The Institute of Unnecessary Research

This panel outlines “The Institute of Unnecessary Research” and presents a new paradigm in the way artists are engaging with the world through transdisciplinary practices. It brings together art, science and philosophy by creating participatory audience experiences, performances and installations. Sometimes humorous and sometimes grotesque, our work pushes boundaries and critically questions the means of knowledge production in the 21st Century.
Saturday, 17 September, 2011 - 13:00 - 14:30
Chair Person: 
Anna Dumitriu
Chair Person: 
Sue Gollifer
Alex May
Bettina Schülke
Luke Robert Mason
Gordana Novakovic
The Normal Flora Project by Anna Dumitriu
The Emergence of Consciousness by Anna Dumitriu, assisted by Alex May and Luke Robert Mason

Chair: Anna Dumitriu
2nd Chair: Sue Gollifer

Einstein said:  “If we knew what it was we were doing it would be called research, would it?”

This panel outlines “The Institute of Unnecessary Research” and presents a new paradigm in the way artists are engaging with the world through transdisciplinary practices. It brings together art, science and philosophy by creating participatory audience experiences, performances and installations. Sometimes humorous and sometimes grotesque, our work pushes boundaries and critically questions the means of knowledge production in the 21st Century.

Artists are innovators, if a new piece of technology or a new medium, becomes available; artists want to try it, to experiment with it- from microbiology to robotics; from tissue culture to neuroscience. Some artists take on the role of a scientist in almost a performative way and some scientists become artists themselves. Philosophy and ethics is always at its core and the work unpacks the instrumentalization of science and art for commercial and political ends.

Forms of “connective aesthetics” (Gablik) are used to engage audiences in participatory experiences that extend and generate new outcomes through exhibitions and events going beyond simple interactivity, throwing authorship into question, as members of the audience are inspired to become Unnecessary Researchers in their own rights.

The Institute of Unnecessary Research is a hub for researchers and artists working experimentally and deeply engaged with their specific research areas. We present our research through performative and experiential methods, engaging the public and new audiences in our ideas.

The name “The Institute of Unnecessary Research” is, in many ways, confrontational. It raises the question what is necessary research? Unnecessary does not imply pointless, it often means going beyond the normal (in the Kuhnian sense of ‘normal science’) and crossing boundaries, asking where do we draw the line with what we study or with what can be studied?

Unnecessary Research encourages eccentric, obsessive, creative working practices and is an antidote to the stranglehold placed on research by central government and the gatekeepers of academia.

Paper Abstracts

Unnecessary Research, what’s the point?

by Anna Dumitriu

This paper describes the Institute of Unnecessary Research (IUR) from its inception in 2005. The IUR is an international group of artists, scientists and philosophers obsessively involved in their own curiosity driven research working both (insidiously) within and outside of academia. The structure of the IUR is based on a typical academic model, with various ‘department heads’ responsible for their own specific areas of research. Appointment to the IUR is apparently open but highly nepotistic (based on the academic model). The researchers investigate science and technology from a wholly artistic paradigm, making wide and varied connections, but working solidly within their fields in such a way that their research could be of equal interest to the scientific community as to the artistic one. The research is widely disseminated via performance events and exhibitions within the community in a non-elitist way, with a view that anyone can understand anything, if it is explained in a way that promotes understanding. Audience interaction is also keyand often visitors to events participate ‘hands on’ in the experiments/performances.

Bending Light

by Alex May

This paper describes the development and processes of video mapping; an amalgamation of trompe l’oeil illusion, projective geometry, linear equations, and a wide collection of disparate technologies for the purpose of reactivating familiar objects and surroundings with new life and alternative meanings.

INTERACTIVE TECHNOTEXTILES: The hybrid between Textiles and Technology

by Bettina Schülke

Ultra Smart Textiles are the latest generation of Smart Textiles, which can sense, react and adopt themselves to environmental conditions or stimuli from mechanical, thermal, chemical, electrical or magnetic sources. Thus the participatory audience experience is significantly heightened, “pushing the boundaries”, compared to models created with earlier technologies.

