A few weeks ago there was a bit of a fuss over a piece of art. An abstract sculpture rejoicing in the name of Hole and Vessel II had been put in storage by its owner.
Unfortunately for the collector in question, the sculpture – a bright red number made of polystyrene, cement and earth – vanished into oblivion when a storage company employee mistook it for rubbish and put it in a skip. Off it went for incineration, leaving the storage company with faces as red as the lost sculpture and a bill for £350,000, the figure a judge decided reflected the artwork’s market value.
What’s all this got to do with the price of fish? Well, by coincidence £350,000 is also the total value of grants announced by the Royal Academy of Engineering this week to a variety of projects designed to ‘promote public engagement with engineering.’
The Academy’s initiative, called ‘Ingenious’, supports attempts to bring engineering and technology to life, often in ways that would not look out of place in the world of contemporary art.
One group will project images onto the Lovell Telescope. Another will show the beauty of the electronic circuit. There will also be art installations, touring theatre groups and lectures for schoolchildren, all designed to spark awareness of and debate about the role of engineering and technology in everyday life.
It is initially tempting to be rather cynical about initiatives such as Ingenious. They are open to the charge of veering too close to the arena of vacuous novelty that some believe sums up the likes of Hole and Vessel II. And can a few roadshows really raise the profile of engineering in the public consciousness? Certainly not on their own, but the more you think about it, the more it seems right that the work of engineers and technologists hits the road and starts playing the very 21st century game of relentless and imaginative self-promotion.
We have all heard countless pundits bemoaning the absence of modern Brunels. Without in any way downplaying their huge achievements, the Victorians had a few advantages over the contemporary engineer. They tended to deal in the stunningly spectacular and the brand new, a winning combination when it comes to getting noticed. And they didn’t have to compete with Big Brother, Premier League football and Gordon Ramsey for public attention.
Modern engineering, by contrast, tends to be more a matter of incremental improvement, constant refinement and innovation that is largely hidden to the public. If the RA’s Ingenious programme can use the power of novelty to make even a few people stop and think about the everyday miracles inside their mobile phones, cars and computers, it will be worth the price of one accidentally junked artwork.