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Art and science meet in a moth opera

Airborne insects, a wax model of a melting human head, a Handel opera restaged with moths and the attack on the US Capitol weave an intricate web of multimedia works in British poet, writer and visual artist Redell Olsen‘s DARE Art Prize commission Weather, Whether Radar: Plume of the Volants, which can now be experienced online at

Awarded by the University of Leeds and Opera North in association with the National Science and Media Museum and The Tetley, the DARE Art Prize is a £15,000 award for artists and scientists to collaborate on new approaches to the creative process. Olsen has worked with scientists at the University and singers and music staff at Opera North, producing a range of new artworks, from collage and poetry to film and music.

The research of the BioDAR unit at the University of Leeds has been central to Olsen’s commission. In this groundbreaking programme, scientists use discarded data from weather radar to monitor insect biodiversity. The ‘plumes’ of insects that sometimes register on radar were at first dismissed as ‘noise’, being of no meteorological use, but the BioDAR initiative is finding new ways to map and identify insect abundance and diversity as distinct from the weather. Their work supports the conservation of insects such as bees and other pollinators that are vital to ecosystems.

Taking inspiration from BioDAR, Weather, Whether Radar revolves around discarded material: knowledge or culture that can be reused in different and unforeseen ways. Many of the pieces employ a poetic interpretation of scientific language, or conversely, a contemporary reclamation of historic texts or cultural artefacts, as in Olsen’s rewording of Polyphemus’ aria in Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea.

Still from Fragments From an Interspecies Opera: Acis and Galatea Rewilded, or, a Serenata; or Pastoral Entertainment in the Age of Extinction by Redell Olsen

In this proposal for an ‘inter-species opera’, the artist reimagines the character of the cyclops Polyphemus as the polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus). Informed by current climate and environmental crises, as well as Virginia Woolf’s essay The Death of The Moth, Olsen’s new libretto for parts of Acis and Galatea is performed by the Chorus of Opera North and bass-baritone Matthew Stiff. The audio is accompanied by images of a moth specimen produced by BioDAR scientist Will Evans on the project’s newly acquired Artec 3D scanner, in a remote collaboration with Olsen.

While the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to fieldwork plans for both Olsen and the scientists, virtual access to objects in the Science Museum Group Collection in Bradford broadened her scope still further: “This body of work tracks and imagines a range of poetic, narrative, historical and cultural noises at the fragile intersections of radar, insects, weather, objects, people, music and film”, the artist says. She also acknowledges the effect of a year in lockdown on the project: “No research happens out of context. I proceeded, as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, at a slant, exploring the real and imagined connections, the possible links between contemporary scientific work and the associative fields thrown up by apparently unrelated objects and contexts that I encountered through the collection and in my everyday newsfeed.”

Works responding to the Science Group Collection available to view via the ‘digital studio’ include a poem inspired by a photograph of Hollywood actor and inventor Hedy Lamarr, and a fictional account of an encounter at a museum in which an 18th century wax vanitas is displayed.

DARE Art Prize winner Redell Olsen comments:

“Throughout this strange year of remote sensing and distanced collaboration I have been attempting to situate my work somewhere between artistic, poetic and scientific research, a context which seems ever more important given the latest indications of planetary climate crisis.

“It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to collaborate with Opera North, BioDAR and the National Science and Media Museum on this project and I am looking forward to presenting the work at The Tetley.

“The focused time I have had has enabled me to develop a renewed sense of the possibilities and urgency of the need for further scientific and artistic exchange.”

Works from Redell Olsen’s DARE Art Prize commission can be seen in her open studio at The Tetley in Leeds until 7 November. Visitors are invited to drop in, with no booking or tickets required. A limited edition artist’s book will be available from The Tetley’s shop.


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