Much has been discussed about Smart Fabrics lately. This rapidly growing field offers a huge range of research opportunities and new areas for investigations. Novel technology combined with one of the oldest traditions, the production of textiles, facilitates astonishing results on many different levels. These materials with incorporated technological elements enable the fabrics to transform them into interactive interfaces. While numerous research opportunities as well as innovative method development by artists are offered in this field, it has to be noted that the goal of research is towards a pragmatic outcome closely linked to industry. The artist in this specific field serves as a conduit for knowledge transfer.

A very smart or intelligent textile essentially consists of a unit, which works like the brain, with cognition, reasoning and activating capacities. While Smart Textiles are nowadays still more connected with fashions or wearables and to a lesser degree with health or military use, there are huge possibilities for an artistic approach connected to site specific and interactive works. In the gadget or fashion field the technological tools are often separated from the textile material, yet novel developments for embedded technology inside the fabric are already being investigated and offer new potentials. Observations show very clearly that a lot of research is still needed, nevertheless a significant amount of astonishing results are already generated. Nevertheless several questions remain unanswered. How these materials can be used to create meaningful representations? How can the sensory aspect of Smart Fabrics be further developed? How can the practical use of Smart Fabrics be widely promoted beyond the fashion and sports industry?

This fast growing area of Smart Textiles is crossing borders between artistic, technological and scientific sectors. This paper will focus on how the use of Intelligent Fabrics can be involved more effectively in artworks that explore artistic and technical opportunities to enable new aesthetic perspectives.

A Second Manifesto for Neuroplastic Arts

by Gordana Novakovic

Although a growing number of scientists are now looking at the effects of the internet on the brain, they are in fact just looking at the tip of an iceberg. They are leaving unexplored the rest of the complex fabric of the digitally enabled contemporary environment, which is in constant two-way interactive communication with our bodies, and with our plastic brains, changing them in an unknown manner. The specific branch of neuroscience that studies brain plasticity - the ways in which the brain can radically modify and reconfigure itself through interaction with the environment - has great potential for helping us to understand the brain’s particular susceptibility to digital technologies. This applies not only to the internet and the broader digital environment, but also to the multi-sensory experiences within the growing body of process-based arts enabled by digital technologies, and in particular interactive art. Can we be sure that neuroscience will one day look at the whole picture, and provide us with explanations of these phenomena? Or might it be that there is a role left for interactive artists, keen to research the very essence of their artistic medium and its effects on their audiences, to push research forward to pursue, produce, and apply the necessary knowledge?

Anti-Disciplinary Art: Rejecting the Standard Forms

by Luke Robert Mason

…as art collapses into science, centralized control dissipates into networks, and culture migrates beyond man, the old models of explanation, classification and discussion are rendered obsolete.” Virtual Futures Conference (1996)

In an environment of increasing information complexity and emerging technology should art’s role be to merely represent cultural developments or instead commit itself to cultural engineering? As pace of change in technological innovation occurs in a present of terminal velocity and future of increasing acceleration are we in a state in which an anthropological analysis of our current virtual state seems impossible? Where traditional academia may fail can performance based research take up the challenge of engaging a new public in the dissemination of this complexity?

This paper will explore the historical work of the University of Warwick’s Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit in deconstructing, deterritorializing and devolving the work of academics to allow for a new level of artistic understanding. I will be looking at what we can learn from this cult multidisciplinary group, who chose to track convergences in the post-humanities through artistic expression

Bios of the Participants

Anna Dumitriu

Anna Dumitriu’s work blurs the boundaries between art and science. Her installations, interventions and performances use a range of digital, biological and traditional media including live bacteria, interactive media and textiles. Her work has a strong international exhibition profile and is held in several major public collections, including the Science Museum in London. She was a member of the e-MobiLArt project (the EU funded European Mobile Lab for Interactive Art) and Artist in Residence at The Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics at Sussex University. She is known for her work as director of  “The Institute of Unnecessary Research”, a group of artists and scientists whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries and critiques contemporary research practice. She is currently working on a Wellcome Trust funded art project entitled “Communicating Bacteria”, collaborating with the Adaptive Systems Research Group at The University of Hertfordshire (focussing on social robotics) and has recently commenced her role as Leverhulme Trust artist in residence on the Modernising Medical Microbiology project at The University of Oxford. and 

