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Singapore’s ArtScience Museum: where art and technology intersect

Honor Harger on teamLab, community, climate change and the museum’s new VR gallery

Honor Harger_Executive Director_ArtScience Museum

Honor Harger is the executive director of ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Under her aegis, the museum has held large-scale exhibitions by some of the world’s best-known artists. This includes Leonardo da Vinci, Salvador Dalí and M.C. Escher. It has also presented exhibitions that explore aspects of science including big data, particle physics, natural history, marine biology, cosmology and space exploration.

Explaining how her engagement with art and technology began, Harger tells blooloop:

“From a professional curatorial point, the first time I was working actively within a visual arts context with technology was in New Zealand. This was with a contemporary arts organization called Artspace, in the mid-1990s. Artspace was a crucible of experimentation within the visual arts in New Zealand. It did quite a forward-thinking exhibition in the mid-1990s called Electronic Bodyscapes. 

“The exhibition explored the way that artists – pioneers – like Stelarc and Orlan were using technology in performance art or visual art contexts. That was when I was introduced to the way that art and technology can come together to create new ideas, new spaces of conversation, and to point the way for where technological innovation might go. That was my starting point into the space of art and technology.”

Defining the museum’s identity

Before joining ArtScience Museum, Harger was the director of Lighthouse, a digital arts venue in Brighton, UK. In 2010, she was guest curator of the Transmediale festival in Berlin. From 2004 to 2008, she was director of the AV Festival. At the time this was the UK’s largest biennial of digital art, film and music. She was the first curator of webcasting for Tate, where she also curated events and concerts at Tate Modern. 

ArtScience Museum Singapore
Image credit Marina Bay Sands

Harger is one of the cofounders of the sound art collective, r a d i o q u a l i a. One of their main projects was Radio Astronomy. This is a radio station broadcasting sound from space.

She has been the executive director of ArtScience Museum in Singapore since 2014

One of her key aims has been “to clearly define the museum’s identity as an institution that explores the intersection and unity of art and science”.

“It’s a big task,” she says. “We turned 10 this year. It’s our 10th anniversary year from the point where the museum was being conceived by Marina Bay Sands and the architect, Moshe Safdie. It was always intended to be a place where art and science came together. You can feel it in the architecture of the building, which is structured almost as an echo of a lotus flower. Our gallery spaces look like large lotus petals, embodying the ideas of nature, engineering, and innovation.”

FUTURE WORLD: Where Art Meets Science

“My job is to make sure that our artistic output speaks the same language as our beautiful architecture. We do that in a variety of ways. The first way, which is very visible to the public, is in our permanent exhibition, FUTURE WORLD: Where Art Meets Science. It very much declares our mission in the title of the show. 

“This exhibition is a partnership with the Japanese art collective, teamLab. They embody the space where digital technology and artistic creativity meld together, and they are very interested in their artwork being almost a forerunner of the future of art.”

A Table where Little People Live teamLab
A Table where Little People Live. Image credit teamLab

“They are quite outspoken, actually, about their pieces representing a different modality of engagement with art. And that is why we wanted to work with them, to create an art experience for our visitors. One which wasn’t just about the visitors looking at a completed artwork, but was also about visitors collectively helping to create the artistic experience by being in the space, and also about there being no one privileged view of being a spectator; that everyone’s perspective is creatively rewarding.

“We were super-interested in their philosophy, and how we could bring them into our museum. We wanted to have that signal of art, science, technology coming together to highlight how the future might be evolving, as an always-on experience for our visitors.”

Shaping the exhibitions programme at ArtScience Museum

Another way that the museum expresses that union of art and science is through the temporary exhibition programme:

“I’m responsible for both the operational management of the museum, but also the artistic direction. So, I have the fun job of working with our curators and our director of exhibitions to conceive the shape of the exhibition programme each year. I get to think about what stories we want to tell. Whether they’re stories of science, stories of nature, stories of art. These stories propel this notion of art and science being connected, interlocked disciplines. That’s another core part of what we do.”

Light Ball Orchestra teamLab ArtScience Museum
Light Ball Orchestra. Image credit teamLab

COVID is, inevitably, part of what is informing that vision at the moment – and the innovations born of the pandemic.

“The pandemic has posed enormous challenges for the museum sector internationally. That is something we all share, from a global perspective. However, some of us have been in the privileged position of being able to remain open and to allow visitors to visit our museums.

