politics to name a few. This project asserts the potential for contemporary art practice to re-imagine Darwin's work within a current context, to draw out, in particular, some of the most significant ideas embedded in his thought and of others. Such themes include: The Scientific: how Darwin's theory of evolution built on and differs from competing theories at the time (from the Great Chain of Being and Creationism to morphogenesis) and how subsequent theories, particularly based on Mendel's genetics and a resurgence of 'creationism' under the term 'intelligent design' has battled with Darwinism. The Philosophical: how the theory of evolution can be seen as a reflection on larger philosophical and poetic considerations, such as how any discrete entity in any field is born, changes and dies. The Ethical: how speciesism and hierarchies between humans and animals is defended, and how an 'evolution of ideas' since 1859 might be seen to develop out of concepts such as altruism, rights and respect, i.e. that animal rights issues can be explored through contemporary arts practice.

In order to carry out this speculative programme, the model adopted is one inspired by Darwin's famous voyage on the Beagle (1831-6), where a small interdisciplinary team of subject specialists work within a tight structure to bring new insights into the field of the natural sciences and arts. Contemporary participants will navigate, through dialogue, around this extraordinary archipelago of ideas. They will bring their own disciplinary research methods with them, but adjust and communicate their knowledge amongst each other. Consequently, willingness to communicate and share ideas at 'entry level' will be encouraged throughout. The processes and outcomes will be recorded individually through the project website and publications. Subsequently, particular themes as developed in dialogue with contemporary artists will be developed imaginatively through the production of new work after this speculative phase.

The outcomes will be publicly accessible models of interdisciplinary dialogue, at the highest level, on a subject of vivid contemporary concern. The exhibitions, interventions, website and publications should embody creative research from a wide range of specialisms normally hidden within academic disciplinary boundaries, yet through art practices, particularly the visual arts and poetry, be readily, available to more general audiences.

There is great potential application and benefit to such a project, given the amount of attention there will be on Darwin-related issues in 2009, and the popularity and persistence of arts and science based projects in areas of wide cultural interest (particularly exhibition displays in museums and galleries, and off-site projects).


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