Alex May

Alex May is an international artist working with digital projection, 3D video mapping, illumination, and optics to create animated trompe l’oeil effects using scientific theories of perspective and projective geometry. He is a veteran programmer specialising in, but not limited to, high performance, real-time audio/visual processing, creating his own software to facilitate his own art projects as well as releasing open-source tools that are in use by digital artists worldwide. Working with sound designer Martin A. Smith, Alex has created a series of major site-specific installations for clients such as Kensington and Chelsea Council, Universal Music, and Canon Europe. He is currently collaborating with the Adaptive Systems Research Group at The University of Hertfordshire, developing artistic strategies to communicate their research.

Bettina Schülke

Bettina Schülke (Mag. Art) is an Austrian artist, Ph.D Researcher and lecturer at the University of Lapland. Her research theme is “Transaction (Phenomenology of Space and Time Dimensions)”. In addition she is consulting a research project on Smart Textiles from the Austrian Textile Company Backhausen and the smart textile Plattform at the ÖTI (Institut für Ökologie, Technik und Innovation). Schülke has exhibited her artworks widely at internationally prominent venues like the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale (GR), Shunt Lounge, London (GB), De Winkelhaak Design Museum, Antwerp (BE), Kemi Art Museum; Lume Mediakeskus, Helsinki (FI), the MAK-nite (Museum of Applied Arts), Vienna (AT) and textile works at the Austrian Pavilion at the International Architecture Biennale in Venice (IT). She has lectured at the University of Fine Arts in Vienna (AT), the University of Lapland and the Kemi/Tornio University of Applied Science (FIN), and was co-organizer and participating artist at the prestigious e-MobiLArt project (European Mobile Lab for Interactive Artists).

Gordana Novakovic

Gordana Novakovic was originally a painter, with 12 solo exhibitions to her credit, she now has more than twenty years' experience of developing and exhibiting large-scale time-based media projects. Her artistic practise and theoretical work that intersects art, science and advanced digital technologies has formed five Cycles: Parallel Worlds, The Shirt of a Happy Man, Infonoise and the ongoing Fugue. A constant mark of her work throughout her experiments with new technologies has been her distinctive method of creating an effective cross-disciplinary framework for the emergence of synergy through collaboration. Gordana exhibited and lectured at leading interdisciplinary festivals and symposia, and artistic and scientific conferences. Her works from the ongoing Fugue Cycle ( has been widely presented and exhibited. Alongside her artistic practice, in the last six years Gordana has been artist-in-residence and also a Teaching Fellow at Computer Science Department, University College London, where she has founded and curates the Tesla Art and Science Group She has received a number of international and British academic awards.

Luke Robert Mason

Luke Robert Mason is a digital media artist and an undergraduate student at the University of Warwick. He has spent the past year meeting and interviewing academics, writers and transhumanists including Dr. Max More, Natasha Vita-More, Dr. Amon Twyman, Aubrey De Grey, Peter Russell, David Orban, Professor Steve Fuller, Dr. Martin Raff, Dr. Rachel Armstrong and Philip Beesley. His upcoming film ERA: Evolution, Revolution, Awakening aims to communicate the issues surrounding emerging technologies to young student audiences.

He is currently organizing Virtual Futures 2.0'11, a revival of the University of Warwick’s cult cyberconferences of the 90’s. This will be part of a wider research project - with the conference serving as an international platform for contextualising the impact of VF 94/95/96. It will be an important follow up and review of the very important cutting edge work that the speakers at the original event pioneered. VF 2.0'11 will be a chance to look at alt.presents through considering the impact of past.futures.