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Honor Harger

Become – High Profiles
June 10, 2016

I spot Honor Harger before she enters the glass doors of the ArtScience Museum. She is in deep discussion with a colleague, intently listening as he speaks, while her eyes scan the surroundings. This is someone who will slip by in a mindless people-watch, but not if you are expecting someone of prominence. There is authority in her stride, presence in her posture. I feel her gaze sweep over me, and in that split second our eyes meet.

Up close, I notice no stray hairs in her low ponytail—only a clean, severe centre parting that frames her composed face. This level of preciseness also extends to the articulation of her thought process; Honor chooses her words with exacting care and rarely strays from the interview parameters. Talking to her is intellectually stimulating, even daunting. But there is also grace. I wonder if it comes from the humility of knowing there are far greater things out there than mankind. After all, this is the anchor of Honor’s work for the past two decades—investigating the unknown through the intersections of art, science, culture and technology.

It is a quest where the age-old art vs. science debate becomes irrelevant. Neither can these bipolarising theories be applied to Honor, who effuses both the unemotional rigor of a scientist and the probing imagination of an artist. A different light kindles in her eyes when the conversation moves into astrophysics and cosmology—this is someone who listens to the sounds of stars, planets, and pulsars; the mysteries of space. Who says there isn’t romance in science and physics?

As an exhibition visitor hangs her contribution on the interactive structure, she unknowingly steps into the frame, disrupting the photo shoot. Honor remains unperturbed, choosing to focus on her instead. It’s evident that Honor puts the visitor first—and in that moment, art takes a different form, when it interacts with its environment. A smile slowly forms on her face, and that quiet look of satisfaction, is a rare sight to behold.

Conversations with Honor Harger

Executive Director, ArtScience Museum
Text by Xiangyun Lim
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

XIANGYUN LIM: You have a deep interest in science, but your career seems rooted in the arts.

HONOR HARGER: My engagement with art and technology was there from the start; I’ve always been operating at the intersection between art and technology, and art and science. My first job was at a radio station targeted at young people, and we broadcasted a variety of things such as experimental music and sound art. It was working there that stimulated a lot of my interest in radio engineering and science. I wouldn’t say it’s been a traditional sort of art trajectory—I didn’t take a degree in curating or curate commercial galleries. I’ve always had a mixed background.

XIANGYUN: Your work has brought you to many countries, from New Zealand to Australia, then London, and now, Singapore. Is it difficult to adapt to different lifestyles?

HONOR: It’s part of the mindset of being a Kiwi. We’re kind of mobile and it’s normal to move somewhere else to work. There are always challenges when you move into a new country—to absorb a new culture and in some instances, learn another language. But I think there are huge advantages in learning to be aware of how different cultures think and approach problems, and of course how they approach art and science. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in several countries, and those experiences have enriched me and given me new tools to expand my knowledge and craft.

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XIANGYUN: What are thoughts on Singapore's arts scene?

HONOR: I think the arts scene in Singapore is thriving. It’s going through an almost unprecedented growth and development, and that’s quite evident in the extraordinary investment in the infrastructure—the openings of the ArtScience Museum and National Gallery are good examples of the rapid expansion over the past decade. There is also tremendous progress in the Arts education with LASALLE, ADM, and even SUTD. There’s a sense of dynamism in the arts scene that I feel very privileged to be part of. It’s wonderful to be able to provide fascinating exhibitions and forward-thinking events for an audience that is stimulated and ready to encounter new ideas and experiences.

XIANGYUN: You find the audience here stimulated.

HONOR: As both a creator of exhibitions and someone who goes to events and fairs, I feel that the audience here is very open-mind and clearly educated. They’re able to ask quite deep and profound questions. Of course, we’re in a very cosmopolitan place with an amazing mingling of cultural perspectives. The sophistication of the discourse in Singapore is rather underappreciated and under-discussed.

XIANGYUN: Have you found any interesting trends based on the responses so far?

HONOR: We note that audiences here comprise both international and local, and they have a very strong interest in works that are immersive and interactive rather than a static display. You can see this in the success of Future World, which has been operating at capacity in terms of visitorship since it opened two and a half months ago—it’s very close to the ultimate expression of what an immersive and interactive experience should be like, with the juxtaposition of rigorous art and science content.

It’s the understanding that’s generated by science, and the emotional connections created by art, that gives us the tools to navigate through uncertain futures.

XIANGYUN: What do you hope to achieve at the ArtScience Museum then?

HONOR: Our mission is to explore the interconnection point of art, science, culture and technology. We believe it is in the meeting of these approaches where we see new ideas and innovation. Climate change is not going to be solved by artists or scientists alone, but the coming together of different disciplines might give us the capacity to come up with solutions. You can’t have one without the other if you want to really tackle big systematic issues that the world faces today—and we hope this belief comes through in our programming. It’s the understanding that’s generated by science, and the emotional connections created by art, that gives us the tools to navigate through uncertain futures.

XIANGYUN: It’s hard to predict what lies ahead.

HONOR: Yeah, and that’s the challenge we set ourselves as a museum—to signpost and incubate hothouse innovation, as well as to forecast possible trends. It’s important to get a sense of how the future might be shaping up in a world that is often characterised by uncertainty and volatility. So, we have to remain relevant and up-to-date in our knowledge of many different fields and be a beacon that can provide both our local and international visitors with inspiration, ideas, and unique insights.

