Artist Mark Ware makes waves bringing Art and Science together with groundbreaking results

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Mark Ware recently gave a presentation ‘The Wavelength Project: Art-Science investigations into how we respond to the natural environment’ at the University of Sussex covering the development of his work over the last 13 years. Colin Hambrook reported back on the development of a project, which is offering a greater understanding of the way that human beings react to the world.

I’ve always had a strong admiration for Mark Ware’s work since he first showcased his film The Dog Barked like a Bird and the accompanying play FREE SPEECH at the Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton in 2004. The mesmerising symmetry in Mark’s images is compelling, when seen as posters, banners or as digital prints. Personally I have got great pleasure from displaying a few of these on the walls in my home.

wrapped figure in trees, reflected symmetrically

Wrapped Figure In Trees. Image © Mark Ware

Ware explained that the focus on symmetry came to him when he experienced discrimination on a bus after having a severe stroke – being told that “people like you shouldn’t be allowed on buses”. He realised that he now belonged to part of a group of disabled people that members of the public were quick to judge without meaningful enquiry of any kind. This led him to understand that his identity was being mirrored in ways he hadn’t previously encountered before having his brain injury.

Digitised image of the artist Mark Ware

Image from The Dog That Barked Like A Bird © Mark Ware

In his post-stroke state, Ware found his experiences to be simultaneously profound and absurd, as alluded to in the title of his film, The Dog That Barked Like A Bird. This film was an early attempt to creatively express what it felt like to experience stroke and the impact it had on his efforts to navigate and negotiate the altered world around him. He says, “After the stroke I felt like an actor in a foreign film who couldn’t understand the language being spoken. It was as though everyone around me knew what was going on, but nobody was able to tell me the truth.”

Acclaimed by Alan Bennett as ‘an extraordinary piece of work’, the film recalls the diary Ware kept during the months following his stroke, at a time when he couldn’t see clearly enough to write and so drew the shapes of words from memory.

Processed as a storyboard – with influences from filmmaker Chris Marker’s La Jete, and Ware’s studies under Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka – it is an experimental work in that it deconstructs and undermines the role of the narrator, showcasing his extraordinary animated imagery, which acts as an illustration of the mind events the script alludes to.

Mark Ware in a wood recording sounds of the natural environment

Mark Ware recording sounds of the natural environment

As his condition began to stabilise, Ware found strength in observing and extracting meaning from simple things like listening to bird song or watching the roll of waves on the sea. He soon realised that when processes in the brain break down it can offer insights into what’s happening when things work ordinarily. He found that the imagery he was creating was intrinsically linked to how we perceive, process and respond to the natural environment.

neuroscientists investigating Ware's recorded sounds at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science

neuroscientists investigating Ware’s recorded sounds at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science

In conversations with Prof Hugo D Critchley at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science Brighton, The Wavelength Project developed from the idea of looking at models of the relationship of natural versus artificial sounds and light to stress.

We know that being in nature relieves stress and that consciousness within the mind deepens with relaxation, but through this art/science collaboration they’ve sought to find ways of actually measuring what those processes are. Part of it has been about examining subjective, brain and body responses to natural sounds and light compared to artificial environmental stimuli. Their investigations have included a series of scientific studies of human responses, looking at ways of understanding how our environment may affect us in terms of wellbeing and health. There is a potential practical application of this work in that it may offer insights into how the office and home environment influence and impact on how we function.

Throughout 2015, the Wavelength Project expanded to include a collaboration with psychologist Dr Nichola Street, lecturer and researcher at Staffordshire University’s Department of Psychology, with the support of her colleagues. Together they have been taking forward the focus of examining the benefits of nature and artistic representations of this on psychological well-being and health. In parallel, they are investigating the complex subject of aesthetic preference and the impact it can have on thinking and behavior. It has long been suggested that natural patterns and images are particularly powerful aesthetically and perhaps pre-programmed to be preferred by viewers, an area often referred to as the biophilia effect.

This collaboration, entitled Reflecting Nature, was set up to explore audience responses to Ware’s art scientifically. The collaboration featured a national touring exhibition of imagery of the natural environment and symmetrical patterns throughout 2016/17, supported by a series of public engagement activities.

Digital image of trees reflected symmetrically

Print from the Reflecting Nature touring exhibition. Image © Mark Ware

Ware’s work and the collaborations he has nurtured with a range of scientists is leading to the recognition of the value of cross-disciplinary investigations. A peer-reviewed Scientific Report that received international attention and praise last year was published on Nature.com.

In 2016, New Scientist published a feature by Stewart Pringle giving an account of some of the engagement with disabled and non-disabled people, measuring eye movements, and heart-rate responses to sound and imagery.

The ambition of Ware’s work seems limitless, considering a more recent development with Dr Oliver Angerer of the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne. He has recognised how immersive environments, built drawing on the research findings, might become useful in the design of deep-space missions.

Ware and his collaborators have been invited to present some of their work at the British Science Festival 2017 in Brighton. I for one will be looking on with fascinated interest at how the project develops. Ware has recently set up a new charity ‘Reflecting Nature in art & science’. The charity will seek to support art science collaborations designed to investigate the natural environment for the health benefit of the public, including those with neurological conditions. Dr Street and Prof Hugo Critchely are two of the charity’s trustees.

Image of a hare against a blue circular background with the title overlaid in white text

Over The Sea Run The Hares R&D logo

Ware has also been awarded an ACE R&D grant to develop a new strand of work with the beautifully poetic title Over The Sea Run The Hares. This project will be a multisensory, multimedia exploration of the experience of stroke. It will link with his ‘Total Immersion’ commission for CEDA, a charity that provides learning and social opportunities to disabled people in Devon. For CEDA, Ware is investigating perceptions of self in relation to disability through a series of multimedia portraits.

In recognition of Ware’s art science collaborations, Brighton and Sussex Medical School has recently renewed his Honorary Research Fellow title.

The Dog That Barked Like A Bird, FREE SPEECH, The Wavelength Project, the Reflecting Nature touring exhibition and Total Immersion have all been supported using public funding by Arts Council England.