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Wheat breeder a conduit for Enlighten times

An ever-curious artist with a bent for science explores the nexus between the disciplines.

How is it that there are vast hives of information and activity that the average person never gets to hear about? People, everywhere, beavering away on fascinating projects with the aim of improving life as we know it, who never get the chance to explain to the public what they're doing?

It's a question that struck artist Eleanor Gates-Stuart several years ago, when, working in arts education at the Australian National University, she realised the depth of her thirst for knowledge.

Specifically, scientific knowledge, and how to bridge the gap between research and communication.

"I was always making work even when I was teaching, but one of the things I was very excited about was how I could look at the science within my art," she says.

"I went to the Faculty of Science and said, 'I would like to do a PhD in science communication, but I'm an artist - how does that fit in?' And they went, 'It fits in really well.'"

That was four years ago, and she has yet to complete her thesis. But so many things have come up in the meantime, not least of which is her Centenary of Canberra commission, StellrScope, an installation project that opens this week at Questacon.

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The result of her artist-in-residency at CSIRO, essentially it's the story of wheat and the innovations behind its production over the past 100 years.

Making such a story interesting is, as Gates-Stuart knows, all in the execution, and she has used video, print and digital installation projection to create new connections between art and science.

StellrScope looks at, according to the Canberra 100 website, "the statistical and bioinformatics underpinnings of modern crop science", but in a way that's both visually fascinating and easily understood.

When she heard about the opportunity to apply for a science/art commission as part of the Centenary program, she realised it was the perfect medium in which to channel everything she'd been working on, if only she could find a subject as a conduit.

"The science and art fitted really well with what I was doing,'' she says. ''I'd been spending a lot of time in the library and I'd been over to the Mint, and I was looking at ideas, and I sort of came across [pioneering wheat breeder] William Farrer.

"I started researching him and going into the archives and I just absolutely loved it, and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be fantastic if we matched where he was 100 years ago and looked at where CSIRO is now?'"

She began talking to people at CSIRO about her idea, including David Lovell, who works in bioinformatics and analytics in CSIRO's Transformational Biology Platform.

"David was very excited … and then I had to meet the head of the plant industry, and I took my proposal which had lots of images of plants on, and he said, 'Why have you brought that to show me?'

''And I was really puzzled, and I said, 'Really, what do you think I should have brought you?'

''And he said, 'Holes'. And I said, 'Holes?' And he said, 'Yeah, holes in bread, because the holes are really important'.

''And I thought, 'Gosh, this guy's more abstract than I am!'"

She instantly understood that she was in a creative space, right there in the labs and offices of CSIRO. Since then, she has spent six months engaging with everyone from biologists to computer scientists to get the show together.

Her work at CSIRO has resulted in a 3D projection of coloured wheat onto Questacon as part of this year's Enlighten festival, an installation at the Discovery Centre of a human-size slice of bread based on the air holes and textures created in the baking process, and 3D prints of insects cast in titanium, as well as the holograms and interactive globes at Questacon.

"I already knew a little bit about technology, but I had to learn more about 3D animation, and wheat," she says. "I've always been able to jump into situations and just very quickly learn them … but one of the things that I've found is that it's really easy to talk to scientists."

Lovell, who has worked closely with Gates-Stuart for the project, says it's come about from a fusion of two very different types of creativity.

"Scientific creativity is very objective and artistic creativity is quite subjective - how you react is quite different to how I react. You get those two kinds of creativity together and you're in that really imaginative zone," he says.

"There's a bit of scientist in everyone and a bit of artist in everyone, so the value of having Eleanor at CSIRO to do this was that she would catalyse all these really unusual and exciting discussions.

''People want to engage with this stuff in ways that they don't normally want to engage with straight science, so it's a really fantastic conjunction."

StellrScope, by Eleanor Gates-Stuart, is on at Questacon until September 1. Hot Seeds: The Scithetic Dimensions is on at CSIRO Discovery Centre until September 1.

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