Thursday, 10 February 2011

Culture Under The Microscope

Culture Under The Microscope
The Visceral Exhibition @ The Science Gallery, Dublin.

Independent, 10 February 2011

What is Life? It's a question that the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger tackled in three famous lectures given at Trinity College, Dublin. The first, on 5 February 1943, was heard by an audience that included the entire Irish cabinet led by Éamon de Valera.

Schrödinger is remembered today for making vivid the weirdness of the quantum world with his famous cat-in-the-box thought experiment. Schrödinger's cat is neither dead nor alive but exists in a superposition of states until we open it and look. Yet when his Trinity College lectures were published they became influential in persuading many young physicists that Schrödinger's methods might solve some of the problems in the developing field of molecular biology. James Watson and Francis Crick cited the book as a key inspiration for the research that led them to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

"Schrödinger with his mythical 'semi-living' cat, could be described as a pioneer of BioArt," says Dr Michael John Gorman, the director of Dublin's Science Gallery, which is also located in Trinity College. His tongue is firmly in his cheek as he accompanies 40 people on the short walk from his gallery to the Schrödinger Theatre, to discuss what life is. This is one of the many activities surrounding the gallery's latest exhibition, Visceral: The Living Art Experiment.

"BioArt" was a term coined in 1997 as a number of artists abandoned paints and brush in favour of cells, fragments of DNA, proteins and living tissue. Visceral, a month-long exhibition uses new technologies, tissue and neural engineering to explore the question "what is life?" People may be put off by some of the 15 works, some of which use human tissue as book covers or retinal cells to project film. Gorman admits there is something a little queasy about creating artworks from living tissue. "The very idea of tissue-engineering becoming an art form makes us squirm," he says. However, Visceral is all about provoking the sort of instinctive gut reaction that Gorman hopes will gets visitors asking questions about the ethical implications of manipulating living material and what we mean by "living".

The exhibition's curator, Oron Catts, believes that the "logic that drives things like nanotechnology, synthetic biology and even things like neuroengineering needs to be scrutinised and explored by people other than just scientists and engineers". It was one of the reason that Catts helped to set up SymbioticA, an artistic lab dedicated to a hands-on engagement with the life sciences based at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

"Our interest is in life," says Catts, "not only art or science." Yet the exhibition demonstrates the depth of the potential of interactions between art and science. For Gorman, nothing illustrates this better than Silent Barrage, the largest work on show. The product of a collaboration between Neurotica, a group of five artists, and Dr Steve Potter of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, its a cutting edge piece of neural engineering. It consists of an array of robotic poles hooked up to neurons from the brains of rats in Potter's lab.

The array responds to the way visitors move through it and sends signals back to the neurons. These neurons then fire, making the robotic poles shudder up and down. Depending on the amount of audience activity, the neurons can undergo what is called a "barrage" – when they start firing in a chaotic fashion. This is exactly what happens during an epileptic seizure. With epilepsy affecting over 450000 people in the UK alone, it is hoped by the scientists involved that the data collected might lead to a better understanding of the process by which cells are calmed and seizures mitigated. And its not the only exhibit that promises something scientifically tangible.

The battlefield of Kathy High's Blood Wars is a Petri dish with the combatants being the white blood cells drawn from two different people. After a few hours slugging it out, one set of platelets will have destroyed the other. The "winner" of each cellular battle goes on to fight another participant. The concept may sound sinister to some with concerns about eugenics, but it is in an ingenious attempt to engage in the age-old debates surrounding traits inherited through blood.

Catts says that cell lines create a form of immortality since they can live beyond the life of the donor. I'm reminded of the story told by Rebecca Skloot in her bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Known to scientists as HeLa, Lacks died in 1951 but her cancer cells were taken without her knowledge and became one of the most important tools in medicine. The Vision Splendid, a work by Alicia King consists of two sealed glass jars, connected by tubes that contain nutrients and cultured human tissue. The cells were those of an unknown African-American girl aged 13. You're left wondering who owns the stuff our bodies are made of. If that worries you, then Catts offers a way to ease your troubles.

The Semi-Living Worry Dolls by Catts and Ionat Zurr are a modern version of the famous Guatemalan worry dolls constructed out of degradable polymer on which cells are grown in micro-gravity conditions. You can whisper your troubles to them through a microphone as they eventually replace the polymer completely, transforming the piece from fabric to tissue.

With the Irish general election rescheduled for the closing date of Visceral on 25 February, there's a rumour going around that the Silent Barrage installation may be able to predict the outcome – if political candidates are willing to present themselves to the cultured rat neurons in person.