All posts by gs

Pollinator plants

Want to help stop the widespread decline of bees and other airborne insects? Here are some notes on the Garden’s plants most visited by bumble bees, hive bees, hoverflies and the occasional butterfly. Most of these plants are easy to grow.

One of the main aims of the Living Field garden is to allow native cropland plants some space away from weedkiller treatment and competition with crops. Recent scientific reports have drawn attention to the widespread loss of invertebrate life and insect life in particular. The declines are happening all over the world.

Everyone who owns or manages land can do their bit to support flying insects. Here we show some of the Garden’s plants and plant groups that have offered food and shelter to flower-visitors over the years.

The legumes

Legumes – (upper) sainfoin, (middle) lucerne and white melilot then (lower) tufted vetch – Images by Living Field

The legumes (family: Fabaceae), just ahead of the Composites, are the single most important group supporting wild flyers. The legumes as a whole offer probably the greatest variety and longest flowering season of all plant groups in the garden. They fix their own nitrogen from the air. All parts of the plant are high in protein.

Sainfoin, the melilots and lucerne were once grown or tried as forage crops in Scotland. The clovers, mainly white and red, are still sown, but the red is more commonly seen in the wild. The bumble bees’ favourite of them all is the blue-flowered, tufted vetch (lower images in the panel) – its strings of flowers produced for months on indeterminate sprawling and clinging stems.

The composites – thistles and knapweeds

The composite family – hemp agrimony (upper), greater knapweed, tansy and common thistle (middle), cotton thistle (lower) – images by Living Field..

Next are the composites (family : Asteraceae), each flowering head consisting of many individual florets. Not all species are equally visited, but the best here for pollinators are thistles and knapweeds. The great cotton thistle grows like a small tree, supporting large heads several centimetres across, bumble bees often bustling two or three to a head.

The greater and common knapweeds, hemp agrimony and tansy shown above are perennials, whereas the thistles in the garden tend to be biennial – germinating one year, overwintering as a rosette and flowering the next. The weedy perennial creeping thistle is too invasive in the garden’s small space and though it supports insects is discouraged in favour of other thistles.

Field scabious and teasel

Field scabious in the meadow, attracting a wide range of pollinator species, flowering for the longest period in the Garden – images Linda Ford / Living Field

Of all the species in the garden, field scabious (family: Dipsacaceae) is the one that offers sustenance to flyers for the longest period. A perennial, growing mainly in the meadow, plants put out flower after flower from early summer to late autumn (except in the very dry 2018). If there was one plant that we could grow for the bees, it would be this.

Teasel is a close relative that also grows well here. It self seeds and is mostly biennial. Plants are moved at the rosette stage in autumn or early spring to form clumps that flower in the medicinals bed.

Labiates – mints, sages, deadnettles and woundworts

Labiate family – betony (upper), sage (lower rt) and clary in the meadow – images by Living Field.

The labiate family (Lamiaceae), including mints, sages, woundworts, deadnettles, hempnettles and basils – are well represented among the medicinals and herbs. They grow in sun, in shade and as occasionals anywhere. The large flowered types such as the herb sage are most frequently visited by the Bombus species, while betony tends to attract more of the smaller carder bees.

The smaller flowered species, such as meadow clary (a perennial n the meadow), fields mints, hempnettle and wild basil are less attractive to larger flying insects but have their own specialist range of inverts.

And many more when the weather’s right

These are not the only plants that offer food and shelter for flying insects. Among the first in the year are the flowers and leaves on the garden’s native trees and shrubs. Early summer in the hedges, flowers of wild roses offer a welcoming landing platform for grazing hoverflies.

One of the longest flowering species, not shown here in the photographs, is viper’s bugloss Echium vulgare, one of the borage family. (See it at the Bee plants links below.) Borage itself and the comfreys are also well visited.

Populations of bees and other flower-visitors were very badly affected here by the dry 2018. There was little left in flower by the end of August, while in most years the field scabious and viper’s bugloss are still visited in late October.

