Anyone who has ever powered a clock by plugging wires into a potato has flirted with the magic of electricity. Most kids move on, forgetting how much fun that was. Not so David Goldes, a Minneapolis photographer whose clever “Electrified Drawings” are on view through April 22 at the Bakken Museum overlooking Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.
Using electrical current to singe, scar and even burn holes in his abstract drawings, Goldes blends art, science and history in unconventional ways. His project complements a broader effort by the Bakken — a museum of science and electricity — and the Bell Museum of Natural History to bridge disciplines and entice new audiences.
“I think the arts, history and literature are ways to humanize science and spark conversations about it in less threatening and more intimate ways,” said Bakken director David Rhees.
To that end the Bakken in summer turns its rooftop terraces into a green-energy sculpture park in which wind, water, sunlight and human power generate electricity for interactive sculptures. It also stages such events as its new “Current Affair,” a kind of date night for science buffs complete with live music, cash bar and entertainment in “Ben Franklin’s Electricity Party Room.”
Art at the Bell
Across town, the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota is also breaking the bonds of academe.
From September to May, it runs a monthly Café Scientifique at Bryant Lake-Bowl, a 90-seat cabaret in the Uptown bowling alley. Introduced with a variety show and science-trivia quiz, the café wraps up with a talk about serious matters. Last fall’s highlight was a report from a U of M physicist about the Higgs boson, an elementary particle detected last summer at a Swiss facility the scientist helped build.
“It’s about democratizing science by connecting it with art and culture,” said Leah Peterson, the impresario behind the café at the Bell.
The Bell recently named four artists-in-residence who will, over the next year, do projects inspired by the museum’s collections. Ideas they’re batting around include podcasts, soundscapes, films, on-site exhibits and maybe projects for bus stops, the Internet or the Mall of America.
Funded with $75,000 from the McKnight Foundation, the Bell’s artist program had 67 applicants for just four positions, which went to Laurie Allmann, an environmental writer and poet; Sonja Peterson, a visual artist known for elaborate paper constructions; the Minneapolis Art on Wheels collective, which does sound and video, and Andy DuCett, a fabricator of interactive faux museums. Allmann and Peterson will launch their pieces April 27 during the Bell Social, a spring fete.
“Part of our mission is to reach out and be as accessible as possible, so it’s good if we can invoke the artist as an interpreter of science,” said Peterson.
The science in a pencil
Goldes’ “Electrified Drawings” grew out of his personal interests rather than a museum marketing plan. A professor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he has an MFA in photography and an M.A. in molecular genetics (the latter from Harvard, no less).
His photos — which often capture tabletop science experiments involving water, electricity or air pressure — are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York as well as the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The invention of electrical batteries around 1800 enabled scientists to do analytical experiments that revealed previously unknown properties of matter. Around 1810, for example, British chemist Sir Humphrey Davy discovered that graphite — the black stuff in pencils — conducts electricity. Stumbling upon that factoid prompted Goldes’ effort to replicate historic experiments under the umbrella of contemporary art.
“I loved the idea that a pencil could function in two ways,” Goldes said. “It could make a mark and become part of an electrical circuit.”
First he drew a series of irregular shapes — loops, rectangles, spirals, almost-touching circles. Then he attached electrical clamps and ran a high-voltage current through the paper. He discovered that nothing visible happened unless he nicked the lines with a razor blade or erased part of the drawing so that the current had to jump across a small gap. Then it would spark, burn a hole or scorch the paper.
The resulting drawings, and Goldes’ photos of the electrical processes that created them, are an intriguing fusion of minimalist art and scientific documentation. “Electricity is completely hidden now,” he said. “It’s in the walls, miniaturized and invisible, but we rely on it to run absolutely everything and we ignore our dependence on it until something like Hurricane Sandy comes along. Then we realize.
“I wanted it to be stunningly beautiful. So these experiments were and are my source of wonder.”