“In Singapore, our museums were only required to close for a short period from April to the end of June last year. Since that point, we’ve been open every day. That’s a privilege that we take seriously. We know that many of our colleague museums internationally can’t do that.”

Impacts of the pandemic

“One of the things which the pandemic has in some ways forced, and in other ways, inspired museums to do is to look at their local context,” says Harger. “To try and capture some of the stories and the voices from those communities. And to provide a platform for its unheard voices or unseen members.

“It is pleasing that through a crisis we have been able to see that more human side of curatorial work.”

“Singapore” series ArtScience Museum by Nguan
Margins: drawing pictures of home, “Singapore” series (2017). Image credit Nguan

“We started to reflect it, also, in our on-site programmes,” she adds. “Particularly an exhibition that we did this year and last, called Margins: drawing pictures of home.”

Margins featured the work of 15 contemporary photographers, reflecting on topics important to Singapore today.

“Margins looked at communities and stories that sit on the margins of our home, Singapore. 

“But in terms of what is informing a bigger vision as a museum, one thing I could highlight is the very serious responsibility we feel in sharing stories about environmental issues, and how our pressing global systemic problems such as climate change, such as the loss of biodiversity, are going to inform, impact, and shape our future.”

ArtScience Museum and climate change

This is a theme that runs throughout many of the exhibitions and programmes at ArtScience Museum:

“This is a topic to which we return to often. We have explored this in ambitious exhibitions which we have curated like 2219: Futures Imagined, and touring exhibitions such as the Planet or Plastic? that we staged in 2020-21. We have also actively engaged with environmental issues in our education programmes. We recently organized beach clean-ups on Singapore beaches to get our visitors involved in active conservation work. The environment is the heartbeat that runs through a lot of our work.”

by Justin Hofman, showcased at Planet or Plastic_ exhibition ArtScience Museum
Photograph by Justin Hofman, showcased at Planet or Plastic? exhibition

There is, after all, a likelihood that phenomena like the pandemic emanate from the same factors that are driving climate change:

“That’s certainly what a lot of scientists believe,” says Harger. “There’s no question that when we, as human civilisation, start encroaching onto natural habitats and displacing the ecosystems and the biosphere of those habitats, you’re going to have greater interaction between nature and people. Sometimes that can have great positive impacts; sometimes, not so much.”

Museums help communities heal

Harger’s TED talk in June 2020 was on how museums help communities heal. She shared how ArtScience Museum engaged with its visitors through streamed talks, performances and workshops. These investigated the COVID-19 landscape and uplifted marginalized voices. 

“One of the observations that we made during the early months of the pandemic in 2020 was that it was affecting underprivileged communities disproportionately more negatively,” says Harger. “Inequality was a big driver in how the pandemic was impacting communities around the world. We certainly saw that in our local context, as well.”

This is something ArtScience Museum has been leaning into, through its online programme, ArtScience At Home. The programme was launched last April when the Singapore government implemented the circuit breaker, mandatory closure of all non-essential services.

“We tried, with ArtScience at Home, to think about meaningful ways to reach out to communities that we didn’t have a track record of collaborating with. The aim was to amplify those voices.”

ArtScience on screen

An example was the screening of filmmaker Madhavan Ram’s film as part of ArtScience on Screen.

“He is a migrant worker. In Singapore, that’s normally someone who has travelled from another country, often in south Asia, to work on construction projects. There is a large migrant worker population in Singapore. Madhavan was the first member of that community to make a short film.”

ArtScience Museum Exterior
Image credit Marina Bay Sands

ArtScience on Screen is the museum’s moving image programme that explores and pushes the boundaries between art, science, and tech through film and emerging media.

“It was a meaningful way of being able to amplify a voice who was already creating a fascinating meditation on his own experience of being somebody in quite an invisible community in Singapore, but simply taking that story to a larger audience,” says Harger.

“Another example was a series of online workshops and seminars that we did, aimed at children, called Let’s Talk About.”

ArtScience Museum’s ‘Let’s Talk About’ series

Let’s Talk About was a four-part series. It explored the unseen, unspoken and unsung parts of Singapore

“It was a series of online events that focused on members of our community that we felt we didn’t spend enough time talking about,” Harger explains:

“We did one session that encouraged children to show their appreciation for our migrant worker community. There was another session that looked at mixed families; families that didn’t look like your normal nuclear family.”

“We did one session that focused on a very underprivileged community living in Jalan Kukoh, a low-income neighbourhood in Singapore. We invited members of that community to talk about their experiences. It was a chance for them to talk about what makes them excited, and to get our younger visitors to see that their communities are made of very diverse constituents.