The coming year’s weather is uncertain as always, but we’ll try to manage the plants to give the longest possible season to the resident insects and spiders. First out will be the willow ….. .

But not the main crops

Nearly all the plants referred to here are native species or ones introduced long ago and now naturalised. Very few of the crops grown in the region (and the garden) – barley, wheat, oats, peas – support or need pollinating insects.

Oilseed rape fields provide a crop-based source of food for a few weeks early in the year and field beans also offer high-protein flowers much later. But the main sown crops and leys that could provide the right seasonal habitat – the legume forages and grass-clover mixtures – are rare and mostly long gone.

In the broader landscape therefore, the main source of food for flying insects lies in the broadleaf ‘weed’ species that live in crop fields and disturbed margins – in fact most of those shown in the panels above belong in this category. These arable plants, mostly not injurious to crops, have declined over the last century to the point where many of the plants themselves are now rare. It’s no wonder insects apart from pests are having a hard time in cropland.

Contacts

The Living Field’s page on Bee plants give further notes and images of the individual species most frequently visited in the garden.

As usual, the plants are grown and tended by Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson with help from the farm.

The photographs of the insects on field scabious were taken by Linda Ford on an ideal summer day a few years ago, the others by Geoff Squire. Colleagues from the farm cut the Living Field meadow once a year and trim the hedges in sequence every few years to allow flowering and fruiting (e.g. for roses, willow, hazel).

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com

Three grain resilience

The north-east Atlantic seaboard has grown three main grain crops – oat, barley and wheat. All originated in the east Mediterranean or west Asia, but all find the climate here good for their growth. Most years that is.

The fall in output of the main staple grain crops in 2018, and before that in 2012, due to unusually bad weather, raised many questions as to how food and alcohol production would be affected if the climate continued to vary between wet and dry. The crop in 2012 suffered from cloudy skies causing slow plant growth, and then very wet soil that made harvest difficult. That in 2018 suffered from lack of water mid-May, at just the point when the crops were starting their main phase of growth.

Yet in neither year did production collapse. Total grain output from wheat, barley and oats fell by little more than a tenth of the average. Perhaps the varied needs of the three grains give cereal production here its ability to withstand years of bad weather. Historical change in this combination of grains may tell much about how agriculture can cope with the future.

Here, we look back over 150 years to see that the balance of the three grains and other crops has undergone major change, most of it not due to the weather, and ask whether the three grains give production some resilience – a capacity to withstand shocks, to adapt and continue.

1900: decline in grain output, a move to grass

In and around 1900, and for many decades before that, oats was by far the most widely grown grain crop in the northern part of Britain. In the crop census for Scotland [1], oats occupied more than three-quarters of the cereal area, and barley most of the rest. Wheat was minor. Few other cereals were grown – a little rye and some ‘mixed grain’ usually consisting of oats and barley.

It was a time of great change, most of it considered negative for home production. The area sown with cereals decreased as did that of the ‘root’ crops (turnips and swede) and also the grain legumes (peas and beans). They all gave way to grass, to feed cattle and sheep, with the result that the country was far from self-sufficient in grain at the time of WWI.

From privation to food security: 1945 – 1990

The areas grown with cereals and other arable crops kept on falling until the start of WWII when the need for home-grown food and feed caused some of the grass to be re-ploughed and sown with arable. The proportional areas of the three cereals remained the same, except for a little more wheat.

Yield per unit area had not changed much from 1900. Something had to happen. The privations of the war years and reliance on imports to feed the country spurred government into action. Plans were laid to raise farming output, but it was well over 10 years before there was any improvement in yield.

The phase of ‘intensification’ really began in the 1960s – machines could plough deeper, mineral fertiliser was readily available and new crop varieties were introduced able to allocate more of their mass to grain rather than straw. By the 1980s, yields had more than doubled. This result of intensification was a major achievement, reproduced in many parts of the world (The Green Revolution).