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XIANGYUN: Is it a challenge that excites you?

HONOR: I have many challenges as the executive director of the ArtScience Museum. It’s a wonderful and inspiring privilege to look after this iconic building—and to make sure that what my team does speaks the same vision and clarity as its physical structure. It’s also the ability to be able to bring ideas to a large audience—ideas that are about geology and the decorative arts in the Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition, or how interactive technology might give us new immersive experiences. Each exhibition represents a completely different set of challenges. With each opening, we’re immediately challenging ourselves to think: okay, how can we make the next one just as fantastic and engaging? That spurs us to keep going.

XIANGYUN: What else inspires you?

HONOR: Asking someone what their inspiration is always really tricky because you just end up with a pile of unconnected things… I get inspired from everything, even the latest spaceship launch. It’s extraordinary that we’re living in an age where a bunch of entrepreneurs, effectively, might be revolutionising our understanding of space travel right when big space agencies are pulling back from ambitious human interspace explorations. They send the rockets out and land them—this is genuinely new to our generation, and it’s like our parents watching the first moon landing. I’m personally also a big follower of the debates around cosmology and astrophysics, and keep a close eye on experimental and theoretical research in those areas too. The big story this year is the direct detection of gravitation waves for the first time. And one of the exhibits in Future World actually models what a gravitational wave might look like in space-time. Being able to take this historically groundbreaking discovery, and share it with our visitors, is pretty inspiring to me.

XIANGYUN: How about the past? Does the old interest you?

HONOR: Absolutely. For example, it is incredibly inspiring to see the level of innovativeness in Leonardo da Vinci’s thinking well over 500 years ago, and what he was able to achieve through direct observation and analysis—considering he had no access to sophisticated technologies which scientists have today. That’s actually a topic you’ll see explored in more detail. We’ll be going back to history and looking at lessons from some of the great masters in the past. I also have a particular fascination with radio astronomy in the late 1890s—that era birthed many new groundbreaking ideas and scientific contributions.

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Constraints help when you’re trying to make decisions.

XIANGYUN: How do you choose where to focus next for your programmes?

HONOR: As a curator, and creative director, I need to make tough decisions. A guiding philosophy is articulating our mission—we need to be able to present the exhibition in the context of our mandate. There’s also a whole list of other constraints like design, budget, time, and even physical space—there’s very specific architecture to deal with in some of the galleries. Constraints help when you’re trying to make decisions. But ultimately, it’s a combination of thinking about how a project intellectually, conceptually, scientifically and artistically maps onto what we do. And whether it’s going to speak to a wide and broad audience. There might be topics we’re personally passionate about, or artists and scientists that we’re huge fans of, but we need to be mindful of our audience.

XIANGYUN: How do you keep yourself updated?

HONOR: It’s not just me, per se. I have a great team with diverse interests and collectively, we make decisions on the kind of exhibits or programmes to run. It’s a very collaborative working environment. We all have to be comfortable before making a big decision  and that includes colleagues from the PR and marketing side. In addition, we have a wide network to tap into and I regularly touch base with my peers around the world.

XIANGYUN: Any examples of projects you had to kill?

HONOR: Well, you get over things really, really quickly [laughs]. Or you adapt. For example, the Big Bang Data includes many artists who I’ve worked with over a span of 15 years. Choosing a largely relatable and relevant topic like data allows me to bring together the works of artists like Ryoji Ikeda, Aaron Koblin, or Lisa Jevbratt, for a much wider audience. Doing solo shows might otherwise be a challenge.

Sometimes we’re a little blinded by the way society is changing because the change is in tandem with our daily lives.

XIANGYUN: Data as information carries value that most of us don’t fully understand—unlike money, it’s intangible. Do you think data is the new currency?

HONOR: It already is. Whatever we’re producing right now, is a form of currency—governments, big brands and organisations are already using the data we “give” them to better understand how to steer their businesses, marketing campaigns and city plans. The important job for a cultural institution like us is to show people that we already live in that world, and how we’re quite dangerously unaware of it. Sometimes we’re a little blinded by the way society is changing because the change is in tandem with our daily lives.

XIANGYUN: Data can be cold. It’s easy to forget the human aspect of it. And that can be dangerous if it’s misused as a tool without any consideration for morality.

HONOR: Yes. But data is made by us, by people, not some weird abstract phenomena from the universe we just discovered. It’s just the lack of generalised awareness of what happens to the data we produce. Who stores them, who makes the buildings that stores them, how are they being transported around the world? Having that kind of awareness helps you locate yourself within a geopolitical structure that has changed paradigmatically since we were born. And understanding how data works can help you orientate yourself in the world.

XIANGYUN: There’s this sense of danger that things are moving too fast for us to gain enough understanding, or even keep up with technological advances. . . 

HONOR: I’m not an uncritical embracer of technological change—I believe that in order to understand how the future might be shaping up, we need to understand the past. It’s absolutely fundamental.

XIANGYUN: Do you look at yourself with a critical eye?

HONOR: I think everyone does. You always need to employ a degree of self-consciousness and self-awareness when making decisions about anything in your life, and make sure they align with your objectives. In our case, making sure that the project we take on is in the best interest for the museum, and not just because it appeals to me. Ultimately, we have to connect with a wide audience.

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap

(Xiangyun is a freelance writer and editor.)