Immy Smith is an artist and neuroscientist, interested in human neural cell biology. In the spring of 2013, Immy and fellow neuroscientist Sal Hunter showcased their work at an exhibition at the University of Reading. It was called ‘Imagining Science’ which professed the symbiosis between art and science.
This interview will also feature in a book on contemporary psychedelia which will be published later this year.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and why you decided to become an artist?
I’m a neuroscientist at the University of Reading and an artist. I have chronic insomnia which allows me the time to do both. I genuinely can’t imagine how I’d manage if I had to sleep for one third of my life. I see both roles as part of the same processes – cognitively and in practice. Both are about exploring life, and are in essence about poking life with a stick. Science and art are consuming, questioning, and creative occupations. I also have severe major depressive disorder, and the lifelong process of learning to live with myself drives me to be a better scientist and artist, and keeps me motivated. I didn’t have a point of decision in being an artist, and thus couldn’t tell you when I started. Both my parents were musicians, and alternated arts and technical jobs so it seems normal to me to do both.
What does the term ‘psychedelic’ mean to you?
Artistically it means a style of music an art, and if I had to apply one word to it that word would be; distortion. Obviously as a neuroscientist I also see the word as referring to a class of drugs with specific effects on the human brain. But I think the two meanings are intrinsically linked given the role of psychedelic drugs in the psychedelia of the 60’s.
Do you believe that psychedelia can still exist as a movement, or it is something that only truly belonged in the sixties?
I would say it still exists as a movement because psychedelic themes still occur in art, music, and (particularly in the US) psychedelic festivals are still popular. I think one might question whether it has the same cultural impact it had in the late sixties, when it was shocking to those people used to a relatively beige world.
In your opinion, can psychedelia still exist without the use of mind altering drugs?
Yes, absolutely. The human brain and imagination can produce psychedelic themes well enough; psychedelic drugs seem like a rather lazy way of going about psychedelia, although I’m influenced in saying that by my scientific experiences.
Speaking in general terms, would you agree that a lot of your work has a trippy quality to it?
It depends on how you define trippy; I don’t tend to use the typically psychedelic colour palette often, but on the other hand, it’s hard not to think of a drawing of frogspawn-laden brains on legs or a triffid in a smoking jacket as trippy.
What inspires your practice?
I’m inspired firstly by biological imagery, and secondly by techniques such as automatic drawing that don’t restrict my subject greatly. My method to start any preliminary drawing is automatic drawing. However, once a work has started I tend to draw on biological form, and plan my space to a certain extent. I’d call my practice more semi-automatic drawing; because I can’t say it isn’t consciously lead at all. I’m interested in the overlaps between scientific ideas, biological images, and surrealism. It’s hard not to be if you spend any time at all looking down a microscope. Biology has a wild imagination, and has come up with far stranger-looking solutions to many problems than most of us ever could. For this reason I like to de-restrict myself when drawing, and allow myself the freedom to pool unnatural combinations of biological forms. This especially applies to Exquisite Corpse collaborations. I find life/photorealistic drawing incredibly difficult and struggle to maintain one intended form; but I also want to be able to draw any biological form I want; therefore I strive to practice life drawing in order to hone my skills, e.g. drawing detailed images of plants, birds or cells. I also have a preference for drawing in moving places such as trains, buses and ferries. They feel like meditative spaces, odd as that may seem (also I just like the reaction of commuters!)
When making work, what do you hope to achieve?
1) to examine my own cognitive process and at least partially satisfy my own curiosity and need to express the images that race in my brain.
2) to share the idea that art is not just something scientists can use - in, for example, public engagement or science communication. It’s something they can do. Something that benefits their thinking process and encourages creativity.
Sometime I think If I could replace the words ‘investigative methods’ in science with ‘creative practice’, I would… Although the methods and aims of a scientific experiment and artistic experiment will be different, both are creative imaginative endeavours. Science writing especially needs to be let off the leash when it’s not imparting experimental procedure and data. I think one of the great failings of modern science writing is that it’s often terminally dull, yet I know from experience that it’s a different matter outside of written papers.
What materials and format do you favour when making work?
Mixtures of graphite and colour pencil, or pencil with paint and collage. I’m dedicated to pencils because of the flexibility they offer for using anywhere, especially on public transport. I enjoy hijacking everyday materials for drawing on, e.g. paper doilies or laboratory filters, and also love the slightly sacrilegious feeling I get from using medical or scientific textbooks as a starting material. I work with a paper maker in the US who hand-dyes materials; some look like histological specimens of body tissue, and provide fascinating textures. In all honesty however; I will draw on anything that isn’t nailed down, especially if I’m not supposed to. It would be a shame to lose the sense of mischief that art can impart.
In artistic terms, what movement (if any) do you feel defines this era?
This era? Which one is that?
In recent years I think pop-surrealism has come to define the present time for me. When it comes to what I see represented most often in my walk of life, I feel there is a rejection of lofty contemporary art that requires an essay to understand, and a desire for the insta-weird… almost a kind of super-quick microwaveable ready-meal surrealism… It’s rather saturating, but it is pop-surreal that smacks me in the face most regularly. However, this is only my experience… historically I think that may not be what the first decades of this millennium will be artistically defined by!
What is next for Immy Smith?
I’ve truly no idea. Like an automatic drawing, I’d rather not define too much… but I am building networks of biologically inspired artists and am sure collaboration will be a major feature.
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