The largest single change here during that time was a shift from oats to barley and wheat. They were more profitable than oats and could now be grown to higher yield and over large areas with the fertiliser and pesticides that became readily available. Most of the wheat and about 20% of the barley were autumn-sown winter crops. They were able to survive the cold of winter and be ready to bulk up on the sun’s energy as early as May, and so were higher yielding than the traditional spring varieties.

By the 1970s, the country could have fed itself from home production, but then a rise in global trade meant that cereal food could be imported on the cheap. Home production became almost irrelevant to peoples’ consumption of cereal products except oats.

The great levelling : 1990 to the present

The seemingly unstoppable rise in grain yield slowed in the late 1980s. The brakes were on – for various reasons (which will be looked at another time). Yields per field and total grain output from the country have hardly changed since. They go up, as in the favourable weather of 2014, and down as in 2012 and 2018, but their present trajectory is level.

It’s the same for grain output in much of Europe, and crops farther afield, such as oil palm, also suffer: years of expansion and rise in output are followed by a levelling.

The levelling presents a major problem for science and crop management. 2014 gave the highest average yields ever in the region expressed as grain mass per unit field area. There is still potential for increase. The maximum on-farm yields are much higher than the average. Possibly modern varieties, able to yield well in good years, are over-sensitive to bad years.

Lessons from the past

The great swing in the mid-1900s from mostly oats to mostly barley was caused by markets and new opportunities for trade. Science and technology provided the means but the markets drove the change. Government strategy was to gain self-sufficiency in food, but that sufficiency ultimately came from outside.

There was no real strategic plan for home -grown production and there does not seem to be one now. That farming can switch between the three grains (and between grain and grass) should make agriculture less at risk of future catastrophe, whether due to climate. volcanic eruption or blockade. But the country should not wait to see what happens.

The resilience afforded by oats, barley and wheat should now be planned into the future of farming here. The Common Agricultural Policy did little to challenge current markets and the dominance of the few major influences. Post-CAP there is an opportunity to set targets for home-grown cereal food as distinct from cereals as substrates for animal feed and alcohol. Tinkering round the edges will do little. Major structural change in land use is needed.

Some previous posts on this web site have looked at the effects on crops of unusual weather in the past decade [2]. Future articles and notes will look at how farming used the three grains to the lessen the damage caused by the 2018 drought. We’ll also be starting a major series of articles on the options for future sustainability, with reference of course to lessons from the past 5000 years.

Sources, links

[1] A longer version of this article is available as on the curvedflatlands web site: Resilience in a three-grain production system, where full reference is given to the government statistical records from the late 1800s to the present and commentaries on trends in areas and yields of the three grains.

[2] Related topics on the Living Field web site: Winter flood on the water-field pages and The late autumn floods of 2012. For our general educational work on grains, see Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on.

Author contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk, geoff.squire@outlook.com

[Last update: 16 March 2019, with several textual corrections! GS}

Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on

The Living Field project has been sharing knowledge of ancient and modern cereal grains for over 10 years [1]. Here we look back at how things evolved from field studies in barley on the Institute’s farms to growing our own range of cereals and finally using bere barley and other flours to make bannocks, bread and biscuits.

The sequence is shown here for bere barley. Seeds are sown, crops are grown. Bere plants support reproductive heads or ears holding grain. Plants are harvested and the grains removed and cleaned. They are ground into meal or flour, then used alone or mixed with other flours to make bread, bannocks and biscuits.

This sequence has sustained people for thousands of years.  Today the grain we eat in Scotland, except for oats, is not grown here – the main cereal products from local fields are alcohol and animal feed. But whatever the future of agricultural produce, the grain-based cycle will remain essential to settled existence. In this retrospective, we describe the Living Field’s shared experience of ‘seed to plate’ over the last 10 years.

School visits to the farm’s barley fields

We began by introducing visitors to the James Hutton Institute’s fields where barley is grown both for experiments and for commercial grain sales. From 2007, the Living Field has been using the farm’s barley to give school parties a first taste of life in the crop.