“We wanted to show that it can be meaningful to understand our less spoken about, less visible, less celebrated members of the community.

“That whole journey was a moment of awakening for our team. We realised that we had the privilege of slowing down, especially while the museum was not open. It was a chance to pause and see the richness around us. And to try to figure out ways that we could use our platform and our privilege to share that with a wider audience.”

Benefits & challenges of technology

Technology has enabled many people to come together throughout the pandemic. It facilitates the sharing of data and allows institutions to engage with and expand their audiences.

However, Harger says:

“One of the things that we acknowledge is that the access to technology is also still a privilege. The most oft-repeated stories that we heard when doing the Let’s Talk About engagement sessions were about how isolated our elderly communities, who often aren’t as confident with technology, have felt during this time.”

Technology is an amazing, powerful force to bring people together. But it can leave people behind if we’re not thinking about digital equity in the same breath as inclusiveness

“Plus our communities in more disadvantaged areas might not have enough devices to enable their children to engage in home-schooling. It was often a choice between, Dad going to work at the kitchen table, or the kids having access to home-schooling. 

“So yes, technology is an amazing, powerful force to bring people together. But it can leave people behind if we’re not thinking about digital equity in the same breath as inclusiveness.”

How to change minds

Commenting on the cultural impact of scientific ideas and how technology shapes society, Harger returns to society’s deepening awareness about the scientific phenomenon of climate change:

“For decades, climate scientists and those in many other branches of science have known that climate change is real. It poses an existential risk to everyone. There has been difficulty in communicating that fact to the population at large. Particularly to policymakers.”

Photograph by Randy Olson, showcased at Planet or Plastic_ exhibition ArtScience Museum
Photograph by Randy Olson, showcased at Planet or Plastic? exhibition

“What we know as cultural professionals, whether we’re curators or filmmakers or artists, is how to communicate with audiences, and how to change minds and to impact people’s emotions on quite a deep level; how to touch people. The cultural professional sector is full of experts at that. It’s what we do.”

Telling compelling stories at ArtScience Museum

“The moment where institutions like ours started thinking about how we could use exhibitions, or filmmaking or the medium of theatrical performance to tell compelling, impactful stories about the impact of phenomena like climate change, was a key moment. 

“It’s difficult for audiences to go through one of our exhibitions that addresses potential future impacts of biodiversity loss and climate change and not come out at the other end feeling changed. If the same information is presented in a different way, in an academic or journalistic way, it might not have the same impact. We believe these kinds of exhibitions create the possibility for behavioural change.”

It’s difficult for audiences to go through one of our exhibitions that addresses potential future impacts of biodiversity loss and climate change and not come out at the other end feeling changed

“There’s a role for cultural institutions and cultural actors such as artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians, to take an interest in scientific stories and developments, to have an opinion, to educate ourselves about our position on these developments and to ask ourselves questions about our responsibility, as people who have access to audiences, to tell well-researched and well thought through stories that touch people.”

Arts vs sciences

Part of ArtScience Museum’s role is to transcend the often arbitrary boundaries between the arts and sciences:

“One of the things that we hear most often in ArtScience Museum is the perception that there’s somehow a divide between the arts and humanities on one side, and science and engineering on the other. And it’s an understandable perception.”

Universe of Water Particles Transcending Boundaries - teamLab at ArtScience Museum
Universe of Water Particles Transcending Boundaries. Image credit teamLab

“My view is that these areas are both human pursuits. These are topics that we, as a civilisation, choose to become invested in. There are ways of being able to find commonalities between the two spheres and learn from the strengths of both.

“We often say that if we’re going to tackle big systemic issues such as environmental issues or inequality, we need the understanding that science generates. But we also need the emotional connections that art makes possible.”

On 10 July, ArtScience Museum launched its new permanent VR Gallery. This offers a new museum experience, celebrating innovation and experimentation through VR artworks.

“We’re very excited about the new VR Gallery. It’s something that has been in development within the museum for quite some time. It’s one of those projects that the pandemic has affected when it comes to timelines. So it’s wonderful to have it open. 

“Virtual reality opens up new pathways for artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians, and theatre professionals to experiment. We are always interested in how new technologies create possibilities for artists. We are also interested in artists who want to tell stories that interact with science.”

