The Renaissance was not just an isolated period in history, revived only through fusty old art historians – it is an entity that ebbs and flows throughout the history of society and it appears whenever there are significant waves of development in technology.

If you are a student then you have a reason to be excited: you are part of the generation designing, thinking and creating this revival. The new renaissance is a rare phenomenon, which is not going unnoticed.

Curator of interestingness, Maria Popova, recently announced the coming of a new Renaissance where the ‘arts and sciences are coming together and elevating each other’.

Ratifying this claim, Sir John O’Reilly, of the Institution for Engineering and Technology, said in November: “Engineers should embrace the arts as being key to creativity and an important component of innovation crucial to creating new products and boosting future competitiveness.”

These ways of working, thinking and creating across the disciplines signify a change in the creative industries and entail a cross pollination of ideas where new connections are made and new things are created.

During the 15th century Renaissance, European culture went through a monumental transition. One way of spotting one of these revivals is a surge in polymathic activity – learning and combining of a range of subjects and disciplines.

You don’t have to be a genius to be a polymath, just inclined to combine ideas from different disciplines as a method of working and creating.

Rob Kesseler using a microscope at MiPattern [Rob Kesseler]

Rob Kesseler at MiPattern

Professor Rob Kesseler is chair of Art, Design and Science at the University of the Arts London. He has carved a varied career from a diverse set of interests.

An artist with expertise spanning fine art, design, craft, molecular biology and botanical science, he certainly fits the description of the modern polymath.

He’s an advocate of cross-disciplinary learning, one of his roles is to bring together the University of the Arts London’s post-graduate community for the purpose of creative collaboration.

In early November Kesseler hosted MiPattern, a week-long exploration into the microscopic world of nature.

The Gallery at Central Saint Martins was turned into a laboratory-cum-art studio where visitors came to view the hidden world of plants through powerful microscopes.

Challenge

When I asked Kesseler if we might be seeing a new renaissance in the arts and sciences, with polymathic thinking becoming an essential part of university education, he firmly agreed.

However, he said the challenge now is to retain specialism and broad generalism so students can apply their specialism within other contexts.

“Around the 18th century we had an age of polymaths,” Kesseler said. “These people absorbed complex facts from different disciplines, such as engineering, astronomy, botany or manufacturing; and they exchanged ideas at places such as the Lunar Society. Over time, each of these disciplines became more and more specialised – which means you need to spend more time on it – and this made it harder to share knowledge.

“Over my lifetime the introduction of digital technologies means we are learning to speak using similar languages and share platforms: using similar ways of organising information. Now we use computer platforms to help us observe and communicate,” he said.

The Renaissance spirit only flowers under certain conditions. There is now a huge acceleration in the flow of information within society.

In the blogosphere, with the use of new media and file sharing, intelligent networks are quickly forming – and it is all about public access to information and what we can do with it. The virtual world is developing into a fertile realm for new ideas.

The Enlightenment through to the Industrial Revolution was a drastic period when the arts and sciences were closely aligned; people then showed a heightened interested in the natural world – the Renaissance was another such time.

The camera and the microscope are two important inventions that resulted from this period. However, technology driven progress is also criticised for having a negative effect on the human condition.

Media critic Marshal McLuhan questioned the effect of technology on human ingenuity and said that innovation threatens the equilibrium of existing organisation. “Automation is information and it not only ends jobs in the world of work, it ends subjects in the world of learning,” he wrote.

McLuhan also believed that the “touch-sense interplay” quality of art can be applied to the sciences in a way that has a positive social impact.

“The unconscious task of the painter in the new electric age was to raise this fact to the level of conscious awareness.” he said.

Benefit

So can the artist can benefit a lot more from scientific discoveries and new technologies than the scientist can benefit from art? Kesseler asserts that “art offers science a way to engage the public with a deeper appreciation of that which is generally hidden.”