The larger image above looks down from a barley field at Balruddery farm to the Tay estuary. The school children in the pictures were visiting fields of young barley at Mylnefield farm just above the Tay. This was in May 2007. They walked along the ‘tram lines’ looking at plants and finding ‘minibeasts’ – the first time many of them had been in a crop. They were fascinated with small creatures found crawling on the plants or walking over the soil [2].

The public interest in crops and their ecology in those early visits encouraged us to explore a much wider range of cereal plants than presently grown in commercial agriculture.

Ancient grains at the Living Field Garden

So began a small collection of grain crops which were sown, tended and harvested each year in the Living Field Garden [3]. We began in 2010 by growing bere barley from Orkney, black oat, emmer and spelt wheat, alongside modern varieties of barley, oats and bread wheat. Rye and a landrace of bread wheat from the western isles were added later, then several other barley landraces and old varieties [4].

The collection of photographs above shows a general view of the  garden. including a tall cereal plot (middle right), then c’wise from upper right – a barley landrace from Ireland, rye, black oat, emmer wheat, young spelt ear, spratt archer barley and a bread wheat landrace.

By 2011, the Living Field had combined its practical experience on the farm with the collection of ancient and modern grains in the Garden. Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson had perfected the way to grow all these different species. We now needed a means to demonstrate processing the grain and making food from it.

Milling and baking

The harvest from the small plots in the garden was too little to make flour enough for open days, road shows and exhibitions. Additional grain and flour (or meal) was begged or bought from a range of sources, notably Barony Mills in Orkney and ‘Quaker Oats’ in Fife.

The Living Field then bought its own rotary quern for grinding the grain into meal and chaff, which is the name given to the other bits we don’t usually eat, mostly the protective sheathing around the grain and the awns.

Now to make a loaf! Fortunately one of the team, Gillian Banks, was already an experienced bread-maker and after some experimentation turned out tasty loaves made from various mixtures including bere and modern barley, oats, emmer, spelt, wheat, rye …. and more [5]!

The whole chain from sowing seed in the ground to making food could now be demonstrated from first-hand experience. We did this at various open events beginning 2012.

The panel above shows (bottom left, clockwise) – visitors experiencing a range of ancient grains and flours, demonstrating the rotary quern, a sheaf of spelt, making things from sourdough, and a four-panel set showing oat grain in a bag, sieving and sorting meal from chaff and finally bread.

Open Farm Sundays

The highlights of our outreach over the years has been LEAF Open Farm Sunday. The Institute is a LEAF innovation Centre [6], so on the first Sunday in June, the farm and science come together to host the event. One of the main attractions is the hub of activity around the Living Field garden, cabins and tunnel. Typically 1000-2000 people visit the hub during the day. We’re mobbed ….. thanks to all!

The essential structure of a successful open day is, firstly, to provide plenty of things to do for young children, to keep them occupied and allow time for older children and grown-ups to talk about what’s on view; and, second, hands-on activity with natural products, things such as living plants, and grain and flour that can be touched, felt and smelled  [6].

Group activities are usually located in the garden’s polytunnel, just in case of rain.  The panel above shows (lower left c’wise) examples of grain and flour, a ‘tasting’, making things with grain and other natural materials, an activity table for children and their grown-ups, and bags of grain from the garden with young scientist sitting on the rotary quern fascinated by oat grains.

Cooking with bere barley – more than bannocks

The thread linking exhibits through the years has been bere barley – Scotland’s barley landrace, an attractive plant, easy to grow.  Bere as a crop declined in the late 1800s and is now restricted to a few fields in the far north. Like most of the world’s landraces, bere faded in competition with modern crop varieties and production methods. Yet it remains a favourite here. Its story continues [7].

Bere and other barleys were traditionally used to make a flatbead or bannock, either on its own or mixed with oatmeal or peasmeal, but  bere meal has many uses when mixed with other flours.

