the conversation that never took place, two channel video installation, 2013
Quasicrystals or the Harmony of Illusion, Exhibition center Heiligenkreuzerhof, Vienna/A 2014
photo: © Gebhard Sengmüller
The conversation that never took place, Museum of Science Coimbra/Pt 2014
photo: © Herwig Turk
bottom left and right:
The conversation that never took place, Science Pavilion, Lisbon/Pt 2013
photos: © Edmundo Diaz
The conversation that never took place.
A project by Herwig Turk, Vienna/Lisbon, 2013
When I started to work in labs with molecular scientists in 2003, I barely knew anything about this scientific community. I had the feeling that I was an absolute outsider entering the secret base of a closed society. During the following years these installations became more and more legible, and this strange bunch of people turned out to be very friendly and in some cases very open-minded. Of course it was necessary to find and establish formats of communication that would work for both of us, them and me. The terminology and the peculiar fields of interest were obstacles, and I had to experiment with a variety of configurations to find ways to overcome those obstacles. Fortunately Paulo Pereira, at that time the Director of the Center of Ophthalmology at IBILI (Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Life Sciences) in Coimbra, was similarly interested in an exchange of knowledge and in surpassing the boundaries of our respective fields of practice. After some years of working together and realizing projects with shared authorship we established some formats that worked for the different participants.
But only in 2011 and the following two years as an artist in residence at the IMM (Institute of Molecular Medicine) in Lisbon, I arrived at a concept that would actually bring the scientists into the focus of an artwork.
Starting from the general observation that a scientist in an interview or public statement is usually relatively restricted by narrow conventions that are partly forced on him or her by the structures of interviews and the expectations of the audience. The questions in combination with the editing for tv or radio and the institutional background that he or she represents tend not to leave little room for expressing unpredictable views, or even for the scientist to laugh.
In contrast to that, during informal encounters or individual interviews, I was having very interesting and often inspiring conversations. Hence I was curious to experiment with formats of a conversation that would actually allow for the personalities of the scientists to become discernible and for them to convey their opinions in more informal and unconventional ways. I got specifically fascinated by the idea, that the researchers would probably never talk to each other about the topics that I addressed with them and that came from my artistic and personal research.
This is how I started a first series of one-on-one interviews with 11 IMM members in the summer of 2011. Out of these, four scientists were selected who are all more or less of the same age and at a comparable stage in their careers, holding the position of a group leader. They work in a similar field of research, and what is more: their workplaces lie in the same corridor.
The final series of interviews were staged in 2013 in a video studio of the FCT (Portuguese national funding agency for science, research and technology) in Lisbon in the format of a panel interview. The interviews were conducted by Beatriz Cantinho and myself with one scientist at a time. The questions and topics we addressed, deliberately followed a certain non-linear logic so that the answers could be connected in polyvalent ways. Afterwards the recordings of the individual interviews were edited in a form that simulated a conversation between the four scientists.
By choosing a vertical 16:9 screen format, we wanted to include the body language and the expressivity of each scientist in the picture, fostering a close relation between the viewer and the person on the screen. As the scientists are alternating between more general, didactic and calculated statements and more intimate, personal and critical ones, the viewer gets a glimpse of the mindset of the scientists as individuals, but also realises how divergent scientific worldviews can be.
Of course, these aspects are not just conveyed by the content of the statements, but even more strongly so by the terminology and expressivity, by gestures and by the ways in which the scientists articulate. The manifestation of their individual attitudes, interests and approaches towards common but also specific and individual problems creates an interface: outsiders gain some kind of access to the world of 21st century molecular biology. As the scientists try to explain, to question and to discuss the rules and methods of their work, 'official' or 'politically correct' generalizations often lose their power. Humor plays a crucial role in this deconstruction of stereotypes and clichés and shows the scientists as individuals in their struggle for answers.
This in turn empowers the viewer (typically an interested non-scientist) to enter into a conversation about the motivations, the significance, the problems, benefits and consequences of these researchers' work. The everyday conditions of the activities, beliefs and motivations of the four individuals become visible, and it is impossible to draw any ultimate conclusion. The viewer can enter the zone of negotiation and feel free to express his or her opinion on the topics under discussion.
One general attitude in science that I consider essential and that was well expressed in the following statement, made during an interview by Leonor Saúde: “Maybe an advantage that the scientist has in comparison to other professions, is that he or she is trained to question things”.