This emerging field of extended reality or XR technologies has been of great interest to artists and designers and technologists for many years. She says:

“We delved into augmented reality on that XR spectrum in quite a big way in the past, through projects like Into the Wild, and REWILD Our Planet. But we never completely addressed how we could present VR within the museum. It turns out that it’s quite a difficult thing to do.

“If you think about the context of a museum, it’s an open, social kind of space. It is somewhere people go with friends or family members. It’s a collective experience, whereas virtual reality is a very solitary experience.”

How to bring VR to a museum

Working out how to bring a personal, solitary experience into the social realm of the museum was not easy:

“We thought for quite a long time about how we could do it well. What we have done with the new VR gallery is to create a space that is almost like a sanctuary. It is a safe, warm, welcoming space, a bit like coming into a healing spa type of environment.”

Guests at VR Gallery_ArtScience Museum
Image credit Marina Bay Sands

“You’re seated on one of our futuristic pod chairs before you put your virtual reality headset. So you know that you’re safe. You’re not going to bump into anyone or anything, and it’s also quite a private experience. You’re a little bit isolated from the rest of the group space. That puts people in a receptive cognitive space to be able to experience VR artworks, often for the first time. 

“Part of the development was figuring out how to do this. The exciting curatorial part has been selecting which works we want to premier in the VR Gallery. This is the type of storytelling we want to profile.”

Hyperrealities at ArtScience Museum

ArtScience Museum opened the VR Gallery as part of its 10th-anniversary programme. The Gallery launches with Hyperrealities, a presentation of virtual reality artworks. These are by three of the world’s best known contemporary artists: Olafur Eliasson, Marina Abramović, and Anish Kapoor

“They’re huge names. And they have all worked with VR for the first time in the projects that we’re presenting here,” Harger says:

“They’re delving into a new medium. They all come from a very interdisciplinary artistic background, themselves. Olafur Eliasson is one of the leading artists in the world engaging with science. Marina Abramović is the pioneer of performance art. She has a track record of incorporating new technologies into her work.”

VR Gallery at ArtScience Museum Singapore
Image credit Marina Bay Sands

“Meanwhile, Anish Kapoor’s work is often realised with leading engineers. He often collaborates with Arup, for instance. He is a real pioneer of materials with his practice. 

“They all have a kind of interdisciplinary inquiry within their work. Being able to bring them into one programme and present them as curated, immersive film screening experiences has never been done before. We’re happy we were able to do it.”

Working in partnership

The museum presents Hyperrealities in collaboration with Acute Art. This takes visitors on an exhilarating journey into the minds of the three artists who have pushed the boundaries of contemporary art practice. It explores topics such as nature, climate change and the human body.

“This was made possible through the partnership with Acute Art. They commissioned all three works and have been our curatorial partner on the opening programme. So, kudos for them, for having the vision to commission the works.”

Delivering experiences safely

Opening a VR Gallery during a pandemic is quite a counter-intuitive thing to do:

“We’ve had quite some questions, as you would imagine, from interested media,” says Harger. “They see creating a space where you have to put something on your face as an interesting choice, and ask, why now?”

seating pods at VR Gallery_ArtScience Museum
Image credit Marina Bay Sands

“But we’ve been very blessed to be able to operate, in a more or less continuous way, for the last 12 months. We have been doing so during the pandemic the whole time. So, we have developed some experience and even expertise in how to deliver experiences safely. A lot of the experiences here are interactive, immersive, participative experiences. That is because of the nature of who we are at ArtScience Museum.

“Our Future World exhibition has been open throughout the pandemic. We’ve had to ensure that we deliver that in a way that is safe for all our visitors and our staff.”

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed

“We also opened a big touring exhibition during the pandemic. This has high amounts of hands-on interactivity. 

“Our show Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed, which opened last month, is about video games. All the installations have some element of hands-on interactivity. So we’ve had to figure out how to do that safely.”

“It took a lot of time and a lot of careful liaison with our government counterparts here. And also with our partner, the Barbican. We are confident we can welcome people with safe management restrictions in place. They can enjoy these experiences in a setting where they can have a high degree of confidence and safety.”

Virtual Realms pairs six of the world’s most acclaimed videogame developers with six leading media design studios. Together, they created a series of large-scale, immersive installations. By moving video games from the screen to the museum gallery, this exhibition presents 21st-century game design as a unique form of contemporary art. Harger explains:

“We have collaborated with the Barbican on this show for about three years. It’s a new exhibition which is a co-production between us, the Barbican and Melbourne Museum.”