The Living Field has friends and correspondents like Grannie Kate who regularly experiment with different uses of ancient and modern grains. Scones, shortbread, batter, porridge, soups can all include bere as a unique constituent. One of the team regularly adds a a spoon or two of bere meal to their morning’s rolled-oat porridge.

The images above show (top left, c’wise) bere and oat bannocks, a bag of bear meal in Grannie Kate’s kitchen, bere fruit scones and bere shortbread [8].

On the road

Following the Living Field’s appearance at a ‘biodiversity day’ run by the Dundee Science Centre in January 2016, we were invited to join the exhibition trail organised in 2016 by the Centre as part of The Crunch [9]. By this time, we could take take the whole process on the road – seed-plant-grain-flour-food.

Gill Banks and Linda Nell, with Lauren Banks and Geoff Squire, ran the grain to plate events at The Crunch venues. One was in a darkened auditorium at the Dundee Science Centre, another at a local community Centre.

The Science Centre suggested we bring some bread made in the usual way from cereal grain and some made from insects. Gill bought various whole insects and flours and made some insect loaves that several of us had a pre-taste of and concluded they tasted just like nice wholesome loaves.

Anyway, the insects went down a treat at the events and started many a conversation of what we eat and what it costs – insects gram for gram need much less energy and cause much less pollution than most other forms of animal rearing.

The panel above shows scenes from the (top right) the January event) and bottom right (The Crunch) both at the Science Centre, then (top left, down) sheaves of spelt and black oat, globs of gluten extracted from wheat by Gill, mixed-flour bread with dried crickets laid on, and (at the bottom) dried insects for cooking or eating and (centre) barley grain.

Ancient grains in Living Field art

Through working with artists, the team were able to see the plants they had grown become part of artwork. Jean Duncan for example was able to place grain not just as a food but as essential to the development of farming and human society since the last ice. In her work, grains and plants appear close to circles, barrows, landforms and field systems.
Some extracts from Jean’s creations are shown in the panel above. Various ears, spikelets and grains appear commonly alongside mounds and barrows (example right). At top left, ancient cereal plants are stylised as fans, drawn near the centre of  a circular design,  used to create a revolving backdrop for an opera. At bottom left, a section of her ‘teaching wheel’ shows a range of cereal species grown in the region since the neolithic [10].

At Open Days, children like drawing things,  messing with paint and pencil: better then just looking, it helps to give them a lasting memory of what they saw and touched.

Where next

Nearing the end of 2018 and the project will continue its work on bere and other grains, ancient and modern. The Living Field is connecting to the swell of interest in local food and recipes.

Few others can demonstrate the whole chain – not just grain to plate – but from sowing the seed to eating the food and, crucially, saving some grain for the next year’s crop.

The James Hutton Institute has recently been awarded funds for an International Barley Hub. Let’s see what the 2019 season brings!

…… warm bere and crickets?

The idea of ‘insect bread’ always raises interest, even if to some the thought is less than appetising. But insects and bread have a long history together ……

At one time and even now in many places, a bag of flour can have resident insects in the form of weevils. They live and reproduce in it, eat it and recyle it in one form or another (probably best not thought about). They add a little crunchy something to a baked loaf [11].

That’s insect bread ‘by accident’. For several years, and as shown above, Gill and Co have been experimenting with bread made from insect flour mixed with grain flour. The insects tried so far are mainly crickets, raised especially for the purpose (though not by us). Insects as alternatives to fish and meat in European diets is a hot topic now  [12].

Sources, references, links

[1] Geoff Squire and and Gladys Wright developed the ideas around a seed to plate theme not long after the Living Field garden began in 2004.

[2] The Hutton farm staff have been partners in the Living Field since its making in 2004. They manage the crops, drive the tractors and  explain what’s going on to visitors.

[3] Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson grow the Living Field cereals from seed each season. They have been helped by several other people in earlier years, especially Linda Ford.

