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Instruments of the Afterlife - a collaboration between art and science

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Instruments of the Afterlife - a collaboration between art and science

Lead organisation: Loughborough University

The CL4W project explored ways in which contaminated land could be brought back to life using plants to collect toxic metals, such as arsenic, and how these plants could then be processed by bacteria to form useful metal nanoparticles. The CL4W team - supported by the Creative Outreach for Resource Efficiency project based at Loughborough University - was interested in ways in which they could engage others in their work, using innovative and inspirational methods. They decided to explore working with the artists to find new ways of communication and to reach new audiences for their scientific work.

Project aims

The aim of the project was to work with internationally renowned artists Burton Nitta, so that the work of the project could be communicated to new audiences. The team also hoped that they would have artefacts from the project that could be used after the project had ended which could be displayed in other locations.


The audience for the first performance of Instruments of the Afterlife was art-lovers, tourists and families visiting the V & A museum in London.

How it started

“The inspiration for working with BurtonNitta came about when we attended a mini science fair at Loughborough University,” Dr Phil Longhurst from Cranfield University explained. “As part of the engagement with school children, BurtonNitta displayed an art piece called an Algae Mask. What struck me about this was the response of the children to the art. This was reinforced when their teacher reported that they found this one of the most memorable aspects of the day. This experience really drew me to the conclusion that impact is about getting that connection and that you can get the facts correct once the interest is there.”


Choosing artists that the group trusted and could work with was key to the success of this project. It was vital that the group could communicate their work to the artists, and feel that their work would be interpreted in an appropriate way. Although the artists were provided with a brief, it was kept deliberately open to interpretation, as the scientists did not want to constrain the artistic endeavours. Public Engagement Lead for the CL4W project, Dr Louise Horsfall from the University of Edinburgh led the project, supported by Dr Phil Longhurst from Cranfield University. Together, they worked closely with the artists on behalf of the multidisciplinary project group. Having this point of contact was useful for day to day management of the partnership between artists and scientists.

What did you do?

BurtonNitta visited each university within the CL4W group (Edinburgh, Cranfield, Warwick, Newcastle and Birmingham) interviewing the biologists, scientists and engineers, taking photographs of them at work and filming them. 

They then produced diagrams and artwork that communicated what the project was about, showing the relationships between the engineering processes and the synthetic biology as well as the desired results – cleaning land that is currently contaminated and gaining valuable materials from the process. These were checked with the scientists to make sure that they had captured their work effectively.

BurtonNitta commented: “We enjoyed the challenge of the complexity of the CL4W research and the scale that the research encompassed - from nano to planetary! It was the convergence of science and technology that sparked our imaginations. This led us to consider the ways in which the research may change our world and us, in the near and far future.”
From meeting with the scientists, BurtonNitta then developed a piece called “Instruments of the Afterlife”, that would engage with a wider public. This involved a performance, artefacts, music, and a story that would provoke an audience response that was first aired at the V & A.


Evaluation was through questionnaires and observation of the audience response on the day of the performance. It was difficult to assess the response of the audience in a fast moving environment and would recommend that different evaluation methods are used for future performances.

Key lessons learnt 

Dr Phil Longhurst said: “At the V & A we reached different audiences that we don’t normally talk to - we never speak to artists, or people from the creative industries – yet the UK is so good at producing these! While watching the performance, it really struck me, there can be the potential for an ongoing, contemporary connection between science and art that can be very powerful – it can have a real influence.”

Dr Louise Horsfall commented: “I did find it difficult to express myself in terms that are not used outside of my own field. But BurtonNitta were very good at listening and checking back with us.”

Dr Longhurst added : “We were right to give the artists an open brief – the result they achieved was far beyond our expectations. They far exceeded my level of ambition.”

Keys to making it work

The key to the success of this project was finding artists that the group were comfortable working with, and allowing them the space to generate the creative ideas that led to new interpretations of the scientific work.

Phil added: “The artists were really easy to talk to and were genuinely enthusiastic about our work. They immersed themselves in the discussion and the ideas and created a new story from it. When I heard the title, “Instruments of the Afterlife”- I thought it was fantastic and terrifying in equal measure! But brilliant as well – we asked for a surprise and we got what we asked for! It felt exciting and risky – which is what Creative Outreach for Resource Efficiency (CORE) is all about.”