Exploring video games

“The idea behind the show was to look at videogame design and development today. It explores how videogame design acts as a crucible of cross-disciplinary innovation. Videogames have evolved from quite simplistic environments of competition and violence to being spaces where collaboration, co-creation, friendship, and unity are becoming the norm. 

“The co-curators of the exhibition are Patrick Moran at the Barbican, and Tetsuya Mizuguchi, celebrated game designer from Japan.”

Rezonance 2021 in SYNESTHESIA virtual realms
Rezonance 2021 in SYNESTHESIA, Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed. Image credit Marina Bay Sands

“They wanted to look at these new trends which they saw coming through videogame design. Games as spaces for pure, unhindered exploration, games that encourage people to become friends, games that encourage people to create their own games, games that confront people to think differently about ecological catastrophes, games that act as philosophical meditations, even games that guide people through grief. 

“That’s one of the most surprising pieces in the show. When non-gaming experts look at this face of video games, they’re not expecting to find that these are dominant trends emerging through creativity. We wanted to work with the Barbican to take those ideas and see how they could manifest into a physical exhibition. One that people can walk through. Something that took games from the screen, from a single player, and made it three dimensional, tactile and physical.”

Exhibition opens despite challenges

The result is Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed.

“We are particularly pleased that we were able to open this amid COVID-19. Each of the six commissions in the exhibition was a partnership with a game developer and a media arts studio. They were often in different countries. The projects were all new commissions. So they were using leading-edge technology, custom-built hardware, and software written specifically for the commissions.”

Dream Shaping 2021 in PLAY - virtual realms
Dream Shaping 2021 in PLAY, Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed. Image credit Marina Bay Sands

“We designed the show to travel with all the people who made the works. We built it as a huge production on-site in the museum. But as a result of the pandemic, we weren’t able to bring in any of the artists or engineers.

“We were hopeful up until about four months before the show opened that we might be able to bring a small handful of engineers from London. But in the end, because of the restrictions on the border and the strict requirement at that time for all travellers to serve a three-week quarantine in Singapore, we were only able to bring one person, Patrick himself, to Singapore.”

Showcasing ArtScience

Opening such an exhibition despite the challenges of COVID is a huge achievement:

“The fact that we were able to build these works in the space without having the makers there, without having the engineers who worked alongside the makers, and still get the show open to the public, has been a big part of our year.”

WALL 2021 in CONNECTION_virtual realms
WALL 2021 in CONNECTION, Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed. Image credit Marina Bay Sands

“Keeping it running, keeping it present for the visitors is taking up a lot of our care and attention now. Particularly considering that all the works and the show are new prototypes. But it’s worth it. It’s a real thrill to have been able to do that, and then follow it up with the opening of the VR gallery one month later.

“We did promise ourselves that for our anniversary year we would make a point of doing some important work that showed our community here in Singapore, and also the international community more broadly, who we are as a museum. It’s hard to do this type of work when there are so many restrictions. But it felt important to us as a young museum to make that statement. So we’ve worked quite hard to get two projects open.”

Adapting to the digital space

There has been a great deal of work done by the museum and gallery sector over the last year to translate physical exhibitions into the digital space.

Harger does not, however, envisage a time when an exhibition such as Virtual Realms will open both physically, and then digitally, for a global audience: 

“There have been some phenomenal attempts at this. But at ArtScience Museum, we have taken a view that an exhibition designed for a three-dimensional space is fundamentally different from an experience for the screen.”

Eye 2021 in EVERYTHING virtual realms
Eye 2021 in EVERYTHING, Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed. Image credit Marina Bay Sands

“These two experiences are equally valid, but they’re totally different. So, to take something which was artistically dreamed up to be experienced in a gallery setting with other people, and translate that into something which only has a two-dimensional interface, doesn’t feel like the right approach for us.”

Powerful pieces of art

“What we have tried to do instead is think about what projects or forms of artistic creativity are tailor-made for the type of online interaction that we’re having right now. 

“There are powerful pieces of art, or pieces of theatre, or collective events such as conferences, which are ideal for this type of context. Forms of creativity that we wouldn’t want to experience in a room with other people, but that are perfect for this quite intimate space. 

“We have tried to think of these spaces as two distinct, equal, and unique platforms. And we have tried to curate for each one in different ways. Whether it’s a single screen online space or the three-dimensional space of the gallery.

“That’s not to say that other approaches are not valid. But this is our take on it.”

Top image credit teamLab. Images kind courtesy of ArtScience Museum

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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