[4] Thanks to Orkney College and SASA Edinburgh for giving the original seed. The Institute’s barley collection was the source of several landraces and varieties grown in 2015: see Barley landraces and old varieties.

[5] Gillian Banks experiments with bread making and has regularly baked a range of ancient grain loaves and biscuits for open days and road-shows: see Bere and cricket.

[6] Open Farm Sundays have been well supported by Hutton staff – Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson prepare and run the Living Field ‘space’; other regular contributors to the ancient and modern cereals theme include Gill Banks, Lauren Banks, Linda Nell,  Linda Ford, Mark Young and Geoff Squire. Students and family have helped time and again on the stalls and exhibits. For more on LEAF Linking Environment and Farming, see LEAF innovation Centre.

[7] Bere barley and bere meal feature regularly on the Living Field web site, for example see the Bere line – rhymes with hairline, Bere country,  and Peasemeal, oatmeal and beremeal.

[8] The Living Field’s correspondent Grannie Kate’s offerings mix bere with other flours, see Bere shortbread, Bere scones, Bere bannocks and Seeded oatcakes with beremeal. Barony Mills in Orkney also has a book of recipes.

[9] The Crunch was a UK-wide series of events held in 2016, coordinated locally by Dundee Science Centre:  Gill and Lauren Banks, Linda Nell and Geoff Squire, among others, offered a range of exhibits on themes of grains and bread: see Bere and cricket, The Crunch at Dundee Science Centre. Thanks to DSC for inviting us to take part.

[10] Jean Duncan is an artist who has worked with the Living Field for many years. For examples of her work and links to her wider presence from the neolithic onwards, see Jean Duncan artist.

[11] Geoff reminisces – ‘lived once in a place where the flour bought to bake bread had live-in weevils; you could pick the big ones out, otherwise they got baked.’

[12] Crunchy bread made by Gill Banks from insect flour: photographs and details at Bere and cricket.   Later, Gill, Geoff and Linda F found when investigating an infestation of weevils in grain, that insects in bread, whether by design or accident, bring a high-nitrogen (high protein) addition, insects being about 10% N by weight – little nuggets of protein in your low-N loaf!

Contacts: this article, geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com; growing the cereals, gladys.wright@hutton.ac.uk

Real time virtual field – tashibunosho rice

Just over 10 years ago, the Living Field Project began to make a computer-based, virtual farm. A landscape was populated by crops and hedgerows, insects and mammals, tractors and people. The intention was to show how fields worked, how food was produced and how fields could not exist without the living things that make soil, vegetation and food webs. We exhibited the virtual farm at the Royal Highland Show, Edinburgh, 2008 [1] using computers and screens. Attempts to take it to the web ran out of funding a year or two later.

A farmed landscape, constructed by teamLab [2] and displayed at the Singapore ArtScience Museum [3] is a compelling example of learning by immersion in a virtual landscape. A screen on a wall in the first exhibition room depicts rice terraces on Kyushu Island, Japan.

teamLab’s Tashibunosho monitor at Singapore ArtScience Museum [4]

Four Seasons, a 1000 years, Terraced Rice Fields – Tasibunosho

The display is credited – 2016, Digital Work, 6 Channels, 1000 years, Artwork by teamLab. The caption reads:

“This monitor work depicts the harmonious existence between man and nature in the famed terraced rice fields, Tashibunosho in Kyushu Island, Japan. This work is generative, with the virtual world synchronising with the actual environment on Kyushu Island – weather and timings of sun setting and rising – in real time. ‘

The observer enters the room – the detail draws you in. A man leading a bullock along a path, groups of people doing agricultural tasks or eating a communal meal, a large bird (perhaps a crane) winging slowly across the landscape, clouds passing over the scene, dissolving and generating, water flowing between the fields. And humour that should appeal to all – a big frog marching along a path. It appeals to the young – they can touch!