He recently invited UAL students from various MA courses, together with medical students from Imperial College London, to take part in an experiment in polymathic thinking.

The students attended a pop–up surgical theatre at Central Saint Martins where a dummy patient lay stretched out on the table, covered in a blue paper sheet with a small camera inside the body.

Next to the table was a screen showing the sausage-like innards: a metal pincher grabbed at blobs of yellow fat and tough-looking offal, while the surgeon explained how this was an example of keyhole surgery.

A huge, handheld tool called a retractor was used to pull the entire human ribcage to one side so the surgeon could get to the patient’s bowels during abdominal surgery.

Students were dressed in full scrubs and shown how to use the instruments, and they were invited to select the most “inviting” tool and apply it to the entrails of a chicken.


Surgery is a stoic and precise discipline; it could not be further removed from the lawless terrain of the arts. What things might an artist see in the medical sciences that could be done differently?

When we think of Leonardo Da Vinci we mainly think of his hugely famous paintings – the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and his Vitruvian Man – but if his biological discoveries had been published in his lifetime, they would have changed the course of medical science.

Not surprisingly, the arts students (who were from fashion, ceramics, fine art, architecture, interior design and industrial design) assimilated the strange experience well, and produced some refreshing ideas.

Artefact spoke to Jules Toulemond, an MA Industrial Design student, about what knowledge he might apply to surgery: “I can tell these patterns used for the materials are old; they probably haven’t changed for years. The surface of the materials could be redesigned to improve the function, filtration and absorption,” he said.

Industrial Design is both creative and technical. It uses applied art and science to improve the functionality, aesthetic and design of everyday products for manufacturing.

Students were mainly concerned with environmental problems, asking the medical students about sustainability and thinking about how equipment might be better broken down by nature after disposal.

Wild leek, detail of seed coating. Hand coloured SEM

“It hasn’t evolved for beauty, it has evolved for function”

“I am always thinking sustainably – it has to be part of the process. It is the designers who are driving sustainability ethics, not the industries,” said architecture student Oliver Lalanne.

These students made good points: Surgeons are trained to focus on the human body and have limited knowledge of the relational value of the instruments and materials they use.

Kesseler said these patterns that create structures on the surface of tissues allow the matter to stretch and interlock in complex ways, resembling the observations the students made about the quality of the materials and their patterns.

The future is nano

MA Fashion Design student, Kat Thiel, suggested that developments in smart textiles could be used to combat the spread of infection between fabrics: “It is now possible to make the materials 100 per cent impermeable so that liquids run off the surface in beads. Materials containing NanoSilver are now being designed to predetermine the way they behave.”

One polymath taking the use of nano technology seriously is Professor Helen Storey at the London College of Fashion.

Nano technology is still being fiercely debated over its potential dangers to the environment and consumers. It holds the potential to change everything.

Since 1997 Professor Storey has been combining the cutting edge of scientific ideas and new technology with fashion design, collaborating with well known experts from the fields of biology, neuroscience, chemistry and physics.

A successful avant garde designer, her latest project, Catalytic Clothing, is a publicly–funded experiment with chemist Tony Ryan to explore ways that clothing made with nanotechnology can be used as a catalytic surface to detoxify air.


Storey’s innovations are hybrid projects that seek to break new ground. Like Kesseler, she advocates cross-disciplinary thinking and draws on a myriad of concepts and developments from wide-ranging fields.

The drive behind this creativity is a bold intention to challenge the status quo; in a bid to “shape the world for the better.” It seems that the arts and sciences have a very peculiar relationship; at times their disciplines do converge and become potent forces of progress.

The creatives we spoke to are barely conscious of their role, but all agree that something significant is occurring with a notable cross-pollination of ideas.

Our cultural and scientific future is being determined by interactions across the many departments of each university, and students from creative disciplines are playing a crucial role in this evolution.

 

MiPattern images courtesy of Rob Kesseler 

Catalytic Clothing images courtesy of Helen Storey