Four clips from a 30 second phone video following a crane flying over the rice terraces (Living Field)

It is not possible to appreciate in one visit of a hour or two the changes on the monitor that must occur as days pass into seasons. teamLab explains:

“The imagery changes throughout the day; it grows brighter as the sun rises and glows with the setting sun before darkness sets in as the night deepens. Mirroring nature in many ways, the appearance of the artwork is constantly changing and no two moments are ever the same.”

There is no formal explanation of farming or food production. Yet the events witnessed are impressed on the mind. Rice crops are sown, irrigated and harvested in fields defined spatially by paths and bunds. The fields are not isolated but connected, most clearly by waterways and by farm workers with their draft animals. Nature flies or walks over or among the fields and into the surrounding low vegetative hills. The landscape is whole and connected – it is more than a set of fields.

The series of four images above left are single frames from a 30 second video taken by a phone. The video follows a large bird that casually flaps its way over the rice, each plant carefully delineated. It passes over scarecrows, overtakes a cloud. It continues past a large tree set in a clearing and around which people are seated. Finally it disappears out of the rice to the left of the monitor.

The display might provoke many points of discussion among groups of young visitors, depending on the time of year and whether rice is growing or not, for example:

  • how did the plants get there and what are they for, assuming most of the visiting children will not know where food comes from (as in the UK)
  • why are the fields set out in that pattern, why are they covered in water, where does the water come from – and what happens if it runs out
  • what do the farm animals do
  • where have the trees gone – we can only see one big one and a few smaller ones
  • where does the rice go when it’s been harvested – who eats it?
  • ….. and more …… (with thanks from some UK visitors for a unique experience)

Sources, links

[1] The Living Field’s Graham Begg and Gladys Wright designed and built Virtual Farm in 2007/08 for exhibition at the Royal Highland Show, Edinburgh in June 2008.

[2] teamLab’s web site gives examples of the Tashibunosho rice fields at https://www.teamlab.art/w/tashibunosho.

[3] More on the ArtScience Museum at Where art meets science: Singapore.

[4] The low-quality images here were taken by phone in the dim light of the exhibition hall and give an impression of the display. teamLab’s high res images can be see via [2].

Contact: geoff.squire@outlook.com or geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Where art meets science: Singapore

Note on a visit to the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. TeamLab’s mesmerising exhibition halls. Stunning architecture.  Lily pond.

The ticket desk warned adults that about 60% of the exhibits were for children. There was no need.  The exhibition spaces were mesmerising, children and adults alike absorbed in the shifting images and games.

It was like one of those busy open days at the Living Field garden: people marvelling at the diversity of life,  children quietly buzzing around the activities and all coming to appreciate that people and nature can coexist.

Concept and design of the building

The main exhibition halls were below ground, underneath the ‘palm’ and ‘fingers’ that are the visible part of the structure. The ‘palm’ appears supported only near the base. A lacing of struts extends throughout the  fingers.

The concept of the quite stunning building was explored in early sketches by Safdie Architects, viewable in the foyer [2]. One of the sketches is shown above left.

teamLab and Future World

The main permanent displays, given the name ‘Future World – where Art meets Science‘ are housed in the below-ground chambers.  They were made by teamLab,  founded in 2001 and comprising a group of ‘ultra-technologists’, bringing together ‘hundreds of innovative thought leaders from multiple technical and creative backgrounds’.

In first exhibition – Nature – people interact with the various streams of images projected onto, or rather part of, the walls and floor.

Photo of the exhibition panel. Click on the image to see a larger readable copy.

‘Water’ streams down the far wall and along the floor. The flow is deflected if a person moves close to the wall or stands on the floor. Butterflies emerge and flap round the walls. They disappear if touched. Incessant, low volume, musical sounds accompany the movements. You’d think they would soon grate, but they didn’t, even after an hour of wandering in the space.

The descriptive panels explain the purpose: people affect nature all the time; they are part of it, not distinct from it. They can destroy it but need it.

The photographs shown in the panel above – all from Nature –  are phone snaps taken in the available light. Excellent images of the exhibits can be viewed on teamLab’s web site [2].

Next on from the Nature exhibit are a series of rooms where visitors can move things around, sit at desks writing and making things, interact with moving images and (for the very young) play with brightly coloured balls. Crocodiles crawl across the floor. They know you’re there!

Leaving the darkened halls, the visitor emerges into  the central shaft, a great space with a pond at the bottom and open to the sun and rain at the top, connecting inside to outside.

Outside the Museum – the lily pond

Immediately beneath the ‘palm’ on three sides is a pond whose surface is almost covered with lily leaves. The pond is raised above the surrounding walkways, so that people can kneel on the bounding wall and peer into the water.  The pond lies above the underground display halls and is said to filter light down through their ceilings.

The pond extends some way out towards the Bay. The cluster of tall buildings at the city’s financial sector can appear as if they are on a level with the pond.

To the right of the financial sector, directly by the Bay but too small to see from here, is the Merlion that continually spouts its stream of water (top panel, upper-right).

As in most other parts of Singapore’s centre, the standard of plant-culture is very high. The lily pond is made to look like it takes care of itself, but there must be a continual pruning and removal of dead material and maintenance of an ideal nutrient balance in the water.

Did Art meet Science?

In the Living Field’s work with artists, the starting point is usually some topic of environmental or agricultural science – field systems, population dynamics, the structure and functioning of roots, plant metabolites and so on. The artist bends scientific knowledge and sometimes the scientific process, bringing together things that could not possibly coexist or would at least be normally far apart in time or distance.

A similar process underpins the construction of the Future World exhibitions. They do this to a degree subliminally, through the senses. It’s the impressions that last, rather than anything strictly logical. There’s more on one of the exhibits at the next post Real time virtual field –  Tashbunosho rice.

The Museum is well supported by Singaporeans. Like the V&A Museum in Dundee, it must be a source of great local pride.

Sources, references, links

What’s On!

[1] ArtScience Museum at Singapore – general information, ‘what’s on’, etc.

[2] Designed by Moshe Safdie – link to the ArtScience Museum at Safdie Architects.

[3] teamLab – perhaps start with www.teamlab.art/concept.  See also interviews and comment at Indesignlive, e.g. 5 minutes with teamLab and coverage of their Tokyo exhibits at New Digital Art Museum in Tokyo.

[4] Future World – where art meets science – link to see more on this permanent exhibition at the ArtScience Museum Singapore.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk / geoff.squire@outlook.com, visited October 2018

Hutton Rocks!

A rooftop terrace on the National Museum of Scotland [1] in Edinburgh, holds a series of four sculptures made of massive sandstone blocks.

The work is Hutton Roof, Split and carved sandstone by Andy Goldsworthy, 1998. The words on the explanatory panel tell the story.

“The four sandstone sculptures behind you, placed as the four points of the compass, evoke the theories of the pioneering Edinburgh geologist James Hutton. The sandstone, from Locharbriggs quarry, Dumfriesshire, is the now compacted sands of a 270 million-year-old desert.

Each stone has been split along its natural grain into five slices, with a hole carved into each slice. When each stone is reconstructed, the holes align to draw the eye of the viewer down into the centre,  subliminally back through the layers of time.”

The photographs in the panel above show the Hutton Roof description, two of the blocks and three views from above the blocks  down through ‘time’. The one at the top of the page was taken across the top of one block, in slanting sunlight to show the surfaces.

Sources, references

[1] National Museum of Scotland, Chambers St, Edinburgh www.nms.ac.uk.

[2] Andy Goldsworthy: see the Wikipedia entry, and the Digital Catalogue.

[3] James Hutton (1726-1797) geologist and farmer after whom the James Hutton Institute is named (https://www.hutton.ac.uk). For information on James Hutton, see Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

Author / contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk. Visit to Hutton Roof,  27 August 2013.